How do you reply when asked: What do you do?

Many accountants adopt one of two distinct styles when talking about what they do for a living.

Most are almost apologetic when answering the question: “What do you do?” Experience has taught them that admitting they are an accountant may generate a dismissive or negative reply.

Those accountants who have attended formulaic networking groups adopt a different approach. They have learned an ‘elevator pitch’ that they think will both hold the other person’s attention and also distinguish them from other accountants.

The second approach is much better than the first but it’s usually tacky and contrived. I’m not a fan of such ruses.

So what do I suggest to accountants who want to stand out from the rest?

Actually my advice will lead you to adopt a variation on the elevator pitch. There are 3 key differences though:

1) How you choose what you say;
2) What needs to be going on in your head; and
3) The level of self confidence you display.

I want you to be more confident that what you do is valuable and worthwhile. Your role as an accountant is important to your clients and to society.

Maybe you help business people get a detailed understanding of what’s really going on in their business. Or you help give people peace of mind that their tax affairs are in order and that they are not paying any more in tax than they need to. There are many variations on these ideas. None though is focused around simply preparing sets of accounts or tax returns. The work you do, or should do, is more important than this. It’s more valuable and it’s more crucial.

Talking in such terms can help change people’s perceptions of what it means to be an accountant.

It is crucial though that YOU believe what you are saying. If you just say it because it sounds good you won’t fool anyone. You will simply be guilty of self deception and risk coming across as a slimy salesman.

I’d love to see some examples in the comments section below of what you say – whether or not this post has prompted you to review your ‘standard’ response.

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Beware the marketing bullies

Regular readers will know that on this blog I share, what I hope is, constructive unbiased advice for accountants in practice.

After I spoke at the recent Accountex exhibition and conference I was touched to be complimented a number of times on the style and content of my talks – which echoes the approach I adopt here. I have no ulterior motive, no desire to encourage you to spend thousands of pounds on my services and no ambition to be retained as a consultant to your practice.

One lady said she found my approach very refreshing as compared with that of most other speakers at the conference. “You were very different and so much more believable,”  she said. “You have inspired me to do a number of things that I will take forward when I’m back in the office. So many other speakers tried to persuade me I needed to do something that would involve me spending a lot of money with them.  And, quite frankly I wasn’t convinced that they were being objective.”

More recently I was chatting with an IT supplier who shared his views of such marketing focused suppliers. “Some are just bullies in pinstripes” he said. “They often employ very persuasive salespeople who attempt to scare accountants into spending far more money than necessary. Quite often the accountant is simply being forced onto a ‘me too’ bandwagon, the benefits of which are yet to be proven. But when a strong salesperson keeps on and on, a lot of accountants simply give in – and the salespeople know this is likely; so they persist until it happens.”

I was shocked as, in my experience, accountants are generally reluctant to invest in new marketing ‘solutions’. I would like to think that no one agrees to spend significant sums before creating an effective plan to secure a decent ROI. And bear in mind that there is NO simple quick get-rich formula for accountants looking for new clients.

My advice, as ever, is to avoid spending money before identifying your marketing strategy (and ideally picking a niche which enables you to stand out). As part of your strategy you should determine your objectives and the metrics that will determine whether or not your new activities are successful. Then you can judge any new solution objectively against the criteria you set.

There are many ethical salespeople out there and many of the marketing related services and products available to accountants are well worthwhile. But YOU need to choose which is best for you and your practice. Or, if not ‘best’, then which is going to be cost effective and appropriate for your practice? That may not be the first one you look at or the one with the most persuasive sales patter and follow up system.

Remember that a salesperson’s assertions are not proof, are rarely objective and are not necessarily reliable. What else could you do, or have you done, to protect yourself from the marketing bullies?

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What skills set does it take to be successful as an accountant or tax adviser?

Some years ago I routinely highlighted the need to build and develop personal and business skills in addition to technical skills. It’s all very well to understand accounting and tax rules and how to produce a set of accounts and tax returns, but ambitious accountants need a wider skills set if they want to be successful. Today I return to the topic – for reasons that will become apparent.

It has long been my experience, and that of other training providers, that accountants and tax advisers are far more willing to invest in keeping up to date technically, than they are to invest in their personal development.

The number of attendees at technical courses will often be more than double the number who seek out non-technical CPD. This seems to be seen as simply a nice-to-have, rather than a crucial element of becoming and remaining a successful accountant or tax adviser. I find this odd as my own career success in practice owed far more to my non-technical skills than it did to my technical ones. And I know I’m not alone. It’s actually very common. Some of those skills may have come naturally to me but most benefitted from the numerous training courses I attended, books I read and tapes(!) I listened to over the years.

What prompted this blog post was the impassioned plea contained in a full page letter published in the June 2013 issue of Tax Adviser magazine. The letter  was written by Margaret Connolly, Partner and Head of Taxation at Reeves, a major firm of Accountants with over 40 partners in south-east England.

Margaret doesn’t mention non-technical skills as such but does note, inter alia, that:

Too many bright and talented tax staff only have experience of compliance work; They have had very little opportunity or experience in the advisory field even if they have secured an ATT or CIOT qualification.

“What makes a good tax adviser is the possession of the ability to interpret tax legislation and to apply it to each and every situation offerred by clients; indeed this is what clients expect.”

Those coming into the profession today are not afforded the time or encouraged to undertake detailed technical research, to think for themselves and offer their understanding of the legislation.

Most experienced tax partners today are under too much pressure to meet billing targets such that they cannot devote time to training up less experienced colleagues.

