Different types of clients

Your existing clients probably fall into three categories:

  • Those who will never want you to do anything different from what you already do each year. Or would be unprepared to pay a decent fee for any additional services and advice.
  • Those who have a need for specialist advice every now and then but are unaware that you could provide (or co-ordinate) this;
  • Those who assume that as you are their accountant you can advise them on anything and everything vaguely related to their finances, tax, accounts and business.

I suspect that many accountants assume that more of their clients fall into the third category than is actually the case. How would you know? And how exposed are you to other advisers offering their services to address your clients’ wider needs?

Does this analysis resonate with you?

Just a thought.

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Accountants are very different to frogs

A popular parable for the impact of change is that of a frog in a saucepan of water. If the water is heated slowly the frog doesn’t really notice the temperature changing and is eventually boiled alive. (Sorry about the image). This is said to be in stark contrast to what would be the frog’s reaction if it was dropped into a pan of boiling water. It would immediately leap out and so continue living.

There are plenty of commentators who purport to warn accountants of changes that equate to the gradual warming of the saucepan. The commentators suggest that if the accountants don’t recognise what’s going on and make big sudden changes then they are doomed (like the boiling frog).

I disagree. I don’t see the need for massive changes – akin to leaping out of the pot. To my mind accountants must continue to adapt as the world around us changes. Some accountants who adapt first may gain a competitive advantage over the others, and some who refuse to adapt will eventually run out of clients and work. But it will be a gradual process. None of the catalysts for change demand revolution in the accountants’ office or marketing efforts. I believe that this is one of the reasons why my talk on Making more profits from your smaller clients is generally so well received. I highlight simple, little changes that can have a big impact. I suppose I advocate evolution rather than revolution.

Some commentators see this attitude by accountants as apathy. Accountants refusing to face the future and sticking to the old tried and trusted routes to market and service levels. So what? If accountants are too busy to plan for the future they can defer such activity until they do have time.

Alternatively f the accountant is very busy but is struggling to generate the profits they deserve then of course they need to take time out to consider their options. AS I constantly stress during my talks, ‘If you carry on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll carry on getting what you’ve always got’. If you want things to change, YOU have do things differently. In this context some people find it helpful to engage a business coach or mentor to motivate them to identify and implement appropriate changes in their practice.

Accountants are special however. Unlike with most other professions, accountants’ clients come back year after year due to the amount of recurring compliance work that they pay their accountants to do for them. Only when a number of clients move to a new accountant will the incumbent look to consider what they can do to retain the rest of their clients and to attract new ones. Will there be enough time? In most cases, I believe the answer is ‘yes’.

What do you think?

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Recruitment tips for accountants seeking new staff

Another day, another request for me to to help find someone to fill a vacancy at a smaller firm. On this occasion it’s for a sole practitioner in the Berks/Oxfordshire area. I thought it might be helpful to list out some of the elements of my advice:

– Create a simple job spec that identifies what the new recruit will need to be able to do (ie: the must haves) and also what else he/she could do if they have the skill, experience and interest (the nice to haves); If you can, go further and determine what personal characteristics the candidate must have – but do think carefully about these. Do you need someone who has gained a specific professional qualification or is their practical experience of more value? Experience doing what exactly? The more precise you are the fewer unsuitable  people you will see and the less time you will waste interviewing them.

– Determine an appropriate salary range for the role. You may need to seek input from specialist recruiters to get this right. You will generally struggle to attract anyone if you haven’t decided what the pay range will be. Equally you will waste your time interviewing people who want more than you’re offering.

– Ask around your contacts, friends, family and anyone else if they are aware of anyone who might be suitable for the role. (Provide a copy of the job spec if asked);

– Remember that most suitable applicants will probably look at your website before deciding whether or not to attend an interview, so ensure that the vacancy is promoted on your website (if you have one); If you have other staff, you are in a good position to make your vacancy and firm more attractive than the alternatives. I’ve addressed this issue before in a couple of posts here about: Filling vacancies at professional firms

– Speak to the specialist recruiters for accountancy firms (or indeed the tax specialist recruiters if the role is a tax one); Seek their advice and input. They generally only charge a fee when they secure a placement. The more experienced recruiters will give you honest unbiased advice. It’s worth taking this on board rather than guessing at what is a reasonable salary for the role, even if ultimately you are able to fill the vacancy without the agent’s help.

