Four essential elements to service excellence

When I first started this  blog in 2006 I focused on topics drawn from or which were due to appear in my talks, mentoring and coaching programmes.

More recently I have been focusing more attention on the development of my Tax Advice Network.  It contains its own blog containing tax commentaries, ideas, insights and news. In recent months I have noted that the posts on this blog for ambitious accountants have covered a wider range of subjects. The focus is still on helping you to achieve success – in your practice, career and business endevaours. It’s just that now I allow a wider range of issues and experiences to inspire my posts.

This one came about after I was asked if I was the same Mark Lee who asserted that there were four essential elements to service excellence: consistency, attentiveness, recoverability and continuous evaluation.  Now this may confuse the search engines but that Mark Lee is a past President of Singapore Airlines. He is reported to have conducted an exhaustive study in the early 90s to determine the factors that determine success in the airline world.

It was he who concluded that there were four essential elements to service excellence in that world: consistency, attentiveness, recoverability and continuous evaluation.

Before I share my views as to what might constitute service excellence in our world of accountancy and tax, let me ask for your suggestions.  Remember, as I have stressed in previous posts on this blog – what counts are what clients perceive in terms of the services we provide.

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Categorising your clients

Last Friday I wrote about how you might identify your most valuable clients. Prior to that I’d written about the factors that might mean a client was on your D-list and should be ditched.

If we assume that your most valuable clients are on your A-list and your worst clients are on your D-list, what about those in between?

Firstly, let me stress that it’s much more useful to identify the:

  • A-list clients – as they’re making a a major contribution to your practice and you want to ensure this continues; and the
  • D-list clients – as they’re the ones that are dragging you down, consuming resources and preventing you from enjoying your work as much as you could do.

In each case, it is likely that no more than 20% of your clients fall into each category – possibly less.

Only when you’ve done this is it worth spending time distinguishing the remainder of your clients.  My suggestion for this distinction is as follows:

  • B-List – those clients who are not on your A-list but who have the potential to get there. Maybe they own smaller growing businesses or they have the potential to make valuable introductions (but you have yet to ask them to do this).
  • C-list – those clients that are no trouble but who are unlikely to ever pay higher value fees, make valuable introductions or otherwise make it onto your A-list.

Some people might suggest that your B-list clients are the second most important group of clients in the firm, as they have potential.  This may be the case but I tend to think that once you get beyond identifying the A-list and D-list clients you can get caught up in the ‘analysis paralysis’ loop. It’s really only worth completing the analysis if you are going to do something useful with the outputs. In my experience it takes enough time to identify and agree on the A-list and D-list clients. And to then take the necessary actions that follow from so doing.

Still, now you know about B-lists and C-lists too.  Do you think it’s worth spending time to distinguish these?

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How do you KNOW who are your most valuable clients?

I’ve commented before about how elements from this blog make their way into my talks and vice versa.  One key issue that I address in my talks about making more profits from your smaller clients is the need to distinguish your best clients from your worst clients. I’ve mentioned the 80:20 rule, the benefits of ditching the duff d-list clients that drag you down and I’ve suggested criteria that might help you to identify your worst clients.

What I realise I haven’t done is to address (in this blog) the converse: Identifying your best clients. In my talks I explain that different people will have different criteria for determining which are their best or most valuable clients.

The most obvious factor MIGHT be the level of fees charged each year. But is that the only way you assess the relative value or importance of your clients? It may be. When I ask audiences however they suggest a range of other factors including – how much they like working with the client, how interesting and varied is the work, the extent to which the client effects valuable introductions, how reasonable the client is, whether they seek and take advice, respond promptly, pay on time and so on.

There is one factor that is rarely raised and yet it may be the most important of all.  How profitable are those ‘best’ clients? Indeed, how many accountants have the systems in place that would enable them to determine the answer to this question?

I remember some years ago trying to find out who were the most important clients of the Tax Support for Professionals team in a large tax consultancy.  When I asked the team they identified a number of key clients. Or so they thought. These were clients who were in regular contact, often on the phone and certainly who were front of mind.  The consultants were happy dealing with those clients but had no idea if they paid on time or the aggregate fees earned from such clients.

A little research revealed that ALL of the named clients were amongst the least profitable ones for the consultancy. They regularly made use of a low cost service facility but didn’t use the firm for any high value work. They consumed our resources and cost us money that was not matched by the fees we earned from those same clients. In effect they were exploiting our loss leader service proposition.

Were they our ‘best’ or most valuable clients? No.  They were either B-list or C-list clients. I’ll explain this distinction in a subsequent post.

Some firms are able to identify their most important clients by reference to the information in their  Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Others have a gut feel. Whatever works for you is fine. But do make sure that you are not fooling yourself.  Clients who are front of mind may not be the most profitable or indeed the most valuable.

