Word-of-mouth marketing for accountants

Accountant & Bookkeeper Guides

9 min read

Grant Anderson built his practice fivefold in five years, almost exclusively through word-of-mouth marketing. He’s now one of Xero’s heads of accounting. Here he explains why referrals are so valuable to accountants, and gives you some ideas on how to get them.

Grant Anderson - Xero

Grant shares his experience as a firm owner to help you grow your practice.

 

I didn’t really advertise my practice, and yet we experienced fantastic growth every year. It was all word-of-mouth marketing.

We felt it was best for us because word-of-mouth referrals turn into such high-quality business. Clients refer other businesses like them so if you tap good clients, you’ll get referrals who:

  • want the services you do well

  • collaborate well

  • pay promptly

Advertising, PR and search-engine marketing can be powerful lead generators, but you don’t always get the right prospects in your funnel. Clients, on the other hand, are great filters. They reliably send along referrals that are well-matched to your practice.

How many referrals can you expect?

A really good referrer might connect you with 10 new clients in a year. Another client might make one introduction after two years of nothing – but that new client becomes your biggest account.

There’s no easy way to predict who the good referrers will be. As a general rule, though, 20 percent of clients are going to provide about 80 percent of your referrals so be strategic about where you direct your effort. Create a gold list of clients that you think could (or maybe already are) sending you good new business opportunities. You can focus your word-of-mouth marketing efforts on them.

Pick the clients you want referrals from

Once you start getting referrals from good businesses, your clientele will improve dramatically and you’ll enjoy your work more. Decide who your best clients are and put them on a gold list so you can focus on turning them into advocates. These will be clients who you get on with personally and who:

  • value the work you do

  • respect your process

  • use services that are a strength of your firm

Your gold clients will probably be a good source of revenue but don’t be blinded by that. Some of my best referrers have been small clients who happened to be well connected. I also gave gold status to clients I enjoyed working with. Someone might make you laugh every time they come in, which is great for morale. I always wanted more clients like that so I gave special status to them.

How to get the referrals

Once you’ve decided who your gold clients are, you need to get them talking about you. That doesn’t just happen with good accounting. In fact it has surprisingly little to do with accounting.

You need to set a strategy and invest some time to turn gold clients into advocates:

  1. Ask for referrals

  2. Make them feel special

  3. Engage with them

  4. Give them a reason to talk about you

1. Ask for referrals (without sounding needy)

Your clients assume you’re successful and think you’re busy, which is a good thing. You may even make a special effort to convey how in-demand you are. But make sure clients don’t think you’re too busy for new work.

Tell your gold clients you’re looking for more business. Pay them a compliment at the same time. Say “I’m looking for more clients like you.” It will make them feel good about themselves and you.

But here’s the thing – asking once for a referral doesn’t work. Your request will have been forgotten by the end of the day. You need to keep reinforcing your interest to help the message sink in.

Use your judgment. You don’t want to sound desperate so save your pitch for longer interactions and spend some time rehearsing how you deliver it. It’s a skill so practice it like you would any other. You’ll be surprised how easily and naturally you can slip a referral request into conversation – generally toward the end of meetings.

Once we focused on word-of-mouth marketing, the quality of clientele improved. Within 18 months, we were able to go back and weed out the clients we didn’t want.

2. Make clients feel special

Many clients won’t have any idea if you’re doing a good job on their books. They’ll assume you’re competent, but it’s probably hard for them to tell. Mostly, they care that you care.

Show you do by taking a personal interest in their situation. It matters that you remember their goals without prompting, so congratulate them on significant milestones. Send a message when the business has an anniversary, for example.

But do more than that. Show interest in their personal lives too. Make sure you know things like:

  • their spouse’s name

  • how they like to spend weekends

  • their preferred drink

If you’re anything like me, there’s no way you can remember all these things, so use a database. You don’t have to invest in a customer relationship management system, a spreadsheet will do. When you learn something new about your client, like a favorite book, record it in your database. Be the accountant that actually cares about them.

I sent gifts to gold clients (or their spouses) when they had significant personal events, like birthdays. It’s a great way to reinforce how much you value them.

