Pathways to Growth: Expanding in the time of COVID

Accounting

The changes this pandemic has wrought don’t appear to be temporary, as we once imagined. It’s no longer a question of waiting this thing out and returning to yesteryear. That’s why I’m advising my clients to re-evaluate their growth strategies. Ambitious firms need to lean into the new reality and reconfigure their approaches.

I understand some of the challenges of not visiting prospective clients. Like many consultants, I’ve always worked with far-flung prospects and clients. I rarely see prospects on-site, and have navigated the sales process through video or phone. The good news for you is there is a vibrant enhancement to the on-site world!

Below are several of the most common questions I’m getting on this subject, along with my recommendations for action.

For years we’ve built business face-to-face. What strategies do you recommend in the limited world of digital interaction?

Most important is to take charge; don’t sit on your hands and wait for the pandemic to pass. This means training your clients to work with you in new, innovative ways. Drive communication with a program of continuous, prescheduled conversations. Whether they go by the name of check-in, status or client-care calls, the key is to devise a process of initiating predictable calls. These enable you to monitor client conditions, discuss priorities, and make recommendations. In addition, encourage ad-hoc conversations with your clients. I observe that often your clients have been discouraged to pick up the phone because you are charging for every minute, or they think you might be. This puts them in an uncomfortable spot.

The cadence and content of contact depends on the client, i.e., larger clients with more complex needs will require more frequent contact. As well, with prescheduled and ad-hoc calls, you’ll need to decide whether the calls are folded into your regular fee structure or are offered as a paid service. Either way, make your calls regular and predictable, and you’ll find them to be increasingly value-packed as you create the conditions for client-sharing conversations.

Our firm needs to stand out from the pack now more than ever. How do we avoid appearing like a commodity to existing and potential clients?

The secret sauce is creating a better, more compelling client experience. And just because you’re not sitting together across a desk is no excuse. If you are relegated to Zoom, use creative screen-sharing to add interest to your presentation. Invite a guest from your firm or a related industry to share insights tailored to the needs of the client. Keep the meeting sharp and focused.

Another possibility is to make the client the expert. Gather several members of your team and ask the client to present about her business and industry. Most clients are honored with the attention, and will appreciate your interest.

We aspire to break out of the “local firm” mold. Could this be the time to actually do it?

You bet, and here’s why. In the brick-and-mortar days, your identity as a national or international firm was tied to your physical presence in diverse locations. That’s no longer the case. The only thing stopping you from achieving that larger footprint now is your perception and market positioning. A silver lining of the pandemic is the disappearance of geographic barriers. The little firm in Peoria with the big specialty in dentistry can just as easily serve clients in Pittsburgh, or Paris for that matter, providing it has the expertise and tools like a social media presence, cloud capability and live video capacity.

Can you tell me how your growth model applies to this concept?

It’s never been more important to root your growth in proven practices. My growth stool is made up of three legs: your services (the size, shape and packaging of what buyers want); your buyer group (who wants/needs what you’re offering); and distribution channels (the ways you and your buyers find one another in great quantities). These pillars define the scope and reach of your firm, and the elements must be shifted if you plan to expand.

If you define yourself as a local firm serving real estate clients in Tinytown, USA, that’s what you will remain. The deeper you dig into your affordable housing specialty, however, the more you may see the applicability of your offerings beyond Tinytown. By positioning yourself nationally or globally, you eliminate the risk of “out-fishing” the local pond.

Start with a design point of a national practice. For example, you have a foothold in clean energy. Where are the concentrations of clean energy commerce in the U.S.? There are probably a few hotbeds of activity around the country. Once you know where, pull market sizes, inventory anyone you might know in the industry and start interviewing them. They will lead you to others. Research calls, which I’ve written about often, are the order of the day. In time, you’ll be able to communicate the seamless nature of your practice and the value you bring. Then shout it from the digital rooftop.

Like it or not, your clients and prospects are growing accustomed to a digital world. If your goal is to expand the breadth and depth of your firm, there’s no time like the present to make it happen. The new normal may be just the opportunity you need.

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