The Last Taboo: Client Marketing Isthe Last UnmentionableBy Michael A. BowlanI     n the 1970s, when I was just out of Nor...
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The Last Taboo: Client Marketing Is the Last Unmentionable 7.11


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Michael Bowlan provides a marketer\'s view of how firms can benefit from involving marketing in client service programs and plans

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The Last Taboo: Client Marketing Is the Last Unmentionable 7.11

  1. 1. The Last Taboo: Client Marketing Isthe Last UnmentionableBy Michael A. BowlanI n the 1970s, when I was just out of Northwestern smoking again! (Formerly a professor at Harvard Busi- and a novice to the world of accounting, marketing ness School, Maister is a cutting-edge professional ser- (in those days termed “solicitation of business”) was vices consultant. He published a book entitled STRAT-first authorized, thanks to rulings against long-honored EGY AND THE FAT SMOKER in 2008.)ethical proscriptions against such behavior. As I was At some firms, there is a clear Berlin Wall betweenlearning about this new world of accounting by, among client service and marketing. Any traffic between theother tasks, trudging though the firm’s audit manual, two sides is covert, well-guarded, and fraught with dan-I thought it was readily apparent that the professional ger for those who dared to sneak through Checkpointaccountant’s role, based on their mastery of their pro- Charlie. Besides the historical aversion to marketing infessional skills, was to provide services to enhance cli- professional services, the main causes of this divide areents’ financial reporting and management. Clearly, the the logical consequence of that perspective: distrust andprimary role that firms played back then was the audi- the continued reign of billable time as king. Of course,tor’s certification of clients’ financials. That situation firms need billable time to thrive and profit, let alonewas changing, and it was obvious to me as an untainted pay marketing professionals, but, as maestro Maisterobserver that the professional accountant’s higher pro- has opined for years, in many firms, the time spent onfessional calling was to help clients better understand marketing is seen as an “extra” for service providers.and improve their financial management. As the noted general business student Peter Drucker Yet, when I had the opportunity to discuss what the observed, “The purpose of business is to create a cus-firm was doing to embrace the emerging concept of tomer, the business enterprise has two—and only two—marketing professional services, firm leaders would basic functions: marketing and innovation.” Mostlecture the young Turk, saying, “We don’t chase after businesses recognize this and invest in R&D as well asclients, they come to us.” At the time, that was true physical and human resources. And in most businesses,for that particular firm, which held a predominant marketing is king (or at least a well-respected duke).market share of the large, blue-chip organizations.But clearly the world was changing and other firms The importance of convergence:were starting to figure out how to apply marketing to A divergent perspectiveenhance their operations. In the accounting profession, marketing still displays For the next 10 years, this aversion to marketing a faded scarlet M on its breast and is still persona nonpervaded the profession, although enlightened leaders grata on the client side of things even if it has indeedtried to foster enculturation of this new paradigm. The been more fully realized on the prospect side. Most ac-truth is many professionals continue to hold a dislike counting firms are fully devoted toward investing andfor, or lack interest in, marketing—“That’s not what I budgeting many more dollars, time, and resources toset out to do” is a still a fairly common statement you chasing prospects than developing fully integrated cli-hear even today from frontline professionals serving ent relationships. Pareto’s Law—the 80-20 principle—clients. Most of them aren’t firm leaders (and won’t be- clearly applies.come firm leaders), but as a veteran of the marketing Many service-delivery professionals are invested inwars it is still surprising to hear this old refrain. maintaining the wall between “selling” and “delivery” rather than integrating marketing into service delivery for“Just delivery, no marketing” clients. Standard arguments are made and dictums ren-It’s also not uncommon to hear professionals use the dered, of course. There’s the time-honored principle ofphrase “just delivery, no marketing” in their reports “Not with my client, you don’t!” And, “What can Market-at weekly business development meetings. Come on! ing do to enhance client service delivery?” And, “We don’tIt’s enough to make David Maister get fat and take up want clients to think we’re selling them all the time.”
