The Improv Is No Joke Podcast

Welcome to the Improv Is No Joke podcast hosted by Peter Margaritis, AKA The Accidental Accountant and author of the book 'Improve Is No Joke, Using Improvization to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life'. This podcast series is also available on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

Accountants, It is Time to Think Like a Marketer with Kate Colbert

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Thinking like a marketer can be difficult when most of us — well, think like accountants. Marketing isn’t a space in our brains; we use that often. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to, or don’t feel like we need to. Other times, it’s because we don’t even know where to start. 

Luckily, I had a guest on the podcast who’s expertise is in just that. Kate Colbert is the author of “Think Like a Marketer: How a Shift in Mindset Can Change Everything for Your Business,” as well as the owner of Silver Tree Communications, a full-service marketing company. 

Kate has (thankfully) broken down how to think like a marketer into five simple steps — which we can all apply to our businesses. Without further ado, because, as Kate says, “the perfect time to start thinking like a marketer is now”: 

1. Communicate for connection and meaning, not just to transact sales.

Communication should be the top priority for anybody doing business, whether you’re in the accounting world, retail, restaurants, or publishing. Communication is about adding meaning and value to potential customers – not just trying to snag a check from them. 

For example, most people only hear from their accountant around — you guessed it — tax season. They get a simple email reminding them to make their appointment, and maybe a follow-up or two. However, outside of that season, customers typically aren’t getting much year-round value from their accounting firm. Also, it doesn’t have to be that way. Blogs, podcasts, and newsletters are all great ways to engage your clients (present or future ones) and add meaning to your relationship, without asking them for a sale of some kind.

When a change in the tax code occurs, accountants need to reach out to their clients who will be impacted by this change.  For example, “There is a change in the tax code, and I would like to have a conversation on its potential impact on your business.  Can we meet for cup of coffee to discuss?” 

“The accounting professionals who are finding ways to create meaningful conversations are the ones that are creating sustainable businesses for the long haul,” she said. “And (they’re) capturing a lot more value to the bottom line because they can raise their prices because they’re [bringing more value to their clients].”

2. Live and die by your client’s insights.

Are you paying attention to what your clients are saying? What they like and dislike, what they want to see more or less? If not, you’re leaving tremendous marketing opportunities on the table. 

“What’s interesting to me about financial professionals is that, here’s a group of subject matter experts who are all about the data, right?” Kate said. 

However, how many accounting firms are invested in the data of what their customers think? What’s your net promoter score? How is it trending? 

Give a survey, or set up a focus group — you glean your information is up to you. Make this a priority in your marketing strategy. Otherwise, you’re not going to know where to go.

“Once you have those clients insights, you know what pivots to make in your firm to be able to grow,” Kate said.

3. Market in a way that’s strategy-religious and tactic-agnostic. 

So many companies — accounting and otherwise — take the opposite approach than this. They’re all over the place with their strategy, but married to one tactic, just because they think that’s what the rest of the industry is doing. 

The trick is in the opposite approach: Be married to your strategy (once you do the front-end work to come up with a robust one). Try a little bit of everything when it comes to the tactics — aka the vehicles by which you deliver your strategy. 

Maybe the tactic is a video series, a workshop, a television commercial, or a newsletter series. Perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above. However, the trick is to experiment with a variety of approaches and see how best to deliver your strategy. Where are you seeing the most engagement, or the most leads coming from where? Pay attention to the numbers, and start devoting resources to the tactics that are producing results (and pulling resources from tactics that don’t).

“It’s about being willing to try new things,” Kate said. “And then walk away from new things.”

4. Create cultures and processes that align with your brand.

If your firm has a brand associated with never surprise-invoicing people, then you should, as a firm, build billing processes and packages around that core value. According to Kate, structure your pricing in a way that there’s some cushion. Just in case people call and ask for further advice, you don’t feel like you’re giving it away for free. 

Also, if you have a brand focused on being accessible and comfortable, and not nickel-and-diming the client, then build a culture surrounding that. An example Kate used is Southwest Airlines. This is an airline that’s built its brand around never being late, and not putting more costs on the customers’ shoulders. When a Southwest plane lands, all the crew going around and cleaning so that the aircraft can be used again for its next flight on time. Southwest built a culture in its employees around its “never late” branding, and that shines through in their marketing.

“What are we willing to do differently to deliver on the story that we’re telling the marketplace about what makes you a better accounting firm than the accounting firm down the street?” Kate asked.

5. Do everything in service of maintaining a virtuous cycle of creating value for the client while capturing value for you. 

