Expand the pipeline! Creating a steady stream of ideal prospects
Thought Leadership

Expand the pipeline! Creating a steady stream of ideal prospects

Recently, I looked at how to expand the accounting profession’s talent pipeline. But a second key pipeline needs consideration: prospects and current clients. Your knee-jerk reaction may be something like, "I have more prospects than I know what to do with," but in this article, I hope to provide a strategy to have the “right” clients and prospects in your practice.

Some may say that this is business development and it’s not your job, but we know at an accounting firm, business development (aka growth) is everyone's job. Growth creates career opportunities for every person in your firm. Without it, firms stagnate, team members grow restless, and team performance stifles—missing opportunities to grow existing engagements, which is just as much about business development as bringing on new clients.

While my background is leading a CAS practice, the principles outlined below remain the same regardless of the type of practice. However, the concepts discussed are only helpful if you have done the hard work of identifying your ideal client. Growth for the sake of growth will slow down your practice, whereas strategic growth allows you to scale quickly and pursue the ideal prospects. This clarity will also help your talent pipeline because employees appreciate the clarity that a well-defined strategy brings.

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Some may say that this is business development and it’s not your job, but we know at an accounting firm, business development (aka growth) is everyone's job.

Mining your existing clients

As we near calendar year-end, your firm may be in the process of re-engaging clients or conducting tax planning meetings to prepare for the new year. Here are a few ideas using the annual renewal conversations as the starting point.

When thinking of a pipeline, we don't typically think of client expansion, but be sure your firm has a strategic approach to growing those clients. Take time to inventory your current clients, including your client mix. Evaluating your clients helps you know who may need additional services. This exercise will also help you understand how many clients you can and/or should take on each year. You can then communicate broadly to your referring partners exactly who it is you're looking for so they refer with confidence.

Here are 4 steps:

  1. Evaluate your current clients. Whom should you keep and expand? Who should you let go? CPA.com offers a workshop and has also created a spreadsheet that gives you several objective categories. Based on how you respond, it grades your clients.
  2. Create an action plan for non-ideal clients. Create a 1-3 year strategy to start up-leveling or exiting clients. For example, if 25% of your clients need to be exited, and you're nervous about doing it all at once, spread their departures over two years. If you do not already have one, develop an offboarding strategy for these clients.
  3. Create an action plan for expanding clients. Determine how many existing clients you want to upgrade with services or put on an improvement plan. This is an opportunity to give them a chance to improve before exiting.
  4. Plan for prospecting and onboarding. Determine how many ideal prospects you want to turn into clients and when you want to onboard them. Creating this plan will give you confidence in terminating the non-ideal clients in step 2 because you'll be filling your client base with engaging, rewarding, and profitable clients.

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When thinking of a pipeline, we don't typically think of client expansion, but be sure your firm has a strategic approach to growing those clients.

Your firm's existing clients you do not currently serve

With the steps below, we are entering a more delicate situation; accounting professionals are protective of their clients.

Evaluate your firm's current clients list. Even before this step, understand what data can be accessed. Depending on your firm size or your level, you may need to evaluate what steps you need to take to get access to client data. If you don't have access to all of the data, identify an industry and/or several firm leaders you want to target and begin working with those coworkers to gain a simple client list and basic engagement metrics. Try asking questions a different way or articulating how you want to use the data to gain access to what you're looking for. Most people get excited about growth, but this may be a new way of accomplishing it! Ways to identify prospects will vary based on your practice, but here are some examples for CAS:

  • Tax: Does tax have a "clean up" time entry code? If so, run a report, group by shareholder or director, and then sort by time. Include realization, if possible.
  • Audit. Group by industry and evaluate net revenues, write-offs, and realization. Is there an opportunity to turn underperforming audits to complete outsourcing clients? Note: Due to independence, it would require flipping the clients from audit to CAS for larger and longer-term returns.
  • Consulting. So much falls under consulting, so creativity is key. For example, do you have an M&A service offering? Could you offer a clean-up/transition service for companies being bought and/or sold? Could your risk advisory practice or IT advisory practice uncover prospects for you?