  2. 2. 6 JULY 2011 False premises and failed logic, I say. If marketing these opportunities are likely to be sole sourced. Last,can effectively develop programs, processes, tools, and but not least, happy clients tend to pay higher fees!messaging to appeal to varied prospects, why prevent What’s not to like? If that’s not sufficient for you,them from developing those means of delivery for cli- consider that you don’t need to spend as much mon-ents? Have you noticed marketers’ inherent abilities to ey to win the work because you’re less likely to havecreate varied programs, processes, tools, and messag- to create a proposal, send marketing materials, and soing for different audiences? Why wouldn’t you want to on. Existing clients are also more profitable becauseintegrate marketing into client service delivery to im- you don’t have to write off the learning time that youprove the client experience, apply more of your exper- do with a new client.tise —and, yes, make more money? You’re also more likely to be able to leverage staff on Is integration only an effective strategy in manufac- the assignment rather than investing as much partnerturing, IT, and social policy? Are we stuck in a kind time as you do with a new client. You can give your staffof “strict constructionists” vs. “judicial activists” con- more knowledgeable direction because you are dealingtroversy as to who will control the enforcement of so- with a known quantity vs. new client situations requir-cial policy? ing heavy senior involvement. And staff gets to learn What of the language found in the audit manual “marketing” by practicing “professional service.”of nearly 40 years ago? The object of a professional is You can also learn on the job to an appropriate ex-still to realize his or her mission of providing the best tent. You may be able to develop and master new ser-professional service to their clients, but must that be vice lines by providing them to trusted clients, who arenarrowly interpreted? I certainly believe fulfilling the going to be easier on you as you develop improved pro-mission means providing more of what you do best to cesses and templates for their benefit. Because of yourhelp that client. Are we indeed dedicated to achieving relationship, you are also more likely to be given thea truly professional role for ourselves as accountants, opportunity to fix a problem that may crop up duringtax advisors, consultants, accounting marketers, and implementation.professional leaders? I should hope so. So, as cofounder of the London School of Econom- To put this issue into a current context, there has ics George Bernard Shaw once said, “I dream thingsbeen a lot of well-deserved focus on the convergence that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’ ”of international accounting standards. I suggest it’s al-so past time to look at the convergence of marketing An immodest proposal: Treat client marketingand delivery. like proposals If we are truly committed to professionalism, then con-Why not? sider a modest proposal from one who’s seen way tooLet’s start, like all good marketing plan execution starts, many immodest ones. You know, the ones where thewith a test involving those where it is most likely to firm boasts about all its great achievements, recogni-succeed. If your firm’s leadership realizes the value of tion, people, values, and clientele—and never identifies,marketing in attracting new clients, why not apply the clarifies, or addresses a prospect’s issues or concerns orwell-established management principles, processes, and how it can help address those issues, let alone provideprograms of marketing to a test group of clients? After a solution that yields tangible value.all, it’s become a staple statistic of customer-satisfaction In fact, what I propose as the marketing element forgurus that it costs five to 10 times more to acquire a a client service plan is very similar to the approach younew customer than to retain an existing one. already should be taking in any major proposal effort. Indeed, the basic argument for including marketing Such proposal efforts were the genesis for a client-devel-on the client side is that it just makes good business opment program at one of my former employers, wheresense to leverage existing relationships. Consider the we were very early adopters of the marketing-drivenmarketing dictum that repeat customers spend over proposal process. We researched each prospect: their30 percent more than new customers. Or, that it costs business, industry, key executives, and influential thirdsix times more to sell to a prospect than to sell to a parties, identified all known relationships, involved allcustomer. Existing clients are more likely to buy your disciplines in creating value-added solutions and tan-services. You have (hopefully) earned their trust. You gible savings ideas, and involved resources from aroundhave a better chance of getting the back story that of- the country, indeed the world. To quote the managingten underlies a professional service “opportunity,” and partner, our goal was to leave “no turn un-stoned.” CPA PRACTICE MANAGEMENT FORUM
