What Accounting Firms Need to Learn from Personal Financial Planning Specialists

Is the traditional business model holding back the profession?

by Bruce W. Marcus
Author of Professional Services Marketing 3.0

It’s not a race, nor are there prizes for the winner. But it has been suggested that personal financial planners trading in college, retirement and estate planning are light years ahead of the accounting profession in marketing.

Bruce W Marcus
Bruce W. Marcus

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As veteran consultant Terry Lloyd, a CPA and financial advisor, points out, “Even though the lines continue to blur between the services, there are still differences in the way CPAs and financial planners are perceived.”

Do the differences really matter? Well, yes. While the professional services marketing tools are the same for both professions, the application of each of the tools in each of the professions, is different. And certainly not in the same way in each profession, nor even for any two firms in the same profession, These differences may be subtle, but they had best be observed if marketing programs are to be successful.

As competition becomes more intense, the distinctive nature of each firm in each profession, small and incremental though they may be, should be examined. In competing, every little advantage counts.

Generalizations, such as the marketing superiority of one firm over another, not only belie reality, they mask those particulars that matter. Marcus’s Third Truism is that the broader the generalization, the greater the disparity in details. And generalities don’t solve problems — particularly marketing problems. Understanding the details do address problems usefully.

Seeing the murkiness of the generalization that one profession markets better than the other, or even that the same marketing techniques worked in the same way for all professions, we asked a number of leading marketers and consultants for their views. The proposition generally struck them as ludicrous. But in a fascinating twist, triggered by a notion that seemed simple and obvious, many of those discussing the idea came up with different views of the same conclusion. Their answers provide some valuable insights. Internationally renowned consultant David Maister, says, “Personally I find the proposition a surprise – I don’t find the financial planning firms ahead in anything at all and have no idea where the hypothesis comes from. It would be an exercise in futility to try to explain a fact that was incorrect.”

While the differences in the professions rarely reside in old bromides about the differences in personalities, Kenneth Wright, the former head of marketing for Ernst & Young, notes an interesting exception. He says, “Seems to me that tax accountants are very similar (they believe that clients should come to them for their good work) versus the accounting consultants (who realize that they have to go get clients and show them how good they are). The first group really doesn’t want to market at all – it is beneath them – and the second group doesn’t need professional marketers because they know how to market better anyway.”

At the same time, Richard Levick, of Levick Strategic Communications LLC, believes, “There are simply too many variables, and too many anecdotes pointing in all directions, to support any conclusion about one profession being more adept at marketing or intrinsically more marketing-oriented.

However, a few likely truths emerge when we compare the professions, Levick says, “No financial planning firm can touch the Big Four’s marketing and, in fact, it was fear of the multi-discipline practice [in which aspects of financial planning are practiced by accounting firms, and vice versa] that powered some of the best marketing we’ve seen from financial planning firms in the last decade. Now that the MDPs have been sideswiped, it will be interesting to see if financial planning firms relapse into marketing insensibility. I doubt any kind of study can determine that, but it’s something to bear in mind when we observe marketing among the biggest law firms.

“That said,” Levick concludes, “the state of marketing among midsize and small accounting firms is dismal compared to financial planning firms. That has a lot to do with their getting trapped in their own numbers games. Unlike the Big Four, their services are not so diversified or sexy. The nature of their own businesses discourages them from thinking they even have a right to be creative about marketing. Also, to be frank, their margins are usually too low to encourage investment in business development. Financial planners don’t have that problem as much, so they’re less disinclined to at least think about marketing venues where they can stick their money.”


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Bruce W. Marcus is a pioneer in professional services marketing and coauthor of “Client at the Core.” This is adapted from his new book, “Professional Services Marketing 3.0,” available for purchase here.

Copyright 2011. Used by permission.