Why and how bookkeepers should market themselves

For management guru Peter Drucker, only two things make money – innovation and marketing.

If you want to grow your business, marketing can be the key differentiator, especially in an industry like bookkeeping where there is a limit to how much you can innovate the service.

But there are two key mistakes that are sometimes made about marketing. Let’s address these twin myths first – and then we’ll consider how bookkeepers can use the discipline to their best advantage.

The first myth is that marketing just means promotion. In fact, promotion is merely the visible end of your marketing strategy. Marketing is actually about seeing the business from the point of view of the customer. That influences all your activities, from which parts of the market to target, right down to how you design your website, letterheads and emails.

The second myth is that marketing is a cost. It isn’t – it’s an investment. If your marketing costs you more than it earns you, you’re doing it wrong; it’s as simple as that. The key is to invest your marketing budget wisely.

So how can bookkeepers use marketing to their advantage? ‘The challenge for bookkeepers is that the subject does not in itself generate excitement and interest like a new phone or a holiday,’ says Lucy Gill-Simmen, Lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London. ‘One solution is to think about storytelling. What compelling story can you tell about yourself or your company to make you stand out against the competition?’

Think about how Nationwide’s current ‘Voices of the People’ advertising campaign uses poets including Hollie McNish and Jo Bell to focus on experiences of being a mother, or feelings of loneliness in a digital world, or the excitement of owning a home. ‘It has turned an un-differentiated product – banking – into something human and meaningful,’ says Gill-Simmen. ‘Banks and other service industries are finding ways of utilising marketing to make their services more interesting – and bookkeepers can do this too.’

Marketing is strategic, not just tactical

What do we stand for? How do we position ourselves against the competition? What’s our USP (unique selling point)? How can we set ourselves apart? ‘The foundation of budget-effective marketing is segmenting and positioning,’ says Gill-Simmen. ‘Build a relationship with your customer.’ For example, if you’re a small company, you might wonder how you can compete with the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms like EY or PwC. The answer, it’s vital to emphasise, does not necessarily lie in trying to compete on price – few companies can compete successfully by being the cheapest. Rather, use your smallness to your advantage. You’re more likely to know the customer personally, you’ll understand what their needs are and you’ll know how to get to the root of their problem.

Make sure you plan effectively. ‘If you are starting out, create a formal marketing plan,’ Gill-Simmen advises. ‘This is grounded in STP – segmentation, targeting and positioning.’ Research the market to see where and how you should target your resources. ‘Outline the strategic approach before your tactical, promotional activities. Once you get to the tactical side of things, use the 7Ps: a marketing framework devised by marketing guru Philip Kotler.’

Product, Price, Place and Promotion: What are we selling? How do we price it against the competition? Where are we selling (office or web?) How will we promote it? (Online, direct mail, word of mouth…?)

Kotler’s original 4Ps are augmented by three more for service industries. People – how do we best employ our staff to add extra service for customers? Process – can we make buying from us simpler and more effective than our competitors? Physical evidence – if you are selling a service, how can the customer experience that as a tangible item?

As you can see, promotion is a key part of marketing – but it’s not the only part. ‘Once you have a cohesive and coherent plan – then you can implement it. You’ll have short and long-term goals, and the plan will also be affected by human and financial resources.’

The bookkeeper’s view

With a degree in accountancy and marketing, Lisa Newton has brought her mix of skills to the forefront of her bookkeeping company Boogles. Based in London, Newton uses a range of marketing-led ideas to help bookkeepers build their business – with a focus on generating leads. ‘A lot of bookkeepers don’t want to put themselves out there; they want to stay behind spreadsheets.’ This, for Newton, is not the way forward. ‘You need multiple streams of cashflow. Marketing and promoting yourself is the way to get the business seen by others.’

Having an innovative mindset is key to this – ‘one of the insights of working as a bookkeeper is you get to see other peoples’ finances, and you can quickly see how some companies are doing very well, and others not so well.’ In other words, an unexpected advantage of working as a bookkeeper for other people is that the data you handle on a daily basis can give you ideas about how to improve your own business – and show you what pitfalls to avoid.

The power of brands

A final tip for all professional services is to remember that you are trying to sell an intangible, and that’s what makes effective marketing more of a challenge. If you’re selling a fizzy drink, you’re selling a clearly identifiable product – the customer knows exactly what they are getting. Professional services on the other hand are less visible; ‘but there are ways of making them tangible,’ Gill-Simmen says, ‘and this is where branding comes in.’

There’s a marketing joke that runs something like – ‘what’s the difference between a t-shirt and a t-shirt with a logo?’ The answer is ‘about £12’. (Just like accountants, marketers are noted for their sense of humour). But within the joke lies a truth – by creating a brand, you add more value to your product. You do that by generating awareness of who you are and what you do, building trust and ensuring that when a customer has several choices, there’s a higher chance that they will turn to you.

Marketing for bookkeepers – essential take-outs

  • Can you tell a story based on what you do? It makes you more real to your customers, helps build your brand and makes you more memorable.
  • What problem are you trying to solve? Clayton Christensen, the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, argues that professional services customers are not ‘buying a product’. Rather, they are asking you to solve a problem. Segment your market by ‘jobs to be done’, rather than persuading the audience to buy product X from you.
  • Focus on existing customers as well as acquiring new ones. It can cost five times as much to get a new customer as it can to focus on encouraging your current customers to come back to you. Recognise that your loyal customers offer lifetime customer value – encourage them, by way of promotion or incentive, to return to you.

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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