One of the best ways to understand how you can use social media to grow your practice is to learn from others. Last year I interviewed Paul Meissner, an accounting and business adviser, whose smart use of Twitter and LinkedIn helped him to build a thriving business.
I’ve also collated 7 of my best interviews for you, showing how professional service providers are successfully using LinkedIn in this free ebook “7 LinkedIn Success Stories”.
I learnt a lot from this interview so thought I’d share an in-depth summary here so you too can benefit from Paul’s story:
Five and a half years ago, Paul Meissner set up his accounting and business advisory firm, 5ways in Melbourne, Australia. He started from scratch:
“I had no clients, no business premises and a tight budget.”
At the time there weren’t many accountants using social media so he jumped on it:
“It was something I could do for free, I had the time and it was fun.”
His initial focus was on Twitter and LinkedIn.
The early days
He set up his LinkedIn profile, making sure it clearly positioned him with prospective clients and referrers.
“If people look for you on line, 9 times out of 10 your LinkedIn profile will appear right up the search results. People want to get a feel for you – so you have to make an impression and paint a picture very quickly.”
Paul sees LinkedIn as the “professional directory”. Networking with other professionals (such as lawyers and financial planners) and finding people is now commonplace on LinkedIn. Being present on the platform gave him the ability to network with accountants around the world: to share experiences, ideas, problems and resolutions.
“Twitter was my big one from the beginning in a client driven sense.”
Paul searched hashtags such as #taxsucks #accounting and #Xero and then tweeted business owners who were having problems. He worked with Xero from the start and found a lot of people were tweeting about it or discussing it in online forums:
“As people found Xero I was there to advise on it.”
Recognising that blatant selling on social media is a massive turn-off, Paul focused on selling Xero and pushing people back to their accountants. For example, he’d send tweets along the lines of “Check out this accounting software. It will revolutionise your business.” A number of times people came back to him saying “thanks for putting me onto this. My accountant doesn’t know about it. What else can you show me?”
Some of the most powerful discussions Paul’s had with businesses on Twitter and LinkedIn have resulted from him being helpful. He has a passion for helping small to medium businesses run more efficiently and there are a number of apps that can help.
“I used to share these online. Because I’d helped business owners to solve a problem they engaged me without my even having to mention that I did tax compliance etc.”
In addition to Twitter and LinkedIn, Paul has:
- A Facebook account but, while he set up a 5ways page, he’s kept it for personal posts – although he does see it as a great tool for attracting younger staff as they’re on the platform.
- A business website
- A personal website, designed to give people more of a flavour as him as a person
“LinkedIn is a professional platform so it doesn’t really give you the ability to add more of a personal flavour to your profile and it’s not well set up for those with multiple roles in life. That’s why I set up my personal website.”
A changed use over time
Over time, Paul’s use of both Twitter and LinkedIn has changed.
His focus was on softly-selling at the outset. The information and content he shared was specifically designed to show businesses that he might be worth seeking out. Now the content he shares is helping him to build his personal brand and his firm brand. It positions him as an accounting industry leader because he discusses issues around running a practice (this fits with some of his external roles within the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand and his desire to do more public speaking).
For example, some software companies and management consultants in Australia were putting out stories about how compliance is disappearing and how technology is going to rule the world. Paul decided to go into bat for the small accounting practice owners who were being told “their lives were going to end.” His posts resonated with people.
“I didn’t do it for referrals but it did lead to some wonderful opportunities: I got client referrals from people I would never have expected to refer me work.”
Another issue Paul addressed in one of his blog posts is the “butting of heads” between accountants and bookkeepers. It’s led to him developing a great relationship with a number of bookkeepers.
Paul intended publishing blog posts on his personal website but when LinkedIn opened up its publishing platform in early 2014, he decided to publish his posts there saying:
“It’s an amazing feature that’s easy to use – I get a lot more comments and engagement on posts I publish to LinkedIn than elsewhere. Plus if someone likes, comments on or shares it, the post has the potential to reach a much wider audience than elsewhere.”
Through his use of Twitter and LinkedIn, Paul’s learnt a number of lessons:
- “We accountants rely on word of mouth and social media is word of mouth on steroids. You no longer need to have met someone face to face for them to refer you – it’s amazing how quickly and far word of mouth can spread via these tools. You can get amazing global reach.”
- “If you resonate with people, you’re building that relationship – often without knowing it. It helps that there are so many people overtly selling online because it makes the helpful, beneficial messages stand out.”
- Your online presence has to be up to scratch. “It needs to tell a story about you and give people confidence. It’s interesting what passes for rapport and relationships nowadays. In the old days people would need a couple of meetings with an accountant to see if they wanted to use them but nowadays they can go online – if you can convey your personality and your profile resonates with them you’re around 80% of the way through the engagement process. By the time people meet with you they’re armed with enough information about you that they don’t need a long spiel from you about yourself and they come in almost pre-qualified.”
- You can ramp up and down your social media activity depending on your goals and what’s happening at any given point. “You have the flexibility to work it quite hard if you have the time, are in a growth phase or leading up to an event such as the Federal Budget – when you can share updates if you have something to say. You can then cut back for a while afterwards.”
