You have to use different bait to attract bigger fish

A sole practitioner accountant recently asked how could he attract the ‘bigger fish’?
In effect he wanted to know how he could start to attract and win clients who would be prepared to pay bigger fees. He said he wants to more than double his average fee – moving from around £600 upto £2,000.

Here’s my initial reply:

What services do the ‘bigger fish’ look for and that you can provide? Are you looking to attract prospects with more complex affairs or those with more messy records?

What services would anyone want and be prepared to pay £2k for that you have the interest and ability to provide.

When you are networking are your stories and examples about small clients or big clients?

Do the messages on your website and marketing material represent the right sort of bait for the work you want to attract?

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No long term future for 'Halfway house' firms of accountants

I used the expression ‘Halfway house’ firms of accountants for the first time today when commenting on an internet forum. It seems sensible to explain my thinking in a short blog post.

I had in mind those mid tier firms that are largely all but indistinguishable – in the eyes of prospective clients. It’s a harsh truth that is perhaps best evidenced  by the promotional flyer about which I have written in recent blog posts. I also made a similar point when reviewing an innovative online video produced by another mid-tier firm.

It’s partly the difficulty in distinguishing themselves that will be the downfall of many mid-sized (half way house) firms. They struggle to win competitive pitches, to attract new clients, to secure new partners with a following and to retain qualified staff. They are constantly fighting to become more efficient so as to reduce costs and maintain, let alone, improve profit per partner.  The recession has reinforced all of these challenges.

The only mid tier firms that will survive and thrive are those with clearly defined niches. By this I mean those that are known for having an area of expertise that makes them really stand out from the pack. They recruit staff and partners specifically to bolster this expertise and they don’t waste time and money trying to be all things to all people. And these firms will only survive as regards those specialist areas. The more generic areas of their practices will shrink as partners retire or leave to go to smaller firms with lower overheads and potentially higher profits per partner. The smaller firms will often be less pressurised environments too – especially if they stick to clearly defined, promoted and valued niches.

Those mid-tier firms that have no such recognised niche expertise will face increased pressure from the egg-timer squeeze of both the largest firms and of the smaller more focused and cost-effective firms. The larger ones are perceived as having more credibility for the provision of a wider range of services – when these are needed and valued. The smaller ones are able to provide compliance, advisory and special services more cost effectively.

How many businesses really need to be served by halfway house firms of accountants?

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No long term future for ‘Halfway house’ firms of accountants

I used the expression ‘Halfway house’ firms of accountants for the first time today when commenting on an internet forum. It seems sensible to explain my thinking in a short blog post.

I had in mind those mid tier firms that are largely all but indistinguishable – in the eyes of prospective clients. It’s a harsh truth that is perhaps best evidenced  by the promotional flyer about which I have written in recent blog posts. I also made a similar point when reviewing an innovative online video produced by another mid-tier firm.

It’s partly the difficulty in distinguishing themselves that will be the downfall of many mid-sized (half way house) firms. They struggle to win competitive pitches, to attract new clients, to secure new partners with a following and to retain qualified staff. They are constantly fighting to become more efficient so as to reduce costs and maintain, let alone, improve profit per partner.  The recession has reinforced all of these challenges.

The only mid tier firms that will survive and thrive are those with clearly defined niches. By this I mean those that are known for having an area of expertise that makes them really stand out from the pack. They recruit staff and partners specifically to bolster this expertise and they don’t waste time and money trying to be all things to all people. And these firms will only survive as regards those specialist areas. The more generic areas of their practices will shrink as partners retire or leave to go to smaller firms with lower overheads and potentially higher profits per partner. The smaller firms will often be less pressurised environments too – especially if they stick to clearly defined, promoted and valued niches.

Those mid-tier firms that have no such recognised niche expertise will face increased pressure from the egg-timer squeeze of both the largest firms and of the smaller more focused and cost-effective firms. The larger ones are perceived as having more credibility for the provision of a wider range of services – when these are needed and valued. The smaller ones are able to provide compliance, advisory and special services more cost effectively.

How many businesses really need to be served by halfway house firms of accountants?

