Trophy Triumphs – What’s an Award Win Worth?

Every week it seems like there’s another gala dinner where innovators, visionaries and pioneers put on their glad rags to schmooze with peers. While getting applauded for a job well done is a great morale boost internally, several Praxity member firms explore our obsession with celebrating being the best, brightest and biggest and whether it is eclipsing what clients really look for from an organisation or service provider.

As the Accountant & International Accounting Bulletin prepares to judge the latest submissions for their revered annual ceremony, does winning one (or even a handful) really offer bottom-line value? Does displaying every blue ribbon, certificate and trophy in your atrium or online set you apart or convey too much horn tooting? And in accounting circles, which wins really encourage prospective clients to take your business more seriously?

While some competitions hold great credibility, the volume of ‘prestigious’ publication, vendor, website and sector contests can mean the lustre for more impressive plaudits gets lost.

Marketing principal Janet Kyle Altman from Kaufman Rossin comments: “Award competitions and events have become ubiquitous. Community organizations, professional associations and media companies use them to build awareness of their own brands, raise money, and create “buzz”. For award candidates and winners, it’s important to consider your own strategy, not the strategies of the award sponsors, before spending the time and effort to apply.”

For Praxity, winning at the International Accounting Bulletin awards has helped to demonstrate to peers, stakeholders, prospective firms and clients served by member firms, that the Alliance has the global reach and industry allure to compete against the high ranking, recognised players.

Praxity CEO Graeme Gordon reflects:

“In 2018, we won Campaign of the Year for our programme of industry-shaping debate and commentary. Praxity was also named Association of the Year in 2017, 2016 and 2014, and Rising Star Association in 2013. For such a young organisation, five notable accolades in five years is a big accomplishment and testament to the strength of the entire alliance.”

Changing fortunes

Aside from providing a sizeable brand endorsement, research suggests that there are tangible business lead benefits. A study several years ago by Hendricks & Singhal of the University of Western Ontario and Georgia Institute of Technology found that corporate award winners had 37% more sales growth and 44% higher stock price return than their peers. A British Quality Foundation study also discovered that smaller award-winning companies experience a 63% increase in operating income and a 39% growth in sales compared to non-award winners.

For Plante Moran, being listed on the credible Fortune Magazine’s 100 best Places to Work for 21 consecutive years is intrinsically linked to the firm’s ‘We Care’ culture. The firm first appeared on the list in 1999 and has been on the prestigious list each year that it has applied. Today it ranks in the 21st spot. Given that the average firm only tends to remain on the Fortune list for three years, Plante Moran’s 21-year unbroken run demonstrates an unprecedented success.

The benefits of Plante Moran’s people-first culture are reflected equally in its staff retention and its bottom line. Since its first Fortune listing, Plante Moran has quadrupled its staff, increased revenue by more than 500 percent, and expanded to 25 domestic and international offices. The firm now serves clients in all 50 US states and 124 countries.

Plante Moran’s Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Antaya comments: “The Fortune award has become ingrained in our brand. Our culture is rooted in what co-founder Frank Moran once called his ‘grand experiment’.”

Nearly a century ago, Frank set about creating an accounting firm where the best practitioners couldn’t wait to get in the door and clients were queuing up to receive unsurpassed service. The foundation of his long-term growth strategy was that if you hire good people and treat them well, they’ll provide great service. This imaginative vision has truly stood the test of time, with the Fortune recognition testament to everything that the firm continues to accomplish.

“In a firm of humble accountants, the Fortune awards and our very high independent client satisfaction results tell the story for us in a modest way,” states Jeff. “They strongly reinforce the experience that prospects have when they meet our team.”

Jeff adds that the firm doesn’t seek out awards, but wins them where it is organically doing well. “As a firm we’re not defined by how the outside world measures our accomplishments; instead, we’re defined by our core values that form the foundation for those accomplishments and enable us to succeed.”

Best in the biz

Like Plante Moran, Kaufman Rossin considers awards, prizes and rankings to be part of its brand awareness program. Used to spread the word about the firm, its culture, and innovations to audiences, Janet highlights that a ranking as a top accounting practice is a baseline measurement.

She comments: “A listing as a top accounting firm doesn’t directly measure the impact on client satisfaction or retention; other direct research tools should be used for those metrics. However, there are several types of awards that are really strategically valuable as differentiators, including winning accolades for community leadership, internal culture and specialist practice areas.”

