5 mistakes you make when quoting fees to new clients

Twice in the last week I have been asked my view on fee quotes sent out by accountants I am mentoring. They are not alone. I know from my webinars and round table meetings that plenty of sole practitioners are frustrated by the same issue.
In each of the most recent cases I noted that the accountants had made the same mistakes. I was able to offer constructive advice that I am sure this will enable them to win more of the work they quote for in future.
Here are the 5 common mistakes:
1 – Focusing on the fee payable rather than on the value the client will receive (and expressing this in a way that relate to the value as required and perceived by the prospective client).
2 – Keeping the fee quote email/letter short and sweet. If you don’t spell things out you are reliant on the prospect’s past experiences and expectations.
3 – Failing to clarify the prospect’s reason for seeking a new accountant and what they want. If you don’t know what they value you are unlikely to make a ‘connection’ or to be able to relate your fee quote to vale (as perceived by the prospect)
4 – Assuming that all that matters is price. That’s rarely true unless your marketing only attracts people looking for a cheaper accountant. Which means they’ll be off somewhere (even) cheaper next year.
5 – Omitting to identify what you will do that many other accountants don’t do. At the headline level what you do might be the same but you are unique – with distinct experiences and stories you can tell about other clients you have helped in the past.
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What is the really simple idea at the heart of what you do?

We have all been asked, many times, “What do you do?” Does your reply help ensure that you will be remembered positively for any length of time?

Simple straightforward factual replies allow the other person to put us in a ‘box’. This is what happens when we simply state our profession (eg: “I’m an accountant” or “I’m an employment lawyer”). This has the positive effect of ensuring the other person knows how to categorise us. But it doesn’t make us memorable.

An alternative approach, advocated by some networking advisers, is to offer an intriguing answer that prompts a request for clarification (eg: “I collect brown envelopes” – those that HMRC sends to my clients, so that I can help keep their taxes to a legal minimum”).  Done well this approach can be very effective at making you memorable and helping you to STAND OUT. More often though these intriguing answers are confusing and counter-productive. The lasting impression can be a negative one – that you are a slick smarty pants who enjoys playing this game at the expense of the people you meet. This is not the impression you want to give!

The sad truth is that most people you meet don’t care what you do. They don’t care about your profession and they don’t care about your clever ‘elevator statement’. What might make them care is if your reply to their question evidences the value of what you do; and especially if you express this in a way that is relevant to them in some way,

This is a key reason why I am not a fan of having one standard stock answer to the question: “What do you do?” I always want my answer to resonate with the person I’m with. I pretend that the question they asked was actually:

What do you do and why should I be interested and remember your reply?

My friend, Lee Warren, suggests a variation on this approach and I have been using it to good effect myself in recent months. He suggests you formulate a reply that conveys the value you provide quickly and simply. And to do this you should think in terms of a reply that starts with the words:

At the heart of what I do is a very simple idea….

If you want to stand out from others who do what you do, you really do need to be able to sum up what you do in a way that is memorable, relevant and distinct. It is rarely quick or easy to learn to do this well. Can you do it?

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The 5 key social media risks to your practice

This post adopts a different approach to usual. In it I share 5 key social media risks and offer pragmatic advice to help you manage the inherent risks.

1 – Posts on behalf of the firm 

The biggest risk here is of boring your intended audience! Social media encourages interaction. This happens less frequently when the posts are not attributable to a specific person.

If you or a social media manager post in the name of the firm, you just want to ensure they don’t give, share or repeat dubious advice. You should give them clear guidance by reference to your firm’s strategy – and this will probably vary across different platforms. I’ve addressed this on previous blog posts.

I would also discourage you from saying “I” in any messages posted in the firm’s name. Will anyone know who “I” is?

2 – What you post yourself

Keep it professional and only give advice in direct personal messages to clients. You probably don’t owe a duty of care to strangers who might see and act on your advice posted on social media. But you want to avoid having to defend any allegations they might make that your advice was wrong.

You also want to avoid getting into public arguments over the advice or views you have shared on social media. Beware of the potential impact on your reputation. Keep it positive if you can.

