Sue Nelson, Accountancy Age, Thursday 8 July 2010 at 00:45:00

The dark art of marketing is often the first to feel the cleaver duringbudget cuts, but truly successful marketing needs to involve a transformation inhow your firm operates

Marketing has always been seen as a ?dark art?. Traditionally it?s a rolewhich other people have difficulty defining and explaining ? a bit fluffy, notquite sales, a job for the girls. And when times get rough, it?s the firstcontender for budget cuts, because it?s a cost and not an investment.

The end point or key measurement for marketing activity is not aboutawareness or creating buzz or any of that nonsense. These may be steps along theway, but it?s not the key objective, which is more people buying your services.So if you ?invest? 20,000 on a marketing campaign, you should expect 60,000back in new business. When you look at it like that, you cannot afford to cutthe budget and you shouldn?t allow anyone to tell you that it?s not the point,because it is the only point of doing any marketing. Ever.

Unfortunately, many professional firms only see marketing as a new brochureor ad in the local paper. This can drive new clients to your door, but will theystay with you and, more importantly, will they recommend you to others? Too manyorganisations still believe they can splash out with some publicity using ascatter gun approach, hoping they will hit the target occasionally.

I believe that a customer-centric marketing process is needed instead, it?smore like fishing for clients, using bait, luring them in as you give them moreinformation and assurance along the way, giving superior customer service untilthey?re completely hooked.

The concept should be used by accountancy professionals because it will allowthem to ask some powerful questions of the person in charge of marketing thebusiness, not least of which is ?where is my tangible long term return oninvestment??

The new marketing logic is about providing a service that your clients trulywant. Making information available to them when and where they want it, andgiving them an outstanding service. In essence, the process asks the followingcritical questions:

* Do you know your clients?

*Can you solve their problems?

* Have they heard of you?

* Where can they find out more?

*How do you compare to the competition?

* What are you like to deal with?

The first two are about the nature of your services, the second two are downto the marketing department and the final two are about customer service andreputation.

For accountancy firms, probably the most overlooked element of these is ?whatare you like to deal with?? This means you have to make advocates out of all ofyour staff, including the person who answers the phone and the first person yourclient will see when they walk into your office. Are they saying the rightthing, do they know what the business actually does?

In the world of professional services, after someone has bought youradvertising claims or been referred through word of mouth, their firstimpressions form their opinion of your capabilities and reliability. Yourservices are somewhat intangible, so your client will take other clues as aproxy measure. If the brochures in the foyer are a little dog-eared and thetoilets have no soap, or your receptionist is chewing gum and serves you coffeein a chipped mug, it collectively forms an impression and speaks volumes aboutyou and not them.

If controlling impressions is too hard, the alternative is to go for short,sharp business growth by making sure your fees are cheaper than your nearestrivals, and go for a big budget advertising campaign that makes unrealisticclaims about slashing people?s tax bills or whatever your forte? may be. Thatshould get new clients walking through the door. But if the reality of dealingwith you is different, you are unlikely to get repeat business and the newclients you have won won?t be making any referrals. Not to mention theunsustainable nature of charging unrealistically low fees over time.

If you want real profits and sustained competitive advantage, especially intough times, you need permanently happy customers who honestly believe you havea great reputation, and are willing to recommend you by word of mouth. Trulyputting clients first is a philosophy, and it should be right up there in yourvision, mission and corporate planning. Professional firms are completelyreliant on their local reputation, and you cannot pretend outwardly that puttingyour clients first is your key priority, but actually dismiss it behind closeddoors. It will be spotted quickly, not least by your own staff. You have tofundamentally believe it, not just with your business head, but with all yourheart, and you have to lead your staff through it and explain why it is soimportant.

Sue Nelson is social marketing director at Kindred Agency and author ofNaked Marketing