Are accountants more or less proactive than lawyers?

What does it mean when an accountant claims to be pro-active?

I tend to think this means seeking to anticipate clients’ needs, getting in touch rather than waiting for them to contact you and offering help and valuable advice. All without being specifically asked to do so – which, if we did, would render the accountants’ actions simply ‘reactive’.

I’ve heard it suggested that lawyers are more proactive than accountants. The reason being that lawyers typically only get work ‘when and if’.

On the other hand plenty of accountants are keen to go ‘beyond’ the day to day compliance work that they otherwise focus upon. Certainly clients appreciate proactive contact and advice. The challenge is to find ways in which to evidence that you are proactive. How do you do this BEFORE someone becomes a client? And what do you then do to make good your promise to be proactive?

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7 key telemarketing tips for accountants

Having been asked to provide content for a forthcoming magazine article on a related topic I have summarised my feedback to create the list below.

1 – Decide what sort of leads you want

The key is to ensure that whoever is making the calls is briefed effectively and that you have identified what makes your practice different (really), what criteria the target client needs to satisfy and what services you want to promote.  Preparation is key here and can save you loads of time that will otherwise be wasted attending meetings that are a waste of time.

2 – Be clear as to what you are offering

Businesses who receive cold calls always seem to be interested if they don’t rate their current accountant as pro active and good value.  One key issue for many firms of accountants is that they use the same words to describe what makes them different/better from other firms of accountants thus proving that the aren’t different at all! I’ve addressed this in previous posts on this blog such as: Is the way you describe yourself helping you to generate enough business?

The focus should be on HELPING not on SELLING. This requires careful questioning to ensure that any follow up meeting is worthwhile and not simply an information gathering exercise for the prospect who then reverts to his existing trusted adviser with the new ideas you have freely given away.

3 – Be realistic as to what you can expect

The best you can hope for is to secure warm qualified leads for meetings. Without careful planning you will simply get a load of meetings with people who want a cheap accountant. The biggest complaint I hear from accountants about their telemarketing efforts is that the lead wasn’t properly qualified. The prospective client simply wanted a new accountant who was cheaper than their current one. Unless the new one is promoting themselves as being cheap this rarely leads to a worthwhile meeting.

Telemarketing is simply the start of the process. YOU will still need to be able to satisfy the prospect that you’re the right person to help, to solve their problems and to provide the solutions and service they require. YOU need to be able to ‘CLOSE’ – which is part and parcel of being a good Finder (even if the leads have been generated by the telemarketer).

4 – Relevant experience counts

Yes, you could ask your staff to source leads and to make calls but this is unlikely to be as effective as using experienced telemarketers. ‘Experienced’ that is in generating qualified leads for professional service providers.  It is MUCH easier to educate such specialists as regards the specifics of your firm than it is to train up in-house people to be effective at qualified lead generation through telemarketing.

5  – Incentivise the outcomes you want

The key is to ensure that any incentive acts to motivate desired results. (We’re not talking about bankers here after all!) Telemarketers who are paid for each lead they generate will secure loads of inappropriate leads. There’s no point in the accountant then going to loads of meetings that are not with desirable and real prospect clients.

My preference is to incentivise teamwork rather than to pay a fee per meeting fixed up or per new client signed up.  You don’t want to attend meetings that have no serious prospect of allowing you to generate the fees you want for the work you enjoy doing. And paying a third party by reference to your success at ‘closing’ isn’t going tio work well either.

One way of encouraging teamwork is to pay per day’s work undertaken by the telemarketing service with no long term contract. This can help ensure that everyone has the same objective – to maximise the benefit of the exercise for both parties.  This includes monitoring and adapting how the exercise is working in the light of experience.

6 – Ensure the prospect gets multiple pre-meeting ‘touches’

Meetings will be far more worthwhile if the prospective client feels positive about their interactions with the accountant (through the telemarketer) beforehand. And such feelings can be enhanced by making contact (touching) the contact more than once.  So after a meeting has been fixed up over the phone, the firm should, at a minimum:

  • send out a written confirmation perhaps with a short relevant piece of promo literature (NOT a full brochure – unless the prospect requested this);
  • If there’s time, look up the prospect on the web (not simply their website) and try to find an excuse to send something relevant and useful to them before the meeting;
  • The day before the meeting someone should call the prospect to confirm the meeting, location, time, how best to find the building/park etc;

7 – Focus on what prospects most want

In the current climate businesses are even more interested in pro-active business advice than ever before. And of course proactive tax advice is always in demand. One way in which accountants can distinguish themselves when using telemarketing for new clients is to ascertain the nature of the tax issues and problems facing the prospective client. Detailed tax issues and problems can then be explored at an initial meeting even if the accountant may require support in developing and implementing solutions.