How do you know who are your most valuable clients?

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How important is it to ensure that your workforce is motivated?

As some readers of this blog may know I spent 4 very happy years as a tax partner at BDO Stoy Hayward (1997-2001). I still rate the firm highly and have admired their continued development in recent years – with Jeremy Newman as managing partner*

He has now stood down from that role and was interviewed recently for Accountancy Age TV. As a supportive alumnus of the firm I was keen to watch this. Inevitably Jeremy was asked about the highlights of his period of office. He then explained why his answer referred to when BDO Stoy Hayward first won the Accountancy Age Employer of the award in 2004. They have since won it in 2005 and 2007 as well.

In listening to Jeremy talk about the importance of the award I was reminded of a speech given by Richard Branson in 2005. He challenged the almost ubiquitous presumption, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work, he is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider to our business, he is a part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so.

Sir Richard said happy employees keep customers happy. A lot of happy customers would create a lot of happiness to shareholders as well. Without good people, corporations are worth nothing. And to motivate people, corporations should create a fun environment to work. Employees should feel that it is a crusade, not just another job.

In effect Jeremy was sharing a similar view. And it’s one with which I agree. I’d put it like this:

If the staff, managers and indeed partners in an accountancy firm are happy and motivated they will focus on providing excellent service to clients. Satisfied (or even ‘delighted’) clients will be less fee resistant, will recommend and refer the firm to other worthwhile clients and in time the firm will be more profitable. Another benefit of this approach is that the key people will be less tempted to move to other firms so the workforce is more stable and that also helps maintain profit levels.

Do you agree? How important is it to ensure that your workforce is motivated?

* for the avoidance of doubt – no I am not looking to go back! I prefer the independence of my current approach. This involves developing and promoting my Tax Advice Network, public speaking, committee work and a little non-exec/consulting on the side. I realised I’m an entrepreneur at heart.

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Avoid premature elaboration

Last year I referenced one of Richard White‘s ideas and adapted it to the accountancy environment. That post was titled: Do you suffer from premature evaluation?

More recently I’ve heard him use a similar phrase: “Avoid premature elaboration.”

It’s something that many of us may be guilty of when we’re networking or selling. It essentially describes the approach whereby you elaborate your service proposition and try to sell or close the prospect before you know enough about the person to whom you are speaking.

In essence Richard stresses the need to find out more about that other person  before you start elaborating. I’ve addressed similar points in different ways on this blog in the past:

What do your clients want? – This highlights the need to ask questions and to appreciate that what people want is not the same as what you’re selling;

People do business with people they know, like and trust – This reminds us that you shouldn’t try to sell your services too soon;

What sort of person makes a good ‘finder’? – This explains that often it’s the quieter people who find and gain the most new clients (becuase they tend to be better listeners).

Does this make sense to you? Can you think of examples of when you’ve encountered ‘premature elaboration’ or have you even done this yourself?

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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Accountants in Action

On Sunday I enjoyed another fabulous day out at the delightful Art in Action event at Waterperry Gardens (near Oxford).  It’s an annual event and my wife and I tend to go most years.

Art in Action was created out of a simple observation: people are fascinated when artists and craftsmen openly demonstrate their skills and discuss their work.

Accountants of course can’t do the same thing – although I can imagine a comedy sketch where different marquees contain a selection of different professional people all showing visitors how they craft their skill:

  • Accountants in one tent showing how to apply deep brush strokes to create a great set of accounts from a simple trial balance;
  • Bookkeepers in another showing how a bag of rubbish can be made to look like an analysed cashbook;
  • Tax advisers in a third showing how graceful can be the transference of information from accounts to tax returns and how much can be lost on the way; and finally
  • Auditors in a fourth tent, showing how to find gaps and mistakes through a detailed review of a set of accounts and books.

Back to reality however, can accountants ever show prospective clients what they can expect? Would it help if they could?

I’ve commented before about how some accountants are able to evidence and promote REAL distinctive differences that could help prospective clients to choose them as opposed to another accountant who seems no different to all the others.

Would it be possible (or helpful) to go beyond those sort of marketing messages and to SHOW prospective clients how different you are? Here are some ideas to start you off. Please add your own as comments on this post:

  • Copies of your regular newsletter (that’s the obvious one of course);
  • Printed copies of your email newsletter;
  • A sample copy of an agenda for a tax return review meeting or an accounts review meeting – showing that it includes some tax planning topics too;
  • A sample set of accounts together with explanatory notes and helpful tips – ie something useful, commercial and constructive. Make clear that your clients have told you that they didn’t get this level of service from their previous accountants. Although it’s second nature to you, it seems that not everyone else does it;
  • Your year end tax planning tips – especially if they are tailored to different client sectors and so appear to be more relevant and specialist than a generic list;

What else can you think of that might make a difference and that would get close to showing ‘Accountants in Action’?!

