Five modern marketing tips for accountants

I was asked yesterday for my top five marketing tips for accountants and I said I thought these would clear on this blog. Except that I then realised that ‘marketing’ is not one of the categories I use on here.

Thinking back that’s because, in my experience, relatively few UK accountancy firms devote much time and effort to marketing per se. And that ‘marketing’ in isolation can be seen as a bit of a turn off by accountants.

Indeed I recall that I consciously excluded ‘marketing’ from the list of key points to be addressed in one of my most popular talks for accountants:
“Make more profits from your smaller clients.” It’s implicit in the heading ‘Easy high impact tax business strategies that really work’. And I certainly cover numerous marketing related points in the talk, but always in context and only after explaining why effective ‘marketing’ is one key way of achieving the desired end. I’ve long adopted a similar approach when mentoring and providing business coaching advice to firms. And I’ve been adopting the same approach on this blog too.  Consistency counts towards credibility I think.

Have attitudes changed significantly in recent years? Remember I’m referring to the thousands of smaller firms of accountants, rather than the bigger firms with their in-house marketing department.

For what it’s worth I’ve drawn together five key marketing tips that were not described as such in the original posts on this blog:

1 – Ensure that your website homepage is focused on your target audiences.

It needs to contain key words that they are searching for, distinguish you from the other accountants and incorporate at least simple SEO so that your website appears in search results when people look for an accountant in your area.

2 – Identify what makes you/your firm special and different

Don’t rely on your personal charm and personality to secure new clients. Even if that works generally it needs to be supplemented in your marketing materials by effective marketing messages.

3 – Ensure that you and your staff are all focused on quality client service

Many accountants claim that they secure the majority of their new clients through  word of mouth referrals.  But few accountants have a structured approach to securing those referrals. The starting point MUST be to focus on client service. They key here though is to ensure that you see it from your clients’ perspective. That’s what counts. Not how hard you try. Not how hard you work. But how delighted your clients are with the outcome of your efforts, work and advice.

4 – Implement a referral marketing programme

Ensure that you ask clients and contacts for referrals at the right time, in the right way and to secure the right type of new clients.

5 – Focus your marketing efforts where they will generate maximum return

It’s generally accepted that it is easier to secure additional fees by providing further services to existing clients than from strangers (new clients). Identify your top clients, the ‘A team’. Use your own criteria, be they aggregate fees, potential for advisory work,  wealth, or whatever you think makes most sense to you. Then look to identify the additional services and advisory topics that could be relevant to the ‘A team’. In this connection, if you need support on the tax side then of course don’t forget the Tax Advice Network!

by

"A flood of mergers in 2009"?

I was talking with a top partnership lawyer at a recent meeting of the Association of Partnership Practitioners. He indicated that he was expecting a “flood of mergers in 2009.”

He wasn’t just referring to the accountancy sector but he didn’t see why that would be any different.  He’s been specialising in the professional services sector for even longer than I did when I was in practice.  And I’ve known his predictions to be right before, so I tend to think that he knows what he’s talking about.

Why should there be lots of merger activity in 2009? Well there are likely to be two additional factors, over and above the usual drivers:

  • Some firms will lose more than their fair share of clients, or will suffer significant bad debts such that it’s ‘merge or die’; and
  • Some firms will see the opportunity to expand through the acquisition (sorry, merger) with a smaller weaker practice.

If sufficient due diligence is undertaken and such a merger still makes sense it could be beneficial all round.

However history is littered with examples of mergers between two weak firms that only succeeded in creating a bigger weak firm.  This then limps along for a while before it is rescued by a takeover by a much bigger firm. This only happens if the client base is sufficiently attractive. If it isn’t then the weak big firm simply splits up again and all of the time and effort devoted to the merger is wasted.

The problem will come, as it has done so many times in the past, if the newly merged firm does not institute MAJOR changes. These need to be agreed as part of the merger plan and will invariably necessitate an external facilitator. This is not something I would attempt to do but I’d be happy to recommend suitable specialists if asked.

by

“A flood of mergers in 2009”?

I was talking with a top partnership lawyer at a recent meeting of the Association of Partnership Practitioners. He indicated that he was expecting a “flood of mergers in 2009.”