Over the years I have become used to receiving feedback in respect of advice I share online. I tend to be very careful to avoid giving definitive advice as so much depends on context. This also means that I can generally diffuse any challenges I receive by accepting that another view may be valid in certain circumstances. What I never do is get into public arguments. If someone seems determined to pursue an argument I will allow them to have the last word. I prefer to allow my professional approach to speak for my reputation than my desire to have the last word and, in so doing, to encourage trolls.

You will also want to avoid breaching client confidences, sharing details of client meetings (that identify the client) of the advice you have given them. Remember that some social media platforms tag your messages with your location. So avoid posting anything from a client’s premises (or anywhere nearby) if you don’t want them to be identified.

3 – What staff and colleagues post

The same principles apply here as for your own posts of course. You will want to encourage professional behaviour, for everyone to accept responsibility and to be accountable for what they post online.

I also encourage accountants to consider whether they want everyone in the firm to be consistent in their descriptions and references to the firm, services and the nature of their roles on their social media profiles (especially Linkedin).

4 – What third parties post

More and more people use social media to complain about poor service. Would you want to know if someone is trashing your firm’s reputation?

Fortunately it is less likely to happen if you aren’t a big well known brand. But anyone (including ex-members of staff) could post a message of dissatisfaction about you or your firm. There’s rarely anything you can do to stop this. But you can reduce the impact by considering whether or not to reply in real time. This means reviewing any such references.

You can set up automated alerts to notify you when your firm’s name is referenced online (e.g.: google alerts). You can also set up a standard search on twitter to check every day or so.

If anyone has posted something negative you can then decide if it’s best ignored or if a comment/reply would be appropriate.

5 – Absence of social media policies

The more people there are in your firm the more likely you will want to establish social media policies for staff and partners.

Absence of policies and guidelines make it more difficult to take action if someone does something stupid. The normal employment rules apply as regards the actions you can and cannot take by reference to staff use of social media.

There is little point in just imposing social media policies without discussion. You need everyone to accept that the policies make sense and are practical. If they are onerous, impractical or unreasonable your policies could cause more problems than they solve.

Social media policies should address acceptable and unacceptable behaviour on social media generally. And then specifically: recruitment, bullying, defamation, data protection and privacy.

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This is the problem for medium sized firms of accountants

This blog post was prompted by a tweet. It was posted by a top 30 firm of accountants:

“Are you aware of the range of services we provide? We do more than just a set of books at year end. Take a look”

There was then a link to a page on their website which described all the services the firm offers. It was pretty generic and almost identical to the list you’d find on almost all medium sized firms’ websites.

And that’s part of the problem for firms like this.

They have to allow for the variations in style, approach and service provided by so many people within the firm. As result the overall service promises are bland and interchangeable. Of course they are.

Each medium sized firm’s name and branding only takes them so far.

Their ideal clients will shortlist a number of firms as advisers. I’ve done it myself in recent years when seeking new accountants for a charity and for a members’ club. The first time I did this from the client side I realised how much it’s down to the individual partners to impress at pitch meetings. They need to evidence their teamwork – beyond bland assertions. And they need to distinguish their service offerings from their competitors. And yet – how different can they really be?

What makes the difference when it comes to choosing one firm over another? The people are often interchangeable. This is evident from the way so many people move between firms. There is even more movement and poaching of partners from firm to firm now than there was when I was in practice.

So is it the firms that are really different or just their branding and marketing? Most often it is only the latter. Is that enough? I think not.

What also struck me about the services on the web page referenced by the tweet was that the list started with a reference to ‘auditing’. Given that most companies with a turnover below £10million no longer need an audit it seemed an odd service to highlight to visitors from the firm’s twitter account. I doubt many CFOs or major shareholders of substantial corporates are following the account. So talking about auditing will have been irrelevant (and thus a turn off) for the majority of those who might see the webpage.

Ok. Maybe that simply highlights an overly ambitious social media manager. It’s all too common to see accountancy firms tweeting to a non-existent audience. I’ve addressed this topic before on my blog so won’t say more today.

My final observation by reference to the tweet concerns the language used on the webpage. It’s really jargon heavy. I don’t consider myself a marketing or copywriting guru. But I do recognise when language isn’t appropriate for the target audience. That page is written for accountants rather than in language that will resonate with clients. Again, this is a common mistake made by accountancy firms – of all sizes.