Like this post? You can now obtain my 10,000 word ebook containing loads more marketing insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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How far do you go?

This was another of the thoughts I had during the workshop that followed an E-business for accountants seminar that I attended. (I’ve already commented on the seminar here and here).

One of the workshop leaders was suggesting that accountants should be more prepared to ‘upskill’ their clients as regards their e-business strategy. I asked whether he meant:

  • To be better able to talk to clients knowledgeably about e-business related subjects and to be able to introduce specialists to help the client with their issues; or
  • To be able to provide billable advice as regards e-business related issues (as distinct from the conventional services that accountants provide).

The point being that accountants want to be provide value to their clients and to be paid for the provision of valuable advice. Some might alternatively say they want to be paid for the time they spend providing valuable advice.

I’m not sure that the speaker had considered the distinction before I explained it. The seminar had been promoted as “a chance to acquire new skills that enable you to advise your clients on their e-business strategy.”

In replying to my question however the speaker made clear that he was referring to the first of those options. That made sense to me – although it was a big step down from the alleged objective for the seminar.

The speaker’s worthy aim was refined as encouraging accountants to assist their clients with e-business related issues and introduce relevant reputable specialists. This makes more sense to me than trying to ensure that accountants are able to provide valuable advice on such matters themselves.

I tend to think that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This is just as relevant in the fast evolving world of e-business as it is in the world of tax which I know so well. (And I recently explained the reasons why I gave up giving tax advice).

I’ve learned a fair amount about many aspects of e-business over the last couple of years – from web marketing to search engine optimisation to the differences between effective website design and website development. And so much more. I’ve put much of this knowledge to good effect in my Tax Advice Network but I know my limitations and take advice from experts – not amateurs.

Still, accountants are often revered for their all round business knowledge. Revered and respected. That puts them in a powerful position and it’s one of the reasons why plenty of those e-business experts want to work with accountants. They believe that you are well placed to make trusted introductions to your clients.

On the tax front it was for similar reasons that I chose accountants as the main target audience for my Tax Advice Network. I know that good accountants know what they don’t know. They are aware of the dangers of going beyond their levels of competence when advising clients on unusual or complex tax issues. And they want to involve trusted, vetted, recommended, commercial and often local tax experts. That’s what we’re all about of course.

Going back to that distinction I drew at the start of this posting. How far do you go?

Like this post? You can now obtain my 10,000 word ebook containing loads more marketing insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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Is it worth attending training seminars?

I had an interesting revelation during the E-business for accountants seminar I attended in Birmingham on Tuesday. I realised I was being inspired to make notes (as I tend to do) as and when the speakers said anything that I felt was useful. So quite a lot of notes then!

I have often held off attending seminars if I felt that I could read much the same information in a book, on a blog or by researching the topic on line. And, of itself, that’s probably right. However there’s something about being present and listening to a speaker that makes my brain work slightly differently. Maybe it’s connected to my love of live theatre and other forms of live entertainment.

So, what was the revelation? Quite simply that I get more ideas and more inspiration when I’m listening to speakers than when I read material in a book or on the web. With due respect to the speakers on Tuesday it was more what they were talking about, rather than their presentations or even their content that set my mind racing. My sub concious seemed to adapt what I was hearing and made it directly relevant to this blog and to my Tax Advice Network. Yes, some of the points made by the speakers were also directly relevant – but no more so than if I had read the same points on a website on a blog or in a book.

Note to self: Attend more seminars. Don’t assume that I can get all the information I need from books and the web. Although that is probably the case I will be more inspired when listening to a speaker and this will generate more good actionable ideas than simply passive reading.

What about you?

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Balancing the rights of taxpayers with HMRCs powers

I was delighted to be able to attend the ICAEW Tax Faculty’s annual Wyman debate last week.

The motion under debate was:

This House believes that the balance between the rights of the citizen and the powers of the taxing authority has tilted too far towards HMRC

Speakers for the motion were Francesca Lagerberg and Keith Gordon. Against were Simon Norris and Mark Neale. You can read a summary report of the event here.

There were two elements of the debate that struck me as worthy of mentioning on this blog:

1 – One of the speakers had no notes. None at all. Mark Neale (MD of the Treasury directorate for Budget, Tax and Welfare) started with a couple of references to the previous speaker and I expected him to then look down at his notes. But he didn’t because he had none. He didn’t need any. He spoke eloquently, without hesitation, repetition or deviation(!). He kept to his subject and to his time slot. His presentation was clearly well prepared. Even though I do not share his perspective I sat in awe as I listened to him. I was till in shock after he finished. He is evidently extremely experienced in putting his point across and had a complete command of his subject.

