As a young accountant your focus should be on learning the responsibilities and intricacies of your position while becoming more technically proficient in those responsibilities. However, as you gain experience and grow within the firm, there will come a time that you will be expected to develop new client relationships and secure clients for the firm. The question becomes, how do you do this when you are spending the majority of your time learning the profession and doing the work?
As a first, or second or even third, year staff accountant, now is the best time to begin developing good business development habits that you can use to eventually grow your book of business. These habits should align to your professional interests and become part of your weekly or monthly routine. While you aren’t expected to find, develop and close new business early in your career, you do want to start to build the foundation of your business development mindset.
As you start to nurture your business development mindset as a staff accountant, it is important to remember that the most important part of your responsibilities and expectations is to become the best accountant you can be. That means honing your technical skills, your interpersonal skills and your communication skills. Business development should be a part of your weekly routine, but early on it should be a very small part.
It sounds obvious but so many young accountants don’t learn the finer points of how to be a productive member of the firm. This means being mindful of your time and schedule. This means being in the office when you are supposed to be there, maybe even a little earlier, and focusing on getting your work done. Getting your work done, and done well, in a timely manner is paramount to your success.
It means entering your time consistently and being cognizant of your billable hours. Deadlines in the accounting profession are real, and there are penalties for not meeting them. Do not be afraid to ask questions and truly listen to the answer, don’t make assumptions if you don’t know. The questions you ask are great learning opportunities that will make you a better accountant.
I’ve outlined some of the business development activities, tactics and skills you should be starting to build as you learn to be technically proficient as an accountant.
Being a professional doesn’t always mean just wearing a suit and speaking in industry jargon. Being professional also means adhering to deadlines, being accountable for your time and providing a quality work output. It means learning how to work collaboratively and improving communication skills, along with being a productive member of the team. When it comes to dress codes, pay attention to the environment you work in and dress appropriately. While you can almost never be over-dressed, paying attention to what the industry, or client, has as norms makes sense too. But remember, sometimes it’s important that a professional accountant looks like a professional accountant.
Explore multiple industries
If your firm goes to market by industry, at some point you will most likely be asked to join one or more industry niche team. Don’t be afraid. Explore each particular industry niche and figure out which industry suits your interest and passion. It’s a lot more enjoyable to go to work every day knowing you’re doing something you enjoy and working with clients that you can really help. Plus, as you grow your expertise and experience in an industry, you will be able to attract more clients and justify higher billing fees.
Be aware of what is happening around you
It should go without saying but so many young accountants don’t follow this rule; stay on top of what is happening around you. That means know what is happening in the firm; new hires, learning opportunities, training deficiencies, new industry niches, etc. It also means staying on top of what is happening in the industry and your environment. Learn about new accounting standards or tax law changes as best you can. Don’t always rely on a partner or manager in the firm to spoon-feed it to you. Pay attention to what is happening in the industries and geographic locations you serve; read the business journals, read the industry updates, subscribe to industry newsletters and email updates, pick up and read the local newspapers periodically. If you’re not sure what you should be reading or where to find this type of information, ask a partner or even your firms marketing/business development team.
Learn to be strategic with your time and efforts
When asked, many young accountants think that taking a client to lunch or attending random networking events is the most effective use of their time and marketing dollars. While each of those activities might play a part in your personal development plan, be sure you work with your marketing professional or partner to identify the best uses of your time and commit to doing only those. There may be times when a partner, or the firm, doesn’t want you to concentrate on business development or marketing, knowing that your time is better spent on the technical aspects of learning your job and building your skills. However, regardless of where you are in your career, building your professional network is important. But you want to make sure your network is comprised of the right types of people. Again, work with the marketing professional or partner if you have questions. Remember, during the early part of your career the time you can commit to client development or marketing is limited, so use it wisely.
Get involved in the AICPA and your state CPA society
Your professional development should almost always start with the AICPA and your state CPA society. These are both very good resources to learn the specifics and intricacies of specific services and even industries. If you’re spending the money to belong to the AICPA and the local CPA society, it makes sense to get the most out of the membership that you can. If it makes sense, get involved on a committee. This is another way to start to build your professional network.
Start putting some thought and effort into the types of clients and referral sources you want
If you’ve decided to specialize in a particular service or industry, start to think about what types of clients you want to work with, and what types of referral sources can help you find those types of clients. Start to build your referral network by keeping track of the lawyers, bankers and financial advisors that focus on the same locations or industries that you do and nurture those relationship. If your firm does not have a CRM system, create your own tracking via an excel spreadsheet or something similar. Use your tracking tool for both prospects and referral sources. This shouldn’t be a time-consuming effort but remember, the work you put in early in your career will pay dividends later.
Nurture your network
Having a referral network and prospect list is one thing, maximizing it is something completely different. Keep your referral sources updated about the types of clients your looking for, the activities or events you will be doing or attending, and anything noteworthy happening at the firm or in the accounting industry. Be sure to share articles or presentations that you think would be relevant to your prospects and referral sources and invite them to firm-sponsored or hosted events. Be sure to connect with your contacts on LinkedIn and invite them to follow you and the firm on Twitter too. You should be sure to reach out periodically and invite them to grab a cup of coffee or lunch, never underestimate the power of face-to-face meetings. It bears reminding, when you’re meeting with a prospect or referral source face-to-face, leave your phone in your pocket or in the car. You want to make sure you are giving the person you’re meeting with your undivided attention.
Make friends with your marketing and business development professionals
As you progress through your career, the marketing and business development professionals in your firm can be a great resource for learning. Those professionals will help you understand how you fit into the overall efforts of the firm. Not everyone may be cut out for public speaking or presenting, but there is a myriad of ways you can help that don’t involve that. Perhaps you could become a subject matter expert (SME) and write articles or white papers pertinent to your services or industry niche(s)? If you’re more comfortable being heard but not seen at an event, offer to get involved with your firm’s webinars. As a SME, offer to help your marketing team revise or create better, more industry or service-specific marketing materials. If you happen to be more extroverted, be one of the go-to professionals for networking events, client appreciation events and/or presentations. Additionally, use your marketing and business development professionals as a learning resource. Many of them will be able to help or coach you when it comes to developing better networking, presenting and writing skills.
There’s a lot to think about when you are just starting your accounting career. Having the ability and knowledge to prioritize your efforts and time will help you feel more comfortable, advance in your career and be more successful. You cannot, and should not, do everything. Learning to identify and focus on those activities and tasks that make the most sense, and fit into your individual development plan, takes time and patience. However, the further you get into your accounting career the more comfortable you will be with the technical aspects of your job. This will allow you to focus more time and effort new client development and client retention.