This last marketing value is related in a way to the first: It’s all about creating value. Kate states, “that might mean giving things away for free. If giving something away for free is going to land you even more business eventually, then it’s a good cycle to get into.”

“It’s about can you create value for people, not just upfront when you’re trying to win them, but continuously, how do you keep creating value?” Kate said. “But how do you capture it back? We’re all in business to stay in business. So it’s not about giving it all away for selling it for too cheap. It’s really about figuring out how do you make sure that you’re pricing yourself right.” 

Much of this value comes back to the concept of “delighting.” How do you not just serve your clients, but delight them? Whether that’s the atmosphere, you create within the office, the gift that you give a new client, or that phone call informing the client of a tax law change.  How do you delight your client enough to where they not only want to keep coming back, but they also want to bring you quality referrals? 

Strategically doing this — in a way that eventually brings money back to your bottom line — is how to create a winning marketing strategy (and business). 

“You can’t create more value for your clients, or future clients, or associates, or whomever you serve if you’re not capturing money back to the bottom line,” Kate said. “If you’re constantly working your marketing, your business is going to be around as long as you want it to be. Then you can retire and go buy a yacht.”

Click here to listen to the entire interview

We All Want to Be Heard! (Especially Your Clients)

blog_we-all-want-to-be-heardThat time of year is quickly approaching. For many people that phrase elicits thoughts of changing leaves, football, hot cocoa, lots and lots of good food…all culminating in a grand holiday season. As an accountant however, I’m talking about another time of year…busy season…da da DAAA.

Sure, we enjoy fall and the beginning of the holiday season like anyone else; however, there’s the looming “fifth season” that others don’t get to enjoy (said with a tinge of sarcasm). What makes this such a dreaded time of year?! The hours, the deadlines, the stressed out clients and colleagues…need I list more?

Surely there’s something we can do to not dread the coming months? I’ve written a few blogs on the topic, which you can access here on how to cope and will continue to do so in the next couple of months. I do have something for you to consider however, over the next couple of months before January. It’s simply this: we all want to be heard…especially your clients. Being heard requires someone to actually listen. Listening requires putting our own agendas aside and prioritizing the person in front of us. Really listening to your colleagues and clients this busy season will make your life SO much better–why? People will feel heard, validated, and as a result they will feel positively toward you which will make your stress decrease significantly.

Of Course Improv Fits in Here…

The key to improvisation is listening to understand. When you’re not listening to those around you, how can you respond in a way that truly adds value to the interaction? It’s the same no matter the situation, a client meeting, speaking with your spouse, or meeting someone new—in each of these interactions we have a choice in how we’re going to engage.

A common game used to develop improvisational listening skills is called “Mr. Know-It-All.” It helps people drop their agenda, listen, and focus—to be in the moment. I sometimes introduce this game in my presentations by asking for three volunteers to sit up front and face the audience. “Together, these people are Mr. Know-It-All,” I’ll say, “and can answer any question—but just one word at time.” To demonstrate, I’ll ask something like: “Why is the sky blue?” I’ll turn to the first person, then the next, and the next—each providing a word as they attempt to construct a sentence to answer the question.

Inevitably, each volunteer has formed some kind of plan—or agenda—in their mind for how they want to answer. However, when the player before them doesn’t say something that fits their agenda they get flustered and have to scramble for a response.

We never want to be caught unaware! But that fear causes us to come up with a script or an idea before the person in front of you has even finished—or started in some cases! However, contrary to what you may be thinking, when you allow yourself to listen, you’ll naturally respond appropriately. That’s what your clients need and want. They want authentic feedback and guidance. They don’t want scripted/canned answers to their concerns.

When we listen to understand, solutions are created quicker and more effectively—and guess what?! That makes for a much easier work environment for you and your team. Join my Yes, And Challenge to start practicing better listening. Share your challenge insights on Twitter with #YesAndChallenge or The Accidental Accountant Facebook Page.

Millennials Aren’t Like Boomers

pretty young businesswoman writes a message on the phoneNot a news flash, but those twenty and thirty something clients you have are not like you.  Their expectations are very different, and firms that proactively work to meet those expectations will be advantaged. So how big are the differences? In some cases, very big.

Marketing

If you think print ads, billboards or an outdated website are the way to go, you are way off base. Millennials look for online testimonials (their version of personal referral). They want a well-designed website using current mobile technology and up-to-date information. They use their smartphones and tablets to access information more than a desktop computer – be sure your site matches their needs. If you site looks outdated, they will not stay.

What about social media – you don’t like it much? They do. There are multiple ways to connect with them online. Do some research and pick one or two outlets to start with, then grow from there. Freely sharing information is a great way to get connected and stay connected with millennials. They search online for everything from medical advice to investment advice; if you’re not participating the in online conversations, you will not get their attention.