If you have further tips to share on this subject please add them as comments below.

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What do accountants sell? The answer is NOT Time

Many, but NOT all accountants, charge fees by reference to the time they spend working on a client’s affairs. Most accountants in practice still complete timesheets to show how much of their day has been devoted to each different client and to each different aspect of management, administration, marketing or other ‘non-billable’ time.

Thinking back to when I was in practice it was many years before I realised that a timesheet may have uses as a management tool but that it did not ‘prove’ how much time had been spent doing anything. It was a guide, nothing more. In my talks to accountants, eg: ‘How to make more profits from your smaller clients‘ I ask accountants what they would bill in a variety of situations. The answers prove that the timesheet is a guide and that the ‘time costs’ that it reveals are rarely the same as the fees billed (or that could be billed).

In previous posts on this blog I have considered many related topics but, todate, I hve not made any direct reference to either Ron Baker or the VeraSage Institute (a “revolutionary think tank for professional knowledge firms”).  I’ve been aware of Ron since first reading his book ‘Professionals Guide to Value Pricing’ in 2001.

Today I rectify that omission and do so by reference to a new post on the VeraSage blog: All accountants charge for their time. NOT!

The blog post refers to a Q&A found on a number of accounting firm websites (possibly as it comes as standard in a template web page):

“How do accountants charge?
All Accountants charge by time. The longer it takes to prepare your Return the dearer it’s going to be. Some businesses sell hamburgers. Real Estate Agents get paid commissions, and ACCOUNTANTS SELL TIME.”

This is a sad misconception. It’s based on a misunderstanding and it’s a misleading myth. Accountants may try to determine SOME OF their fees by reference to time. They may try to  charge fees by reference to their time records but TIME is not generally what accountants sell.  If it were then the corollary would be that TIME is what people who want  an accountant set out to buy. And they don’t.

In my view accountants sell (or should focus on selling) Trust, Confidence and Peace of Mind. Indeed a quick Google search reveals an increasing number of firms who state this on their websites.  These are 3 of the key qualities, if not THE 3 key qualities, that clients seek when they want to appoint an accountant.  If  prospective clients do not quickly trust you, have confidence that you will do the necessary and give them peace of mind that they can rely on you, you will not keep them as clients; indeed they may not appoint you in the first place.

What do you think you sell as an accountant in practice?

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“Death by Accountancy” – business is more than numbers

When I first saw the headline ‘Death by Accountancy‘ I assumed this would be an item for my blog covering  The lighter side of accountancy and tax. But I’m afraid it’s a further lesson that Accountancy is about more than just numbers.

The article headed ‘Death by Accountancy‘ argues that accountants cannot afford to ignore the need for strong personal and business focused skills when advising on restructuring plans.

The article looks at the recent failure of MFI and suggests that:

it wasn’t the recession that killed MFI. It’s death warrant was signed by its own executives in a restructure some five years earlier. Like thousands of other companies, it has been killed by the absurd pretence, cemented in MBA orthodoxy, that a company consists of little more than costs and resources, and that people and skills represent the ‘soft stuff’.

Continuing in a similar vein:

In truth, the company was destroyed by a cost-reduction programme that took no account of staff skills and customer service.

I wonder if the common experience of accountants in practice (whereby all the emphasis is typically on technical competency) has an impact on how they view businesses in the commercial sector? And if so, are there any lessons that can be learned?

What do you think?

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How to choose which personal skills to develop

Recently I was approached in the following terms:

“I have been authorised to sign up for up to three soft skills courses this year.  I know that you are an expert in these things and was wondering if you could suggest three you think most appropriate and the right order.”

Here’s an extract from my reply:

“Think of soft skills in the same way as technical skills. Which approach works best for you?

Are you still at the stage where you look at the list of available courses and then pick from the list or do you start by asking – where I am weakest? Or which areas do I most want to keep on top of? And having decided where to focus, you then look to find specific relevant technical courses on those subjects?

In my view the same approach is key to developing ‘soft skills’.

I’d suggest that the best starting point is to identify which areas would most benefit from development. As a starting point I have attached a checklist of a dozen key skills.  Pick those that are most important to you in your role at [your firm]. Then rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 for those skills that are important. That should help you to identify where to focus. Once you’ve done that it’ll be easier to recommend some suitable courses or training.”

I included a link to a white paper I wrote a couple of years ago about personal skills development for ambitious professionals. This contains the 12 key skills too, so you could use that list if you wanted to follow the approach I’ve suggested above.