He wasn’t just referring to the accountancy sector but he didn’t see why that would be any different.  He’s been specialising in the professional services sector for even longer than I did when I was in practice.  And I’ve known his predictions to be right before, so I tend to think that he knows what he’s talking about.

Why should there be lots of merger activity in 2009? Well there are likely to be two additional factors, over and above the usual drivers:

  • Some firms will lose more than their fair share of clients, or will suffer significant bad debts such that it’s ‘merge or die’; and
  • Some firms will see the opportunity to expand through the acquisition (sorry, merger) with a smaller weaker practice.

If sufficient due diligence is undertaken and such a merger still makes sense it could be beneficial all round.

However history is littered with examples of mergers between two weak firms that only succeeded in creating a bigger weak firm.  This then limps along for a while before it is rescued by a takeover by a much bigger firm. This only happens if the client base is sufficiently attractive. If it isn’t then the weak big firm simply splits up again and all of the time and effort devoted to the merger is wasted.

The problem will come, as it has done so many times in the past, if the newly merged firm does not institute MAJOR changes. These need to be agreed as part of the merger plan and will invariably necessitate an external facilitator. This is not something I would attempt to do but I’d be happy to recommend suitable specialists if asked.

by

Clients WANT more support in these trying times

Once accountants  have finished focusing on the 31 January online filing deadline there’s a new challenge this year.  It’s partly something I talked about in my seminars last year.  But it’s also evident from a recent survey undertaken on behalf of accountsIQ, a provider of online accountancy solutions.

Their research highlights a desire from small businesses to receive more services from their accountants to help them weather the recession. The survey of 100 small business owner/managers, in December 2008, found that a staggering 82% of respondents would welcome better support and advice.

Many clients are unaware of the different services available from accountants. They tend to assume that all accountants are the same.

You may well be able to provide a wider range of services than those that you have been providing to clients year in and year out. The problem you need to address though is that many clients just will not know that they could ASK you to help with things like cash flow advice, data analysis and other ‘virtual finance director’ services.

AccountsIQ survey also revealed that 80% of small businesses would like their accountants to offer ‘improved analysis and interpretation of their financial data into suggested business actions’. Half of all respondents said  that they would welcome it greatly. In addition to this, almost 70%  said that they would like their accountant to provide ‘better measures to help them manage and improve their cash flow.’ Again over 40% said that they would welcome this greatly. And over 60% said they would like their accountant to provide ‘greater visibility of changes to their financial position’ and the same number would like ‘access to their financial information at any time and from anywhere to improve decision making’.

So you don’t need to ‘sell’ clients on your ability to provide these services. Clients WANT them.  So you do need to make sure clients know what you can do for them. Please don’t make the classic mistake of thinking that having told clients once about such services that they will remember the conversation or letter. Equally few clients will keep your promotional flyer or brochure to hand.

My advice is to get in touch with your better clients, if not all of them and to find out how they’re coping. Focus simply on how  you could HELP them. This approach may enable you to overcome  any fear you may have of ‘selling’. More importantly this approach will be more appealing to your clients. You’ll be focusing on THEM and what they need, rather than on what YOU want.

by

Why bigger isn’t always best

It’s worth sharing  stories I hear about  dissatisfied clients of accountants as there are always lessons that can learned.  Let me be clear this story refers to a friend of mine who has recently gone back to his old accountant.

Why did ‘Harold’ change accountants last year?  He told me:

Believe it or not it really was just a belief that we needed to have an accountant that lived nearby. Our old accountant was good and I guess we also thought the grass might be greener at a big firm because they say all these impressive sounding things like they were going to assign two partners to our account and have quarterly updates which never happened.

So what did happen?

Harold wrote to the big firm as follows:

I am writing to let you know that we wish to return to our old accountants.  We have not been satisfied with the service received by [Your Big Firm].  I appreciate you have always been responsive when we have had queries and you were helpful during our meeting last year.  However, we (and I in particular) need more support and hand-holding than I have received from you.  I’m sure you would like to have some specific examples:

  • We thought we were going to have quarterly meetings to discuss the direction of the businesses
  • We have never had a courtesy call or email from you in over a year, asking how things are or on specific matters
  • The receptionist didn’t know who we were and couldn’t find our contact details when I phoned
  • We missed the tax return date for one of my companies  and we now owe a penalty (our old accountants used to remind us and keep on top of everything)
  • When I called to discuss the VAT registration, you sent me an email even though I wanted to chat through it with someone

I know some of those things may seem trivial to you but they are important to us.  We would feel more comfortable going back to our previous accountants who dealt with us for over five years.  It’s a small firm and we get a more personal service from them.

