How to Market Your Accountancy or Law Firm on a Shoestring Budget

Foreword: Some things never change…

This article first appeared in SAICA’s Small and Medium Practices Quarterly Magazine (September 2017 issue) and was republished by Accountancy South Africa in their December 2017 issue.

Although in 2017 it was addressed specifically to accountant firms, it applies equally to legal firms and I hope that both professions in 2019 will find these ideas and principles helpful in increasing your profitability without increasing either your costs or your stress levels!

Tomorrow’s profits are driven by today’s marketing

“You reap what you sow” (Old Adage)

I’m constantly amazed by the number of Small and Medium Practices who tell us that they don’t need to do any marketing because “we have a loyal client base” and/or “we have plenty of work” (sometimes it’s “we’re swamped”). 

That’s a dangerously short-sighted attitude to adopt in an age of ever-accelerating change.  There is increasingly fierce competition for clients, and at the same time new technologies are spawning industry disruptors of every description. Think of the growing number of online service providers offering “from the comfort of your own office” ease of access and reduced price structures.  Think of the inroads AI is predicted to make into professional service fields.  Then imagine how hungry your competitors are going to be when they start losing clients, and how desperate they will be then to replace their losses from your client base.

The reality is that firms that fail to market themselves effectively today will be left behind tomorrow.  Many of them won’t survive; those that do will be less profitable. 

The other side of the coin of course is that you have a great opportunity here.   Market your firm better than your opposition, and you will be running well ahead of the pack. If your firm is evolving, you need to let your clients know about it. Don’t miss out because you didn’t communicate it.

Accountancy firm marketing is no longer a “nice-to-have” – in today’s business environment it’s a necessity.

Marketing needn’t cost you an arm and a leg

The basis of marketing any professional services firm is this – keep telling both your clients and your prospective new clients exactly how they will benefit from their relationship with you.

If you are an independent SMP firm, you don’t need a huge budget for that.  You don’t need in-house marketing departments, or expensive PR firms.  You don’t even need to sacrifice much partner and staff time.

In fact many of the basics of marketing your firm will cost you little or nothing. 

The 6 steps of “Shoestring marketing”

The concept of “marketing on a shoestring” is a tried-and-tested one.  Follow these practical steps to create a simple marketing plan that you can implement –

  • Quickly
  • Easily
  • Inexpensively
  • But to great effect.
Step 1:  Set goals – the foundation of your marketing plan

You will end up going nowhere unless you have a clear idea of where you want to end up. 

Lay a solid foundation for your marketing plan by setting goals – first your personal goals, then goals for your practice.  Ask yourself questions like “Where do I personally want to be in 5 years?”  “And in 10?”  “Where must my practice be by then?”  “How many clients do we want to have?”  “What profit must we be generating?”  “What new challenges must we overcome?”

Every firm will have its own goals, just keep them simple, attainable, clear and detailed (nothing stops you tweaking the details as you move along, but setting fuzzy goals upfront is a recipe for failure). 

Most importantly, record all your goals and track your progress towards them – there’s no better motivator!

Step 2:  Describe in detail your “ideal clients” and the services you will offer them

“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself” (Peter Drucker)

Create a clear profile of what sort of clients you want to retain, and what sort of new clients you want to acquire.  Who are they and why are they “ideal”?  Are they individuals?  Businesses?  What size businesses? What services will you provide them?  Etc…

Don’t be afraid to do a bit of dreaming here – set your sights high so you give yourself a worthy target.

The more detail you give in your descriptions the better – all of your marketing from here on will be aimed at communicating with this target market.  

Step 3:  Identify potential new sources of work

“In marketing I’ve seen only one strategy that can’t miss – and that is to market to your best customers first, your best prospects second and the rest of the world last” (John Romero)    

First concern of course is to retain all your existing quality clients. 

Then prioritise potential new sources of work.  Perhaps something like these (adapt and add to them to suit your firm’s particular needs) –

  • Repeat business from existing clients
  • New business from existing clients
  • Referrals from existing clients to potential new clients (turn your clients into “evangelist marketers” for your services)
  • Referrals from other professionals and business associates
  • New business from the general public
  • And so on……..
Step 4:  Define what your clients want the ultimate outcome of your services to be

This is critical.  You are in business to make money and the only way you can achieve that is to render services to clients who will pay you for them.  You must understand what they need from you and what they want from you.  What problems do they have that you can solve for them?  How can you help them be more successful?