Create an action plan based on the practice/industry you selected. To walk through this step, I'm going to follow the path of the tax practice noted above. You were able to obtain the lists noted above and identified several opportunities with five different tax partners to create a plan. Your plan could include an educational road show with those partners on what services your practice offers and what type of clients you are seeking. Lay out the timeline for education meetings, the call-to-action, the follow-up, reporting wins, and for communicating the activity once you start serving the client.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Identify a champion or influencer. Collaborate with this person regularly. Keep open lines of communication with their team. Talk openly about your goals.

Potential clients: Who are they?

Of course, any discussion about expanding your pipeline has to include your prospects. Here are my recommendations.

Targeted prospects. We all know that keeping, retaining, and expanding clients is much less expensive than acquiring new clients. Evaluate if it is realistic that you'll receive the referrals you want and need to strategically grow your practice.

Client referrals. Who better to find your next prospect than your favorite clients? Identify five to 10 clients and ask them who they know that could benefit from your services. Ask for some verbatims—your marketing team will greatly appreciate it.

In my opinion, this step is one of the most underused steps. It feels sales-y, but if you are providing valuable services, those clients are excited to introduce you to their peers. If they are unwilling to introduce you, it's time to evaluate your client experience.

  • Be where your future clients are. Whether it's writing, attending networking events, webinars, or something else, be where your ideal clients are. If you are targeting a specific industry or service offering, brainstorm where you would find those clients—and show up. Work with your vendor partners in this area, too; they may be open to sponsoring a prospect event with you and/or telling you where your clients are gathering. Once you find where you're going to invest your time, consistently attend, develop relationships, and most importantly, seek opportunities to add value before you ever sell a single service.
  • Create a target list. You just naturally know some of the companies you want to pursue. Put them on a list and start identifying who could assist in obtaining an introduction.
  • Create a plan! Make a plan to ask for a set number of referrals a month/quarter, and track how you're doing. Are you following up with them, calling them once a month, sending them an article each quarter? Make a plan to attend a set number of events each quarter, and track the outcomes and follow-ups. For the target list, plan to research one prospect a week with a goal of making a connection within four weeks.

Cold prospects. Most professionals don't like cold calling, so this would be a great opportunity to work with your marketing team, or if you don't have one, pull some of your peers together to brainstorm what you could do to run a marketing campaign to drum up hand-raisers. Services such as Intuit Mailchimp can help manage that process for you, even if you don't have a marketing department.

  • Brainstorm. Be clear on whom you're targeting and how you are going to approach them. Will you advertise in magazines, sponsor events, send out mailers—yes, they are still valuable—or simply cold call?
  • Create a plan! Once you have narrowed down whom to target, document your plan and how you will know if it's successful. Create a process for follow-up and nurturing the lead.
  • Follow through. While important in every category above, follow through is critically important with cold prospects because they didn't pursue you. Even if a client may not be a right fit for your firm, treat them as though they are your best prospect in the discovery stage, as well as when you close them out. That prospect may not be the right fit today, but they may be in five years. You want them to think of how you made them feel that first time.

It’s all about a plan

You might think this list of building out a long-term pipeline is exhaustive, but there are two final areas to consider to drive long-term success:

  1. Client relationship management. Have a clear and consistent way to track your progress. If you are in a firm environment where more than one person is doing business development, document your information in a scalable way so you can cultivate learnings from the data. Are you closing construction deals faster, but are they less profitable? Is the onboarding score for dentists higher than it is for other medical clients? Consider using a CRM system that will best meet your needs. Again, products such as Mailchimp can help you manage communications with your clients.
  2. Share out the successes. A way to drive more leads is to make other people feel as if they and their clients are missing out on the amazing experiences your team is curating. Try these:
  • Send a newsletter. Create streamlined communication and/or profitability updates to create FOMO with others in your firm. 
  • Identify a champion. Identify a leader in another area who has partnered with you well. Help make them super successful and have them identify the next champion. Have them "refer-a-friend." It's a win-win for both of you. I always say the best work to sell is the work you don't have to do, so be clear about what's in it for them and their clients, follow through, and you'll start seeing the referrals pour in.

Many firm leaders indicate they have more growth than they know what to do with, but I'm confident the reason for this is that they are not crystal clear on whom they should be serving and are not following a strategic growth plan. Think about the recommendations presented in this article, when you want to grow your firm, and with whom you want to do it.

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