A unique selling proposition can help cut through the clutter, but you have to walk the talk.
Does your accounting practice have a unique selling proposition (USP) – something that makes you stand out in a crowded market, is distinctive to existing and potential clients, and differentiates you from competitors?
Despite a degree of client inertia – most will not dash from one accountant to another to the extent they would with supermarkets – having a well-thought-out, clear, concise and memorable USP can be strategically crucial, especially for smaller firms that sometimes fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people.
Even a USP that might alienate some prospective customers can be beneficial because it should target a base that will “fit” your firm, rather than be a generic offering to indifferent, frequently unprofitable clients who are unlikely to become brand loyal.
Jason Cunningham, founding partner of The Practice and author of the new book Have Your Cake and Sell it Too, says it’s important to always look at your business through the eyes of clients.
When The Practice surveyed its client base around five years ago, it discovered attitudes towards the firm were polarised.
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“We considered ourselves proactive because we not only did accounting and tax, but offered financial planning and mortgage broking,” Cunningham says.
However, survey respondents that expressed high satisfaction with the firm were invariably business owners.
“We could really look after those clients because typically it would be a bigger job with more room and time on the clock, whereas smaller-type clients were largely what we call ‘I returns’ [individual tax returns].
“We were holding on to the ‘I returns’ to sell them financial planning and mortgage broking, but whenever you try to sell something to somebody it never works.”
As a result, The Practice initiated a dramatic shift in strategy.
“We changed our offering and now only do business advisory and personal wealth advisory, with tax returns just a part of that,” Cunningham says.
It’s an approach that fits perfectly with the firm’s longstanding USP: “To help our clients achieve their business and personal goals through proactive service and ongoing advice”.
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William Buck chairman Nikolas Hatzistergos says when the firm was founded “we decided our focus was going to be on large, private businesses that use multiple financial services, and it’s all we have ever done in the past 25 years”.
In 2014, the firm launched a new brand promise, “Changing Lives”.
“We wanted to differentiate ourselves from other mid-tier firms, who a journalist said were all ‘beige’,” says Hatzistergos.
“Interestingly, while the brand promise was new, the USP was not. ‘Changing Lives’ was simply an articulation of what we have always done.”
Remember, however, that customers can always Google you to find out everything they want to know.
Your credibility is at risk if you say you’re a go-to expert on small business growth, or use the latest in cloud technology to help clients save time and increase production, but the only information on your website is statements about general tax and accounting expertise.
Identifying your USP
“Something we did around the time we started to look at our business through the eyes of customers was to create our ‘why?’, which is to liberate people’s lifestyles,” Cunningham continues. “It’s not because of what you do or how you do it that people will buy from you, it’s why you do it.
“In creating a USP the most important thing is to be true to who you are. When I talk about effective communication I argue that it’s all about natural, transparent enthusiasm. I believe in what I’m talking about and I’m not trying to be anything I’m not.”
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He says the key is to work out what you’re passionate about, and typically what you’re passionate about is what you’re good at.
It is vital to continually communicate the same message.
“Every time I speak to our employees or on stage or radio, I always say ‘our mission is’, ‘our core values are’ and ‘our why is this’. Eventually the penny will drop.
“And when you talk about what you do, how you do it and why you’re doing it, provide practical examples of what it will look like, sound like and feel like for clients when your firm lives up to its mission statement,” says Cunningham.
Hatzistergos agrees on the importance of determining the type of work you want to do and type of clients you want to attract, adding that “what makes you passionate is what makes your business unique.”
However, he says being passionate is not enough. A firm also needs to find a gap in the market and ensure it has the requisite skills, technology and infrastructure to take advantage of that opportunity.
USPs should focus on clients. Avoid words such as “we” and rework them to “you”.
“If you don’t have these key elements, along with the financial capability, then you don’t have a USP.”
Slogans are not necessarily USPs, but they’re also not mutually exclusive. USPs should focus on clients. Avoid words such as “we” and rework them to “you”.
An example of killing two birds with one stone is mortgage broker Aussie Home Loans’ “At Aussie, we’ll save you”, which has been around since 1995. Founder John Symond’s choice of the words “save” and “you” still resonates with borrowers.
It is not advisable to change a USP too often but, even so, monitor any shifts in trends or competitors that may cause clients to view you and your USP differently.
Maintaining an exact match between a USP and clients’ needs is vital, so constantly screen their core, practical requirements and, if necessary, use that information to fine-tune a USP.
Using niche marketing to form a bond with clients
Better still, form a bond with clients. One way to achieve this is through cause-related marketing where, as a local business operator, you actively participate in and promote a cause, such as a charity, that directly benefits or appeals to constituents.
“Consumers want to engage with brands they trust and see as doing good,” says social entrepreneur Hailey Cavill, whose firm Cavill + Co has orchestrated numerous profitable and purposeful partnerships between companies and causes.
In terms of leveraging cause-related marketing in a USP, Cavill warns that “gobbledegook is kryptonite”.
“Consumers don’t have time to dissect your communication and try to work out what you’re saying. Keep it simple and stick to plain English. If it can’t be easily understood, it needs to be rewritten.”
Creating your USP
You have identified how you compare with the market and whether you fill any gaps in services not offered or promoted by other competitors. You know the specialist skills, qualities (such as family ownership) and vision your firm can deliver to the clients you want to target. Now it’s time to hone a USP.
But don’t try to instantly manufacture it, Cunningham warns.
“Start working towards it and eventually it will come. It might take a month, two months or a year, but sooner or later it will crystallise and you will say yes, that’s exactly what we do.”
Begin with as much detail as you can, then craft it into a paragraph. Involve stakeholders such as staff and your “best” clients in the process, and revise until you’re satisfied it’s an accurate summary of the most valuable assets you have to benefit current and future clients.
Then strip it back to a single sentence. It need not be snappy, quirky or even particularly clever, but it must:
- Be compelling enough to make people want to find out more about you in what is often perceived as a vanilla market
- Align with something you are passionate about, be obvious in the services you offer and the way you conduct your business
- Share the values of your target market
- Above all, be consistent throughout all your marketing communications, from website through to business cards
Hatzistergos notes: “One of the pitfalls of differentiating a firm is that it can open you to criticism. If you’re going to be bold, you need to do it with conviction – you and your people must truly believe in the USP and live it through your work.”
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