In Unstable Times, Display Your Stability was previously published in The Bottom Line, Mid-September 2010.
The economy seems to be recovering, nevertheless, at least for a while now, most of us are expecting a bit of a bumpy ride.
Since the ups and downs of the market cause parallel swings in our emotions, fickle times can be an exhausting business. The real underlying issue causing all this drama, however, is extreme and chronic uncertainty. We don’t know if we can count on our jobs, our clients or even our savings. With the recent gulf oil spill, holes in the ozone and nowhere to put our garbage, even the planet is pretty shaky these days. What can we count on for certain?
An accounting practice would do well if it were to remove itself from this long list of uncertainties. The question is then, what’s the winning strategy for this fickle economy?
Cost cutting and diversification have been the most common responses to the recession. In contrast, this article will argue that the prescription for fickle times should move towards a new approach. Instead of further shaking things up, your accounting firm could try calming things down by marketing itself as a coveted force of stability, as a rock.
Three distinct, stabilizing responses to a fickle market:
#1 Focus with conviction
From the overt to the subliminal, focus communicates certainty. It is a powerful, stabilizing force.
As opposed to being consumed with improving weaknesses (and there are times when that is what you need to do), focus begins by exploring what’s working. The typical response to difficult times is to assume that something’s not working and to change to compensate… but what if you didn’t? What if instead you paused to try to figure out what is working, rather than what isn’t, and did everything possible to make that one single thing just about shine?
Since most of us have been to a Starbucks or two in our day, it presents us with an example of conviction that’s easy to relate to. Though they offer a premium product to the general public, the company has fared quite well through a challenging recession. Even among non-coffee drinkers there is little to no confusion as to why this brand stands out. They make great coffee, customized to each individual’s unique yearnings, in a pleasant and relaxing atmosphere. This slow coffee experience deliberately offsets the fast food and fast pace of our modern lives. Sure, they have weaknesses. Nobody talks about their food or their speedy service. In fact, people will patiently wait for their prized beverage and then make a second stop for something to eat. What’s more, Starbucks passed on a potentially lucrative liquor deal in order to preserve their ability to focus on what they do best. Weaknesses and limitations, yet a valued destination they remain.
Learning from the Starbucks example can be transferred to any accounting practice. When do your clients offer you heartfelt thanks? What do they notice that pleases or surprises you? Do you help them proactively avoid problems? Are you quick to deal with their concerns? Are you so deeply enmeshed in their business that you’ve become their resource for critical business planning decisions? Or are you able to get to the heart of matters because you are an empathetic listener?
Whatever it is that’s working, can you do it better and more consistently? To the degree that this one rising star of a quality becomes a trustworthy promise and helps clients understand how they can count on you? Can it be applied to the entire practice from the receptionist to the staff and partners? That would be a formula for focus with conviction.
Conviction sprouts from each and every foundational and mundane decision about the practice. Together, they impact the intensity with which a marketing campaign connects with and compels the desired target audience.
#2 Communicate, consistently and continuously
Until it’s formally communicated, consistently and continuously, there’s a limit to how far focus can take an accounting practice. A phenomenon that many find surprising, communicating such focus repeatedly and predictably, won’t bore the reader, but to the contrary, it will help to enlist trust.
In the same way that a casual person may speak in an informal manner, dress sporty, style their home with laid back fashions and frequent low key restaurants, synergies among the most minute details of a marketing campaign, will play a fundamental role in communicating conviction to an audience, whether they are aware of it or not.
Once in place, a communication strategy applies to both the firm’s marketing plan and the practice development efforts of the individuals:
- Within the context of the firm’s formal marketing activities, such as a website or brochure, there is infinite opportunity to communicate focus through the various layers of design and text, including but not limited to: the manner in which a tagline is integral to the description of the firm’s positioning and the degree to which a logo is leveraged as a key and relevant design feature throughout the marketing program. In order to be effective across various marketing platforms, these same messages would not only need to be sustained but also expanded, without inconsistencies.
- At the individual marketing plan level, any individual partner or staff member participating in networking events or giving seminars can apply the same communication strategy to an elevator pitch and leave behind materials. As well, if media coverage is generated by anyone in the firm, the same decisions about focus could influence the voice and writing style of any resulting articles and interviews.
#3 Respond but don’t react
Accounting practices are well versed in the makings of a healthy business. These business planning principles need to be applied to the ongoing management of the marketing plan. Starting with return on investment, marketing, as opposed to sales, rarely delivers new clients over the short term. Instead, performance indicators should reflect the expected immediate return on each marketing investment, including: generation of leads, inquiries and meetings as well as subscribers to a newsletter. Establishing realistic expectations will help you to determine when to respond and fine tune, because doing so will make a difference, and when to simply observe because change would only serve to destabilize.
A winning marketing strategy in a fickle economy isn’t about reinventing an accounting practice. It’s about exploring the authentic qualities that the practice already offers, honing them with conviction and expressing them consistently and continuously.
In preparation for this work, you might first have to let go of any self-imposed barriers to growth. Where declaring focus is concerned, the most common barrier is fear. Fear that any expression of focus equates to giving up a piece of the pie, specifically. When and if you do encounter this dilemma, remember that focus necessarily renders marketing more efficient and effective. With focus on its side, marketing can do what it does best. It can pursue a specific audience with a message expected to ring deep and true.