  • How confident would you be if you had to speak without notes on such an occasion? I get pretty good feedback for my talks and presentations but I would rarely be comfortable going out to speak without ANY notes at all – and I’ve been speaking professionally for over 15 years.

2 – By the time Simon Norris stood up (as the fourth speaker) I was feeling sorry for him. Francesca and Keith had made their points with conviction. Whilst Mark Neale had spoken well (see above) his views did not impact my take on the main proposition. I was expecting Simon’s position to be equally unconvincing.

Then he explained that the new system and the new laws would contain MORE safeguards than are in place at the moment. This point also came out further in the subsequent discussion.

I wasn’t the only person to suddenly realise that the debate proposition contained the wrong tense. The balance has not yet tilted too far – it is simply in danger of tilting too far in the near future.

  • A key lesson here, if you are organising a debate – consider carefully the tenses used in the proposition. The Tax Faculty may have had no choice here so as to give HMRC a chance to win the debate. As it was the final voting figures were:

Those for the motion – 67%

Those against – 21%

Those abstaining – 12%

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Could you audit a client's website analytics?

I was delighted to attend yesterday’s seminar: E-business for accountants. It was co-ordinated jointly between the National B2B Centre and AccountingWEB and was promoted as being the start of a campaign to improve accountancy’s ebusiness expertise.

I tend to try to address discrete points in each of my blog posts so I’ll simply flag up one of the many interesting suggestions that I heard at the seminar. It was that accountants are ideally placed to report on their clients’ website analytics.

I found this an intriguing idea – possibly a little ahead of it’s time but entirely logical. Traditionally accountants have focused their attention on auditing the financial numbers and reporting on what the financial accounts really mean. The leap to reviewing website analytics may not be an obvious one but it could certainly prove to be a valuable service.

I use a free analytics program to monitor website traffic at Tax Advice Network. I know the program is not perfect but my focus is on the trends rather than the absolute numbers. I have a fair understanding of what the program can do for me and I monitor and compare the data every week. I’m aware however that I’m not making full use of all the investigative and reporting tools within the program. And I’m fairly web savvy.

What chance the average client – especially those who are reliant on their websites to promote and sell their wares? The website developers may offer a related service as might those who consider themselves to be experts in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). But are any of them trusted as much as the accountant? And who has the training to review, audit, interpret and explain the meaning of loads of numbers?

As I say – an intriguing idea. What do you think?

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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Could you audit a client’s website analytics?

I was delighted to attend yesterday’s seminar: E-business for accountants. It was co-ordinated jointly between the National B2B Centre and AccountingWEB and was promoted as being the start of a campaign to improve accountancy’s ebusiness expertise.

I tend to try to address discrete points in each of my blog posts so I’ll simply flag up one of the many interesting suggestions that I heard at the seminar. It was that accountants are ideally placed to report on their clients’ website analytics.

I found this an intriguing idea – possibly a little ahead of it’s time but entirely logical. Traditionally accountants have focused their attention on auditing the financial numbers and reporting on what the financial accounts really mean. The leap to reviewing website analytics may not be an obvious one but it could certainly prove to be a valuable service.

I use a free analytics program to monitor website traffic at Tax Advice Network. I know the program is not perfect but my focus is on the trends rather than the absolute numbers. I have a fair understanding of what the program can do for me and I monitor and compare the data every week. I’m aware however that I’m not making full use of all the investigative and reporting tools within the program. And I’m fairly web savvy.

What chance the average client – especially those who are reliant on their websites to promote and sell their wares? The website developers may offer a related service as might those who consider themselves to be experts in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). But are any of them trusted as much as the accountant? And who has the training to review, audit, interpret and explain the meaning of loads of numbers?

As I say – an intriguing idea. What do you think?

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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Professional Fee protection policies

These have evolved a great deal over the last few years, both to reflect the changing approach of HMRC and also the feedback from accountants and their clients.

I must admit that I’m torn. If I were still in practice I’m sure I’d want to ensure that my clients had this sort of cover. Equally I’m aware that most of the insurers provide a tax helpline and can (or, in some cases, insist that the insurers) undertake the related professional work to defend a client from an HMRC challenge. And such helplines and tax support services are in direct competition with the facilities provided by my Tax Advice Network.

Anyway the function of this blog is to share commercial tips and advice for accountants so when I become aware of services and facilities that I think may be of interest it behoves me to share this.

In this connection I’m aware of a number of the available policies that are ‘out there’ and of some new ones about to be launched. I’m also aware that different accountants have differing views as to the value of such policies. I think the alternative views can be summarised as follows:

  • Can’t see the need for it. Very few of my clients suffer full investigations and that’s all these things cover isn’t it?
  • Tried it once but cancelled when the insurers wouldn’t pay out on a claim;
  • Happy to tell clients about this and let them decide whether to take out a policy or not;
  • I want my clients to be covered so that I can be confident that my fees will be covered in the event of an investigation;
  • Most of my clients are members of the FSB and so they have cover through that scheme;
  • Our firm is so large that it’s hard to formulate a consistent approach that would satisfy the insurers;
  • We make a good return on the premiums that we sell to our clients – in effect by providing an additional valuable service to our clients we also benefit through an additional and profitable residual income stream;

I’d be interested to learn the views of the readers of this blog.