If I’m generous perhaps the tweet and the webpage are actually intended to support the firm’s recruitment effort. In which case well done to those involved. But this doesn’t change the main point I am making here.

The problem for medium sized firms is that they rarely offer a compelling reason for smaller growing businesses to engage them. Unless the individual partners have built solid reputations and followings. And cost conscious business clients are increasingly aware that larger firms charge higher fees than smaller firms. Yet the medium sized firm offer pretty much the same service as smaller firms. So why go to a larger (medium sized) firm and pay higher fees?

The standard reply to that question is that ‘our firm offers a wider range of services. All available under one roof.’ Ok. But how does that benefit me as the client? Especially if I have to pay higher fees for the basic services I need every year?

I first referenced this challenge in a blog post in July 2010: No long-term future for ‘halfway house firms of accountants’. This was a term I used to reference the same medium sized firms that I am referencing in this blog post. In 2010 I said:

“They are constantly fighting to become more efficient so as to reduce costs and maintain, let alone, improve profit per partner.”

“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 niche”.

“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.”

Since writing that blog post we have seen a further merging of medium sized firms. This will continue to happen, I suggest, at a faster pace over the next ten years.

There aren’t enough larger clients to go round. Medium sized firms of accountants have many smaller clients too. Clients who don’t need access to a wider range of services and who would typically be more profitable if their accountancy fees were lower each year.

The problem for medium sized firms is that they have to charge higher fees than smaller practices. And plenty of consultants are encouraging them to charge ever-higher fees too. I believe that a sizeable majority of clients of the medium sized firms do not secure enough additional benefits to justify paying higher fees than are charged by sole practitioners.

Over time the smaller clients drift away from the larger (medium sized) firms. This is evident from the number of established businesses that move to my clients – savvy sole practitioner accountants. They are able to provide more advice and to spend time with clients without being pressured to increase their billable time or to leave clients in the hands of managers.

The survival strategy for larger firms invariably involves merger and hope. And yet this only defers the inevitable.

A future in which there are fewer medium sized firms and more small firms and sole practitioners providing more cost effective and genuinely personal services to the majority of small businesses in the UK.

This all helps explain why I specialise in advising sole practitioner accountants.

I’ll happily speak at conferences and events run by larger firms. When I do that though my focus is generally on the individual partners and senior staff. I don’t advise firms on what they can or should be doing (other than re social media strategy where I do have a bit of a reputation in this regard). Many more medium sized firms will merge or break-up over the next ten years in my view.

So I address the individuals in the firms as ultimately it is them, their reputations and their expertise that clients need to buy. Backed up by the firms’ branding.

This is the real challenge for medium sized firms – they need to invest (even) more in making sure their people stand out from their peers and competitors. And yet, as partners build their reputation, credibility and following, so they become better placed to leave the firm and to take ‘their’ clients with them. And the more attractive becomes this prospect when coupled with the prospect of lower overheads, less firm politics and increased rewards. And fewer generic tweets about the generic services available from another medium sized firm.

 

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Ten practical tips to avoid negligence claims

So much has changed over the last ten years. On the other hand the essentials of good advice are largely unchanged. I first created the list below in 2008 by reference to elements of a talk I had presented over the preceding few years.  I am now presenting an updated version of the talk as part of the ICAEW Practitioners’ Essentials Roadshow on ‘Practice Protection‘. These ten practical tips bear repeating:

1 – When providing tax advice always state the known facts on which your advice is based – in writing;

2 – Equally state any assumptions you have made – in writing;

3 – Create contemporaneous notes of all material advice and of the assumptions you provide during meetings and telephone conversations;

4 – When advising, ask yourself whether you’d be happy for a close friend or family member to rely on the advice. If you’re not sure, do additional research, get a second opinion or involve a specialist colleague or trusted third-party (such as a member of the Tax Advice Network)

5 – When advising clients of forthcoming deadlines, focus their attention on the date that you need to the information to beat the statutory deadline;

6 – Avoid under-pricing work and introducing time-pressure that could exacerbate mistakes;

7 –Stick to what you know. If a client requires or requests advice on subjects outside of your comfort zone, involve a specialist colleague or a trusted third-party;

8 – Stop working for those clients who are more trouble than they are worth. These are the clients who resist paying decent fees, don’t contribute to the growth of your practice and who are most likely to complain, given half a chance.