I am sorry to have to send you this news in the first week of the new year.  I have asked our old accountant to get in touch with you to request the files back.

The reply Harold received was short and sweet:

Your points are noted and I will pass the information to your accountant when I hear from him.

Best wishes for the future.

Lessons?  Was Harold’s experience typical of a larger firm? Were his expectations unrealistic? Had he been spoiled by his old accountant or was it that old level of service that created unrealistic expectations. I know what I think. What about you?

by

Why bigger isn’t always best

It’s worth sharing  stories I hear about  dissatisfied clients of accountants as there are always lessons that can learned.  Let me be clear this story refers to a friend of mine who has recently gone back to his old accountant.

Why did ‘Harold’ change accountants last year?  He told me:

Believe it or not it really was just a belief that we needed to have an accountant that lived nearby. Our old accountant was good and I guess we also thought the grass might be greener at a big firm because they say all these impressive sounding things like they were going to assign two partners to our account and have quarterly updates which never happened.

So what did happen?

Harold wrote to the big firm as follows:

I am writing to let you know that we wish to return to our old accountants.  We have not been satisfied with the service received by [Your Big Firm].  I appreciate you have always been responsive when we have had queries and you were helpful during our meeting last year.  However, we (and I in particular) need more support and hand-holding than I have received from you.  I’m sure you would like to have some specific examples:

  • We thought we were going to have quarterly meetings to discuss the direction of the businesses
  • We have never had a courtesy call or email from you in over a year, asking how things are or on specific matters
  • The receptionist didn’t know who we were and couldn’t find our contact details when I phoned
  • We missed the tax return date for one of my companies  and we now owe a penalty (our old accountants used to remind us and keep on top of everything)
  • When I called to discuss the VAT registration, you sent me an email even though I wanted to chat through it with someone

I know some of those things may seem trivial to you but they are important to us.  We would feel more comfortable going back to our previous accountants who dealt with us for over five years.  It’s a small firm and we get a more personal service from them.

I am sorry to have to send you this news in the first week of the new year.  I have asked our old accountant to get in touch with you to request the files back.

The reply Harold received was short and sweet:

Your points are noted and I will pass the information to your accountant when I hear from him.Best wishes for the future.

Lessons?  Was Harold’s experience typical of a larger firm? Were his expectations unrealistic? Had he been spoiled by his old accountant or was it that old level of service that created unrealistic expectations. I know what I think. What about you?

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>>>

by

The ABCDE of client service for accountants

Anyone who has heard me speak at seminars or enjoyed my mentoring programme will have heard me refer to the ABCDE of client service.

I was surprised recently to note that in the last 2 and half years I haven’t already blogged about this. But a quick search reveals that to be the case.

I first used it when training staff in practice almost 20 years ago. It’s evolved a little bit in that time but hasn’t required much change.

When I was in practice I explained to my staff that the ABCDE of client service summarised the five things that clients most wanted from their accountant. I encouraged my staff to keep it in mind whenever writing, phoning or meeting with clients. I also used this as a tool to help convince prospective clients that I knew how to look after them.

So here it is:

A = Advice – More than anything clients want Tax Advice.  A is NOT for Answers  – See previous post.

B = Barrier – Clients want us to act as a Barrier between them and HMRC.

C = Compliance – We deal with all of the Compliance paperwork and processes.

D = Dates – We make sure that clients know when they need to do things and when we’ll do things, when tax needs to be paid and when refunds can be expected.

E = Estimates – We provide estimates of the tax payable and repayable and update these as and when the information changes.

I remember playing around some years back and adding further definitions for additional letters (F, G, H etc).  But none stuck and five is about the right number anyway.

Does anyone care to try to improve on the above?

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>>>

by

Do you just give clients Answers or do you give them Advice?

When you see a Consultant in Harley Street (or the equivalent in Hospitals up and down the country) they will often give you options.  For example: You could try this new drug or you could have this operation.  How do you decide?

My wife’s approach is to turn the conversation around and to ask the Consultant what would they do if they were the patient or if their child/mother was the patient?  In other words she asks for Advice.

