This blog is an extract of an interview Karen did with in collaboration with Bethanie from Unleashed Software as part of a series of webinars on Marketing for Accountants.
“Advisory” services: What are they? Who needs them? And how in the world do you market them?
When you’re considering building up your marketing strategy for advisory work, it can feel like something which stands alone, separate from your other marketing. You might imagine digital advisory having its own website page, its own marketing campaign, perhaps its own brand and website.
True advisory is connected to your client, to their bookkeeping and accounts work. The accountants who deliver the best advisory work do so because they are advising their clients based on the numbers both you and the client know. So it may be that marketing advisory is simpler than you first imagined, because you’re sharing another kind of service with your existing clients, rather than making a big announcement about an entirely new, entirely different service.
Your advisory services aren’t for you: they’re for your perfect audience
It’s tempting, especially in the early days, to say you work with whoever you’ve got. Even as time moves on, and you begin to have more options, it’s still tempting to take on a new client because you can help them. Not because you want to, or you are the one best placed to help them, or they are the best client for you, but simply because they’ve appeared and they’ve asked for help.
Many accountants tell me they’ve been advised to focus on (or find) a niche, which can be defined as an industry niche. Yes, a niche of this kind is an efficient way to define an audience, but your audience doesn’t have to be this. What it does have to be, is very specific. The more specific you are, the better it is for your audience as they consider whether they want to enquire, and whether they want to connect with you. When you take that and adapt all of your marketing for that unique audience, they come to your website and say: “That is me, that is for me. I’m amazed that there’s something so specific for me. I’d better take the next step”.
Getting that specific often involves going back to your list of existing clients. After all, those are the ones you’ll be reaching out to about your advisory services. Look at the clients you love the most, the ones you get the best results for, the ones who are the most profitable to you, and bring all of those qualities together. When you look at these patterns, you can say, all the clients we love working with and who are profitable to us, are in this category or are this type of person.
After all, it’s not only in the prospect process where time and energy can be spent needlessly. If you take on a client who isn’t a fit, who is difficult or doesn’t have the same values or doesn’t respond, it takes so much more work and is far more unprofitable for you. Taking on a client who isn’t a fit uses emotional energy, mental energy, financial energy and cost, and the team’s energy too.
Often as an accountant you feel obliged to help somebody because they come to you and because you can. But that doesn’t mean that you are the best accountants for them, or they are the best client for you. And the same applies to hiring team members. So all of it comes back to values. That’s a big lesson I personally have learned and many of the accountancy firms we work with have learned, which is: it’s not merely about finding the right type of business with the right amount of money or sales or growth plans. It’s about working with the right kind of person, too. You don’t work with “a business”, you work with a business owner or a team. When you work with that person and their team, do they match the kind of thinking and approach and values your firm has? And if they don’t, it’s just not a fit. We don’t think alike, we don’t process things in the same way, which is okay, it’s just not a fit. This then sets you free. You never have to feel obliged, or to feel constricted by your own marketing processes.
When you’re specific about exactly who you work with, you save yourself, your team and your firm time, and you get to work with people you love.
Now you’ve considered who you’re working with, it’s time to make sure you’re showing those people who you truly are. Advisory isn’t about listing services on a website page: it’s about showing this ideal audience you are the kind of person they want to connect with. Who will be able to help them with the very real business problems they’re facing.
Marketing means you the accountant, and you the firm, show who you truly are
Your marketing is not for you. Your website, your brand, your services – including advisory – are not for you. They’re for your audience. That being said, marketing is still connected to you, so your prospective buyer can decide whether they want to work with you. So it is important for the accountant and for the firm to show who you truly are. This is an area that a lot of accountants, I’m encouraged to see, have begun to see how important it is. If you’re a one person business working out of your home, you don’t need (and it’s best not to use) images of a big London office, because it’s false. When your marketing reflects who you truly are and it matches what the buyer understands, this hurries up the buyer cycle. It helps your prospect decide faster.
The next question they’re asking is: are these my people? Are these accountants the ones that I want to share all my personal and business finances with?