NB: I heard about an 8 partner firm today where only 4 of the partners tell their clients about the availability of fee insurance. I tend to think that such a firm may be at risk of invalidating their PI policy. One of the standard terms tends to be that clients will be given ‘best advice’. How secure are they if half of the firm’s clients receive advice that the other half don’t receive?

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Is the campaign to protect the term 'accountant' going to backfire?

Although qualified accountants are aware that anyone can call themselves an ‘accountant’ I find that very few ‘real’ people appreciate this fact. They tend to assume accountants are like dentists, doctors and solicitors. If only that were the case!

It is precisely because of this confusion that various groups of accountants campaign to secure protection of the description ‘accountant’.

I will not repeat here the arguments in favour of change or those put forward in defence of the status quo. What concerns me is that the proponents may not have thought through the consequences that would ensue if the campaign were successful.

Earlier this year I attended the ICAEW’s National Practitioner Forum where we debated various questions as regards the future of General Practitioners. One ongoing threat is perceived to be the fact that non-professionally qualified people can still describe themselves as ‘accountants’. Indeed, some ex-ICAEW members have chosen to continue acting as accountants despite resigning from the Institute and thus saving on the annual subscription.

I have an alternative view borne of many discussions with members of the public in connection with my Tax Advice Network which provides a support service for accountants. I quickly realised that that most non-accountants assume that all accountants are tax advisers as the words are thought to be synonymous.

Why does anyone, other than company directors, typically appoint an accountant? Does the client really care about their accounts? Or are they more interested in obtaining help and advice as regards their tax returns and tax planning? Private investors, the retired and many other clients do not even have accounts in the conventional sense. Yet still the majority of such taxpayers turn to accountants for help. With apologies to the Chartered Institute of Taxation (of which I am proud to be a Fellow), the concept of a ‘Tax Adviser’ as distinct from an ‘Accountant’ has yet to enter the public consciousness.

Even if only qualified accountants could describe themselves as such, it is inconceivable, in my view, that only they would be permitted to provide tax return completion services and tax advice. For me to be wrong on this would mean that Chartered Tax Advisers (“CTAs”), to take just one example, would be precluded from practicing their profession. That’s a fanciful idea that will obviously never happen. There is equally no prospect of CTAs agreeing to be described as Accountants.

Instead, the public would quickly become much more familiar with the distinction between an Accountant and a Tax Adviser than is presently the case. And given the choice between a specialist in preparing accounts and one specialised in advising on tax, which will they choose to appoint?

I am in no doubt that attempts to distinguish qualified and unqualified accountants will increase awareness of the difference between accountants and tax advisers. And if that happens I fear that qualified accountants would lose more than they gain.

What do you think?

(This posting is based on a comment piece I wrote for Accountancy Age in March 2008 )

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Is the campaign to protect the term ‘accountant’ going to backfire?

Although qualified accountants are aware that anyone can call themselves an ‘accountant’ I find that very few ‘real’ people appreciate this fact. They tend to assume accountants are like dentists, doctors and solicitors. If only that were the case!

It is precisely because of this confusion that various groups of accountants campaign to secure protection of the description ‘accountant’.

I will not repeat here the arguments in favour of change or those put forward in defence of the status quo. What concerns me is that the proponents may not have thought through the consequences that would ensue if the campaign were successful.

Earlier this year I attended the ICAEW’s National Practitioner Forum where we debated various questions as regards the future of General Practitioners. One ongoing threat is perceived to be the fact that non-professionally qualified people can still describe themselves as ‘accountants’. Indeed, some ex-ICAEW members have chosen to continue acting as accountants despite resigning from the Institute and thus saving on the annual subscription.

I have an alternative view borne of many discussions with members of the public in connection with my Tax Advice Network which provides a support service for accountants. I quickly realised that that most non-accountants assume that all accountants are tax advisers as the words are thought to be synonymous.

Why does anyone, other than company directors, typically appoint an accountant? Does the client really care about their accounts? Or are they more interested in obtaining help and advice as regards their tax returns and tax planning? Private investors, the retired and many other clients do not even have accounts in the conventional sense. Yet still the majority of such taxpayers turn to accountants for help. With apologies to the Chartered Institute of Taxation (of which I am proud to be a Fellow), the concept of a ‘Tax Adviser’ as distinct from an ‘Accountant’ has yet to enter the public consciousness.