3. Engage with them

Don’t be the aloof accountant stuck behind the desk. Make time to reach out to your clients and talk with them. Again, you want to show you actually care about their business and their lives.

Make time to call some of your gold clients every day. Ask how they’re doing. Or, if you have access to their online accounts, advise them how they’re doing. Invite questions and give them an opportunity to share their thoughts. It will only take 20 or 30 minutes to speak with two clients every day. Don’t be afraid to give a little free advice on the call. If big issues come up, you can always schedule time for a deeper conversation and you can bill them for that.

Try to visit gold clients at their place of business once or twice a year. It takes you out of the office setting and shows you’re not hiding in an ivory tower. The gesture will be appreciated. Plus it will allow you to see your client’s business in action, which may inspire ideas for process improvements you could recommend.

These visits won’t just increase customer loyalty, they often directly create new business. I just about always came away with a fresh project for that client, or a referral. Either way, the visit often paid for itself.

4. Give clients a reason to talk

Your goal is to get clients talking about your business. So give them something to talk about.

Create events that you actually want to attend
Events can be dry and awkward, but that’s because they’re often done badly. Take your gold clients out, preferably in groups, and keep it fun. You need to be excited about the event so play to your strengths and pick things you enjoy. They don’t have to be business-related. In fact, I’d recommend against it. Make the event social first.

By treating clients to imaginative outings that generate good energy, you’re much more likely to create a buzz and get them talking about your business to others.

Make referrals a two-way street
Try to do some networking for your clients. You want them to refer to you, after all, so why not do the same for them? Introduce clients that could work together or supply each other. Your social events should help them find each other but consider something more formal, too. Host talks on issues that relate to several of your clients so they have more chances to meet and discuss business. If you’re able to kick off profitable relationships for your clients, they’ll do the same for you.

Be generous with your time
Word-of-mouth marketing is all about conversation. You want your clients talking about you but don’t forget you also need the referred businesses to come and speak with you.

Every year, I’d give gold clients two vouchers for a complimentary hour of my time. One was for them to come in and discuss anything they wanted. I told them the other was to give away to a friend or colleague.

It helped the referred businesses to take the plunge and come in. They felt comfortable it was a no-pressure conversation. Meanwhile, my clients felt good about giving the voucher away because it was basically a gift from them. For me, it was a relatively small investment of time that had a high chance of leading to new revenue.

The science behind word-of-mouth marketing

Relating to people and making them feel good is not just a nice thing to do. It’s profitable too. In a 2011 study at a big accounting firm, partners with higher emotional intelligence were more profitable than partners with a higher IQ (Cook, et al, Intelligence: The Role of Accounting Education and Work Experience).

In my own MBA study, I found clients rated their accountant’s interpersonal skills as more important than their technical skills (though they still rated technical skills very highly).

A 2013 study on leadership agreed that hard skills had to be complemented by soft skills (Cuddy, Kohut, Neffinger, Connect then lead). People "feel" the warmth before they pick up the competence. A failure to connect personally can lead to a lack of trust.

Word-of-mouth marketing transformed my business

When I started my practice, I had two staff and – like all startups – we took just about any job that came in the door. But once we started focusing on word-of-mouth marketing, the quality of clientele improved markedly. Within 18 months, we were able to go back and weed out the clients we didn’t want. Within five years, we had 12 staff and a great book of business – and we didn’t even have a sign on the door.

Get clients to do your marketing for you

Referrals are highly qualified leads because your clients are very good match-makers. They know what you do well and they know what the referred business needs. Plus they’ve endorsed you, so the new lead already feels positively about your firm. It’s much easier to convert these sorts of leads into paying customers.

Once you have good clients doing your marketing for you, you’ll find your work becomes more fun and more profitable. Those are two very good reasons to try word-of-mouth marketing.

You can start with the tactics outlined here. They’re not complicated and most of them are inexpensive. Plus the recommendations can be implemented systematically so that they quickly become part of your day-to-day practice. Build them into your staff orientation and training so that it happens even when you’re not around.