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A True Firmwide Approach to Growth

Define Business Development Roles to Retain Rising Stars

Carrie Steffen, The Whetstone Group

The AICPA National Managing of an Accounting Practice survey continues to indicate that growth is a key issue for accounting firms. In the accounting profession, where people and intellectual capital are directly related to a firm's ability to attract new clients and grow current client relationships, defining roles and responsibilities for growth within the firm is essential to keeping talented and motivated professionals.

Firms that fail to address this important aspect of practice management risk losing their rising stars, especially as the economy improves and those stars have more opportunities. Not only is it difficult and expensive to replace these valuable employees, but this loss of talent also can negatively affect a firm's brand. On the flip side, firms that define these roles and responsibilities and invest in business development skills can benefit by being on the receiving end of the coming talent migration.

It Takes a Village
Many firms struggle to get everyone in the firm engaged in business development activity. Often, the issue lies with a professional's lack of understanding of how to develop business, as opposed to an unwillingness to participate.

These types of skills generally are not taught in school, and most accountants don't intuitively understand that business development is part of their job description. That is why it is so important for firm leaders to clearly define what they expect of their employees rather than assume that their employees know their roles.

The tension between management's desire for everyone to contribute and the staff members', managers' and even partners' lack of understanding causes frustration on both sides and can lead to turnover and strained client relationships. One of the best first steps a firm can take to bring everyone to the table is to clearly define its approach to growth.

Strategic Growth Alternatives (chart)

Four Keys to Strategic Growth
To define its approach to growth, leadership must first take time to consider the opportunities available. Once leaders zero in on how the firm will drive growth, they can begin to examine specific individuals' capabilities to better define how each can contribute to business development. There are four ways for a firm to grow, as illustrated at left.

Strategic Growth Alternatives
The four strategic growth alternatives comprise the intersections between core and expanded services and current and prospective clients. The definition of a firm's core and expanded services are as follows:

Core: The fundamental services for which the firm is known and has the capacity to deliver to all or most clients. In most accounting firms these are audit, attest and tax services.

Expanded: Those services the firm does not deliver as widely because they are newer and/or the firm may not be as well known for offering these services. In many firms these may be services such as business valuations, estate planning or wealth management.

The "How" of Business Development (chart)

Once the firm defines its core and expanded services and its target market for expansion, the management team can decide where the firm's best opportunity for growth exists. They can then allocate portions of the firm's overall business development time and effort to each of the four growth strategies.

  1. Penetration — Look for opportunities to drive more core services into the current client base. This is the least expensive, shortest term, most predictable way to find growth.
  2. Service expansion — Look for opportunities to introduce expanded services to current clients. This is the second easiest way to find growth because it is based on existing client relationships.
  3. Market expansion — Prospect for new client relationships. In this strategy, the firm attracts new clients by taking advantage of its current brand recognition. This strategy requires more hard dollars to be invested, and is less predictable and takes longer to produce results than either penetration or service expansion.
  4. Diversification — Create new opportunities for the long term either through expanding into new geographic markets or developing new services. This is the growth strategy that requires the most patience, as the expectation should be that this strategy will produce results in the long term.

Firms should engage in a mix of these strategies as part of their overall growth plan. Defining the firm's allocation of business development time and effort to each of these strategies is important for a number of reasons.

  • It helps the firm set a realistic expectation for growth.
  • It allows the firm to determine how to organize internally for growth (e.g., individual vs. teams, industry vs. functional niches, the number of niches).
  • It ensures the firm invests in the right business development activities and the right level of activity, based on leadership's assessment of opportunity.

Firm management can gain an understanding of how everyone in the firm can contribute to growth and align business development training opportunities with each person's role.

By taking this firmwide approach to growth, individuals can better see how they can contribute to business development. For many firms the picture is something like the illustration (above).

Business Development Roles and Skills by Level
When the firm has developed a solid growth plan and identified the activities and roles associated with implementing the plan, firm leaders can effectively communicate specific business development responsibilities to everyone in the firm.

Business Development Roles and Skills (chart)

The illustration above shows an example of the roles in growth for various levels of professionals in an accounting firm and the related skills that need to be developed to be successful in that role.

In looking at the role of staff, senior staff and managers, it should be noted that they are primarily focused on current clients. The business development activities may, at the onset, look more like client service activities than what is typically associated with business development. However, as discussed earlier, growth from current clients is the least expensive and most predictable among all the growth alternatives. When younger staff, who may be uncomfortable with the notion of participating in business development efforts, understand that their role centers on serving clients, listening for needs, and communicating observations to partners, the anxiety of engaging in business development dissipates and participation in growth activities increases.

These client-service activities are also directly related to improving client loyalty. When a firm's value proposition includes staff who are attentive and proactive, the firm is positioned to improve client retention rates. This also supports prospecting efforts, as the firm will receive more referrals and positive word of mouth.

Firm leaders and CPE coordinators then have the ability to align training opportunities with the specific skills needed for the individuals in each role to be successful. For example, staff may look for courses on professional and interpersonal communication to support their role in providing excellent client service.

These roles should also be incorporated into the formal job descriptions for professionals at each level so there is no doubt of the expectation that everyone will contribute in some way. In addition, performance of those roles can be part of the annual evaluation, like any other aspect of the individual's performance.

Growth Supports Recruiting and Retention
Once growth becomes part of a firm's internal culture, it becomes a catalyst for hiring, client acquisition and managing turnover.

  • In recruiting, the firm becomes a magnet for top talent who seek a firm that invests in their personal growth. This message will resonate especially well with employees whose current firms cut back on training during the recession.
  • In hiring, firms can better evaluate candidates who fit into the growth culture when the specific roles and skills needed to be successful have been defined. Interview questions can be designed to help test a candidate's aptitude for the role — in addition to their technical ability.
  • In client acquisition, firms that are able to hire dynamic, client service–driven staff will create natural buzz among their target markets. Opportunities for referrals from clients and influencers in the market will enable the firm to more easily attract "A" clients.
  • In managing turnover, firms will begin to see the natural attrition of those employees who do not fit into the culture. Anyone who is uncomfortable with the business development roles defined by the firm will move on to other opportunities either by choice or through the performance review process. Those who incorporate the role naturally into the way they engage in their job will find greater satisfaction in their contribution to the firm's success and will grow into vibrant future leaders in their firms and communities.

The result for the firm over time will be positive brand awareness both in attracting new clients and in becoming the premier firm where the best and the brightest in the field want to bring their talents.

Carrie Steffen

About the Author
Carrie Steffen is a founding shareholder of The Whetstone Group, Inc. Since its inception in 2000, Whetstone has provided business development consulting services to CPA firms nationwide. Prior to starting The Whetstone Group she was a National Marketing Director for McGladrey. Carrie has been in the accounting marketing profession for more than 15 years and currently is a member-at-large on the AAM National Board of Directors.


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The Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM) is a national organization and is the only trade association of its kind that provides resources, education, seminars, workshops, support and a global network to the accounting marketing industry. Our membership includes accounting firm marketers from “Big Four” and other national, regional, local and sole proprietor firms. Others include sales and business development professionals, accounting partners, firm administrators, consultants, vendors, trade press, educators and students. Inherent in this mission is a focus on education and professional skills development to enable our members to add value to their firms and act as a compass for the rapidly changing competitive environment.

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