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How to differentiate your accounting practice and avoid the client service trap

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Professional services such as accounting can be difficult to market, especially in highly competitive marketplaces. Unlike tangible, manufactured products with physical features and benefits that can be compared more easily, services are conceptual, with benefits that are implied. In short, services are fuzzy and just plain hard to promote. This is a challenge for the accounting and valuation field, where firms often struggle to stand out and describe why they’re different from their competitors. This should come as no surprise.

Accounting firms, by their very nature, often offer similar – if not identical – services. In order to differentiate, it is important to ensure to the outside world, your firm doesn’t look and sound like all the rest.

What firm would make the same claim as their competition? As it turns out, many would. According to our research, 63 percent of firms actually claim to provide superior client service. If more than six out of ten accounting firms are basically saying the same thing, but using slightly different wording, how can that claim possibly be an effective differentiator for an accounting firm?

Client service: the differentiator that never was

By all counts, claiming superior client service is a weak differentiator for an accounting firm. Anyone can claim it and it’s extremely difficult to prove. Claiming superior client service fails to add much value. Accounting firms that used it as a major differentiator saw well under half the median growth rate of firms that used any other differentiator.

It’s easy to see how client service floats to the top of the pile of marketing differentiators. It’s positive, non-controversial, and a no-brainer for management and board members. After all, who can argue with providing the best client service? Bolster that shop-worn phrase with a few well-chosen superlatives such as “extraordinary,” exceptional,” or “world-class” and you’re good to go, right?

Truthfully, it’s the status quo. Any firm that doesn’t provide it is not going to be in business for long.

The key to differentiation is specialization

What is important to prospects is an expertise or focus that makes a firm truly unique and sets it apart from competitors. Firms that can claim a certain specialization have a clear advantage over “me-too” firms making vague claims about superior client service.

Accounting specialization comes in many flavors, including:

Industry

Does your firm focus on specific industries or markets, such as manufacturing, high tech, or healthcare, to name a few? Certain industries have their own specific sets of accounting and financial issues and so organizations are more interested in working with a firm that specializes in their field.

Specialized services

Does your firm specialize in, say, international tax or ESOP regulatory compliance? This kind of expertise ranks high among firm-selection factors.

Geographic focus

Location can be important in choosing a new firm. For example, an accounting firm located in the US Southwest may be more familiar with issues related to immigration status or cultural concerns. Or, a location near a major port may result in a firm being more experienced in import/export issues.

Organizational role

Do you focus on high-level strategic consulting in the C-Suite, or does your firm prefer to roll up its sleeves and provide close support to the finance department? Specialized expertise within the client’s corporate structure can be an important factor in selecting a new accounting firm.

Regardless of how you define your accounting firm’s specialization, remember that an effective differentiator must be true (“we actually do what we say we do”), provable (“we can prove it”), and relevant (“what we do is ideally suited to the target prospect’s needs”).

Invest the time and effort into analyzing what it is about your firm that is truly unique. Go beyond merely claiming superior client service to identifying and promoting the real expertise or specialized service you can provide. By doing so, you will go a long way in separating your firm from the pack.

Four ways to grow your practice

Building a successful practice goes beyond great client service. It’s equally important to spend time marketing, selling, and embracing efficiencies.

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