Even if only qualified accountants could describe themselves as such, it is inconceivable, in my view, that only they would be permitted to provide tax return completion services and tax advice. For me to be wrong on this would mean that Chartered Tax Advisers (“CTAs”), to take just one example, would be precluded from practicing their profession. That’s a fanciful idea that will obviously never happen. There is equally no prospect of CTAs agreeing to be described as Accountants.

Instead, the public would quickly become much more familiar with the distinction between an Accountant and a Tax Adviser than is presently the case. And given the choice between a specialist in preparing accounts and one specialised in advising on tax, which will they choose to appoint?

I am in no doubt that attempts to distinguish qualified and unqualified accountants will increase awareness of the difference between accountants and tax advisers. And if that happens I fear that qualified accountants would lose more than they gain.

What do you think?

(This posting is based on a comment piece I wrote for Accountancy Age in March 2008 )

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It's all in the name

Just before the start of a session of Matthew Huttons‘ excellent Monthly Tax Reviews (MTR), Matthew shared with me his surprise as to a question he had been asked. It concerned the coverage of his forthcoming book on Estate planning.

He had been asked if the book would be covering Capital Gains Tax issues as well as Inheritance Tax (IHT) matters. As Matthew explained to me, the subject of Estate Planning is much wider than just IHT or even than Capital Taxes. And he explains this in an early section of the book (see below).

My reason for mentioning this on my blog is that we all tend to fall into similar traps. We get used to using a phrase or a description of our services and we forget that some people will draw a different inference from that which we intend.

We’ve long had it drummed into us to avoid using accounting or tax jargon when talking to or writing to (or for) clients. But I guess we sometimes forget that some of our jargon has become so ingrained that we forget it’s ‘jargon’. “Estate planning” probably falls into this category.

On the Tax Advice Network website we have a list of specialisms – including Estate Planning of course. The site will shortly be updated to provide an explanation as to what each of the specialisms means. This had already been planned but now I realise that it’s probably more important than I had previously thought.

Are there aspects of your firm’s services that you glibly assume all your clients understand better than is probably the case?

Matthew’s book covers: IHT mitigation, Existing trusts: tax efficient management, The scope for making new trusts, The family home(s), The family business, Farms and woodlands, chattels, investments, life assurance, pensions, charitable giving, the family unit: marriage and divorce, heritage property, offshore trusts and companies, leaving the UK, non-UK domiciliaries coming to the UK, wills, post-death planning, compliance, making a plan and keeping it under review.

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It’s all in the name

Just before the start of a session of Matthew Huttons‘ excellent Monthly Tax Reviews (MTR), Matthew shared with me his surprise as to a question he had been asked. It concerned the coverage of his forthcoming book on Estate planning.

He had been asked if the book would be covering Capital Gains Tax issues as well as Inheritance Tax (IHT) matters. As Matthew explained to me, the subject of Estate Planning is much wider than just IHT or even than Capital Taxes. And he explains this in an early section of the book (see below).

My reason for mentioning this on my blog is that we all tend to fall into similar traps. We get used to using a phrase or a description of our services and we forget that some people will draw a different inference from that which we intend.

We’ve long had it drummed into us to avoid using accounting or tax jargon when talking to or writing to (or for) clients. But I guess we sometimes forget that some of our jargon has become so ingrained that we forget it’s ‘jargon’. “Estate planning” probably falls into this category.

On the Tax Advice Network website we have a list of specialisms – including Estate Planning of course. The site will shortly be updated to provide an explanation as to what each of the specialisms means. This had already been planned but now I realise that it’s probably more important than I had previously thought.

Are there aspects of your firm’s services that you glibly assume all your clients understand better than is probably the case?

Matthew’s book covers: IHT mitigation, Existing trusts: tax efficient management, The scope for making new trusts, The family home(s), The family business, Farms and woodlands, chattels, investments, life assurance, pensions, charitable giving, the family unit: marriage and divorce, heritage property, offshore trusts and companies, leaving the UK, non-UK domiciliaries coming to the UK, wills, post-death planning, compliance, making a plan and keeping it under review.

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"Why I gave up giving tax advice"

Posts to this blog normally contain tips and advice to assist accountants, especially those in practice and /or building up their careers. Today I make an exception.

In July 2008 Taxation magazine published a 4 page lead comment article written by me. I had entitled it, ‘Why I gave up giving tax advice”. The editor cleverly revised that so that the headline became:

“A far, far better thing… that I do than I have ever done. MARK LEE explains why he gave up giving tax advice”

In effect the article explains the reasons for my transition from being a tax adviser in practice (after over 25 years).

The main thrust of the article deals with my frustrations, which have been described as ‘a sad indictment of the tax system’. You can read a copy of the article in pdf format: Why I gave up giving tax advice or on the Taxation website here.

