Tag Archive for: specialization

Building a more Rewarding Practice Means Overcoming the Three Barriers to Specialization

For years, decades even, accountants have talked about specialization. Building a niche practice has been the subject of articles, conference agendas, podcasts, and discussion among practitioners since what seems like forever. But the discussion is coming to a head as firms continue to struggle with capacity and staying on top of all the changes affecting the profession. A combined strategy of focusing on specific types of clients along with transitioning clients that don’t fit (we call it right-sizing your client base) is the key to solving some of the profession’s greatest current challenges ensuring its future health.

There are three common barriers practitioners and firms must overcome to embrace the opportunities specialization affords. In this post we identify and offer strategies to overcome them.

Barrier 1: perception of boredom

There’s a paradigm accountants must unlearn which is when you specialize it means you only do the same thing over and over. One of the most frequent objections I hear from practitioners at every stage their careers is “I like the variety of (or the idea of) working with lots of different types of clients.” Or put another way “I would get bored only working with one type of client.” The implication is that when you choose to serve only a certain types of clients that every engagement will be the same.

The first step in overcoming this barrier is to acknowledge a fallacy that two businesses, even competitors or those in the same industry, can be the same. The fact is every client is different because you serve people. And people have different views, experiences, personalities, stories, priorities, communication styles and thousands of other attributes that make us unique. The challenges and opportunities they face may be similar, but your approach to solving the issues and your relationships will be different.

The second step to overcoming this barrier is shifting your mindset. What if instead of doing the same thing for every client, becoming a deeply experienced professional means more creative flex? When you start to see a client’s operating environment from different angles because you spend a LOT of time in that space your experience lends itself to more inventive and innovative solutions. Focusing on fewer clients also creates time for deep thinking vs being so bogged down with work that you focus primarily on tasks and keeping you head above water. What if all this enables you to solve more issues and offer more proactive ideas to your clients?

Saying no to the clients and projects that don’t fit frees you to say yes to more challenging, interesting and inspiring work. It creates opportunities to provide solutions to challenges your clients may never have thought you could solve.

In summary: focus is the key to a more diverse practice.

Barrier 2: anticipated negative effect on revenue

It feels counterintuitive that fewer clients leads to more revenue, and that carving off and transitioning a chunk of our practice will ultimately increase top-line revenue and bottom line profits. First, as we already discussed, freeing time and space to do more for our existing clients enables us to bill our clients more. Second, specializing creates an opportunity to market yourself and your firms in a way that makes you more relevant to those prospects that need you than other firms. As you increase your relevance you decrease (or possibly eliminate) your competitors—which means winning a higher percentage of engagements.

Not only that, when prospects recognize the lack of alternatives to your firm the balance of power in the proposal process shifts to you. Pricing is non-negotiable, without scope modifications. You don’t feel pressured to give away pieces of your service or knowledge in order to win the business. You can become more steadfast in your terms of service and timing. You can stop wasting time responding to RFPs that don’t make sense. The entire process becomes more straightforward, with less gamesmanship.

Think about how refreshing that would be. Not only do you win a higher percentage of engagements, you will win with higher fees, fewer write-offs and greater realization.

Simply put: specialization increases revenue and profitability.

Barrier 3: failing to define the specialty

There are two options when it comes to specializing: reactive specializing in which you see what others are doing and seize whatever segment is left or proactive specializing to make your own space. Often firms think about specialization in terms of industry, which has lots of advantages, but there are lots of ways to define it. Region or location can be a specialization if you’re very well connected and articulate the value your local roots and connections bring to clients. You can specialize in a service model, like remote/tech enabled. You could be the firm that only meets at the client’s site or that works with family-owned businesses.

Most people start to define their niche on the basis of where they are today. They look to where they have concentrations of clients or their existing skills. This can be a good approach if you have passion for serving those kinds of clients, but you should be be wary of being held captive to the opportunities you have already had. You may find greater joy and satisfaction from diving in to something completely new, as long as you have the patience to recognize that diversification like this is a longer-term strategy than expanding an existing area. There’s no right or wrong way to start—as long as you start. A lot of folks “dabble” in one area or another. Dabbling is the enemy of specialization and gets you nowhere.