Although candidates’ CVs imply they have relevant experience, when probed during interviews they seem unable to demonstrate that they can give advice that considers all relevant tax issues.

If the profession doesn’t provide return to the days of adequate on the job training we will end up with a dearth of good quality tax advisers.

I have long believed that a period of varied and relevant practical experience is crucial over and above the achievement of professional qualifications. For this reason I entirely agree with Margaret Connolly’s concerns. But I would go further.

To be a successful accountant or tax adviser I believe  that you also need a range of personal and business skills and to have practiced these in real life client and office scenarios. Yes, you can learn some ‘on the job’ but why not accelerate your personal development in the same way as you do your technical skills? We think so much of this is common sense. Some is of course – with the benefit of hindsight. But we need to make it common practice and that’s quite different. We also need to learn about best practice and new techniques.

A few years ago I created a personal skills audit for ambitious accountants and tax advisers. It’s a one page note that highlights a dozen key skill areas. At the time I planned to act as a mentor, but I no longer have time for this. Still, I have dug it out and you can now access the note with my compliments through this link>> [edited: for a few weeks I was sending this by email but it’s become so popular….]. You can then see for yourself which areas seem to be important to you in your current role. You can also then grade yourself, honestly, for each of those skills on a scale of 1-10. What you do with the results is upto you.

And if you have any views on this topic, do please let me know direct or add your comments below this blog post.

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What the High Court really said accountants must do

No sooner had The Times reported on the High Court case of Mehjoo v Harben Barker than variations on their headline were being repeated as fact: “Judge says accountants must help clients avoid tax”. The truth, as ever, is somewhat more nuanced.

I have written a detailed piece for AccountingWeb analysing the decision from the perspective of general practice accountants. In my 1,500 word article I also explain the rationale for my conclusions which I have copied below for readers of this blog

The law has not changed. There is no new obligation on accountants to advise on fancy tax schemes. Nor is there any requirement for them to understand complex tax schemes. Thus there is no need to protect accountants from such a dubious obligation (as one commentator has demanded).

  • The judge did NOT criticise the accountants for failing to advise on a complex tax scheme.
  • They were also NOT held liable for failing to advise on such scheme.
  • There was NO suggestion that all accountants need to be tax experts.
  • And there was NO suggestion that the accountants should have been aware of fancy tax planning schemes. On the contrary.

The key issue is that in 2004/05 any reasonably competent accountant would have given a non-dom client the same advice. The accountants in question failed to do this and, crucially, they failed to refer their client to someone who had the necessary expertise to provide, what was, ‘standard’ advice at that time.

For most conventional clients the position would have been far less clear cut. The question would always have been – what would a reasonably competent accountant have advised? And was there a generally agreed ‘solution’ that anyone who really understood the situation would have advised be undertaken? Very few tax avoidance schemes would satisfy these tests.

In recent years very few reasonably competent accountants would give clients positive advice to get involved in a fancy tax avoidance scheme. Thus, as I have long argued, there is no serious prospect of anyone being successfully sued for failing to do this.

In the High Court the judge explicitly confirmed the advice in para 2.5 of the Guide to Professional Conduct for those working in tax. This forms part of the members’ handbook of most, if not all, of the major accountancy and tax bodies in the UK

The Judge  stated that the defendants were “reasonably competent generalist accountants” and that they therefore “had a contractual duty or concurrent tortious duty to advise the Claimant….that he should take tax advice from [specialist tax advisers].”

This is a long established and uncontroversial conclusion.

This case is however a topical reminder of the dangers of trying to go it alone. And of course allows me to remind readers that I established the Tax Advice Network in 2007 specifically to help general practice accountants.

You can choose any of the members of this independent Network to obtain specialist tax advice. And, as the Mahjoo case shows, you should seriously consider doing this whenever your clients have tax issues, challenges or situations that may require tax expertise beyond your day to day experience.

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How to build your personal brand

What do people say about you when you’re not in the room? What would you like them to say?

Few accountants seem to think this through. If you are clear about what you want people to say though you are likely to find success a lot faster than anyone who is ‘just another’ accountant.

There are two elements to consider here. What do you want people to say about:

  • what you do (as an accountant)? and, separately
  • you as a person?

I addressed the first question in a recent blog post. That second question though is especially tough. You need to be somewhat self aware and self analytical to address this successfully.

For example, do you want to be remembered as a thoughtful person who listens to others? Or as someone who is self-absorbed and who talks at people without really taking any notice of what they say?

Do you know how you come across? Or what people currently say about you?

We each create an impression by what we say, how we say it and how we react to other people. This is true of face to face encounters but also of our online engagements on social media and Linkedin. It can be instructive to reflect on the way that other people will remember us.

These memories that other people hold become our personal brand. And if it’s not what we want it to be then it’s upto us to change things.

Going back to the first of the two questions, you also want to provide some clarity about your role as an accountant. People need to know your areas of expertise and of specialism. I have said it before and I will no doubt say it again, you are different to all the other accountants out there. You are You. You have your past experiences and interests to draw on. If you make no effort to distinguish yourself, you will struggle longer than those accountants who are memorable and distinct.

We have all heard the old phrase: ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. The implication being that to be successful, you need to accept that your knowledge and skills are less useful and less important than your network of personal contacts.

I think that old phrase is no longer correct. The truth is that these days, It’s BOTH what you know and who you know. And who knows you. And, this is crucial, What they say about you*.  YOU can determine this by how you behave and by what you say both in real life and online. Take control and build your personal brand to be more successful than those who leave it to chance.

* My friend, Andy Lopata, stresses this point in many of his presentations.

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