Two Keys to Winning Clients as Tech Takes Over
Technology is driving two shifts that are set to shake your accounting world, and both require very human responses.
By BRAD SARGENT, CPA/CFF, CFE, CFS, CCA, FABFA |
Two major tectonic plate shifts in the accounting world are
going to make a serious impact in your career and practice. The
first shift I initially detected long ago, but it’s on the move in a big
way now: Specialization.
“Find your niche” is now an industry-wide mantra. Undeniably, there
will always be a need for bookkeeping and basic accounting
services, but increased competition and price wars are driving
profits in this sector lower and lower. Many firms are simply moving
out of this space to focus solely on high-margin niche consulting
services. Most universities, who are motivated to place their
graduates successfully in the market, have recognized this
evolution and are providing more specialized classes in business
valuation, financial management, forensic accounting, and
accounting information services. In my focus area, forensic
accounting, the old adage was “get two-to-three years in audit and
then come see me” to be considered for an entry-level position.
Now, firms recognize the need to get professionals into a niche at
the onset of their careers and recruit accounting students as early
as their sophomore year for internships and potential long-term
positions. This is more than a trend; this is a permanent movement
in the U.S. accounting industry.
The second major shift in accounting is the profession’s increasing
reliance on technology. Some will argue that we’ve already been
impacted greatly by technology, while others will say the profession
moves at a glacier’s pace in adopting new technologies. No matter
your take, the pace of change will never be slower than it is today.
And, there are more technologies at our disposal for every aspect
of our business than ever before. Take social media, which has
forever changed how accountants — from students to managing
partners — can, and will, connect and market themselves and their
professional services. Myriad tools are available to measure and
manage social media engagement. By recording visits to websites
and professional profiles, accountants can track, tweak, and direct
their branding efforts. Even the term SEO, or search engine
optimization, has become familiar to accountants across industries.
Technology has helped level the competitive playing field for small
accounting firms by providing access to programs and software at
a low cost (if not “open source” at no charge).
There is no denying that technology has made access to
information faster and easier. But as a service professional moves
across the spectrum from commodity-service provider to
specialized-service provider, consumers need more than just
information and data to make decisions. A deeper dive into a
potential service provider is going to go beyond our technology-driven
marketing and a simple Google search. What I am saying
here is that despite our growing reliance on technology to
provide valuable services to our clients, more than ever, strong
interpersonal skills are going to be required to capture an
opportunity and retain that client over the long term.
Think of this scenario: A loved-one has suddenly become
extremely ill. This is a life-threatening scenario. You need to find a
specialist with just the right skills to perform an emergency
procedure. You enter key search terms into your search engine and
find a list of individuals who all appear to be highly qualified. How
do you determine who you will consult or hire? Remember, this is
life or death. You will want to see this person and speak directly
with this person. If you’re younger or more tech savvy, you’ll
research the individual online and read the available reviews. A
more traditional approach would be to ask for the doctor’s patient
referrals. While this may seem dramatic, I argue that the process
for seeking specialized accounting services are the same. The
higher margin specialty services come with much higher client
expectations. Potential clients want to see and speak directly with
the subject matter expert(s). They want to hear what past and
present clients have to say, either in reviews or as direct references.
Great marketing concepts and execution can lead to more
opportunities, but known and respected referral sources often
ultimately seal the deal. Having a credible source vouch for you
can be the difference between winning the engagement or not.
If you’re just starting out with a specialized skill, how do you obtain
these critical referrals and client reviews? Simply, do your very best
work each and every day. Great results lead to great relationships.
But be prepared for mistakes — we make them every day.
The lowest hourly rates, best education, and professional
credentials won’t matter when a project goes sideways, and it was
a problem you could have prevented. Don’t shy away from
mistakes; be willing and have the fortitude to ask a client for
feedback when a project has not gone as well as expected. It is my
experience that the brightest and the best are continuous learners,
and there is no better teacher than a preventable mistake. Again,
by employing the human touch you can strengthen your client
relationships and find that clients are more willing to look past
errors when they perceive a candid desire to correct the
situation. Low-tech communication (i.e., a phone call) can rescue a
relationship that’s headed toward the abyss.
The day may come when specialized accounting services are
available on Amazon or Craigslist, but we are simply not there… yet.
Technology provides ever-evolving tools to help expand our
services and brand awareness. But don’t forget that in the world of
accounting specialization, the personal touch still matters. By
combining new-school skills and technologies with old-school
communication and relationship building, you can grow personally
and professionally. There is no substitute for relationship-building
skills, so as you specialize skills and technologize your services,
don’t lose sight of the importance of humanizing your work.