Tips for Creating a Writing Style Guide

Articles. Emails. Blog posts. Professional bios. Sales sheets. Client communications. E-books. The list goes on.

Written content—in its countless forms—is a critical way firms communicate with clients and prospects. And if your firm is like ours, you likely rely on your practice professionals to some degree to help develop content that can be shared with external audiences.

When you have content coming in from a variety of individuals, it can be a challenge to manage the varied writing styles and edit everything to ensure one consistent voice and message.

Cue the writing style guide. A writing style guide helps set guidelines that can be applied to internal and external communications. This consistent approach helps to create a standard of excellence and professionalism in all of your published content.

The writing style guide also saves times by answering frequently asked questions like, “Do we use ‘not-for-profit’ or ‘nonprofit’?” or “When should I spell out an abbreviation?”

While it is ultimately up to the marketing team to review, edit and approve content before it is published, a writing style guide can help reduce the amount of time you spend on the editing process.

Here are a few tips when creating a writing style guide:

1. Jot it Down

Before our team began to put together a formal guide, we simply jotted down tips that we wished our writers knew. When you are editing content, make a separate list of the common errors, corrections, or suggestions you make. These will help mold the writing style guide by answering those frequently asked questions. Often these different “styles” are simply just a number of small tweaks that ultimately create consistent communications that look and sound like one firm.

2. Make it Short and Sweet

This rule applies not only to your professional writing, but also to your writing style guide. Just as clients and prospects want information that is presented in a clear and digestible format, your team members need a style guide that is quick to reference and easy to understand.

3. Cover Your Bases

Go back to your jotted down notes (see #1 above) and start there. Typically, you’ll notice a pattern of tips that you’ll want to set guidelines around. Here are the things that are typically included in writing style guides, but again make sure to adapt it to your content:

  • Commonly used terms – These are commonly used niche and industry terms where you see inconsistencies. There is typically a lot of gray area with these terms, so pick one and stick with it. For example, at our firm we refer to “cybersecurity” (one word) rather than “cyber security” (two words).
  • Grammar – This one might seem obvious but include some common grammar errors that keep coming across your desk. It also helps to pick a formal style book (i.e. AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, etc.) in case your team needs more guidelines.
  • Punctuation and symbols – Include guidelines on commas, slashes, “&” versus “and”, numbers, money, percent and time of day. These are frequently used in content and it helps to have clear rules on how to use these.
  • Company name – Include the appropriate use for your company name for both internal and external communications. Let writers know when it is ok to use company abbreviations. List out appropriate use of department/team names and include any specific communication rules regarding your brand.
  • Acronyms/jargon – Give writers examples of industry acronyms and jargon and when it may be best to spell things out.
  • Unapproved terms – Make sure to include unapproved terms that could send the State Board of CPAs or other regulatory bodies calling. For example, one of our unapproved terms is “expert” unless we are referring to expert witness testimony. Explaining where the regulations come from will go a long way and show that you have reason to prohibit these “unapproved” terms.
  • Voice and Tone – Is your firm typically more casual or buttoned up? Help writers understand your firm’s voice and tone. Think about what you want your readers to portray: formal, experienced, witty, approachable, helpful?

4. Show Examples

Show examples throughout your writing style guide. These will help solidify the guidelines and give your writers working examples of how to apply the rules.

Example:

Incorrect: P & N’s cyber security experts are familiar with FISMA, NIST, HIPAA, and more.

Correct: P&N’s cybersecurity professionals are familiar with numerous security frameworks, including the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), among others.

 

By creating a writing style guide tailored to your firm, you’ll be on the path to a unified voice and consistent communications and branding (and will hopefully save time editing along the way).

How Well Do You Know Your Clients?

We know how important it is for our doer-sellers to truly understand our clients. When people understand those they serve, they solve problems more creatively, provide better service and build stronger relationships.

To help our doer-sellers guide relationship-developing conversations, we put together a list of questions they should be able to answer about their clients, especially those with whom they work closely.

The goal of this exercise is to better understand areas where we should have more in-depth conversations with our clients and to identify areas for improvement or education (for example, learning more about a client’s industry.)