The letters that  accountants write to clients often contain a lot of technical information (often far too much in fact).  And if the client has asked questions the letter will contain information intended to answer the questions.  It’s very common for such answers to be in the style of ‘on the one hand, this, and on the other hand, that.’

I used to encourage my staff to check that their letters contained Advice when this was appropriate.  I used to stress that clients don’t just want Answers, they want Advice. So if there were two (or more) possible options, I suggested that our letters should always advice which route to go, which option to take.  This was of course subject to knowing that certain clients would prefer us not to do that. In my experience however most clients wanted Advice and generally did as we advised.

Is being an accountant that different from being a Consultant on Harley Street (when it comes to giving advice on technical matters)?

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>>>

by

Social Networking for Accountants (part one)

This is the inevitable follow up to a number of recent blog posts here.

I am probably one of the most active UK accountants on what are commonly referred to as ‘social networks’.  I prefer the term ‘online communities’. Some have more of a social than business focus. Others are evidently only for business related networking. And some of these miss the fact that professional services (such as accountancy services and tax advice) are provided by INDIVIDUALS, not by businesses.  And People buy People.  The brand message, especially of the bigger firms, MAY provide a degree of comfort and reassurance but in the main the ‘sale’, the engagement and the services will be attributed to individual advisers.   RELATIONSHIPS are not built up overnight – whether in a business or a social context.

That’s one of the reasons why I am so excited by the developments in online communities. It’s also one of the reasons why I started my own in 2007 (The Tax Advice Network) although it’s not as sophisticated as the more mainstream communities.  That’s deliberate as I’d like to think that I know and understand my main target audience (accountants in practice in the UK).  I speak to thousands of them at conferences and seminars around the UK each year. I don’t sense very much real interest (yet) in online networking and online communities.  When it happens I’ll be ready for it – or maybe I will inspire it?!

For the moment there are a few sites that facilitate and encourage accountants to post blogs  (but see my expose of Blogging myths for accountants), to comment on current news threads and to ask and answer technical questions.

I’ll write about these in a subsequent blog. I’ll also discuss and highlight some of the non-accountant specific business and social online networks and how accountants could benefit from becoming more involved with these – and how to do so without wasting loads of time.  But there’s no rush. None  will become mainstream for accountants in practice in the UK in 2009 (for much the same reason as to why Twitter is not for accountants.

[Edited 2013] Like this post? You can now obtain my 10,000 word ebook containing loads more Social Media related insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

by

“One in four firms expects to lose clients”

According to Accountancy magazine,  a quarter of the 1,200 accountancy firms surveyed by KATO ‘expected to lose clients as a result of business failure or losing them to another practice’. I’ve tried to find a copy of the survey online to no avail – so I will simply assume that the question related to expectations for 2009.

I find the survey’s reported outcome very odd for two reasons:

Firstly why don’t MORE than only 1 in 4 firms anticipate losing even one client as a result of business failure?

And secondly, the loss of clients to another practice is quite different to losing clients that go out of business.  So it’s a shame that these two issues have been conflated.

I accept that some practices have only personal tax clients but that can’t explain why three quarters of the firms surveyed did not think they would lose any clients.  What do you think will happen in your own practice? Maybe you feel that you will be able to make time to help all those clients facing financial difficulties. And that your efforts will be successful such that none will ‘go under’. I’m sorry but I don’t think any of us is a super-hero and can afford to be that confident.

On the question of losing clients to another practice, why might this happen?  They’re looking for lower fees? Do you feel at risk of clients looking to move to someone who charges less than you do?

I think there are two principal ways to address this issue (and to an extent it could be too late to do so):

  1. Ensure that your service levels (as perceived by your clients)  justify the fees you charge. This means doing more than simply REacting when clients contact you, but taking the initiative and ensuring that they know you care.
  2. Accept that some of your clients are never going to be happy paying you the fees that you earn from other clients for the work you do and the service you provide.  Accept that you’ve  held onto such clients for longer than you might have expected. The recession has simply forced the issue but it was one that would need facing at some stage anyway. (I’ve written previously to encourage you to Ditch the duff clients).

I’d value other views as to why only 1 in 4 of the firms surveyed expected to lose clients this year. Or do you think that it’s been badly reported, or both?

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>>>

by