  3. 3. JULY 2011 7 After we had refined this proposal machine over sev- You could start easily and effectively with a one-pageeral years, one astute major client partner who returned bulleted outline. If you haven’t been doing anything upto the office after a tour of duty for a prominent client until now, just showing your clients you are interestedin another office, asked, “Why don’t we do anything like could make a difference. For example, at our firm, teamsthis for our clients?” In this “duh” moment, the Red Sea periodically bring food to client staff during client busyparted and the client-service-development program was periods. It’s amazing how often this little kindness getsset free. We developed a business-development-orient- mentioned in client feedback. Don’t forget that it’s theed approach similar to our well-honed proposal process basic blocking and tackling tactics of marketing thatfor a test group of clients and broadened the traditional create sustainable growth, not a weak Hail Mary pass.client service plan beyond the technical realm into one You don’t have to spend large sums to see success.that systematically mined the previously haphazardly That said, here are action steps to consider in devel-quarried client relationship. oping your client service program. Ideally, marketing should be involved in every client Invest. Investing should involve hard dollars and mar-interaction. Not personally, but programmatically, by keting and service-provider time. The goal should be toproviding guidance, templates, and checklists for how show interest in your clients at a deeper, more enter-to enhance (yes, and expand) service through proven prise-wide level than a specific client itself could justifymarketing techniques. Creating a program and a pro- or that a feel-good meal for a client’s staff can provide.cess—and managing them—will help make things hap- One key firm investment would be to put some dollarspen as in any other aspect of business management. into identifying and developing information that wouldSpecifically, just as you should have a process for mar- benefit your clients. The specifics will vary by type of cli-keting to prospects and pursuing proposals, you need ent and by type of executive. But at whatever level youto have a program for client marketing. are able to provide useful information to your clients beyond your report deliverables, it will add value. TheWhat’s in a name? best way to make sure something valuable is being ren-What can you do better to fully achieve your higher dered is for the firm to invest in sources and processesprofessional calling than to dig deep into what a client for providing that information. Done right, you will seemost needs and figure out how to provide it? While significant ROI for those investments.we are certainly trying to add revenue for the firm, the Consider how much is expended in dollars, and es-posture should be that we are trying to meet the client’s pecially in time, for a major proposal effort, let aloneneeds with services that will enable them to grow, cut the other marketing efforts that precede the opportu-costs, improve processes, and so on. nity to get to bat. For a smaller investment of dollars In the purest sense, that’s what we should be do- and time on average per client or target, you are likelying for our clients—and the dialog, the terminology, to see a greater ROI. How much more effective wouldshould be put into that context. That is, we’re talking your marketing efforts be if some percentage of theabout a client service program and client service plans. investment was focused on proactively marketing toThere should be a marketing aspect, a service-delivery organizations that already have a level of trust in youraspect, and a technical aspect. But none of these ele- firm compared with a marketing team that constantlyments should be exclusive of the others. shifts gears steering reactive efforts to the initiative of This terminology removes any chance of an external the week. By itself , even the goodwill gained from sus-gaffe occurring that may cause a client to feel they are taining valuable annuity relationships would probablybeing manipulated, and it enables professionals who make this a break-even proposition.are reluctant to engage in marketing to feel comfort- For example, at the beginning of the recent recession,able in fulfilling their professional duty to their cli- our marketing team brought senior management togetherents. “Client service issue” and “client service need” to address the issue of what we would do to support andmay be more appropriate phraseology than “client retain clients in a situation most had never encountered.planning opportunity.” With considerable effort by many team members, we de- veloped our Recession Services portfolio of services, mostKey action steps for a client service program of which we already offered, although some of the offer-In the words of Lao Tzu, “A thousand miles’ journey ings needed to be refreshed or modified for this particularstarts with a single step.” Develop a program that works purpose. We then developed a Business Health Checkupfor your firm and your capacity for implementation. to provide to clients at no charge. This investment in a CPA PRACTICE MANAGEMENT FORUM