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads of valuable insights, short-cuts, tips and advice for accountants who want to STANDOUT and speed up their success. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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Line by line critique of accountant's direct mail missive

This is a follow up to last week’s post about a poor piece of generic direct mail I received from a firm of accountants. I’ve been asked to spell out what’s wrong with it. So here is my analysis of the letter – line by line:

“It was unfortunate that I was not able to meet with you at the [event].

Was the writer actually there? Were they specifically looking out for me, having checked me or my organisation out beforehand?

I would have appreciated the chance to talk with you about your organisation and gain an insight into how we can work together in the future.

Do they know anything about me or my org’n? They seem to assume that we could work together. And yet the rest of the letter is not about working together but simply describes a typical firm of chartered accountants.

I would like to introduce our firm to you.

And yet what follows is so generic as to be worthless.

[This top 30 firm] is a firm of chartered accountants providing a fully integrated business advisory service across several areas of expertise, designed specifically to save you time, provide you with peace of mind and achieve cost savings where possible.

“Fully integrated” – which means what exactly?

“across several areas of expertise” – do any of them include my business sector?

“designed specifically” – “designed”? what does that mean? And how is that different to what I would expect of any other firm?

“to save you time, provide you with peace of mind” – Even if the specific design assertion was true it would relate to clients rather than ‘you’ (the recipients of the letter).

“achieve cost savings” – Does this mean they’ll be cheaper than my current accountants? (Won’t that depend on who my current accountants are?) Or that they cut their own costs year on year? (unlikely) Or that they focus on reducing tax bills? (in which case, why not say so?)

We pride ourselves on our ability to understand our clients’ issues, working closely with them to identify areas where we can provide solutions that add value to their business and shareholders. In short, we are here to help you.

“We pride ourselves” – Hmm. And this is different or special how exactly?

“we are here to help you.” – Hmm. Generic communications like this, especially when they contain unusually long sentences, suggest otherwise.

Our clients include quoted public limited companies, owner managed and family owned businesses of all sizes, professional partnerships, regulatory bodies, public sector bodies and not-for-profit organisations.

Is there any business or organisation that doesn’t fit their client base? Am I supposed to be impressed that they claim to be able to service anyone and everyone? I’d be more interested if the letter specifically highlighted their expertise in working with other clients like me.

I will contact you in a couple of days to discuss your requirements and how our approach to service delivery could be of benefit to you and your organisation.

And they’re not trustworthy. A week later and I’ve had no such call.

Further information about our firm is available on our website [here].

What exactly in this letter is supposed to prompt me to bother going to their website?

Signatory – name

As noted in my original post, the position and responsibility of the signatory are not stated. Was it an audit partner? The senior partner? A marketing manager? Someone who will genuinely be able to “gain an insight into how we can work together in the future”.  Who knows?

Is this analysis too harsh? If this letter has secured new clients for the firm then clearly my assessment is wrong. But somehow I doubt it.

What do you think?

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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Line by line critique of accountant’s direct mail missive

This is a follow up to last week’s post about a poor piece of generic direct mail I received from a firm of accountants. I’ve been asked to spell out what’s wrong with it. So here is my analysis of the letter – line by line:

“It was unfortunate that I was not able to meet with you at the [event].

Was the writer actually there? Were they specifically looking out for me, having checked me or my organisation out beforehand?

I would have appreciated the chance to talk with you about your organisation and gain an insight into how we can work together in the future.

Do they know anything about me or my org’n? They seem to assume that we could work together. And yet the rest of the letter is not about working together but simply describes a typical firm of chartered accountants.

I would like to introduce our firm to you.

And yet what follows is so generic as to be worthless.

[This top 30 firm] is a firm of chartered accountants providing a fully integrated business advisory service across several areas of expertise, designed specifically to save you time, provide you with peace of mind and achieve cost savings where possible.

“Fully integrated” – which means what exactly?

“across several areas of expertise” – do any of them include my business sector?

“designed specifically” – “designed”? what does that mean? And how is that different to what I would expect of any other firm?

“to save you time, provide you with peace of mind” – Even if the specific design assertion was true it would relate to clients rather than ‘you’ (the recipients of the letter).

