Should you be a generalist or a specialist? For most small business owners the choice depends on several factors, such as market need, existing competition, and industry experience. For many startup accounting firms, however, the decision isn’t quite that simple. In this post, we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of specializing in a niche client base as opposed to running a general accounting business. We’ll also look at what criteria you should use to make the decision, and provide tips for marketing each type of business.
Generalist: Pros and Cons
If you’ve already launched your accounting business, you probably started as a general accounting firm. You take on all sorts of clients no matter what their industry, business structure, or family situation. Your clients typically have timely problems that need immediate solutions, such as preparing and filing their taxes; handling estate issues; and managing general office financial tasks such as bookkeeping and payroll.
One benefit of being a generalist: Your business is exposed to a wide variety of financial scenarios. Over time that helps you gain specialized experience and build up expertise that you can add to your menu of services. Another benefit of serving a general clientele: You’re not limited in your market. Since you can offer accounting solutions to more of the general public, you have a wider field of prospects.
On the downside, being a generalist accountant means having to start fresh every time you’re faced with an unfamiliar situation. In addition, as a generalist, you usually can’t bill as much as an accountant with a specialization can.
As far as marketing your general accounting services, here are the basics to get you off on the right foot.
- Create a website. Marketing your accounting business starts with your website, which is the “face” of your business online. Learn about search engine optimization (SEO) and use keywords to boost traffic and attract prospective clients to your business website. (Or, hire an SEO expert to handle this for you.)
- Make sure your accounting business is listed on online review sites such as Yelp and YellowPages.com. Check on these sites daily to spot any bad reviews and follow up with your dissatisfied clients right away.
- Encourage referrals from satisfied clients. A positive referral can bring you tons of new business. Always remind happy clients to review your accounting business online and share about your business on social media. You can motivate your clients to give you referrals by offering discounts on accounting services in return.
Specialist: Pros and Cons
It’s not as hard as it may sound to pick a specialized niche for your accounting business. Simply ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you notice a trend in your client base, such as a particular industry, financial status, age, or family situation? For example, maybe a lot of your clients are small business owners, young adults, or people nearing retirement.
- Do you have any favorite clients you particularly enjoy working with? Have you found an area of accounting you enjoy researching?
- Are there trends in your community that could lend themselves to a specialization, such as a new surge of startups or retiring executives? For instance, if lots of independent restaurants are launching in your area, you could target these restaurateurs as clients.
The key to picking a niche is making yourself the expert in your niche and then spreading the word on your area of expertise. You may choose a certain type of accounting solution to focus on such as:
- IRS solutions
- Small business taxes
- Corporate tax compliance
- International taxes
- Nonprofit organizations
- Real estate
- Estate planning
If you are tech savvy (or have someone on your team who is), you can offer to set up your clients with an accounting system such as QuickBooks and then train their employees to use the system.
You can also focus on a certain demographic such as divorced couples, retirees, millennials, college students, or even entertainers.
To market your niche-based accounting business, start with the same strategies suggested for generalists above. Then go above and beyond. In order to attract niche clients, you must not only reach out through normal marketing channels, but also make yourself known in certain circles.
- Network: Seek out relevant trade associations and industry groups to make connections. For instance, if you’re specializing in manufacturing businesses, look for groups that manufacturers join. You can usually find some local events by checking with your city’s business development office. You can also check online for groups on the Directory of Associations; this site lists more than 35,000 local, regional, national, and international associations. Make plans to attend the relevant associations’ networking events to meet prospects. You can also offer to speak at their conferences, trade shows, and meetings, or contribute guest blogs to their publications and websites.
- Be social.Follow your niche clients and their industry trade groups on social media, and connect with their connections. Use social media to build your reputation as an expert and promote your thought leadership. It’s also a good idea to join groups on LinkedIn and start discussions or answer questions. Never use your social media posts to do a hard sell for your accounting services. Instead, offer free advice that provides value to others. You can always buy paid social media advertising to sell your services.
- Give back to the community.Donate your services as an auction item for community groups that are looking to raise money for their cause. Look for organizations that are relevant to your target client base or that your key clients care about and support. You can also volunteer your services at events—for example, hold a one-on-one to help members of the organization with their accounting questions. Be sure to bring plenty of business cards to hand out to the people you talk to.
As with all entrepreneurial endeavors, it’s important to find what you’re passionate about and the area where you can best serve your clients. Whether you decide to be a generalist accountant or choose to serve a specific client niche, your clients will count on you to provide your expertise and offer solutions to their financial problems.
What’s your experience? Are you happy being a generalist? Or, if you’re a specialist, tell us in the Comments how you found your niche.