  4. 4. 8 JULY 2011service offering proactively addressed significant concerns had accepted our offer to do so. In the meeting, the topic ofof our clients and provided them with useful insight into how the company would deal with business continuity-disas-what they could do to batten down the hatches for the ter recovery planning came up because a tornado had strucklooming storm. The process also identified areas where that week two blocks from the CIO’s home. The topic devel-we could provide additional services when clients could oped, and as our man listened (without commenting unlessafford them and was also an offering we could market to asked, as agreed upon), the COO suddenly leaned forwardprospects for additional revenue for the firm. While it took and said, “Hey, you’re the guy who was just interviewed in [aa significant investment in time, of which we could an- local business magazine] about disaster recovery!” Quite a niceticipate having more of anyway with a downturn, it only convergence of client service and marketing! Engagement-involved a small expenditure of hard dollars. scoping information is being exchanged as I write. Budget. Of course, to invest in and then manage your Certainly and appropriately, the firm needs to promote itsinvestment in client marketing requires creating and resources to clients, as the above example shows. But rathermanaging a budget. Every firm has a budget for market- than pummeling them to pulp with electronic or hard-copying new prospects. Why not establish an existing-client brochures that tout the greatness of the firm—and don’t getmarketing budget at the firm level? Just as the tradition- read—consider investing in research, webinars, seminars, sur-al firm marketing budget and management process help veys, and client portals that uncover, refine, and define clientdrive attention to the areas and applications that a firm needs while showcasing your talents. And try to attend clientwants its prospecting to take, likewise a client marketing meetings—it can be the best primary research ever.budget will help drive and manage that focus. Leverage teams. Design your program so that it enables The budgeting aspect of your client service program specialists or other practice areas to participate on cross-needs to go beyond hard dollars to enable service pro- functional teams. Perhaps, you need to introduce this toviders to plan for client marketing time as well as client your culture. But to be most effective, you must considerbillable time. A good start is investment time budgets for how you can bring all the horsepower at your firm to bearpartners or a certain test group of partners. Expanding to on existing clients. This may mean breaking down barriers.other staff levels will help in a variety of ways, including Design your program so that staff is empowered to contrib-leveraging client service teams. In addition, separate charge ute to client marketing. This is a great and natural way forcodes for client delivery and client marketing activities can them to learn how they can achieve success in marketinghelp true up performance management and the assessment while enhancing client service. Staff also provides a great lis-and management of client marketing activities. tening post—they have chances on a regular basis to find Research. Consider how you can support client market- out what clients are saying and what their issues are behinding efforts with industry research, company research, exec- the public façade. While the client relationship manager isutive research, third-party research, and financial research. certainly the air traffic controller for the client, there’s noIf you already use these tools to prospect, you already have way he or she can cover all the potential traffic because, asa good idea of how you can apply them to client market- we’ve all learned, even air traffic controllers need sleep!ing. What are your affordable options to find information? Focus and prioritize. Don’t roll out a plan and tackle allWho can be assigned to gather the information? What lev- clients. Pick five key accounts, start with your best partners,els of research make sense for varied client types? build success, learn, and refine your program, process, and Research is an area definitely worth both hard dollar in- develop varying templates for diverse types of clients. Test-vestment and investment of resource time. Through re- ing or starting small is likely to lead both to more successsearch, either marketing staff will get more knowledgeable and bring less disruption. Initially invest, budget, spendabout your markets and hence more productive, or audit, more dollars or time for your top-tier clients, less for oth-tax, and other staff will begin to understand how market- ers. As the program succeeds, you can raise all can add value to clients—and prospects. This is an area Plan for follow-up. “Persistence and determinationwhere guerilla marketing can really pay off. Perhaps part of alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solvedyour client marketing time goes to attendance at key client and always will solve the problems of the human race,”meetings, where you learn what’s going on at the company, said Calvin Coolidge. In my years of marketing, I be-what clients need, what you’re doing well, meet more ex- lieve he had it right. Most marketing plans, campaigns,ecutives, and start identifying areas where you can provide and initiatives that fail do so because of lack of follow-additional services—that they want and need! up. I’m fairly certain that’s true in life as well. One of our risk professionals sat in on a meeting at a client For your client service marketing program to succeed,we provided outsourced services to because their management plan for periodic meetings to assess progress, address CPA PRACTICE MANAGEMENT FORUM