Many variations of this list are available with a quick Google search, but here are some of the key questions we have passed along to our doer-sellers:

Your Client’s BUSINESS

  • What does the organization do?
  • What is the most recent seminar/conference/educational event they attended?
  • What trade associations are they involved in?
  • What publications do they read? (What external sources do they rely on for information to help them run their business?)
  • What community organizations/efforts/causes are they involved with?
  • What are their key goals or objectives for the current year?
  • What are their key goals or objectives for next 5 years?
  • Did they grow last year? How much? Is this more or less than industry/market average?
  • Who are their major competitors?
  • Where do they get information/guidance from?
  • What strategy does the client have for developing their business over the next 3 years?
  • What other services do they buy/outsource?
  • Which other advisors/vendors do they currently use and what do they think about them?

Your Client’s MARKET/INDUSTRY

  • What are the key competitive pressures in the clients’ industry? (Regulatory changes, new online competitors, pricing pressures, etc.)
  • What is going on in their geographic market(s)?

Your Client Contact PERSONALLY

At the end of the day, our business is still largely built on relationships between people, not companies.

  • What are their personal goals within the organization?
  • What activities or hobbies does your client enjoy?
  • What are their passions/interests outside of work?
  • Where/when was their most recent vacation?

Autonomy as a Motivator in the Sales Process

If you’ve ever seen this popular TED talk by Daniel Pink on “The Puzzle of Motivation”, you know that autonomy is one of the most powerful intrinsic motivators for employees. Autonomy is our desire to have control over our work and choice in how we use our time.

Firms can support an environment of autonomy by giving people real control over various aspects of their work, including business development activities. When done correctly, firms can employ autonomy to motivate doer-sellers to participate in the business development process.

Here’s how to do autonomy the right way:

Communicate Goals & Vision

It’s not enough to tell your people to sell or teach them how to do it (although these are important); they need to know WHY their assigned tasks or individual goals have value to the firm. Make sure employees at all levels of your firm understand the vision and how their piece contributes to the big picture.

Provide Structure, Direction & Support

It’s important to find a balance between autonomy and structure. Before doer-sellers feel comfortable moving forward in the sales process on their own, they need to understand the rules of engagement. At a minimum, make sure your firm has the following in place:

  • Defined Sales Process: Give your doer-sellers a clear path to follow that outlines key steps and responsibilities. A shared understanding of key terms and processes helps to ensure everyone is speaking the same language and working from the same playbook.
  • Training: Incorporate some level of business development training into your firm. This can include tactical, skills-based training (such as how to ask for referrals or CRM training) as well as more general topics (such as understanding the firm’s target industries, service capabilities, etc.)
  • Tools & Resources: Give your doer-sellers the training and technology they’ll need to be successful in the sales process. Make sure employees know where to go when they have questions.

Let Them Fly!

If your doer-sellers have a firm understanding of why business development is important and the guidelines within which to operate, it’s time to get out of the way and let them do their thing!

Map out your current process and identify bottlenecks or unnecessary steps that can be eliminated or streamlined through the use of technology. (Remember, an autonomous environment is more focused on outcomes rather than the steps people take to get there.)

Here a few examples of areas within the BD process you may consider reworking:

  • Do you require a minimum number of hours per year/quarter/month to be spent on BD activities?
  • Do doer-sellers (specifically at the non-partner level) have to seek expense approval before taking a contact out for lunch?
  • Do you block access to social media sites?
  • Are doer-sellers dependent on the marketing team to provide a prospect with general information about the firm, its services, or its industry practice areas? (If your doer-sellers are frequently asking your marketing team for this information, it may be time to consider giving them access to the materials they need with a tool like POUNCE.)

Challenge yourself and firm leadership to find ways to reduce rules, incorporate flexibility and create decision-making opportunities.

Summary

Autonomy is a powerful motivator because it’s really about empowerment and trust. Empowered employees feel more valued and more satisfied, which increases their productivity and engagement. Trust your team to determine how to approach each sales opportunity and you’ll reap the rewards of an engaged, high-performing team.

Also remember: firms don’t have to change overnight. Start with small increases in flexibility and choice and implement changes gradually.

Reasons to Meet with Clients and Prospects in Person (Yes, Even During Busy Season)

As accounting firms across the county enter into yet another busy season, everyone is looking for ways to be as efficient as possible. This means looking for ways to execute tasks quicker, cutting out “non-essential” activities, and focusing on immediate needs only (i.e., getting work out the door).

