About 15 years ago, I signed up a client who had previously used a long-established firm in Maidstone.

When my client made the courtesy call to tell them they were moving on, the partner at this firm said to my new client “they’re no better than us you know, they’ve just got better marketing”.

When the client told me this, I didn’t know whether to laugh, be offended or take it as a compliment. In the end, I decided to do the first and the last of those options and disagree with the second one.

They were definitely right about the last point. We did have better marketing than them. But to be honest, that didn’t say much as most accountants’ marketing was awful back then and much of it still is. Marketing and accountants seemed to go together like oil and water.

So to be good at marketing in our industry just required you to read a few books, get some good advice and get on with whatever you decided worked. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

There are still some horrific offerings out there with websites that clearly haven’t been updated since 2002 or simply copy some industry template (don’t they know that Google hates copied text?). And then there’s the faceless website where you wonder if the partners are part of the witness protection programme or alternatively those firms where everyone seems to be extraordinarily good-looking, like a model in fact and a model that you seem to recall seeing on someone else’s website.

Whilst we do use the odd stock photo, all those good-looking smiling faces on our site actually work for us. And some of the older bald ones as well.

Anyway, enough about A4G. What about you? What’s your marketing strategy?

Haven’t got one? You’re not alone.

Most business owners have about as much experience of marketing as they do of accountancy.

But at least they only need to decide on one accountant. Find someone they trust. Take their advice.

With marketing though there are so many different forms. So where do you start?

A few years ago, I read a great book called “Social media is bullshit”. It’s review on Google describes it quite well:

A provocative look at social media that dispels the hype and tells you all you need to know about using the Web to expand your business. If you listen to the pundits, Internet gurus, marketing consultants, and even the mainstream media, you could think social media was the second coming….”

You get the picture.

Of course, social media is not the only form of marketing which contains a lot of BS. And even if the marketing techniques you are looking at are great, they might not work in your industry. Or for your business.

And then there’s the terminology and the jargon. Now I realise that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and all that and accountancy is not exactly blameless when it comes to using plain English. But the terms used in marketing are a whole new language.

Digital, Advertorial, affiliate marketing, Black hat SEO, Backlink, brand equity, B2B, B2C, customer segmentation, permission marketing. I could go on.

The end result is that most business owners are too wary of blowing a huge lump of hard-earned profit on marketing that might not work so they just stick with what they’ve done for years or do nothing at all.

Which is a real shame because whatever business you’re in, there is a range of marketing techniques that will work for you. You’ve just got to find them.

But first you’ve got to get yourself ready.

And that means getting a database. Without a database, you can’t do promotions to your current or potential customers and no-one else but you can deal with them because there’s no central information.

There’s nothing new about databases or the value they bring. The comedian Bob Monkhouse was famous for remembering personal details about anyone he’d worked with. He’d turn up at a Working Men’s Club in some remote northern village that he hadn’t visited for seven years and meet the bar steward.

“Hello Ken, how are you? How are Doris and the kids?”

Ken would be positively gleaming about the fact that the legendary Bob Monkhouse had remembered him. So happy in fact that Doris would get a bunch of flowers from her usually surly husband the following day who would be telling the other clubs what a wonderful man Bob Monkhouse is.

But of course, Bob had some help. He had big hard-backed books with details of every venue he’d ever played. “Northernsville WMC, Bar Steward Ken Wainwright, married to Doris, two children. A bit grumpy. Don’t eat the steak and kidney pie.”

You could say he was cheating. But no-one can remember everything. And you could say he cared enough about the people he worked for to keep all this information about them.

Hopefully your database has moved beyond a hard-backed booked. Or even a spreadsheet (although that’s better than nothing). There are loads of good databases there. Some are very expensive with all sorts of features you will never use but some represent really good value for money.

But you do need to do some research. Try and find one that is suitable for your industry. Even better if it automatically links with your accounting software.

Lots of database programmes have an interface with Xero and of course many of you reading this will already be using Xero.

Then you need to think about data capture and data updates.

Data capture is mostly common sense. Think about all the places where you acquire data; networking events, telephone calls, enquiries on your website. How does the information acquired at each of those events find its way onto your database?