Do readers have any other related tips to share?

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Is the way you describe yourself helping you to generate enough business?

Last week I posed the question ‘What makes your practice different?’ Earlier in the year I posted a related item:What’s special about your firm – really?

As a follow up from those posts I thought I would share some the differences I have noted as being highlighted by a number of the sole practitioners and smaller firms of accountants I have worked with in recent months. These are ways that they distinguish themselves and stand out from the competition:

– Fixed fee guarantees. No additional charges unless agreed in advance
– Charging (a good) monthly fee for bookkeeping and doing annual tax returns and accounts for free
– Satisfaction guarantees (money back if not satisfied)
– Review of last year’s accounts and tax return (if done by taxpayer) and if no tax savings identified, then no fee in first year
– Tax planning advice to maximise clients’ entitlement to child and working tax credits (worth upto £12k pa)
– An overt focus on saving tax and this permeates promo materials, website and correspondence
– Provide clients with free easy to use bookkeeping software so that they don’t have to pay the accountant or anyone else to do it and so that accountant can quickly and easily check things and produce the client’s accounts
– Out of hours service, visiting clients at home in the evenings (ie: at their convenience rather than the accountants)
– A refusal to take on a new client unless he/she is recommended by an existing client.
– Free tax saving guides available as downloads from website
– Specialists in advising specific professions or business types (motor trade, coaches/therapists, charities, hospital consultants)

The list goes on. Now some of the above are not unique but they do come across as different. Mostly they are highlighted on marketing materials and websites. They are backed up by explanations as to how these concepts benefit the prospect/client.

Probably the last one is the most valuable. To be known as the accountant who specialises in a particular type of client (not exclusively necessarily) is a powerful message and makes you far more memorable. It distinguishes you from all the other accountants that your contact knows. It provides a reason and a justification for them to mention your name to anyone in that field.

NB: This is quite different to the idea of claiming to specialise in a list of professions and business types that just happens to cover all of your client base. Indeed lists like that which I have seen on dozens of accountants’ websites are not ‘specialisms’ at all. Nor are they different or memorable. I’m not even sure that they are meaningful.

It works for other businesses too. My Tax Advice Network, for example, specialises in providing tax support FOR ACCOUNTANTS. Far more of my business contacts are happy to pass on details of the Network to their accountants than would be the case if we did not have that focus. Indeed, if we were simply a tax consultancy there would be no justification in asking contacts to pass on our details to their accountants and, more importantly, my contacts would have no confidence in doing so due to the lack of specialisation.

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What makes your practice different?

Back in 2007 I wrote a chapter for a book (BusinesWise) to help Entrepreneurs on ‘Finding, Choosing and Using an accountant’. I tried to ensure that this was more practical and real-world advice than that which appears on a variety of business and accountancy websites. I explained some of the ways that entrepreneurs could distinguish between different accountants and the sort of things that are worth finding about before appointing anyone.

From the professional accountant’s perspective what can you do to highlight the real benefits to a prospective client of engaging with you rather than anyone else? I cover some of the related issues during my talks to groups of accountants on How to make more profits from your smaller clients.

Firstly – many of, what we might think should be, the key issues are taken as read by prospective clients. In particular, whilst we all know the value of qualifications and membership of professional bodies, the public are less interested. Specifically they are unaware that anyone can call themselves an accountant.

It matters not if you think they SHOULD take more notice of such differentiators. In practice they are often far more interested in personal recommendations and testimonials from happy clients. If you’re going to rely on your qualifications etc you’d probably get more value from these if you also explain why and how this benefits the client. Bear in mind that unqualified accountants win plenty of work by highlighting the benefits that their status provides.

Many ambitious professionals will claim that their personality is a key differentiator. But this misses the point. You as a person and how likeable you are will often only become a factor after the prospect has agreed to speak with you or to meet you. Until then your personality doesn’t help.

