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Why Accountants Suck at Marketing

Ed. note: Today we welcome Blake Oliver as a contributor to Going Concern. We interviewed him last May after he sold his firm, Cloudsourced Accounting to HPC1where he now serves as Director of Technology and Marketing. Before all that, he majored in classical music and worked briefly as a freelance cellist in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @BlakeTOliver.

Somehow I ended up with a great job in the accounting profession that’s mostly about marketing. It isn’t something I ever studied, planned for, or expected, but I think I know why it happened.

I didn’t end up in this job because I’m amazing at marketing. I don’t have any formal training and I had no experience with it prior to starting my own business. I’m an amateur, really, and I’m still learning, and getting paid to do it on the job.

This all happened to me because, in general, accountants (and their firms) suck at marketing.

Why is this?

Accountants suck at marketing for the same reason that makes them great accountants: They’re highly rational people.

Accounting is a logical profession. By definition it is quantitative, not qualitative. Our job is literally to count things. That’s why accounting attracts people into the profession who relate more to Spock than to Kirk. Or people who would be really excited to play a real version of Cones of Dunshire.

Accountants (especially tax specialists) love systems and mastering those systems by knowing all the rules.

Valuing logic and reason above all else is an excellent trait for an accountant, but is terrible for understanding how and why people buy things. That’s because most people buy products and services according to how they feel, not how they think.

This can be difficult for accountants to comprehend.

If you’re like me, you probably make an elaborate spreadsheet comparing all the features and technical specifications of products when making anything more than a minor purchase. Definitely for a new credit card, computer, or car.

Most people don’t do that.

The vast majority people buy whatever is popular. Or whatever appeals to their ideal lifestyle. Or what fits into their belief system. They don’t bother to do an exhaustive comparison of features. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

This is why advertising is highly effective. If everyone had logical buying habits, it wouldn’t work nearly as well.

The biggest mistake accountants make when marketing their services is thinking that their prospects think like they do.

Your prospects don’t care about the intricate details of IRS regulations. They want to know that you’re an expert who is passionate about making sure that your clients get all the deductions to which they’re entitled, and that you’ll take care of them as a result.

In his famous TED Talk, Simon Sinek argues people don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it. Do yourself a favor and watch that TED Talk. I’m happy to wait.

If we accountants can figure out our “why” and how to communicate that to our prospects and customers, then we have a huge advantage over firms that only talk about what they do, and maybe don’t even know their "why."

Now, it's important to remember that making money can’t be your "why," because money is just a result.

Communicating and delivering on our “why” was a big reason my online bookkeeping firm, Cloudsourced Accounting, was able to grow quickly and get acquired within 2 ½ years.

What was the “why” at Cloudsourced Accounting?

Our “why” was my personal passion, which is making the world a more efficient place. I hate waste, and I love implementing cloud accounting technology to increase efficiency for clients. Call me crazy, but it makes me very happy when an automated accounting system is humming along like a well-oiled machine. And when I built efficient accounting systems, my clients could focus more on their businesses. I really enjoyed watching their businesses expand and the gratitude I received for being a part of that growth.

When doing sales calls, I learned to start with this “why”, not the details of the software we used or how exactly our bookkeepers did the books. This differentiated Cloudsourced Accounting in a big way from most freelance bookkeepers and bookkeeping services out there.

My love of efficiency also extended to the client experience. Everything at our firm was designed to make our clients’ lives easier.

For example:

  • We made a modern website that was easy to navigate and contained lots of useful information about all of our services, including published, fixed-fee pricing. This made it easy for clients to determine if we were a good fit without having to request a consultation.
  • We sent service agreements using online proposal software. To get started with us, clients filled out a single document containing our proposal, service agreement (contract), and payment authorization form.
  • We used collaboration tools such as Podio to make it easy for our clients to communicate and share files with us securely. The software also provided a great deal of transparency into our internal processes. Clients could choose to get notified when recurring tasks were completed by our staff, such as the monthly close, or running payroll.

Those are just a few ways the “why” of being as efficient as possible permeated the way we did things and helped make Cloudsourced Accounting successful.

Now I’m working on figuring out how to do the same thing for HPC. Like I said, I’m an amateur, so it isn’t easy. The good news for me is that when it comes to marketing, CPA firms are even further behind than bookkeepers and other non-CPAs.

If you’re looking to improve your firm’s marketing, stay tuned for my next post. I’ll offer some practical tips I’ve learned to help you suck less at it.

In the meantime, think about the “why” that motivates you to be an accountant. If you’re a Spock type of personality, get in touch with your human side. You might be surprised how effective it can be.

1 Full disclosure: HPC lists jobs on Going Concern's sister site, Accountingfly. None of those jobs require musical experience.