Regardless of where you start, follow these steps:

  1. Choose a focus
  2. Articulate the expertise frequently, consistently among your target clients (both current and prospective)
  3. Continue to work to add the missing skills, capabilities and processes to support your positioning

Often accountants make the mistake of switching steps 2 and 3—feeling that they can’t start talking about their specialization until they know everything. Let’s unlearn the definition that “specialize” means you have to know all the answers. Instead re-frame the definition to mean being dedicated to and connected enough to help find all the answers. It’s the epitome of what it means to be an advisor to clients.

The takeaway: if you don’t decide, you won’t specialize.

If your professional goal is to do more for fewer clients, explore some level of specialization. Like most things, specialization is a continuous learning journey. Be ready to not have all the answers. However if you’re committed to finding them, limitless possibilities await.

First the why…now the how.

In our last post, we talked about why industry specialization is a good idea, especially for business development purposes.  So now let’s talk about how to drive growth with industry specialization.

First, it’s important to recognize that you can’t just decide you’re a specialist and start promoting it overnight; there is a process to building a niche. In our work with professional service firms, we’ve identified four phases of this process:

  1. Exploration
  2. Knowledge and content building
  3. Practice building
  4. Recognition as specialists

Below is a description of each of the four phases, including tips for how to make progress.  It’s important to err on the side of taking action; don’t feel as if you have to reach perfection in each phase before moving on.  You likely have competitors who are building industry practices and promoting their firms as specialists. Don’t lose market position by spending too much time planning and preparing.


This is the phase when you’ll decide what industry(s) make most sense. You’ll need to determine:

  • Whether there is enough of a market available
  • How entrenched your competitors are in the industry
  • Whether you have a compelling story to tell and the right people to work the niche

Some additional things to think about to decide if building the niche is feasible:

  • Do you have a strong champion for the niche?
  • Are there several professionals in the firm who are willing to commit to working the majority of their time in the industry, get the technical/industry training, and do the business development work?
  • Does the firm have at least a few clients in the industry and one or two high-visibility clients who will serve as references?
  • Do you offer the range of services necessary to address the needs of companies in the industry?
  • Are you willing to budget the time and dollars necessary for training, certifications, and business development?

Knowledge and Content Building

The first step in this phase is to determine what industry associations and publications are available. Professionals can learn the industry language, trends, hot topics and more just by attending association meetings and reading publications. Some additional ideas for gaining industry knowledge:

  • Job shadow clients
  • Industry Web sites
  • Social media groups and company pages

As your professionals learn more about hot topics, issues and trends, they can start to develop relevant industry-targeted content to use in the practice building phase. Speaker presentations, journal articles, and white papers are all examples of content you’ll want to have on-hand for business development purposes. And once you have an inventory of content, there will be opportunities to re-purpose these items in multiple channels.

Practice Building

Equipped with a champion and a team of professionals who have identified a target industry and invested time to acquire knowledge and build content, you’re now ready to promote your niche practice. As discussed previously, this promotion is made easier by the focus you have within the industry. Here are the steps:

Define the target market

Define the geography and size of companies within the industry that make the most sense for you to target. Decide whether there are sub-industry groups you can target to further narrow your focus.

Focused activities

Once the target market is defined, the next step is to put together a schedule of marketing activities to build a position for your firm in that market. Examples of focused activities include:

  • Industry association participation
  • Industry-specific blog
  • Bio/online profile updates
  • Networking with key industry players
  • Referral source networking
  • Direct mail
  • Content marketing with relevant industry topics
  • Cross-selling to existing clients in the industryTransitioning from Marketing to Sales:

Once your niche team has invested the appropriate amount of time in building their market position, it’s time to start getting a return on that investment; that will happen when your team members transition from pure marketing activity to more proactive sales behaviors. With the ultimate sales goal of being face-to-face with interested prospects, examples of transition activities include doing telephone follow-up after direct mail to set sales appointments, identifying key prospects from industry associations and extending personal invitations for one-on-one meetings and lunches, and collecting contact information from speaking engagements to follow up with attendees.

Recognition as Specialists

The Holy Grail — in this final phase, when the target market recognizes your firm as specialists in their industry, business development and growth become infinitely easier (and potentially less expensive). Through personal experience and word of mouth, companies in the industry know to come to you when they need help and/or are ready to switch providers. The need for your firm to invest in extensive branding and positioning activity lessens (although it never totally goes away!) and your professionals can spend more time in front of interested industry prospects and clients, selling and delivering services to increase revenue.