However, this time of year provides incredible opportunity to strengthen relationships with clients and develop new relationships with prospects.

So even during your busiest times, why should you meet with clients or prospects in person?

1. It shows personal commitment.

It’s easy NOT to go the extra mile when you’re busy. Don’t lose your prospects or clients to other service providers because they feel overlooked by you. If you show a sincere interest in them and their business during your busiest time, that’s something a client makes a note of.

2. It builds trust.

The foundation of every good relationship is trust. When you trust, you form an influential bond that helps you work and communicate more effectively. Being able to look someone in the eye and shake their hand (which you can’t do over email) helps to create an innate sense of trust.

3. It eliminates distractions.

It is easy to become sidetracked. Multi-tasking parties can be checking email or addressing another matter altogether. However, meeting in-person forces all parties to be more present and engaged in the discussion or challenge at hand.

4. It gives you an opportunity to gather important information you won’t get over the phone or via email.

Meeting with clients in person gives you the opportunity to see the reaction, not just hear it or read it. This also enables you to make adjustments in your message or delivery as you go based on the non-verbal feedback you’re receiving from your client.

Additionally, people have a tendency to speak more freely in-person that they would via other communication methods. This means your client may mention something to you in passing that otherwise wouldn’t have been brought up over the phone or via email.

BONUS POINTS: Visit clients and prospects at their location.

When you visit a client in their own space, you can learn so much about the organization AND your contact on a personal level. For example, are there any recent awards or accolades displayed? Are most employees in the office or does it seem quiet, indicating they work remotely? Does their space seem more modern or traditional? The environment can give you insights that may affect your choice of sales tactics or client service approach.

Conclusion

Technology makes it easier than ever to stay in touch with clients and prospects and perform work remotely. While there are certainly times where it makes sense to meet virtually, clients and prospects still value in-person meetings.

ICYMI: Top Posts of 2018

As we mark another year down in the books, here’s a look back at some of our most read articles from 2018:

1. Building a Business Development Culture, Summed Up with this Playlist

I was recently re-reading this article that our very own Marketing Director Rachael Higginbotham wrote on building a business development culture and decided it is a story worth re-telling in song form. Enjoy! [READ MORE]

2. Not-So-Busy Season

Accounting firms are famous for “busy season.” Although workloads have begun to even out year-round in some practice areas, late January through the end of April is still the most demanding period of time for accounting firms. Because of the high focus on audit and tax deadlines, it’s oftentimes also the slowest period for accounting marketers.

With less access to client service professionals, how can marketers use their “not-so-busy” season most productively? In a word: prepare. [READ MORE]

3. 7 Tips for a Successful Prospect Meeting

So, you’ve scheduled an initial meeting with one of your target prospects. Great! This first discussion is crucial for relationship development and ultimately winning business. Here’s how not to blow it. [READ MORE]

4. We can do WHAT?!? Educating Employees on Service Offerings

In our firm, one of the challenges we hear most often is that our professionals can’t keep track of everything we can do. They are continually being reminded to look for additional opportunities to help their existing clients, but how can you identify areas in which your firm can help if you’re not aware of all of your service offerings? OR, even if you know what services your firm can provide, how do you know who to talk to?

Team members can’t be expected to have intelligent, meaningful discussions with clients to identify new opportunities without the right tools and knowledge of the firm’s services. So how can marketers help bridge this gap? [READ MORE]

5. 3 Surprising Ways POUNCE Helps Our Team

You already know POUNCE is a professional resume and marketing material management tool that can enable your team members to easily find and distribute up-to-date collateral to prospects.

But after using POUNCE in our own firm, we’ve discovered a few other ways the system makes our lives easier. Here are three surprising ways POUNCE has helped the P&N marketing team. [READ MORE]

Productivity as a Competitive Advantage in Business Development

In professional services marketing, success often depends on our ability to get things done with limited resources. When a firm increases its productivity, it is able to produce more with the same amount of resources (work and time), which can lead to several important benefits.

In today’s world, productivity often depends on implementing the right technologies for your firm. In business development, this means identifying the manual aspects of your marketing and sales processes and selecting tools to help you streamline and automate those areas to increase your business development productivity.

