Marketing may be your biggest challenge, but you can overcome barriers of regulation, tradition and lack of training to market your services-if you're willing to work at it, be creative and sometimes take risks. Unger, for instance, copes with rules that prohibit him from soliciting paid referrals by actively developing nonfinancial relationships with referral sources. "It has to happen slower and through more nontraditional channels," he explains. But it happens.
You can make it happen faster if you do like other professionals who have gone so far as to challenge legal restrictions. Accountants won the freedom to solicit new business a decade ago in a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Today, they are free to engage in sophisticated marketing efforts, like the Jensens', incorporating direct mail, telemarketing and cold-calling.
Todd Jensen, 37, who oversees The Accounting Source's marketing efforts, developed his approach with the help of a consultant who specializes in teaching accountants how to market their services. With a team of telemarketers calling to set appointments to meet with local businesspeople, Todd was soon doing five sales calls a day. "I did that for six months," he says. "And the [number] of clients coming in was more than we could handle. My wife said to slow down."
Don Uhl, a Williamstown, New Jersey, consultant who trains accountants to be entrepreneurial, says most professionals find that a relatively modest amount of marketing expertise and energy goes a long way. "That's the beauty of it," he says. "So few are marketing and being entrepreneurial that those who do are extremely successful." He advises professionals to start by setting aside a percentage of their budgets for marketing. Uhl's training emphasizes a marketing mix that includes direct mail, telemarketing and in-person sales.
Entrepreneurial professionals are usually distinguished by eagerness to apply and even invent new technologies to improve their businesses. Singer's organization has deployed a futuristic communications network that allows doctors using handheld computers to instantly check up on any of thousands of patients in a hospital. And Unger's Web-based business incorporation tools are providing him with the geographic reach and efficiency to greatly expand the market for his legal services.
The Jensens' accounting office has gone paperless, with all client records and forms scanned into a digital image storage and retrieval system that reduces costs while improving service. Says Todd, "When the client calls up and asks [me] to pull out the tax return from 2000, instead of going to a storage room and pulling out boxes, usually I have it faxed to him by the time I get off the phone."
There is good news about financing professional growth: Most professional practices have little difficulty obtaining financing from traditional sources such as banks. And with ingenuity, you can overcome the obstacles, such as ownership rules that restrict who can control equity in a professional practice.
Let's return to Rebecca Jensen. Although her practice is managed almost like a partnership with her nonaccountant husband, Rebecca lists herself as sole owner of The Accounting Source because of laws and regulations that require accounting firms to be owned by CPAs. Similar restrictions affect other professionals depending on the field and the jurisdiction, and similar methods can be used to deal with the restrictions.
Want to get a big edge over your professional competition? Change the way you make use of the capital you are able to raise. Professionals are generally more focused on doing things the way they were taught to do them than on spending to create new products, services and ways of doing business, says Unger. By spending six figures developing his Web-based incorporation service, he says, he's able to charge about half what a large corporate law firm would for an incorporation, while providing similar quality.