There is an interesting stream of questions hitting my mailbox. My recent suggestion to cut back and retire early has led to one interesting question. I recommended cutting back to a part-time seasonal job and enjoying all the free time. I used tax preparation as a business idea perfect to live the relaxed lifestyle. CPA’s and other tax professionals came out of the woodwork with the same question: How do you get clients?
Getting clients has always been the easy part for me; finding qualified people to help me with the abundance of clients is a different story. What I am sharing today is something I charge a minimum of $3,000 for a personalized plan to increase your clientele. For free I’ll share my business growth story and few example businesses to help you create your own growth plan.
In the Beginning
Starting a business is always the riskiest time. All the start-up costs strain working capital while you have the least community recognition and the fewest clients or customers. Advertising can be a budget killer which leads us to:
Keith’s Rule # 7: If somebody is selling you on a great advertising idea it rarely works and costs plenty, while your own cheap promotional ideas frequently work.
There are plenty of salespeople and companies willing to tell you how to promote your business. They are all expensive with no real thought on how it will drive business in your door. If I had a dime for every time I was told I’d be out of business if I did not advertise with their company I’d have, well, about thirty seven and a half bucks by now. It is still a lot of predictions of my demise and after 30 years of hearing it I am coming to the conclusion they don’t know what they are talking about.
We will start with my tax practice as an example of how to do it right. In all the examples I will assume a small to medium sized city for business location; the rules could change a bit for businesses in major city centers. If you understand my thought process I am certain you can duplicate the results anywhere.
My original intention was to retire before I started working. (More in a future post.) Tax preparation appealed to me due to the seasonal nature of the work. I prepared taxes for a few people part-time for years before going full-time so I understood the business in the way only a greenhorn can be confident in his expertise. I also worked for a year at the church where my wife went and where we got married. After a year of doing the Lord’s work I gave my tender for January 31st. Here it was, February 1st and I was in business as a real tax preparer.
My plan was simple, everybody needs their taxes prepared and I have experience so if I hung a sign outside my house and put an ad in the paper so I was good to go. As I would explain to business clients decades later, “Everybody has to eat, but not at your restaurant,” I learned a valuable lesson. Here it was, April 15th, and all was quiet. I had a total of 48 clients, mostly simple, low-fee, tax returns. I stared out my bay window on April 15th and thought, Oh sh . . .
Let me share how bad it was. My revenue was $3,000. Sure, it was 1989, but $3,000? I had money packed away and was not in fear of starving. Still, I needed more income or I would eventually run out or my spending would stay permanently low. It was in this moment I learned a skill that has served me well. I learned failure is the best teacher in the world and desperation a hell of a motivator.
Expensive advertising was too much of a risk and hit working capital too hard. I decided I would spend the summer building a client base and even considered working during the summer doing bookkeeping, payroll or other accounting work. Several low cost ideas helped (business cards with my puss on it, business card magnets) brought in a few clients the following tax season and a few late filers over the summer. There was one more thing I did. I created a flyer on my own computer and printed out 2,000 copies. The local newspaper I noticed delivered the paper in these neat plastic baggies. The newspaper was willing to sell me a box of 10,000 for about $50. Over the New Year’s holiday I stuffed 2,000 flyers into the baggies and over the next week Mrs. Accountant and I walked the street hanging the flyers on the 2,000 closest doors.
The efforts paid off. The next tax season saw a tripling of business to a few more than 150 clients. The average prep fee increased too. My revenue approached $12,000. Better, but not enough. I rolled up my sleeves and decided I needed a new approach. I owned a few rental properties at the time (how do you think I was living?) and joined the local apartment association. Each month the association brought in a guest speaker. Well, I had the perfect presentation for my fellow landlords. It was then I learned a massive number of organizations are hungry for speakers, the perfect venues to ply my trade.