Taxation magazine editor Mike Truman, who commissioned the article, has said “Mark is probably one of the few people who can write about this from the inside, because he is no longer giving advice, yet is still closely involved with the tax scene.”

I have to admit that I found writing the article quite cathartic. It enabled me to get a number of things off my chest.

In the context of THIS blog however, perhaps this quote is the most relevant:

Then two years ago, approaching the age of 50, I had cause to consider what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. Entrepreneurship beckoned. But I wasn’t interested in running my own accountancy or tax practice – for the reasons explained below. Instead I initially created the BookMarkLee ‘brand’, acted as a mentor and business coach for ambitious accountants and continued with my professional speaking engagements.

Despite my ongoing commitment to this blog and to my writing and speaking engagements I also noted that:

this was all moving me away from the world of tax and that didn’t feel right. Then the idea for the Tax Advice Network started to take shape and I eventually decided to focus all of my efforts and activities on this endeavour. Launched at the end of last year, it enables me to play to my strengths, continue with my professional speaking activities and stay in tax. Crucially however it doesn’t involve ME in providing tax advice so I’m not competing with the tax adviser members whose services we promote more widely than they would be able to do themselves.

In my conclusion I added that:

Despite my evident frustrations, the continued ‘doublespeak’ and the prospect of increased unbalanced powers for HMRC, I remain committed to my chosen profession. I remain involved in Tax Faculty (and to a lesser degree CIOT) activities although I prefer to focus more on those that involve the provision of guidance and support to members as compared with the representational work. I can choose which non-exec and related activities to pursue in addition to running my Tax Advice Network and my public speaking roles. I consider myself very lucky. Not everyone is in a position to choose to review their career and take a new path.

So what about the ambitious accountants who read this blog? Are my fears and frustrations shared by others? Are you also looking for a way out of the profession (or would be but for financial concerns)?

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“Why I gave up giving tax advice”

Posts to this blog normally contain tips and advice to assist accountants, especially those in practice and /or building up their careers. Today I make an exception.

In July 2008 Taxation magazine published a 4 page lead comment article written by me. I had entitled it, ‘Why I gave up giving tax advice”. The editor cleverly revised that so that the headline became:

“A far, far better thing… that I do than I have ever done. MARK LEE explains why he gave up giving tax advice”

In effect the article explains the reasons for my transition from being a tax adviser in practice (after over 25 years).

The main thrust of the article deals with my frustrations, which have been described as ‘a sad indictment of the tax system’. You can read a copy of the article in pdf format: Why I gave up giving tax advice or on the Taxation website here.

Taxation magazine editor Mike Truman, who commissioned the article, has said “Mark is probably one of the few people who can write about this from the inside, because he is no longer giving advice, yet is still closely involved with the tax scene.”

I have to admit that I found writing the article quite cathartic. It enabled me to get a number of things off my chest.

In the context of THIS blog however, perhaps this quote is the most relevant:

Then two years ago, approaching the age of 50, I had cause to consider what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. Entrepreneurship beckoned. But I wasn’t interested in running my own accountancy or tax practice – for the reasons explained below. Instead I initially created the BookMarkLee ‘brand’, acted as a mentor and business coach for ambitious accountants and continued with my professional speaking engagements.

Despite my ongoing commitment to this blog and to my writing and speaking engagements I also noted that:

this was all moving me away from the world of tax and that didn’t feel right. Then the idea for the Tax Advice Network started to take shape and I eventually decided to focus all of my efforts and activities on this endeavour. Launched at the end of last year, it enables me to play to my strengths, continue with my professional speaking activities and stay in tax. Crucially however it doesn’t involve ME in providing tax advice so I’m not competing with the tax adviser members whose services we promote more widely than they would be able to do themselves.

Edit: It later became apparent that the Network didn’t need me to devote lots of time to it – which is great as I now prefer my other business activities – as set out on this website.

In my conclusion I noted that:

I consider myself very lucky. Not everyone is in a position to choose to review their career and take a new path.

So what about the ambitious accountants who read this blog? Are my fears and frustrations shared by others? Are you also looking for a way out of the profession (or would be but for financial concerns)?

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What do clients care about?

At the recent CIMA members in practice annual conference at which I spoke recently I heard about a survey in which a group of accountants were asked what they thought their clients most wanted from their accountant. The top three answers from the accountants were:

Quality,

Reputation and

Expertise

Clients of these same accountants were then apparently asked what they cared about. Their answers were:

Timeliness

Cost and

a desire for their accountant to be pro-active

Obviously these are very different answers.

When you’re promoting your services what features or benefits do you focus on? Those that mean something to you or those that make a difference to your clients?

This point is SO important that I make no apology for raising it again having previously addressed very similar issues in previous posts:

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What's your name? Who should I ask for?