Having an “About page” on your website isn’t the sum total of who you are. Your whole marketing reflects you so well that the prospect feels like you get them – before they even meet you. They’re coming to you saying: “You understand me and my journey. And I, as the potential client, also get you. I understand this is your approach, these are your values, this is who you are.” The buyer’s not going to be super impressed by your page about Advisory and Consulting Services because it doesn’t mean anything to them. But when they understand who you are and connect with you (or feel like they can), then you’ve got something that can begin to match.
Some firms addressing advisory want to show the impact of their team on advisory work. Perhaps your firm has 20+ team members, but advisory is its own department being run by one person as a full time job. Do you talk about the one person? The twenty people? How do you be impressive, and be real?
First, you need to do what’s most efficient so you can best deliver these great services for your clients. If you have one person who’s responsible for addressing that across the firm with all your clients, and they’re supported by the entire team, you can share that in two ways. It’s your call whether you say “we have one person delivering advisory” or if you say “we have a department that connects with the rest of the team” – as long as whatever you say is true. Now, if you literally have one person, and the rest of the team aren’t involved, it’s not fair to say “we have an entire advisory department”, and show stock photos making it look like you have a department of five when you don’t. But if you have an advisory department headed up by one person, and this person truly connects with the rest of the team, they talk to the client managers, they have meetings, they meet with the partners, they talk with the clients, they connect with them….if that is all accurate and true, then you can say that and you can still have integrity and transparency whilst not diminishing the power of it.
So you’ve decided who your clients are. You’ve shown some about who you are as a firm and how you work. Next up is your message, and how you share that to the world.
The message is what matters most: more than any amount of design work or website pages
When you’re considering marketing your advisory services, the message, the core thing you’re getting across to these ideal clients that you want to be working with, is the most important thing. Just as design isn’t about making things look pretty (it’s about content and strategy and design, all integrating together), the message is about more than some nice words.
The good news is, if you have an ugly website or a really outdated logo, even if you feel that your current branding of the website and marketing doesn’t fully reflect who you are, as long as the message is right, you’re 90% of the way there.
Because if all you’ve got is the message, then you’ve got a big part of it, because you’re saying, here’s who we are, here’s who we serve. These are the problems and issues that we know you have, and here’s our approach to solve it.
When you do, that’s going to appeal to the right kind of people and that’s going to help you get better clients coming to you, rather than focusing on quantity and thinking you simply need to fill your funnel. Sometimes making the funnel smaller, but with a bigger space at the bottom, means you’re spending less time and hassle on people who aren’t a fit. instead of 400 prospects, of which maybe 10 are your absolute best clients that you love, what if you had 15 people come to you…of which 10 are your absolute best clients? When this happens, it’s less of a funnel and more of like an alleyway or a road. And you don’t have to do all that whittling and they don’t have to go through back and forth emails and either come to your offices or meet online. You’re making it easier for everybody.
One of the best ways to make the entire sales journey easier on your prospect is to tell them what is going to happen. I continually find myself flabbergasted by how many people in professional services don’t provide a website page, a video on how we work, an approach, or even a direction on pricing. If you gave somebody all of that and they looked at it and said: “I’ve reviewed all of this and I don’t think this is a fit right now”, as long as you’ve given them as much information as they need, then your message has saved you time and it saved them time.
Best of all, it protects you from having discussions with prospects entirely focused on pricing. They still need to know what the fees are: but instead of asking for discounts or trying to find the cheapest price, your prospects are recognising you know your own worth, and you honour that, and your client, and your whole team.
So what is that message? What is advisory and how do you communicate that?
The whole picture of your services matters to your potential buyer
When you’re thinking of talking about your advisory services, you go back to who your audience is and the language they use and the things that matter to them and the issues and problems that they have. The big question is, does your client actually care if you call it compliance or advisory or something else?
Usually the potential client wants to understand the services you believe you most need to deliver, to solve the issues your client has shared with you. Advisory is part of it, but what your client really wants is a good accountant who is there for them in all of these things.
