From marketing to practice growth
How one woman made the switch at Rea & Associates
BY Gale crosle Y
Katie Tolin pursued a career in marketing and she did it by the
book. armed with undergraduate degrees in business and
public relations, she earned a Master’s in political communications before joining a law firm where she
spent five years in legal marketing.
Today, Tolin is a successful director of practice growth.
showing up at
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.”
Enhancing proposals. Tolin coaches
partners in developing opportunities and
communicating problems and solutions
that stand 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
What Tolin hasn’t been, however, is stagnant. In 2003, she was a competent marketer.
research calls, honing their ability to un-
cover needs and craft solutions. Today,
it’s not unusual for Tolin to coach part-
ners through important prospect
calls, “feeding” input and ques-
tions. 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 outside-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 health care 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.)
signing up for
where a Rea partner
heard me speak about landing big
fish and, intrigued, arranged a meeting with
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.
“When I arrived there was no formal market-
ing structure in place,” Tolin recalls. “I spent
my first four years doing what I knew — net-
working, 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 through-
out Ohio and the push for growth was gain-
ing steam. Partners were getting involved,
Gale Crosley, CPA, is founder and principal
of Crosley + Co. ( www.crosleycompany.
com). Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
She and I 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
The move toward a more comprehensive
growth strategy involved significant changes,
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
There’s nothing magical about the trans-
formation 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
Solid support from the managing part-
Working knowledge of the growth process;
A growth champion who is fearless;
An understanding that growth is a marathon, not a sprint; and,
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 both the organization and
There’s growth in your future, too. Go out
and find it! AT
clients about all of your service offerings. It
may be that your firm has an area of expertise
that your clients could benefit from, but they
didn’t know you offered.
At the low-tech end, one firm stresses the
importance of hand-written thank-you notes
after projects and engagements. Sometimes
they will even send a tin of popcorn when the
client is going through a challenging time.
This firm’s professionals will also take larger
clients out to lunch, while pointedly talking
about anything but business.
No matter what type of approach you use,
client communications should be about
keeping you in the minds of clients. In order
to do so, you should consider a mix of ideas
and appreciative gestures.
Adopt a team approach. Although the
historical model where all information and
communication flows through the partner
continues to be effective in some situations
and certainly in smaller firms, as client situ-
ations become more complex, firms should
consider adopting a team approach in en-
gagements. By developing a team approach,
accounting firms can ensure that someone
is always available to the client as a familiar
face, who knows about the client’s issues and
the way the client does business.