Best Marketing Practices for CPA Firms

By Jean Marie Caragher

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Capstone Marketing conducted on online survey of CPA firm marketing professionals in April 2004 to determine marketing best practices.  Marketing professionals responded from 101 local and regional CPA firms in the United States, including 25 of the largest 100 firms.

Among the highlights:

  • Networking, social mixers with referral sources and seminars – all in-person activities – are the top lead-generating marketing tools.
  • Only 12% of CPA firms have full-time salespeople and only 4% have full-time telemarketers.
  • Most CPA firms spend 3% or less of net revenue on marketing.
  • 71% have a written marketing plan.
  • Only 31% have formal client satisfaction programs.
  • A marketer’s greatest challenge is a lack of planning resulting in always “fighting fires.”  Half of all marketers have no support staff.

Marketing tools that generate leads

From a list of 16 marketing tools respondents were asked to indicate those that are currently part of their firm’s marketing program.  The results were:

  • Brochures (100%)
  • Networking (99%)
  • Web site (96%)
  • Newsletters (93%)
  • News releases (89%)
  • Social mixers with referral sources (85%)
  • Advertising (84%)
  • Public speaking (81%)
  • Direct mail (78%)
  • Published articles (74%)
  • Seminars (74%)
  • Public relations (72%)
  • Special events (64%)
  • E-mail (56%)
  • Trade shows (56%)
  • Surveys (47%)

Respondents were than asked to select from this list the three marketing tools that generated the most leads for their firms.  The top three choices were: networking (85%), social mixers with referral sources (61%), and seminars (41%).  Notice that these three marketing tools place your partners and professional staff face-to-face with clients, prospects and referral sources!  

This is not rocket science.  Your fee-earners are in a relationship business and need to invest significant time building relationships with clients, prospects, and those that can provide them with new business leads.

Inadequate marketing and sales training

It is important for your partners and professional staff to get in front of people in order to generate new business leads.  How are CPA firms doing in providing marketing and sales training for their professional staff?  In a phrase?  Not well.

  • 13% do not provide any marketing and sales training.  
  • 39% provide training on an annual basis; 11%, monthly; and, six percent, quarterly.  
  • 27% indicated other frequencies including: as needed, semi-annually, informal “lunch and learn” programs, individual coaching, or that they were in the process of developing training programs.

Salespeople and telemarketers

With managing partners’ increasing focus on lead generation and return on investment, what role do CPA firm marketing professionals play in the sales process?  The majority of marketing professionals assist with conducting research on new business prospects (89%), strategizing with partners and managers on new business prospects (78%), editing new business proposals (78%), identifying new business prospects (74%), and writing new business proposals (70%).

However, marketing professionals are less frequently involved with activities to help close the sale.  Just 37% participate in sales calls with partners and managers and 42% rehearse new business presentations with partners and managers.

Then, are CPA firms hiring salespeople or telemarketers to assist with lead generation?  Only 12% of the respondents indicated that salespeople were full-time employees of their firms and 2% indicated that salespeople were used on a project basis.  73% have never utilized salespeople.

Marketer’s career path

81% of the respondents have the title of marketing director or marketing manager.  Just 2% had achieved the level of chief marketing officer.  These marketers work for Top 100 firms.

57% report to their firm’s managing partner or CEO.  18% report to the partner-in-charge of marketing; 4% report to the COO or director of administration; and; 18% report to a combination of the above.

Surprisingly, 24% do not formally meet with their firm’s partner group.  35% meet with their partners on a monthly basis, 15% on a quarterly basis, 12% on an annual basis, and 10% on a weekly basis.

When asked if they could achieve principal status in their firms:

  • Just 15% indicated that this was an opportunity.  
  • 52% indicated that they could not.
  • 28% did not know.  

When asked whether they had the desire to achieve principal status in their firms 61% indicated that they did not or that they did not know.  Just over one-third indicated that they hoped to become principals.  

Greatest marketing challenges

The more things change the more they stay the same.  27% of the respondents indicated that their greatest challenge as a CPA firm marketing professional is a lack of marketing planning resulting in always “fighting fires.”  

Another 35% selected other challenges, including the need for additional marketing staff.  This is supported by the fact that 52% of the respondents have no marketing staff and 24% have one additional marketing professional.

Other challenges revolve around partner issues.  Respondents indicated that their partners:

  • Need to participate more in marketing
  • Don’t understand marketing
  • Are impatient for results
  • Avoid accountability
  • Are reluctant to change

These certainly are challenges, especially when less than half of the respondents work for firms with 61% or more of their partners who actively support the firm’s marketing program!  18% identified lack of partner support as their greatest challenge.

Other interesting findings

Survey results revealed other interesting findings:

  • Two-thirds of the respondents work for firms that spend 3% or less of net revenue on marketing.
  • Marketing committees are utilized by 40% of the respondents.
  • 71% have a written marketing plan.
  • 76% utilize a niche marketing strategy.  The greater the number of firm partners the more likely that a niche marketing strategy is utilized.
  • 73% collect intelligence on competitors.
  • 46% indicated that their firms had a brand – a distinct position in the marketplace, something their firm was known for.  7% do not have a brand, and 45% responded “sort of.”  One can conclude that a firm that has a “sort of brand” does not have a brand at all.
  • 82% utilize PowerPoint in new business presentations.
  • Only 31% have formal client satisfaction programs.


Marketing professionals have several opportunities to make a significant impact on their firms and their careers.

First, gain additional partner support by demonstrating success.  This can be achieved by tracking marketing activities including referrals given and received, proposals, new and lost clients; demonstrating the return on investment of specific marketing programs, including networking, mixers, seminars, direct mail, public speaking, trade shows, and special events; and, delivering presentations at partner meetings on a regular basis.

Second, help contribute to your firm’s bottom line by tracking your marketing budget, identifying qualified prospects, focusing on marketing tools that generate leads, and rehearsing new business presentations with partners and managers.

Third, consider working with salespeople or telemarketers to keep your referral pipeline full, to enhance the visibility of your firm at networking and industry functions, to encourage attendance at firm events, or to keep your database up-to-date.

Finally, provide your professional staff with ongoing marketing and sales training to build their confidence and provide your firm with a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

The respondents were from all tiers of the profession:

Number of offices:

  • 41% of the respondents represented firms with one office;
  • 23%, more than three offices;
  • 19%, two offices; and,
  • 14%, three offices.  

Number of partners:

  • 32% of the firms – and 96% of the Top 100 firm respondents – have more than 16 partners;
  • 27%, between six and 10 partners;
  • 21%, between 11 and 15 partners; and,
  • 17%, between one and five partners.

Net revenue:

  • 20% of the firms have annual net revenue of more than $18.1 million;
  • 19% have annual net revenue between $3.1 and $6 million
  • 19%, between $6.1 and $9 million
  • 14%, between $9.1 and $12 million
  • 12%, less than $3 million
  • 7%, $12.1 and $15 million
  • 3%, between $15.1 and $18 million