I attended a big Networking event last night, organised by Business-Scene.  There were over 600 people there. One enterprising accountant was handing out her business cards to all and sundry – and even leaving them on exhibitors’ stands.

Four separate people passed the lady’s card onto me as they know I’m keen to promote the Tax Advice Network to smaller firms of accountants.

I described the lady in question as ‘enterprising’ above. I think she was.  She had a glossy postcard sized card but I’m not sure what outcome she was expecting from her efforts.

I’ve noted before that networking is about building relationships. How many people are going to switch to a new accountant because they were given a card at an event – without even talking to the lady concerned? How many people will choose to use someone just because they have been given their business card?

Actually – it’s worse than that. The card looks unprofessional in two key aspects.

1 – In big bold writing  the firm is described as: Chartered Certified accountnats & Registered Auditors. And yes, most of the people who passed the card to me had spotted the typo. 

2 – The business card doesn’t contain a contact name.   There’s a website address and a mobile phone number on one side. On the obverse there is also a landline number and an email address: enquiries@….

Why oh why isn’t there someone’s name?  I’ve noticed the same absence of contact names on numerous accountancy firm’s websites.  Some are probably sole practitioners but not all of them.

When we’re offering professional services, whether accountancy, tax, law or anything else we have to remember it is a people business. If we want people to engage with us we have to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.  Giving your name so that they know who it is they are calling is a great first step.  Indeed, I think it’s essential.

Comments?

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What’s your name? Who should I ask for?

I attended a big Networking event last night, organised by Business-Scene.  There were over 600 people there. One enterprising accountant was handing out her business cards to all and sundry – and even leaving them on exhibitors’ stands.

Four separate people passed the lady’s card onto me as they know I’m keen to promote the Tax Advice Network to smaller firms of accountants.

I described the lady in question as ‘enterprising’ above. I think she was.  She had a glossy postcard sized card but I’m not sure what outcome she was expecting from her efforts.

I’ve noted before that networking is about building relationships. How many people are going to switch to a new accountant because they were given a card at an event – without even talking to the lady concerned? How many people will choose to use someone just because they have been given their business card?

Actually – it’s worse than that. The card looks unprofessional in two key aspects.

1 – In big bold writing  the firm is described as: Chartered Certified accountnats & Registered Auditors. And yes, most of the people who passed the card to me had spotted the typo. 

2 – The business card doesn’t contain a contact name.   There’s a website address and a mobile phone number on one side. On the obverse there is also a landline number and an email address: enquiries@….

Why oh why isn’t there someone’s name?  I’ve noticed the same absence of contact names on numerous accountancy firm’s websites.  Some are probably sole practitioners but not all of them.

When we’re offering professional services, whether accountancy, tax, law or anything else we have to remember it is a people business. If we want people to engage with us we have to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.  Giving your name so that they know who it is they are calling is a great first step.  Indeed, I think it’s essential.

Comments?

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Are you charging enough?

We all know the old adage: If you pay peanuts you’ll get monkeys.

Now that may be extreme when it comes to accountants but there are plenty who ‘dumb down’ their services so as to get clients who don’t want to pay very much. The accountant may, for example, be trying to build up his/her practice so that it can be sold to someone else. The sale price will be a multiple of fees – the more fees the better. Even if each new client isn’t paying very much, if there are lots of such clients it all helps.

The philosopher John Ruskin had the following thoughts on prices and values at the start of the 20th century. They remain as true today as they were then when it comes to deciding how much to charge for your services:

“It is unwise to pay too much, but it is unwise to pay too little.

When you pay too much, you loose a little money; that is all.

When you pay too little you sometimes lose everything. Because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing you bought it to do.

The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. It cannot be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run and if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better.”

Are you charging enough?

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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Tax support for accountants

I’m often asked what prompted me to create the Tax Advice Network.

Having spent three years running the tax support for professionals operation at WJB Chiltern I had become aware of how much accountants both valued the facility to secure expert tax support and yet, at the same time resented the traditional approach:

  • A BIG consultancy (with the consequential ‘big firm’ mentality to business);
  • Part of an accountancy firm (previously MRI Moores Rowland, now BDO Stoy Hayward)
  • London based;
  • High overheads to be recovered through the charge-out rates;
  • Limited facility to go direct to the advisers of choice within the firm.

The Tax Advice Network avoids all of those issues. Most of the tax adviser members are sole practitioners. Accountants can choose precisely which adviser to approach by reference to expertise, location, size of firm, ratings, testimonials or indeed any other criteria they consider relevant.

And it seems that we’ve struck a chord as over 1000 accountants have already registered on our website and now receive our free weekly practical tax update, written especially for accountants in general practice. If you have yet to register you’d better get a move on as the free facility is liable to be withdrawn in the future.

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