So here’s my top tip: Highlight what makes you different in a positive vein rather than simply repeating all the standard stuff that most prospects will probably take for granted. Remember they’re not experts. When comparing one accountant’s website with another they will read into each profile certain material that they think is probably true of all accountants – even if it isn’t. The prospect doesn’t know. So they assume – unless told to the contrary. It’s well worthwhile clearly stating what makes you different and being sure that this is real.

To my mind it’s better to say: Unlike other accountants we ……
rather than
Unlike other accountants we really mean it when we say we……

although even that is better than much of what many accountants tend to assert in their marketing materials and websites.

Feel free to add comments to this blog and to share what makes your practice really different.

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Two years and 200 posts later

It seems to be customary to post anniversary notes on blogs – partly because it’s quite an achievement to keep going for a decent length of time.

I started this as a blog for ‘Ambitious Professionals‘ in May 2006 after a new business contact suggested that it would be far more beneficial than a conventional website. He was right. It’s also been more fun!

When I started blogging I think I saw it primarily as a way to promote my talks and my business coaching services. It still is, to a degree, but I also use the blog to float ideas, start discussions and to, effectively, draft new material to support my talks and training sessions. Recently I collated twenty posts from this blog and provided them as the supporting material for a talk I have been presenting in various forms for over 6 years. In the past I had merely supplied copy slides when speaking about How to make more profits from your smaller clients.

Six months ago I launched the Tax Advice Network – a further service for accountants although this one is focused on the provision of tax support and advice, especially when clients need tax help that goes beyond the accountant’s comfort zone. The Network website contains it’s own (tax focused) blog and we also publish a free weekly practical tax update written specifically for accountants in general practice.  Around 900 accountants have already registered on our website and feedback is very positive. We also have 20 tax advisers around the country providing tax support when they are contacted by our users who choose who to use by reference to the tax advisers’ profiles, ratings, testimonials and articles.

These days most of my time is devoted to promoting and developing the Tax Advice Network, both 1-2-1 and through my writing, blogging and talks around the country – but I still make time to undertake a small number of business coaching assignments as I get a buzz from being able to make a difference and helping people close the gap between where they and the practice are and where they want to be.

I also realised that most of my work was with accountants and tax advisers so recently changed the title of the blog to Ambitious Accountants although many of the topics I write about are equally relevant to other ambitious professionals.

And let’s not forget the other (far more popular) blog I update regularly: Accountant jokes and fun. I thought it best to keep that separate from this one to avoid confusing my audience and the search engines. Maybe I should combine them now. What do you think?

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How's business? (part two)

In January 2007 I posted an item on this blog setting out the dangers inherent in a typical standard reply to the question: How’s business?

In essence I explained how lots of people inadvertently sabotage their prospects of securing work referrals and recommendations simply by answering this all too common question without adequate thought.

Imply that you’re really busy and you may discourage people from engaging with you in case you don’t have time to service them effectively.

Imply that you’ve plenty of time and you may discourage people on the basis that if you were any good why aren’t you busier?

Last year I suggested one way to answer the question that avoids you giving anyone the wrong impression. Three readers of the blog added their comments and ideas too.

I recently heard of another approach – used by a sole practitioner lawyer friend of mine. I overheard him answering the question ‘How’s business?’. He said – “It’s been good although a couple of key assignments will be completing soon.”

Obviously it was true. It also revealed that he can handle more than one key job at a time – and it emphasised that, whilst not desperate for work, he could take on some more assignments.

As I asked last year – do you think about the impression you give when you answer that simple and so common question: How’s Business?’

PS: I have written a 10,000+ word book specifically for accountants who want to Network more effectively. Click here for full details>>>

If you would like to book me to speak on the subject at your in-house conference or training session, do get in touch. There’s an outline of my talk on ‘How to ensure your networking activity is successful’ here>>>  

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How’s business? (part two)

In January 2007 I posted an item on this blog setting out the dangers inherent in a typical standard reply to the question: How’s business?

In essence I explained how lots of people inadvertently sabotage their prospects of securing work referrals and recommendations simply by answering this all too common question without adequate thought.

Imply that you’re really busy and you may discourage people from engaging with you in case you don’t have time to service them effectively.