Define the ultimate outcome that will make them happiest.  Only then can you define how they will benefit and how you will achieve those benefits for them.  Which leads us to …

Step 5:  List the benefits your clients will enjoy from your services

What counts to your clients is how your services will help them achieve success, how their lives will be made easier and their businesses more profitable. 

So build your marketing plan around communicating to your target market not just the services you offer, but the benefits they will provide. 

Step 6: How will you attract and retain these ideal clients?

So now you know what the goals of your marketing plan are.  You know who your ideal clients are, where you will look for them, what they want from you and how they will benefit from your services.

Time to move now into the heart of your plan – how will you retain your good clients and how will you attract new ones?  Don’t hold back here – get your team together and brainstorm every possible idea you can think of.  Then whittle them down to a manageable list, and prioritise the best ones.   

Below we’ve suggested some possible avenues to help you get started, with practical suggestions on implementation.  Adjust and expand them to your firm’s particular goals and circumstances. 

Project a professional image, online and in the real world

This is all about first impressions.  You only get one chance at it so don’t drop the ball here!

  • Online:  In the Internet Age the tone for most new client interactions is going to be set online.

    Imagine you are a potential new client googling your firm and take a fresh and unbiased look at what he or she will see when they first go onto your website and your Social Media pages. Is their first impression going to be positive?  Do you come across as trustworthy?  Efficient? Reliable? Experienced? Professional? Internet savvy?  If first contact comes via an email, what impression will the speed and quality of your reply convey?

  • Your branding:  Branding incorporates your firm’s name, logo, design scheme and slogan.  It’s a “first impression” conveyer of how you want to be perceived.  Strong branding will enhance recognition, trust and client referral.  Unless you have lots of in-house talent it’s worth calling in the professionals here; amateurish DIY branding has always been false economy and your competitors will thank you for going that route.  Just don’t overpay – good branding is invaluable but unscrupulous marketing firms pick up very quickly when there are easy pickings in the offing.  Get a selection of quotes so you can be sure you get value for every Rand you spend.  
  • Your offices:  Whilst your online presence is more important than ever, it’s still crucial to maintain “first impressions in the real world” – where your office block, parking areas, reception areas and telephone answering protocols should receive special attention.
  • Brainstorm other “first impression” scenarios peculiar to your firm.

Provide excellent service

“It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better” (Jeff Bezos)

It’s all about delivering that “ultimate outcome” we talked about in Step 4 in a way that your clients will remember with positivity.   

The other side of the coin of course is that these days the Internet can be a most unforgiving arena for providers of substandard service.  Just one instance of poor service reported by a single unhappy client can seriously tarnish your online reputation.

Here are some basics to get you started –

  • Avoid creating false expectations.  People tend to hear only what they want to hear, so you cannot be vague here. Explain to your clients clearly –
    • What you will do for them,
    • What the process will be,
    • What the projected timeline to completion is.
  • A very common complaint from clients is lack of communication.  Provide regular meaningful reports on progress. Answer all queries without delay.  And if you run into problems or your timeline projections go for a loop, remember clients will forgive a lot – but only if you keep telling them what’s going on and what you are doing about it.
  • What your clients will remember long after you invoice them for a completed job is how quickly you served their needs, how little inconvenience you caused them, and how painless, friendly and helpful you and your staff were through the process.  Continually improve staff training and motivation with that in mind.
  • How else can your firm project a culture of service excellence?

Targeted marketing – keep in touch with all existing and potential new clients

  • Focus your resources:  Concentrate on communicating with the “target market” you defined in Step 2 above.  You will get far more bang for your buck than with “spray and pray” type marketing.
  • A simple and growing database:  Maintain a database of all your clients, and add to it all potential new clients.  Check whether software you are already using can do this for you.  It’s important to keep this database as simple as possible because the less information in it, the easier it is to keep it updated.  We’ve come across firms with incredibly complicated client databases, and not only are they invariably years out of date but also so full of extraneous information that they are practically unusable.
  • Newsletters:  Set up a system of regular quality communication with your database.  Monthly email newsletters are the gold standard here, which is why the larger firms have been using them as a core marketing tool for decades.  Keep them short and give your readers real value in the form of useful and interesting information.  Newsletters keep you top-of-mind, they build client relationships, they project professionalism, and they potentially can be forwarded all over the Internet.