“achieve cost savings” – Does this mean they’ll be cheaper than my current accountants? (Won’t that depend on who my current accountants are?) Or that they cut their own costs year on year? (unlikely) Or that they focus on reducing tax bills? (in which case, why not say so?)

We pride ourselves on our ability to understand our clients’ issues, working closely with them to identify areas where we can provide solutions that add value to their business and shareholders. In short, we are here to help you.

“We pride ourselves” – Hmm. And this is different or special how exactly?

“we are here to help you.” – Hmm. Generic communications like this, especially when they contain unusually long sentences, suggest otherwise.

Our clients include quoted public limited companies, owner managed and family owned businesses of all sizes, professional partnerships, regulatory bodies, public sector bodies and not-for-profit organisations.

Is there any business or organisation that doesn’t fit their client base? Am I supposed to be impressed that they claim to be able to service anyone and everyone? I’d be more interested if the letter specifically highlighted their expertise in working with other clients like me.

I will contact you in a couple of days to discuss your requirements and how our approach to service delivery could be of benefit to you and your organisation.

And they’re not trustworthy. A week later and I’ve had no such call.

Further information about our firm is available on our website [here].

What exactly in this letter is supposed to prompt me to bother going to their website?

Signatory – name

As noted in my original post, the position and responsibility of the signatory are not stated. Was it an audit partner? The senior partner? A marketing manager? Someone who will genuinely be able to “gain an insight into how we can work together in the future”.  Who knows?

Is this analysis too harsh? If this letter has secured new clients for the firm then clearly my assessment is wrong. But somehow I doubt it.

What do you think?

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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Are you assertive or aggressive?

I was recently asked my views on the benefits of being assertive rather than aggressive in getting a tax job and in your tax career.  Here’s what I said as is published in Taxation 2 magazine:

While we are used to seeing aggressive characters getting their way on the screen and maybe even in the office it’s not a good way to act during an interview. And it’s unlikely to be a successful tactic when negotiating a  pay rise or dealing with clients – even the most difficult ones.

I have long remembered the rationale for being assertive. It means you recognise that although the other person may have rights, so do you. When you act aggressively you deny the other person their rights.  And when you act submissively or non-assertively, you deny your own rights. If this is your default position then you would probably benefit from some assertiveness training. It’s hard to respect non-assertive interviewees or professional advisers.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Many of us have worked for an aggressive boss who we think revels in his ability to bully us. This may force us into a non-assertive stance. it will rarely enable us to get the best outcome.

I would add that many people confuse being assertive and being aggressive.  To reiterate the distinction above:

When you are assertive you recognise that you are entitled to information, clarification or a reply but that your entitlement is no greater (or less) than the other person’s entitlement to respect, politeness and honesty.

You are being submissive, passive or non-assertive if you remain silent when you ought to ask for help or explain your needs. This behaviour communicates a sense of inferiority. Typically it involves you thinking or acting as if others’ rights and needs are more important than your own. When you do this, other people may not be able to help you because you act as if there’s no problem. This approach will rarely serve you well in interviews, in the office or with clients. Much better that you should feel comfortable, and know that you have the right to ask for assistance or clarification when needed.

Many people confuse assertive behaviour with aggressive behaviour.  The latter typically comes across as bullying or disrespectful, implying that “my needs, wants, and rights come first.” When someone is acting in an aggressive manner, he or she doesn’t ask for assistance, but demands it.

Assertiveness is a skill. It’s not natural for everyone and can take practice to strike the right balance so that you do not come across as aggressive.  Being naturally assertive is a skill worth developing.

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How not to direct mail….

I received a 3 paragraph letter recently from someone I didn’t meet at a recent networking event.

This person had obtained an attendee list and sent out what is clearly a standard letter. I won’t embarrass the firm or the writer by identifying them. And here’s the key thing: Nothing in the letter will identify them either.

As you read it I would encourage you to think about how ineffective such an identikit letter is likely to be. It could be describing almost any of the top 50 firms of accountants.

“It was unfortunate that I was not able to meet with you at the [event]. I would have appreciated the chance to talk with you about your organisation and gain an insight into how we can work together in the future.

