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.

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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Has your practice plateaued?

I had an interesting conversation earlier this week with an accountant who shared the view that many of his competitors were happy once their business had plateaued. We agreed this is most common in the practices run by a sole practitioner or just a couple of partners. Bigger firms may also reach a plateau but in those firms the partners may accept this as a consequence of the way the firm is run rather than as a desirable space in which to be.

Two years ago, when I first started this blog for Ambitious Accountants I thought it was a good title. I thought it would help to distinguish those who wanted to move their practices on from those who were happy with the status quo. Part of the catalyst here came from my time as a partner at BDO Stoy Hayward. I had learned that their (then) focus on ‘Growing Businesses’ was partly predicated on the principle that if a business wasn’t growing it would be shrinking; and that it was all bar impossible for a business to stand still for very long.

Over the last couple of years I’ve learned a lot about the smaller accountancy practices in the UK. I had already formulated some views based on the conversations I have had over the years before and after my talks at conferences and seminars for accountants. I had also spent some time working with smaller firms during my time as Director of Tax Support for Professionals at WJB Chiltern (the tax consultancy that is now, coincidentally owned by BDO Stoy Hayward).

It seems to me that many, many smaller firms of accountants are not ambitious – nor do they need to be. Accountancy firms are very different to lawyers, financial advisers and other professional service providers. The difference derives from the amount of recurring work that accountants do each year for their clients. This provides the accountant with a good (enough) living; the odd client loss is balanced by the odd new client gained through word of mouth referrals. Sure there are plenty of frustrations in running a small accountancy practice and it’s not getting any easier. Further there are a number of factors that will have an impact in the future – but none of them will have an overnight effect:

– new and more aggressive competition;

– recent and prospective changes in the tax (and tax credits) regime that will impact the way that accountants work;

– other developments and pressures that will change clients’ perceptions and needs.

Smaller firms have long heard and ignored the predictions of change that will adversely affect their practices. In truth these predictions forecast a future that will sneak up and reveal itself over a period. There’s not going to be an overnight revolution. There are many issues that will hit larger firms before the smaller firms are affected. Smaller firms can adapt faster as and when it becomes necessary to do so.

Those accountants in smaller firms that want to increase profits, reduce the time and hassle of running their practice and ensure they are well set up for their retirement are in a minority. At least that’s the impression I get from those to whom I speak and from the stories I hear from small businesses and other professionals. It also partly explains the contradiction of superb feedback when I present my talks on How to make more profits from your smaller clients, but relatively small audiences for these talks as compared to those who attend tax updates. The funny thing is that I don’t advocate turning accountants into overnight business consultants or active purveyors of property development and tax planning schemes.

My approach, both when lecturing and when facilitating groups of accountants, is more one of gradual change, dealing with the easy to fix issues and implementing good business practices. Even firms which are happy on their plateau appreciate how they could benefit. Each to their own I say.

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 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.

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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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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