Imply that you’ve plenty of time and you may discourage people on the basis that if you were any good why aren’t you busier?

Last year I suggested one way to answer the question that avoids you giving anyone the wrong impression. Three readers of the blog added their comments and ideas too.

I recently heard of another approach – used by a sole practitioner lawyer friend of mine. I overheard him answering the question ‘How’s business?’. He said – “It’s been good although a couple of key assignments will be completing soon.”

Obviously it was true. It also revealed that he can handle more than one key job at a time – and it emphasised that, whilst not desperate for work, he could take on some more assignments.

As I asked last year – do you think about the impression you give when you answer that simple and so common question: How’s Business?’

PS: I have written a 10,000+ word book specifically for accountants who want to Network more effectively. Click here for full details>>>

If you would like to book me to speak on the subject at your in-house conference or training session, do get in touch. There’s an outline of my talk on ‘How to ensure your networking activity is successful’ here>>>  

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How to increase sales (turnover)

Last week I wrote a piece summarising the only six ways to increase profits. Ambitious professionals will be aware that profits are a much more important focus than turnover. Indeed a key adage in business is to keep in mind that:

Turnover is vanity, Profit is sanity and CASH is king

Nevertheless I thought I should summarise the ways in which a professional services business can look to increase turnover. There are, in essence, just four options on which a firm can focus:

1 – Increase the fees charged for existing services to existing clients;

2 – Increase the range of services provided to existing clients;

3 – Expand client base and provide existing services to new clients;

4 – Expand both client base and service range, then seek to provide new services to new clients.

It’s interesting though to consider which of those four is likely to be the most difficult. Probably the last one and yet, it’s quite common to encounter professional firms which seem to base their expansion plans on attempting to introduce new services and to use them as a way to generate new clients. Why is this I wonder?

Could it be because of a concern that existing clients don’t want their adviser to focus on ‘cross-selling’ additional services to them? Or that partners assume that their clients won’t want them to try to sell additional services to them?

I wonder if this is a function of our attitude to ‘selling’ professional services? We’re professional advisers not salesmen.  We find it easier to offer our advice , services and indeed those of our colleagues to new contacts and prospects rather then to approach existing clients.  Is this an irrational fear driven by use of the words ‘cross-selling’? Is there a better way to describe the process and so to break down the in-built resistance to increasing the services we provide to existing clients?

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What do clients say about you? (2)

Recently someone asked for a referral to an accountant on one of the business forums to which I contribute.

Last week I shared what I was told when I asked what made one respondent comment that their accountant was ‘great’. Someone else recommended their new accountant having said “I’m really impressed”. Here’s what they said when I asked them what had so impressed them:

A lot of is differences between the old and the new accountant.

Here’s a quick list:

– Came to our home at a time that suited me, late in the evening as it happened, this prevented me from losing consulting hours during the day
– He is a prolific networker, member of BNI in Birmingham and understands the concept of networking, regularly links his clients to other clients or BNI members and that really attracted me because it was a value-add compared to the old accountant who “just did the books”.
– Hasn’t charged us to do a recent profit estimation for a mortgate application. In contrast, the last accountant sent me a snotty note when he had to pay £1 excess because my wife had miscalculated the postage charge on a wad of documents we sent him, I thought that was immensely petty and ultimately led to us dropping him.
– Peter (new accountant) explained that he has a strong background in also mentoring and advising startups through the early phases of business growth and also providing general business advice which I saw as a strong plus, last accountant did not have that background and whenever I asked for basic advice he refused to be drawn which smacked of inexperience
– New accountant is more pragmatic and understanding, for example we’ve done a couple of things that in hindsight were a bit dumb simply through sheer ignorance of the relevant tax laws, new accountant just laughed and said it was a common mistake and he will rectify it, old accountant literally put his hands on his ears, didn’t offer any real advice and left us feeling like idiots
– Offers great email and phone support whenever we need it, we can contact him any time and he provides a prompt and clear response. I would say my biggest problem to date with all the accountants I’ve had was communication. I am hopeless at accounting and book keeping and whenever I or my wife posed a question, the answer would come back far more complicated than our original issue, a good accountant should understand the level of their clients knowledge and post responses accordingly.