  5. 5. JULY 2011 9issues, identify emerging issues, and hold people ac- Key marketing elements of your client service plancountable. Identify ways to improve the program with With a client service program in place at your firm,this timely, practical feedback. what should you consider in developing specific client Celebrate and reward. New client wins are glamorized service plans? Here are action steps to consider.and celebrated at certain firms. Winning over a prospect Develop a plan with goals. To achieve execution, aclearly provides the thrill of the (often long) chase and a plan is needed to ensure that the rubber meets the road.huge adrenaline rush. Yet, there’s often a significant differ- The overarching goal of the marketing aspect of the cli-ence in the reaction afforded to those involved in develop- ent service plan should be the same as the more tradi-ing additional work for clients. A “yawning gap,” you might tional and often more technically focused client servicecall it. If you want your client service program to succeed, plan: provide excellent service to the client. Keep theyou need to provide equal recognition to those who suc- client happy. Meet their needs. Identifying ways to ful-cessfully market to existing clients. And, particularly if you fill those goals should lead to identifying some specificare involving staff members in your program, you also want congruent action steps that will keep your client happyto recognize those who are at least trying (learning). and lead to more business in the coming year. Measure. To justify and expand the client marketing Review and update the client’s profile. The clientprogram and the investments you make in it, you should service team should meet to develop and assess the plan.assess how you’re doing. My favorite ROI measurement Through research, including input from the team, assessis simply how much work we brought in (I’m not deni- the current state of the client in the marketplace. Whatgrating metrics, such as how many click-throughs we had issues does the client face? What other internal or exter-to our website, which is also valuable information). nal needs are driving the business and client manage- Two other simple, but often overlooked, results that ment? Learn about the client’s issues and their industry.your client marketing program should institutionalize If you know their issues, it is a very natural and muchare capturing testimonials and referrals from happy cli- easier process to help suggest solutions for them.ents. They will both pay off with appropriate manage- Listen to the client. If you’re not already listening toment and follow-up. These should be minimal goals your clients, this is essential. And if you are listening, youto achieve from your client marketing efforts. Gather- probably can do better. Be sure to question yourself con-ing testimonials from clients reinforces the value you’ve tinually to ensure that you are listening rather than push-provided them, flatters them, and provides a valuable ing your ideas or firm solutions on the client. Identify theirthird-party endorsement for your firm that says more unique problems. What are their concerns, needs, issues?about you than anything you can dream up. Incorporate formal and informal opportunities to listen At the same time, don’t stop at testimonials. If a cli- into your plan, such as attendance at internal client meet-ent is happy to provide a public testimonial about your ings and industry conferences as well as social, they should be more than willing to refer you In following this disciplined approach, you may identifyto others they know. These referrals could not only in- customized solutions for one client that might then makeclude other potential corporate buyers of your services, sense for other clients. Rather than only pushing solutionsbut also the client’s other third-party advisers, such as down to clients, if we listen, we may learn that one client’slawyers and bankers that could be buyers or additional identified issue is another’s. Following a listen and learnreferral sources. And, some good portion of these refer- approach may not only help you get better at marketingrals will lead to additional work. to existing clients, it may improve your skills in marketing These outcomes—testimonials and referrals—are ex- to prospects. The best products and services often comeamples of other aspects or processes of the client mar- from listening to the client. If you have “lunch-and-learn”keting program that marketing personnel can develop sessions, maybe they shouldn’t be designed so that clientsand manage for the client service team. come in and hear about the latest regulations or services Allow for flexibility. You need to allow for flexibility (not that either of these approaches is inherently bad) but,in your program so that those developing individual cli- rather, that clients come in (or you go to the client!) andent service plans can meet the unique needs of each client. you learn about some aspect of their business.Within reason, each client plan should be customized to Identify an internal coach. Do you have an internalfit the budget or client, the specific circumstances of the coach who can give you the real scoop? Can you developclient, and their needs. You won’t be able to anticipate ev- a relationship with one at your client? Just as developingery customized need, so position your program as more such a relationship is a great way to succeed in proposalof an à la carte menu than inviolable rules. situations; it’s equally effective in enhancing client rela- CPA PRACTICE MANAGEMENT FORUM
