A New Role for Accounting Firms: Market Developer

How Data Analysis is Becoming the New Battleground in the Quest for Clients 

By Terri Ellis
Collins Barrow, Toronto

Terri Ellis

“Big data” drives many decisions today. Back in the Mad Men era, the gut instinct of a Don Draper was enough to make a business change course. Now, it’s all about having the numbers to back up one’s business decisions.

But are accounting firms set up to compete in this data-driven world? In many cases, no. The traditional pattern, in which the firm’s senior leaders sold the firm’s services with the support of a marketing department, is becoming less effective. Why?

  • Technology: Clients are using online information to make informed purchasing decisions.
  • A broader range of services: Firms are seeking to push past tax and audit into services like risk analysis, management consulting and legal services.
  • A deeper relationship: Firms are working on broadening their role with clients – from service provider to business advisor.
  • Mid-market and small-firm expansion: Mid-market and smaller firms are competing with big firms in pursuing the higher margins and longer-lasting client relationships that consulting services provide.

These circumstances overwhelm many accounting firm partners and associates, who are focused on building and managing a practice, developing eminence within the profession and training staff, all at the same time. The demand to wear multiple hats challenges their ability to focus on diagnosing the issues facing prospective and current clients. Growth opportunities can be missed.

One answer has been to recruit business development staff to approach existing and prospective clients, analyze their situations, and then bring in the firm’s partners to close the engagement. But the costs of retaining business developers, as well as the trends described above, seem poised to up-end this model too.

Redefining Marketing and Business Development

With a new focus on client retention and acquisition, what’s needed is a new role for the leader of the marketing function: the market developer who guides strategic decisions through data, analysis and deep knowledge of the market. A market developer can transform the marketing function in the following ways:

Using data to drive decisions

Information generated by a wide range of sources, accessible to the market developer, can provide valuable perspective on the market’s needs. The firm’s website is a rich source of this data – on the number of page views, shares, likes, forwards and other indications of interest in a given topic. A sudden surge of interest in content about forensics, for example, is an indication that the firm needs to build up its staff in this area. The market developer also manages the effort to mine the firm’s CRM system for information on the way forward.

External sources of data can help too. A growing concern about cyber-security, shown through more news stories on the topic, point to market opportunity for the firm.

Interacting with clients

Part of the market developer’s role is similar to that of a business developer – as a “bird dog” looking for opportunities for the firm. This can include finding potential clients for the firm’s services, and analyzing their business issues to find a link between their needs and the firm’s services. It should also include finding new opportunities for existing clients. These interactions allow market developers to keep their fingers on the pulse of what the market is looking for.

Managing the marketing function

A third part of the market developer’s role is that of managing the marketing function – but with a difference. Traditional marketing has all too often focused on managing a process – producing a newsletter, organizing a client event, sponsoring a conference and the like. The market developer’s role is to develop business – and this includes ensuring that the functions of the marketing department actually drive sales.

If post-event analysis of a conference cannot point to actual business that resulted from the firm’s involvement, the market developer should be willing to make a hard decision about cancelling that sponsorship the next year. The market developer needs to keep the marketing team’s members all pointing in the same direction – doing work that supports sales of the firm’s services, and if the work doesn’t … don’t.

Making a business case and influencing decisions

These three aspects of the market developer’s role can culminate in a more central role in strategic decision-making. Here’s why: The market developer has the structures and processes in place to gather hard numbers on what the firm’s clients need in terms of services. The market developer also has the ability to analyze that data and build a business case around how to best meet those needs – the skills required, how much clients will pay, and how clients would like to be served. This means it is only natural for the market developer to be in the room with accounting firm leaders to present these findings and their implications – and to have a role in the decision.

What to Look For in a Market Developer

While the traditional marketing manager is stellar at managing functions that range from keeping the firm’s website bios current to developing collateral for a new office, the market developer’s role requires different skills. These include:

  • Sales Success: Because of the importance of business development, a market developer needs a proven track record in a consultative selling environment, which could include experience selling information technology or telecommunications services.
  • Data Analysis: A market developer needs to know how to find data that will help the firm make wise decisions – and how to manage people who do the actual work.
  • Boardroom Experience: A market developer needs to be able to talk the language of the firm’s senior members, to answer questions using relevant data, and to challenge the senior leadership when necessary.

Terri A. Ellis is vice president, market development, for Collins Barrow Toronto LLP, based in Toronto, Canada.

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