I think that sums it up really. The new guy is more expensive but for me the fact that he is a good networker, excellent communicator, pragmatic and offers advice and value without charging means so much. The price doesn’t really come into it, I would have paid several hundred pounds more a year for the new guy because he pushed all the right buttons in that initial session

Would your newest clients be similarly enthusiastic about the way you have looked after them?  Do you know what really matters to them and what they’re prepared to pay for? In a recent posting on this blog I posed the question: What do your clients want?

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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What do clients say about you? (1)

Recently someone asked for a referral to an accountant on one of the business forums to which I contribute.

When I saw a respondent comment that their accountant was ‘great’, I asked them what made them say that?

Here’s the reply:

He keeps things very straight forward in his explanations not that I have any particularly complex matters to deal with but he acts quickly, keeps costs to a reasonable amount (not cheap but sufficient value), makes himself available as and when needed and I get comfort from the fact that he has a successful practise, nice small modern offices and polite and helpful staff.
When I have required explanations re overseas investments, Capital gains tax, what I can put against tax to minimise it legally, he delivers his knowledge in an easy to assimilate manner.
I think that’s about it in a nutshell wink

Would you want your clients to say you’re ‘great’ and to recommend people to you? Do you think they would do so? Last year I posted an item on this blog in which I asked readers what they thought their clients thought of them: Good, Bad or Indifferent? What would your clients say about you?

Next week I’ll post another reply I received when I asked why someone else recommended their new accountant and said “I’m really impressed”.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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How do clients judge the quality of your service?

Every ambitious accountant believes that they provide a ‘quality’ service. What are the elements of their approach that constitute ‘quality’ from a client’s perception?

Here’s my summary. It’s just my view so please add your comments to this posting if you’d like to suggest anything different:

Reliability – You do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it. Clients can rely on you to anticipate their needs, their fears and their concerns. They know you won’t leave things to the last minute and that you are consistent in your approach. You’re reliable.

Credibility – Your style and advice make sense and are believable. You don’t make promises that you can’t keep. You don’t simply assert or claim to have relevant experience and knowledge. You evidence your experience, expertise and knowledge without boasting or name dropping. You and your advice are credible.

Appearance – You look the part. Your office inspires confidence. Your emails, letters, marketing materials and printed work are free of mistakes, typos and poor English. You and your work come across well.

Responsiveness – You are client focused. You return all phone calls and reply to all emails, letters and text messages promptly. You are contactable and able to prioritise so as to avoid ever being too busy to help a client on a timely basis. You respond appropriately to your clients’ needs, fears and requests.

Empathetic – Clients can relate to you. You care about your clients and your clients know this. They can sense it from the way that you speak to and deal with them. They can hear it in your voice and this is confirmed by your written communications. Your letters, emails and text messages are written with the client in mind. Clients don’t struggle to understand where you are coming from and they understand your advice which excludes jargon and hidden assumptions. You empathise with your clients.

What else?

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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Don't just increase your fees, vary them

Last week I mentioned that increasing fees for the annual work performed for clients is one of the ways to make more profits from your clients.

I would encourage you though to go further than simply increase your standard hourly rates, client standing orders and ‘service menu prices’ by a fixed percentage.

Most clients are quite used to the idea that the price of a train ticket or a hotel room depends on various factors such as when they book it, pay for it, whether it’s during a busy season or a quite period and so on.

Could your standard terms of business and fee quotes incorporate similar variations? I know some accountants for example who refuse to work for clients in January each year unless they are paid up front and at 150% of their normal fee. This works to incentivise clients to provide their information earlier in the year. It also means that the accountant feels that the pressure under which she works in January is more bearable as she won’t have to chase for the fees afterwards – and she’s been well paid for the stress of the extra workload.

Other accountants increase their fees but also provide special vouchers that clients can use to reduce the fee back to last year’s level – if presented with all of the paperwork before a specified deadline.