Communication

Text and email are constants in their lives. Getting back to a millennial email the next day is kind of rude. They have grown up with immediate feedback and response. Set a guideline that all emails received by say 5 pm are responded to that day, even if it is just “get the answer for you tomorrow.” Texting is actually more important to them than emails – and response time is even more critical.

Use online tools to send and receive documents. Take payments online (or at least via phone). I know many millennials that haven’t written an actual check in years!

Group communication via videoconferencing is standard for them. Coming to your office for a meeting, not so much. Look into tools that work for you and are convenient for the user.

One more very important thing: Learn more about this very important client base before they go to another firm. They are not afraid to jump ship and go to a firm that meets their needs.

Taking Care of Your Customers

work hard play hardWhen we talk about customer service we usually mean the people who pay for your services.  You may have a vision statement that says something to the effect that you “will always offer the highest level of customer service” or maybe something like “always strive to exceed expectations.” But what about your internal customers – what is your vision statement for your staff?

In a recent blogpost, Seth Godin outlines how different companies define customer service, and how that should align with their bottom line. Made a lot of sense to me. I started thinking about the levels of service given to internal customers, the people you hire and pay to represent your firm. I decided to define levels of service for staff members, and how each level impacts the financial goals of a firm. Here are the internal customer service standards that separate great firms from the weak ones.

Create a strong workplace that supports individuals in remarkable ways. Although pay would seem to be the key ingredient here, it is not. Consistent attention to each person and their professional growth – from classes and workshops to managing workload; offer benefits that gladly (not grudgingly) provide personal time, vacation days and sick leave; recognize hard work deserves hard play.  Are the values of your company aligned with how you treat employees?

Provide the tools to do exceptional work. Every one can tell when they are considered an asset versus an expense. When you don’t pay attention to current technology, when you force people to use outdated tools or do not provide things like tablets and smartphones, you send the message that your staff is really not worth the investment.

Okay, sometimes it is about the pay. Actually, it’s generally about equity in pay, promotion and recognition. Develop compensation packages that give everyone the opportunity to succeed financially.

Design a work environment that brings out the best in people. Windows, lighting, artwork and comfortable, attractive furnishings say a lot about a firm to your staff (and your external customers). Outdated furnishings, let alone ugly and worn, say a lot too! You spend at least one third of your life at work – make it a great place to be and to share with others. Silicon valley has taken work environments to whole different level, and the investment pays off in retention, invention and commitment from staff.

Have fun. I’m not suggesting that work isn’t…well, work. I am strongly suggesting that people do better work when they enjoy where they work because they are proud of the group they work with, the environment they work in and the sense of satisfaction they receive every day. So whether it’s retreats and parties, team building and workshops, or starting each day with a laugh, creating a fun place to work brings high levels of customer service to internal and external customers.

 

Customer Service Extraordinaire: Ciao Bella, Part Deux

Damien, The Bartender
Damien, The Bartender

In my April newsletter I wrote about the outstanding customer service experience I enjoyed at Ciao Bella, an Italian restaurant in Bloomington, MN. Well, I was back in Bloomington to deliver two seminars for the Minnesota Society of CPAs, was staying at the same hotel, and couldn’t wait to have dinner at my favorite restaurant.

It was a Sunday evening, and the restaurant wasn’t crowded so I had my pick of barstools. I assumed that most residents were busy getting ready for the big snowstorm that was predicted to drop a foot or more of snow in the area. Since it had been seven months or so since my last visit to Ciao Bella, I wanted to see if my first experience there would be repeated.

I ordered a drink from a bartender, Damien, who served me during  my first visit. As he was making the drink he took one look at me and said, “You’ve been in here before, I just can’t remember the details but I remember you.” Wow, I did not expect anyone to remember me so I introduced myself, told him the story about my

Sue, The Great Manager
Sue, The Manager

first visit to the restaurant. Damien immediately put two-and-two together and thanked me for the generous tips I had left (great service deserves generosity). A bit later I saw Sue, the manager, and asked her to come over. Same thing – with a bit of story telling she recognized me and was happy I had returned.

I enjoyed dinner there a couple of evenings  – the only thing that exceeded the wonderful food was the exceptional service. Once again, if you ever visit Bloomington go to Ciao Bella. Say hi to Damien and Sue, and tell them Pete Margaritis sent you!.

 

 

(On a side note – Bloomington received about 3 inches of snow but 20 miles north they had a foot or more. Kinda reminds me of snowfall in Cleveland.)