For some strange reason apartment association members did not flock to my door when I sat with them in the audience. A few were clients, perhaps five. I researched and rehearsed my presentation for over a month in advance. I must have practiced that first speech 100 hours. It paid off. In less than an hour I had the audience eating out of my hand. I fielded question after question and answered like a pro or offered to find the answer after the meeting. That night I went home with over thirty new clients and they all owned rental properties, a higher fee tax return.
Speaking in front of a group does not bother me in the slightest because I think I have something important to share. Some people get the jitters when faced with public speaking, not me. The trick to speaking to a group is to treat it like you are talking with a group of friends that need your help. After that it is a piece of cake.
I searched out more speaking engagements the remainder of that year. The following tax season ended with over 500 tax returns and I had to hire Mrs. Accountant to help out. I hired a tax preparer for the following tax season and have been a job creator ever since. By my fifth full-time tax season I was knocking out over 1,000 returns and was forced to move to a commercial building I bought near my home. A few years later I pushed past 2,000 tax returns, and payroll, bookkeeping and consulting took over my life. Business was too big. By the year 2000 I started pruning the client list to keep my sanity and now enjoy a 900 return practice. The returns are usually much bigger and include a full line of business services.
There are a lot of ways to promote your business with a small investment. Speaking engagements are the cheapest and best. Sometimes you even get paid to talk about your business. Sweet! When I speak to a group I focus on an area of tax law that affects the group. Taxes are boring until is puts a bigger refund in your pocket. It is rare to speak and leave. More often I am surrounded by an eager group of people looking for answers. My business card is always handy and I encourage them to call my office and set an appointment.
But how do you use the speaking idea if you are a car mechanic? Or a restaurant? I would recommend talking to groups around town about better gas mileage or increasing the value of your car for resale. A restaurant can give a presentation about healthy eating or organic food. Never talk about you. Don’t treat it like a sales call. Talk about them! Give them value! When you do that they will ask to be your client. Talk about the ultimate soft sell.
If someone is happy with their accountant I tell them, “Why change?” If they are unhappy with their accountant I am more than happy to welcome them into the company. There is no need for a hard selling style when you use my method. My way is easier, fun and people and businesses ask to be my client; much better than putting on a full-court press to snag one.
A Few More Ideas
Every business is unique in how it must be presented. Speaking works for most businesses, especially service businesses. I helped a small restaurant triple sales in less than three months with one simple idea: coupons. Not any old coupon, mind you. I had him get 250 flyers printed at a local print shop for under $100 and hand them out to the closest businesses to his restaurant. Each flyer had a coupon for a free cup of gourmet coffee and a simple $1 off a lunch item. The employees of the nearby businesses started to come in for the free cup of coffee. I told the restaurant owner to keep breakfast sandwiches on hand and breakfast sweets. When people got their coffee they bought a sweet roll, cinnamon role or egg croissant sandwich with it. The best part was his restaurant could not handle all the business, but since so many were carry-out it did not matter.
Then came lunch. Think about this for a while. Employees are always looking for something good to eat for lunch. A dollar off a pizza or a sandwich is all you need to draw people in. Employees need something fast so they can get back to work. The restaurant was not only full for lunch, but take-out orders were massive. People don’t just buy lunch for themselves when they have a flyer with $1 off, or some other special, they buy for the whole office. Think of it. Here is a small, struggling restaurant with an average ticket sale of $10 and he now has people ordering over the phone with tickets sometimes over $200. Another bit of advice: Don’t take the coupon. Give the customer the discount and encourage them to reuse the coupon. People love it!
Do It with Passion
One final thought. Business is hard, we all know that. If you start a business I’m going to assume you love what you do or you are playing our Chump’s Game. And if you love what you do, do it with passion. Act like your clients are long lost friends. Have an up-beat attitude; share stories; make your clients feel welcome. When people think you care you will have more clients or customers than you can serve. And really care. No faking it. Remember:
Keith’s Rule #8: Too many customers is a good problem to have.