  6. 6. 10 JULY 2011tionships. The more you listen to someone, particularly bers—so as to enable you to deliver what your client orthe right someone, the more you will be able to provide prospect needs. This requires the related key element ofsolutions to their issues without feeling like a used-car setting up a budget. Perhaps, you prepare an internalsalesman. You will also more than likely develop the re- “proposal” for management for your client, includinglationship into one where you can test your ideas with budgeted time for nonbillable marketing hours. Explainthem before officially rolling them out. to management why they should spend money for you Include your whole team. Involve specialists and to enhance the relationship and convince them with asother practice areas, including those already actively specific and tangible an ROI as you can project.serving the client or those who may be able to help the A third key element in your plan should be to incor-client going forward based on what the client needs. porate defined formal and informal communicationIn addition, personnel below partner and even man- activities, so that even if the engagement is or becomesager level often have more direct contact and can play beset with ongoing crises and deadlines, the need toa key role in learning and reporting about what’s go- communicate and check in doesn’t get lost. One waying on at your client. They can also learn client service to enhance communications and involve staff is toand marketing skills by developing new relationships consider whether there is a role social media can play.with emerging and future client leadership. Ask your staff! Motivate the team for engagement. For years, I Assess, measure, and improve. Continuous im-changed the phrase “engagement team” to “client ser- provement shouldn’t be a foreign concept to thosevice team” wherever I could because I felt the former engaged in technical or traditional client service andterm was too objective, inhuman, and that it didn’t ac- customer satisfaction. So, it should be easy to applycurately portray what we should be trying to do—serve those principles to the marketing aspects of your cli-the client. But maybe I misinterpreted the meaning of ent service plan.the word “engagement.” The team should be engaged. Converge: Crash the last marketing barrier. I’mServing the client’s needs should be why you got into sure if you looked at all of these ideas, developed anaccounting, taxes, or consulting, unless you view your umbrella program, and motivated and educated every-role as a backroom technician dealing with numbers, giz- one in your firm to pursue this program, you would seemos, or compliance forms. My sense of professionalism significant results. But enough of what I think, prove itis that your approach should be proactive and the goal to yourself. Take, say, 10 percent of your planned mar-should be to create opportunities to demonstrate your keting commitment—in time and money—this year,initiative and expertise. But you may need to invest time and focus, prioritize, and test the concept. See how itand hard dollars in educating your team about how to works for you.accomplish this. For them to learn, they will need time,and perhaps some money, to get there. About the author: Michael A. Bowlan is principal, di- Manage the plan. Determine how you will ad- rector of marketing for Brown Smith Wallace, in St. Louis.dress the client’s issues and include accountability and He has over 35 years of professional services marketing ex-timelines for how you will pursue all the needs (and perience, including having served as a firm marketing ex-opportunities for services) so as to benefit the client. ecutive for both PwC’s pre-merger firms and Deloitte at theProvide structure and discipline to make sure the de- national and local levels. Mike also consulted for 10 yearssired actions occur. for professional service clients, including Andersen, Grant One key element in accomplishing effective man- Thornton, Korn/Ferry International, five top 100 law firms,agement of the marketing aspects of your client service and a number of midsized to smaller firms. Mike can beplan is to invest in your client—and your team mem- reached at (314) 983-1207 or  This article is reprinted with the publisher’s permission from the CPA PRACTICE MANAGEMENT FORUM, a monthly journal published by CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business. Copying or distribution without the publisher’s permission is prohibited. To subscribe to the CPA PRACTICE MANAGEMENT FORUM or other CCH Journals please call 800-449-8114 or visit All views expressed in the ar- ticles and columns are those of the author and not necessarily those of CCH or any other person. CPA PRACTICE MANAGEMENT FORUM