- Social media makes it easy for smaller firms to demonstrate their professionalism and to compete with their larger counterparts.
- The psychology around liking or sharing a post is interesting. “If someone positions themself as a useful source of content then often their likes and shares become like a personal recommendation and their connections will read, view or listen to the piece they’re sharing. It’s these actions that help make content spread and that enable you to reach a greater number of people.”
Through social media Paul’s been able to attract clients beyond his geographical boundary – he has clients in almost every Australian state, New Zealand, Bali and the USA and has advised clients in the UK in the past.
The majority of these clients found him online. Many of these are clients he could never have reached via any other method.In the first three years of operating 5ways, 80% of Paul’s clients came via Twitter – but the ‘social media cycle’ did play a role:
“no matter how a person first contacts you (be it via Twitter, LinkedIn, your website, email or phone) they will invariably look you up online, visit your LinkedIn profile and your website, check you out on Twitter etc. This may happen before or just after you hear from them”
So it’s vital to have everything aligned and working well.By way of example, Paul replied to a tweet someone had sent about how hard it was for small businesses and said “business is tough. Chat to your accountant – there may be some things you can do. Otherwise, know it will get better.” Another business owner in Sydney (who he had no prior relationship with) tweeted him along the lines of “it was great you helped that person.” They then had a quick conversation via Twitter. The business owner then took a look at Paul’s LinkedIn profile and website, followed him on Twitter and then sent him an email to let Paul know he was looking for an accountant, liked his website and could they have a chat? They jumped on Skype and had a face to face video chat. The business owner gave Paul access to his accounting records online and Paul was able to offer some ideas. Paul sent him a quote that same day and the next morning he found a signed engagement letter and a commitment to pay a monthly fixed fee of $1,000 per month in accounting fees. This entire process happened within 12 hours.
“This is very different to the traditional accounting model where people book an appointment a few days out – in that time someone else will have serviced the client.”
Paul has numerous examples of being introduced to people via both LinkedIn and Twitter he wouldn’t have otherwise had access to.
“Social media has turbo-charged word of mouth and tools such as Skype video give you the all-important face-to-face contact – and because you don’t have to leave your office it cuts down on non-productive time.”
He’s also been featured in leading Australian financial publication, BRW (Business Review Weekly) as a result of connecting with one of their journalists.
“A BRW journalist tweeted a link to one of her articles, which many of those in technology circles disagreed with. Lots of people tweeted her telling her she was wrong. I took a different approach – I responded saying I understood her view but that there were others with a different view and if she wanted to hear it to feel free to get in touch. I then connected with her on LinkedIn. This led to a phone call where I set out my story – she liked it and wrote an article. She subsequently recommended me to one of her colleagues who also contacted me for a piece they were putting together.”
While you can have some fantastic conversations via social networks, Paul acknowledges that it is frightening for a lot of accountants because you can get negative feedback on your content. Paul experienced that himself when he wrote a piece which criticised financial planners, but believes you have to be open and honest and respond politely to people.
Paul’s advice to you
“You don’t have to be on every platform but make sure that wherever you are you do a good job on your profile. It’s better not to have a LinkedIn or Twitter profile than to do a half arsed job. Use your profile as an opportunity to show a bit of yourself and your personality. Tell a story. If you’re on LinkedIn because you are looking for a new job then your profile should read like a CV – down to the level of tasks you’ve done, but if you’re on there to build relationships you need to tell a story about what you do and why you do it. That’s hard, and can be uncomfortable, for accountants because we’re typically bad at selling ourselves but if you don’t sell yourself, no one else will. Get someone to review your profile – be it a marketing person, a colleague or a trusted client: ask them does this paint a picture of who I am and what I do?”
“When people invite you to connect on LinkedIn, they’re not asking to be your friend. The real benefit in connecting to someone new is the access to their network. It’s amazing how few degrees of separation there are – these are great tools to reach hard to access people. It’s up to you to demonstrate value when you do get in front of them.”
“Don’t be afraid to share content via social media. If you’ve got a blog on your website then share it to your social feeds. And if you see a post that resonates with you then share it or comment on it – start conversations with other professionals because these often lead to you gaining new knowledge, building relationships and rapport etc. Don’t be afraid to let your personality come through – if you love accounting or are a bit of a practical joker then let that come through (provided you do it in a professional, respectful way). Having said that, don’t over share. A good social media strategy is to be selective when sharing content. Only pick articles that resonate with you and will appeal to those you’re looking to reach. Less is definitely more.”
This is a brilliant example of someone who has used social tools to:
- Listen to people and respond to their needs
- Share information that will genuinely help, or be of interest to, SME business owners
- Carve out a clear position in the market.
Paul understands that, far from operating in isolation, your social media presence and activity plays a part in a prospective client’s pre-qualification process. It must align with your goals and tell your story so that people can decide whether or not they want to meet with you.
Do you have a story to share? If so I'd love to interview you. Please leave a comment below and I'll be in touch.