Which means your job in marketing (and sales) is to explain how the services you offer help solve the problems they have, or help them lean into the opportunities that they have. So it becomes less about, “do you want the compliance package or the advisory package or both”, and more, “Here’s who you are and the issues you have, and here’s our approach to it. And here’s all the services that you may need, which are tailored to you.”
You’ll also need to recognise there are so many services available that the person coming to them may not be able to grasp all of them at once. Which means there’s no point throwing all of these at them, even in the prospect process, much less in the onboarding.
Here’s how it can feel to your prospect:
I was at a hotel a few weekends back. By the time I got to the hotel, I was tired, I had done a lot of travelling. My highest priority was to get my key, get to the room and get in. I knew there were many other amenities the hotel had, but I wanted those things only, and I’d worry about everything else later. When I got to the reception desk, the person checking me in started telling me about all these other things they had available. There were massages, there were dinner plans and different menus, there were nearby walks, there were places for pets….so many things. But at the moment when they were all presented to me, I didn’t want to hear about all those. I wasn’t fully listening, because I was simply nodding, thinking, “can I have my key, please?” I was happy to hear about all those amazing things later (or earlier, before I arrived): but the day and time of arrival is not the time to throw 17 things at me because I’m only ready for one or two of them.
Accountants too have maybe 17 really good things that you could offer, and it could even be this prospect will become an amazing client who needs most or even all of those. But at the time of signing the proposal and starting the onboarding, they only need one or two right now. Maybe an hour later or a day later or a week later, you present a few others. And a few weeks after that, you talk about different options or bolt-ons – or advisory services.
It’s your job as the accountant to have the information there and drip feed it to them in a way that it comes at the right time. Or at least to have that relationship so if something comes to mind, they will remember a seed you planted and say “I feel like they said something about a monthly meeting, maybe I’ll ask about that.” You want to have that balance so your new client isn’t overwhelmed and frustrated – or like me, simply exhausted from the travel to arrive at their new accountant’s premises. Instead, you speak to them about what they need at the right time – when they’re inspired and motivated and have the relationship with you. This means they’ll take the right services when they need them.
When you plant seeds, you don’t plant 14 seeds in one little space. You plant one or two, and give a space, and then one or two, and then one or two. It takes people nine times of hearing something before it begins to fully register. On your side, you’ve mentioned it nine times and you know it inside and out. You know this service, you know they need it, you want them to sign up for it. And then suddenly, six months later, they’re saying: “Wait a minute, did you mention something about management accounts?” (or cash flow reporting, or credit control services). You may be thinking, “I have mentioned this in every meeting we’ve had for six months! How are they only realising this now?!” But you see what you’re looking for. So plant your seeds, and if the seed is the right one at the right time, they will hear it. If not, they won’t. And that’s okay. You keep planting those seeds slowly in the relationship and have space for that. Send it by email, put it in blog posts, post it on social media, mention it when you’re talking to them one to one. Let them decide when they’re ready.
Now you know all of these things, to properly market your advisory services, you bring all of these together. Instead of blasting out an email saying “we offer advisory services, sign up now”, you’re pausing to consider these four things:
- Who exactly your audience is and what they need
- Who you are as a firm and what you stand for (and don’t)
- The message about the whole picture of your services (and what happens when)
- How to plant seeds slowly, patiently, over time (rather than blasting it out only once)
And the first place to start is with something small. You’ll be tempted to think “Well, we want to do more digital advisory services, so we’ll get people to sign up for those”. But you’ve got to break it down to something very small and very specific that you’re going to offer that they can sign up for.
It might be a free thing. It might be a helpful PDF guide, or a live session with clients, or an educational piece which will help educate them about the issue they’re facing. As long as it addresses a real issue that is weighing on them or keeping them up at night, you can show that. And the service is still there, and available to them, but you’ve made it focused on them and their needs first. And they can get in touch with you to identify all the services they need, and see how those all fit together. That goes a lot further than the broad scope concept of “digital advisory” that your clients – and maybe even you! – don’t really understand what it means.
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