    A poorly designed or written newsletter is actively damaging to your brand so again it’s worth asking for professional assistance here.  Just choose your service supplier carefully.

  • Newsflashes:  Consider boosting the effectiveness of your monthly newsletter with intermittent “newsflashes” on topics such as Tax Season Deadlines, important new legislation coming into effect, the SVDP Deadline – anything that your clients will appreciate being alerted to.
  • Email Branding:  Every single email sent from your office is potentially a marketing opportunity so make sure all your emails are consistent and project the most professional image of your firm.  Going beyond those basics, various email branding solutions are available (at a range of price levels) that will ensure consistent branding across all your staff, enable you to send recipients targeted marketing banners, and automate the capture of all new email addresses for potential addition to your newsletter mailing list. 

Stay firmly in the “public eye” with the power of the Internet

“If your business is not on the internet, then your business will be out of business” (Bill Gates)

These days, even if a potential new client hears of you through a recommendation, or from a forwarded newsletter, or via a mention in the media, he or she is almost certain to look for you online before even thinking of contacting you.

It is therefore absolutely vital to have a strong, professional presence on the Internet.

It needn’t exhaust your “shoestring” marketing budget –

  • At the very least have a LinkedIn page for you, your partners, your senior staff and the firm itself. It’s pretty easy to get a good result yourself but if you aren’t confident, use a professional to help you. Remember that even if you have a great website, if someone searches an individual from your firm there is a good chance that their LinkedIn profile will be high up in the search results – make sure this first impression is a good one. Include a professional profile photo and tailor your details to reflect client needs and benefits (Steps 4 and 5 above).
  • Possibly also consider Facebook and Twitter (useful for some firms, but certainly not essential for most). 
  • Be sure that your firm is registered with “Google My Business”. This will ensure your business is listed on Google Maps, has a basic profile and displays more prominently when it is searched for on Google.
  • A website used to be a “nice-to-have”, but for most firms it is now essential because you will be googled, and having no website inevitably raises questions about how established and reliable you really are.  If your budget just won’t stretch to it now, it’s perhaps not a train smash to rely as a temporary fix on your LinkedIn presence.  But as soon as you can afford it, invest in a website.  Consider adding a blog page if you are able to post regular quality content to it.

    As with all the other marketing channels we have recommended, make sure you aren’t ripped off.   Websites no longer need be as expensive as they once were so shop around for both quality and price.

  • Keep your website, blog and Social Media pages updated with fresh material regularly.  A quick and easy way is to put your client newsletters onto them monthly – a process you can automate with RSS feeds.

Other marketing channels to consider

(These ideas may or may not be right for your firm.  If you aren’t sure, consult a marketing professional who will tailor a marketing plan to suit both your needs and your marketing budget.)

  • Networking:  Whenever you can, network with business, professional, social and charity groups.  Offer new contacts not just your business card but also the gift of your newsletter. You now have permission to expose them regularly to your name, branding and list of services in the most professional way, and your chances of acquiring a new quality client just shot up.
  • Media advertising: Some focused advertising may be worth considering for specific projects.  But as we pointed out above, finely targeted and regular marketing via a newsletter for example is likely to be much more effective on a tight budget.  A better plan if you have the time to do it is to look for free publicity by giving gifts of your time and expertise – write short helpful articles for the local media, for websites and blogs, networking sites etc.  Offer to be guest speaker at business and charity functions, etc. 
  • As a last thought, there are many other marketing channels out there – promotional videos on YouTube, cellphone apps, fancy brochures etc.  Often these channels can be expensive with little real benefit so don’t let a clever sales pitch tie you in to any of them unless you are sure they will work for your particular needs and plans. 

A final thought …

Effective marketing needn’t cost a fortune, and the most expensive thing you can do is to not market your firm at all.

Jack Crook
Jack Crook
Managing Director & LawDotNews Author at DotNews
Jack’s legal qualifications (LLB Lond and LLB Rhod) are supplemented by many years of practical experience in law, in marketing his own firm, and in helping small and medium sized law, accountancy and financial advisory firms to prosper by using simple, low-cost, effective marketing strategies.

Jack’s legal qualifications (LLB Lond and LLB Rhod) are supplemented by many years of practical experience in law, in marketing his own firm, and in helping small and medium sized law, accountancy and financial advisory firms to prosper by using simple, low-cost, effective marketing strategies.