Some accountants simply set their fees by reference to the month in which they receive all of the accounting records or tax return information. The fee clients pay depends on which month they choose. The accountant gets rewarded at a different rate by reference to the choice that the clients make. Again, clients are used to this. They can have the same restaurant meal at 6pm or at 9pm in the evening. Their choice. If they elect for the earlier sitting they pay less.

Why don’t more accountants educate their clients to accept that the fees they pay will similarly vary by reference to salient factors?

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Don’t just increase your fees, vary them

Last week I mentioned that increasing fees for the annual work performed for clients is one of the ways to make more profits from your clients.

I would encourage you though to go further than simply increase your standard hourly rates, client standing orders and ‘service menu prices’ by a fixed percentage.

Most clients are quite used to the idea that the price of a train ticket or a hotel room depends on various factors such as when they book it, pay for it, whether it’s during a busy season or a quite period and so on.

Could your standard terms of business and fee quotes incorporate similar variations? I know some accountants for example who refuse to work for clients in January each year unless they are paid up front and at 150% of their normal fee. This works to incentivise clients to provide their information earlier in the year. It also means that the accountant feels that the pressure under which she works in January is more bearable as she won’t have to chase for the fees afterwards – and she’s been well paid for the stress of the extra workload.

Other accountants increase their fees but also provide special vouchers that clients can use to reduce the fee back to last year’s level – if presented with all of the paperwork before a specified deadline.

Some accountants simply set their fees by reference to the month in which they receive all of the accounting records or tax return information. The fee clients pay depends on which month they choose. The accountant gets rewarded at a different rate by reference to the choice that the clients make. Again, clients are used to this. They can have the same restaurant meal at 6pm or at 9pm in the evening. Their choice. If they elect for the earlier sitting they pay less.

Why don’t more accountants educate their clients to accept that the fees they pay will similarly vary by reference to salient factors?

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Getting paid faster

I mentioned in a recent blog that getting paid faster is one of the ways to make more profits from your clients.

If you get paid faster it means you need less funding to keep the practice going, less finance to cover the gap between paying staff and getting paid by clients, and you ;pay lower bank charges and interest as your overdraft is lower.

How can you get paid faster? Efficient credit control is only part of the solution. Credit controllers are only relevant after the fee note has been issued and the client has exceeded your standard credit terms.

So what can you do beforehand? Here are a number of effective approaches used by other ambitious professionals:

– Bill in manageable chunks as soon as possible after the work has been done and while the client is still feeling good about your advice and involvement

– Offer credit card payment facility. This is particularly attractive for smaller clients.

– STOP working for the client in question. Why continue working if your last fee remains unpaid? I know of one accountant who says that he NEVER allows a client to have more than one outstanding invoice. Until it’s been paid he won’t do any more work. He’s not embarrasses to ask for payment or to refuse to do more work if he hasn’t been paid. He’s quite blunt about it and tells his clients that he is not a charity. He says that he would rather spend the day in bed than work for free preparing company accounts. And who can blame him?

– Ensure that your standard terms do not offer more credit than you need to provide. Why give people 30 days to pay? What’s wrong with 14 days or 7 days? Could your fees be due on presentation? Ok, so some (NOT ALL) of your larger clients may pay all their debtors in a monthly purge, but why should that determine your standard commercial terms?

– Consider seeking all or part of your fees upfront. I do that with all of my Coaching and mentoring clients for example. Anyone who specialises in advising on tax investigations type work does it as a matter of course. Many lawyers will also require an upfront financial commitment from new clients.

If you are a business adviser, keep in mind that your credibility is at least, in part, a function of how well you are seen to run your business. If clients know that they can simply take extended credit from you, this WILL damage your credibility (as well as your bank balance and the profits of your practice).

Further suggestions welcome.

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How to make more profits

There are essentially just six ways in which you can make more profits as an accountant, or indeed as any professional adviser:

  • Increase your charges – for doing the same work you have always done
  • Reduce the time you spend providing your services whilst keeping your fees the same as before
  • Provide more value and charge more than you did before NB: this is not just ‘doing more work’
  • Provide additional services and charge for these

There are 2 supplmentary things you can do

  • Get existing (good) clients to introduce new prospects just like them

Can you think of anything else that you do (that doesn’t fit under one or other of these headings)?

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