Once you’re ready, now you need to decide on a strategy. Your aim is to find a range of activities that achieve a good Return on Investment (ROI) on your marketing costs. Some of this is common sense which gets lost amidst the noise.

The start point is to decide which of the following three areas is likely to work best for you:

  • Inbound
  • Outbound
  • Referral

Inbound marketing is a range of activities that bring customers to you. The most traditional form of Inbound marketing is advertising. Magazines, radio, banner ads on websites are all forms of inbound marketing. The simplest of all is sign-writing your van. I once had a client who didn’t sign-write his vans because the insurance cost went up! Professionally sign-written vans are probably the best ROI you can achieve. Told you this was common sense.

These days of course Search Engine Optimisation is probably the most important inbound marketing activity you can do. But this depends on what business you’re in. It’s dangerous to generalise.

Outbound is where you go to the customer. Mailshots (paper-based or email), telesales, knocking on doors etc. It’s hard work generally and not very fashionable. But if you do it right with an effective model, this stuff works.

And then there’s referral marketing which is probably the thing you do most of without realising it.

For most owner-managed businesses, most of their customers come via Word-of-mouth (or referral in other words). Yet, those businesses do not do anything to encourage referrals.

There are a few simple things you can do.

If you are in a service business, when you’ve completed whatever it is that you do for someone, ask them if they are happy with it. If they’re not, then that’s an opportunity to make amends and ensure you don’t have an unhappy customer. But if they are happy, ask them if they’d recommend you.

There are all sorts of “recommend a friend” techniques that companies use to encourage referrals but that’s often missing the biggest prize which is referrals from other businesses with similar customers to you. These are sometimes close collaborations; the plumber and electrician who have worked together for many years who always recommend each other. They might not even consider it to be marketing because their focus is doing a good job, but it is.

Some of the best referral marketing arrangements are where the two businesses overlap slightly i.e. there are a few things that they both do.

The best example in my career was an IT consultant who I met when I was building the business. Phil was one of those forces nature who passed away long before his time. He was passionate about helping his clients and dispensed plenty of South London common-sense whether his clients wanted it or not.

Phil pretty much recommended his entire client base to me and I told him one day that I felt guilty because I’d only managed to refer him a handful of clients in return.

Phil told me not to worry. He had a few reasons for recommending me.

First, when he set up a customer’s computer system, put the accounting software in and trained them on the operational side of things, he didn’t want the accountant mucking it all up. He trusted me to do everything else required so his clients were happy.

Then he mentioned that he also didn’t want them going to any of the large accountancy practices because they often had IT departments and might try and take the work that he did.

And lastly, he said that if any of his customers were unhappy with him, they might well tell me and then I’d let him know so he could put things right. Message understood Phil.

Of course, most people aren’t as generous with their referrals as Phil. To get referrals, you probably need to refer them back. And that means being pro-active. Find out what your customers need and want and if you can’t provide it, refer someone who can. Everyone’s a winner.

But where does social media sit in all this?

Well actually in all three categories depending on what you are using it for.

When you’re posting things on a particular platform you are hoping customers will contact you (Inbound). But you can also reach out to them as well (Outbound). And of course, you can build a network of other businesses that you can collaborate with and refer.

It’s about finding the right medium for you. Social media isn’t “bullshit” if used in the right way. If your product is visual (jewellery, wedding dresses etc), Instagram is great. If it’s a local service, Facebook. And if you are looking to build up a network of other professionals, go for LinkedIn. If you’re a crazed narcissist attempting to bypass the mainstream media and become President of the United States, Twitter it is. There’s a platform out there that will work for you whatever your goals.

So what’s your next move?

Well if you’re looking to grow your customer base, a good place to start is a discussion with one of my team. Developing a marketing strategy is part of the Breakthrough Recovery Programme and is also delivered by Ayse, Amanda and Jemma in our marketing team. We’ll help you identify an approach that will work for you and then if appropriate we will recommend one of the many specialists we work with and act for to help you with the detail.

It’s all about finding something that works. It could be simple or complicated, just enough to replace the customers you lose through natural attrition or aggressive enough to achieve 20% growth per annum.

But whatever you do just make sure that you are the company about whom a competitor is complaining “they’re not any better than us, they just have better marketing” rather than the one who is saying it.

Contact me today!

Malcolm Palmer


Managing Partner

01474 853856

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