When you implement tools that reduce administrative time, amazing things can happen. Let’s look at two scenarios:

Scenario 1: You spend less time on Task A.

Productivity - Spend Less Time

In this scenario, you are able to reduce the amount of administrative time spent on Task A which means the task gets done faster and you are able to move on to Tasks B, C, and so on.

Increasing productivity enables a firm to provide more “product” (in our world, hours) without increasing costs or other inputs. The ultimate result in this case is INCREASED PROFITABILITY.

Imagine the impact on your growth with tools in place to enable a doer-seller to deliver customized marketing collateral to 5 prospects in the same time it previously took them to send information to 1!

Scenario 2: You spend the same amount of time on Task A but with a greater focus on strategy.

Productivity - Focus on Quality

In this scenario, you are able to reduce the amount of administrative time spent on Task A, which frees up time for you be more strategic and work on the more complex (less clerical) aspects of the task.

You may spend the same amount of total time on Task A, but because more of this time is spent focused on strategy, the end result is INCREASED QUALITY (i.e., a better product). And in the world of professional services, this means better client experiences (which I dare say will ultimately also lead to increased profitability).

Imagine if your firm had tools in place to enable a doer-seller to take the same amount of time previously wasted searching for marketing collateral and use that time to focus on high-value relationship-building activities for a prospect!

Summary

Productivity and time management are ALWAYS topics of discussion within our firms, especially as it relates to business development. Finding ways to reduce administrative time in our marketing and sales processes helps to increase the productivity of both your doer-sellers and your marketing teams and gives your firm an advantage in the competitive professional services marketplace.

Check out these related articles:

Confessions of a Client: How to Get Me

We know how important it is for our doer-sellers to truly understand our clients. When people understand those they serve, they solve problems more creatively, provide better service and build stronger relationships.

To develop an in-depth understanding of our clients and prospects, it’s important for our doer-sellers to not only spend time with them but to actually put themselves in their clients’ and prospects’ shoes.

With this in mind, we developed a training session for our doer-sellers called “Confessions of a Client: How to Get Me.” In this presentation, our marketing team shared our story and personal observations about being on the prospect’s side of the sales process. We discussed how we selected a firm to assist with our brand refresh and website overhaul, covering everything from how we determined which firms would be invited to participate in the bid process to how we ultimately selected our vendor.

My guess is most of you have a similar story to tell, and this can be very powerful in showing the sales process from prospect’s perspective.

Looking back at how we selected a partner, we believe these were their keys to success:

  1. They identified us as a target. They made it known that we were a firm they wanted to work with.
  2. They made contact. They used their network to identify in-roads and set up meetings. They paid attention to what information was being published by us and about us. They used this information and their network to build a relationship with us.
  3. They helped us for no other reason than to help us. When they first reached out to us, we were NOT ready to build a new website, and we let them know very directly. They helped us anyway—by passing along helpful information, calling us when they spotted interesting opportunities in the market, offering introductions to others, etc.
  4. They practiced patience. They checked in with us regularly and made sure we knew they were waiting in the wings for the opportunity, but never assumed they were our only option.
  5. They made mistakes. BUT they did a great job recovering from those mistakes.
  6. They were on our team. We knew they were the right pick for us because it felt like they were already on our team, well before we officially selected them. They guided us throughout the process, from getting budget and buy-in from leadership to establishing a baseline price range.
  7. They compensated for their perceived weaknesses. They played to their strengths, and found ways to make sure we knew it. They also asked what their weaknesses were and addressed how they would overcome them.
  8. They asked for the work and were prepared to close the deal. At every stage in the process, they made sure that we knew how much they wanted to work with us. They also knew that the decision might not be unanimous among our various decision-makers, but they had prepared for this by identifying their champion within our firm and making sure that champion would go to bat for them.
  9. They won the work. Enough said.
  10. They continue to win work. They regularly stay in contact with us to understand what we’re working on, what our priorities are, what challenges we’re facing, and so on. And they continue to find ways to help us with these priorities and challenges.

Summary: Share Your Story!

This is just one example of our own experience as the prospect. Consider sharing your own story with your doer-sellers to offer a different perspective on the sales process and to help them put themselves in their clients’ shoes.