And how, along the way, 10 offices became a firm
Reprinted with permission from Accounting Today Pathways to Growth #4
Katie Tolin pursued a career in marketing and she did it by the book. Armed with undergraduate degrees in business and PR, she earned a master’s in political communications before joining a law firm where she spent five years in legal marketing.
Curiosity led her to check out an opening at the Ohio CPA firm Rea & Associates. After an interview with then managing partner Tim Michel, she wanted in. “That was seven years ago, and I’ve been here ever since.”
What Tolin hasn’t been, however, is stagnant. In 2003 she was a competent marketer. Today, Tolin is a successful director of practice growth.
“When I arrived there was no formal marketing structure in place,” Tolin recalls. “I spent my first four years doing what I knew – networking, events, seminars and lunches. The activity was tactical, but I did have a strategic direction, which was to help the firm double in size in five years.”
Tolin recalls the mentality at the time. “It was very much the traditional mindset. If we serve the clients well and attend enough golf outings, they will send us referrals, but heaven forbid we actually ask for business! We pursued opportunities that fell into our laps, but we weren’t working leads.”
At the time Rea had 10 offices throughout Ohio and the push for growth was gaining steam. Partners were getting involved, showing up at Chamber events and signing up for seminars. That’s where a Rea partner heard me speak about landing big fish and, intrigued, arranged a meeting with Tim Michel.
Change in Strategy
Tolin was an apt student and embraced the idea that the firm needed to go beyond building visibility to actually stimulating sales. But before that could happen, Rea had to focus on what, and to whom, it was selling.
We worked on a growth process that involved identifying offerings and niche industries where the firm could gain traction. We also worked on the mechanics of selling, and managing the opportunity development process. As a classically trained marketer, this was not Tolin’s strong suit. But she developed impressive self-sufficiency.
The move toward a more comprehensive growth strategy involved significant changes, among them:
Working side by side with management. Moving beyond banker breakfasts and lawyer lunches, Tolin started to work strategically with her partner group. She educated them on strategies like pipeline development and research calls, honing their ability to uncover needs and craft solutions. Today, it’s not unusual for Tolin to coach partners through important prospect calls, “feeding” input and questions. As successes stacked up, partners began to view Tolin as a leader in the pursuit of growth, not as a marketer chasing mentions in the local business section.
Getting more out of metrics. In the past, Tolin might have measured the number of participants at a seminar or reservations for an event. But today, she’s counting leads in the pipeline and research calls made. Tolin developed an out-of-the-box strategy called Speed Leads, modeled after speed dating. Partners gathered for an evening of mini-meetings – one left with 105 leads!
Moving away from a service orientation and toward product management. Tolin has honed the skill of developing and communicating service offerings in easy-to-understand terms. She uses the image of a well-stocked grocery store with offerings on the nonprofit aisle, the healthcare aisle, the construction aisle, etc. (Ever seen the Progressive Insurance commercial where the checker scans insurance policies “packaged” in clean white boxes? Same idea here.)
Enhancing proposals. Tolin coaches partners in developing opportunities and communicating problems and solutions that stands out from the crowd. She once recommended using a graphic image that resembled a spider web to illustrate a complex network of relationships between privately held businesses under one client’s corporate umbrella. “The client told us we nailed it by providing a conceptual design of their business problem,” she says.
Emphasizing client needs over firm strengths. In research calls and other settings, Rea partners have learned to peel back the onion to identify key issues and concerns, and then customize solutions.
“If we discover, for example, that timing is a challenge for a particular client, we make sure to document in writing and demonstrate in conversations that we understand the problem and can help,” Tolin says. If partners fail to uncover essential information, Tolin politely tells them it’s not enough, and to go dig deeper.
There’s nothing magical about the transformation of Katie Tolin (but don’t tell her amazed bosses that!). A willing firm can make the shift from marketing to practice growth provided that a few key elements are in place:
- Solid support from the managing partner.
- Working knowledge of the growth process.
- A growth champion who is fearless
- An understanding that growth is a marathon, not a sprint.
- The right team. Tolin was a marketing department of one. Now she leads a practice growth team of three.
When I first met Katie Tolin she was knee deep in tactics. Today, she stands tall, a respected member of her firm managing a growth initiative that has buy-in from every level of the organization.
Rea has grown dramatically over the past five years, as the firm has rallied around growth. Offices operate less like individual fiefdoms and more like an integrated whole. There’s a purpose, supported by a culture, that’s energized the organization and its people.
There’s growth in your future, too. Go out and find it!