I would like to introduce our firm to you. [This top 30 firm] is a firm of chartered accountants providing a fully integrated business advisory service across several areas of expertise, designed specifically to save you time, provide you with peace of mind and achieve cost savings where possible. We pride ourselves on our ability to understand our clients’ issues, working closely with them to identify areas where we can provide solutions that add value to their business and shareholders.

In short, we are here to help you. Our clients include quoted public limited companies, owner managed and family owned businesses of all sizes, professional partnerships, regulatory bodies, public sector bodies and not-for-profit organisations. I will contact you in a couple of days to discuss your requirements and how our approach to service delivery could be of benefit to you and your organisation. Further information about our firm is available on our website [here].

Direct mail has a poor reputation – partly because so many direct mail letters are poorly written.

This one is focused solely on the firm of accountants and says nothing of any value. Nothing that distinguishes the firm in question from any other firm. Nothing that makes the firm or the sender STAND OUT from the crowd. And nothing that would make any recipient think “Oh, now that sounds different from my current accountant”. Nothing that would make anyone want to check out the firm’s website. And nothing to identify whether the sender has relevant expertise, is a partner, a specialist or is in the marketing department or whatever. 

And don’t get me started on the double negative in the opening line or the lengthy sentences (one has almost 40 words in it). Sorry. But this letter fails on almost every measure.

Of course this direct mail campaign will have limited impact. It also reveals the opportunities available to smaller firms to STAND OUT from the crowd. Most of the the bigger firms are all the same – or at least they come across as all the same.

This letter, like so much of the marketing materials emanating from bigger firms, tries to be all things to all people. So it will be largely ineffective, a waste of time and of effort. Which takes us back to my previous post on this blog… Any comments?

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Should accountants Niche or Micro-niche?

When I interviewed Daniel Priestley on a webinar we discussed ways in which accountants in practice can become more entrepreneurial.

One of the issues we touched on was the benefits of identifying a niche, or preferably a micro-niche.  Daniel made the point that this makes you more referable as it distinguishes you from all the other accountants. And this is a point with which I certainly agree. I’m always amused when I see a list of “areas in which we specialise” on accountants’ websites. In fact such lists are more often simply a list of all those areas in which the firm’s clients operate. As such they provide less evidence of specialist expertise than is ideal.

The same point arises when accountants try to describe all the things they can do when they announce themselves at a networking event. All this does is to make you sound just like every other accountant. And that means you’re BORING and not memorable. So the low rate of referrals and new work introductions that follows from such activities shouldn’t be a surprise.

Claiming a micro-niche involves focusing on something like: “Divorced women over the age of 50 who are worried about their finances.” That’s a clear memorable and distinct focus. It’s a micro-niche.  You probably are already finding yourself thinking of people who fit that demographic. If so you’re putting yourself in the position of someone who could refer work to an accountant who focuses on that micro-niche. And that’s why it can be so valuable to have such a focus. Clearly you should pick one that relates to your own experience. But PLEASE make it different to all the other accountants who (claim to) focus on SME businesses…. (yawn),

Daniel suggested that micro-niches might include reference to gender, age, level of wealth, location, income, beliefs, values or any other such distinguishing personal or business feature. Focusing on micro-niches also makes it easier for search engines to find you. This is relevant for when your target audience is looking for an accountant. Your micro niche makes you more referable, more memorable and more obviously a specialist from the media’s perspective too.

I had one further thought after the webinar had finished. And anyone who has ever worked for or met someone from a larger firm of accountants will be able to relate to this. Often their business cards will define the niche or area in which they work. They are not simply a partner or a manager. Often they are not simply a tax partner or audit manager. Their business cards typically identify an area such as ‘property’, ‘retail’ or ‘international’.  These are akin to niches. But I know dozens of property tax specialists in large firms and I have difficulty in distinguishing them in my memory.

The accountants (in any size of firm) who stand out are those who emphasise their own unique micro-niches.They make these clear on their websites, on their marketing material, when networking and seeking referrals and when obtaining media coverage.

During the webinar Daniel answered a couple of related questions:

a)  Can you have more than one micro-niche? Yes you can but it’s rarely necessary and will confuse people if you mention them both in the same conversation;

b) What about the work and opportunities you miss through focusing on a micro-niche? In real life you gain far more than you lose.

What do you think? Do you have micro-niche you’re prepared to share?

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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