Having a culture that’s respected within and outside of the industry is one of the best ways to establish a firm’s brand in the market and drive the most talented professionals to the doorstep, adds Janet. “This becomes more and more important, as the talent we’re recruiting goes beyond new accounting graduates and into more experienced consulting, finance and technology roles,” she highlights.

Brand visibility

Reputable awards can generate significant publicity across local and national press and social media. This can open new doors to previously untapped markets or contacts. The process of entering can also be quite cathartic, helping firms to measure process improvements and source testimonials and data that may otherwise stay hidden. Kudos aside, winning an award from a publication that’s read by your target audience conveys a certain amount of credibility and trust to clients, claims Stuart Eaglestone, Director of Marketing at Rouse Partners. The UK firm has secured a number of magazine and sector accolades in recent years. The most noteworthy was winning the AccountingWEB Practice Excellence Awards.

“Awards validate that what we are saying to prospective clients has been corroborated by industry professionals and that they can have confidence we are focused on continually finding new ways to offer a better service. Awards also set a standard and way of working for our team, and new joiners, that says, ‘at Rouse we don’t just settle for parity’.” – Stuart Eaglestone, Director of Marketing at Rouse Partners.

Goodwill the gateway to greater benefits

Being recognised as an unsung hero in the community and for philanthropic efforts can be equally powerful as it visibly demonstrates a commitment to local roots. Spotlighting stuff like equity, sustainability, voluntary posts and even elected patron positions builds respect and delivers rewards both for employees and the business.

While expectation of direct financial gain or awards shouldn’t be the driver, giving back can be a positive business force. For Kaufman, integrating with the community is about putting time and talent into efforts and initiatives people care about, not just money. ”These awards, and the events and publicity they bring, provide ongoing support to our positioning: we go beyond the numbers,” explains Janet.

Recently, Kaufman Rossin CEO Blain Heckaman was notified that he is being considered for inclusion within the Florida 500 — Florida Trend’s initiative to identify the most influential business leaders across major industries throughout the state. “This honor, if he is included, will give our firm and our CEO state-wide visibility among our prospects, clients, and referrers – the business leaders of our state and beyond. This kind of honor is exactly the type of community accolade we’re seeking,” says Janet. “Building a reserve of goodwill in your community means there will be people there to back you up and speak up on your behalf in the future,” adds Jeff.

Quality distinction

Modern firms today do far more than crunch the numbers, which has resulted in an explosion of new award categories recognising innovation, technology, sustainability and specialist skills, to name a few.

For Janet, awards in specific practice areas do a terrific job of supporting Kaufman Rossin’s consulting and more complex practices. “These more individual forms of recognition can raise a firm’s prominence and drive visitors to social media channels to discover more about our niche practice areas,” claims Janet.

While some might go to the opening of an envelope, ensuring your brand message isn’t diluted means being more circumspect about which categories and awards to enter, notes Stuart.

He comments: “There are a lot of awards out there. Rouse tends to target just a small number that are recognised by our audience. We use them as a way to benchmark against the leading competition to see how we are performing from a client care and innovation perspective. We enter if we believe that we have done or achieved something above and beyond what others in our space have done, and which has genuinely added value for our clients and/or team.” For Rouse Partners, winning the AccountingWEB Practice Excellence Awards was deemed credible because the judging format involved a client survey. “The result was based on actual client feedback on our firm’s performance. Equally, being a finalist in the ‘British Accountancy Awards for Most Innovative Mid-tier Firm’ was credible as it recognised our client-led technology innovations,” explains Stuart. Stuart adds: “In service-led industries awards and accreditations are an important way to distinguish quality.”

Quality not quantity

As all three Praxity firms featured will testify, the rewards of going for and nailing an award can be plentiful. Whatever the outcome – win, lose or draw – the process of preparing an entry is a valuable exercise, allowing you and your team to consider your work and its impacts in detail and take pride in a job well done.

Of course, when you win the benchmark has been set. Stuart notes: “Winning and promoting your award wins brings a certain expectation of your service. You must be able to continue to deliver to this level, otherwise clients will soon see a disconnect.” Janet reaffirms: “Whatever category or competition you are looking to enter, take the time to consider how each is aligned to your firm’s individual strategy.”

Jeff concurs saying: “Winning awards certainly does help to validate market leadership. Yet, participating in them needs to be balanced against the likely return on investment.”

Janet Altman is a Management Chief Marketing Officer at Kaufman Rossin, one of the Top 100 CPA and advisory firms in the U.S.