9 – Manage client expectations and avoid over-promising and under-delivery. Remember that a client’s perception of these may be very different from yours.

10 – Keep uptodate – eg: with the weekly practical topical tax tips for accountants in general practice from the Tax Advice Network.

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Have you checked your KDIs?

One of the reasons I do what I do is to help accountants win more clients. And one of the ways you can do this is to identify what makes you different to the competition. Yes, the raw service you provide may be the same but this is only part of the story.

Every accountant I have met is different. An individual. We all have different experiences, backgrounds and attitudes. These combine to ensure that clients will get a different service dependent on which accountant they appoint. If this was not the case, clients would never move from one accountant to another other than due to fee issues.  And yet clients do move for other reasons.

During many of my talks and when I’m working with savvy sole practitioners I make the point that most clients want more than just an annual set of accounts and tax return. They also want advice on how to keep their tax bills down, how much tax to pay and to know when it be due. Clients in business often also want business focused advice. Not everyone will pay for this. But that’s a separate issue.

The fact is that every accountant will deliver their advice differently. We all have our own opinions borne of our past experiences. And there are many different ways of providing (and billing) for advice.

This all brings me back to the main point for this blog post. KDI stands for Key Difference Indicators. We’re all familiar with the idea of KPIs – Key Performance Indicators. My aim by referencing KDIs is to encourage accountants to think about what makes them Different to other accountants and then to focus on their KDIs. And, let me stress, I intend KDIs to be identified for individual accountants, not for accountancy firms.  There is quite enough nonsense talked about USPs – as I have highlighted on this blog previously. For example: Stop talking about your USP – it’s the same as other accountants.

By choosing a different set of initials I hope to highlight the benefits of focusing on what makes you (personally) different to other accountants. Yes, this is a variation on my recurring theme of STANDING OUT from your competitors and peers. Normally when I reference this point it is in the context of being better remembered, referred and recommended.

You can use your KDIs however to boost your self confidence when advising clients. And when setting your fee rates. There is no single going rate for most of the work you do. Your approach and your fees are a function of your KDIs.  Have you checked yours?

 

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How accountants can take control of their career success

Duncan Brodie is a former Finance Director who helps accountants build successful careers. I’ve known him a while and feel his views are worth sharing here.

Duncan’s views will be especially helpful to you if you are nearly or recently qualified.  As he explains:

Once upon a time a professional accounting qualification almost guaranteed that you would progress pretty far in your career. These days this is no longer the case. There are many who get qualified but fail to achieve the success that they had hoped for.

If you want to achieve success in your accounting career you have to take control. So what should you do to take control of your accounting career?

Determine what you want from your career.

This might seem like a statement of the obvious. Yet in truth most just drift along. People usually only give this any significant thought when something significant happens like being made redundant.

This was true in my day too. I originally studied accountancy simply as a way to get a business focused qualification whilst deferring the decision as to what I would do career wise. When I qualified I was no closer to knowing what I wanted. I moved into tax – as that was the only exam I passed first time. And I had realised that clients would gladly pay good money for good advice on how to reduce their tax bills. (The top rate of tax back then was 98%!)

I stayed in tax for another 25 years before concluding that I enjoyed the non-tax aspects of my career more than the tax focused ones!

Duncan continues:

It’s also worth remembering that what matters will be different at different stages in your career. Money and earning more is definitely a consideration when starting out.

As you progress other factors like enjoying your work, gaining the right experience and being challenged matter more.

He advises that you:

Plot out your key moves. There are certain important points in your career and the decisions you make can help or hinder.

The first key move is when you qualify. It can be tempting to jump ship too quickly.

The decision you take at this point can have a huge bearing long term.

I’ve already mentioned that I moved into Tax when I qualified. Duncan’s first job after qualifying was as a Head of Internal Audit.  Why?

I knew that I would get the chance to set up a new function from scratch and also get exposure to Board level working.

If you don’t know what you want to do long-term (and why should you?) make a conscious choice about to do first. You can review your choice down the line. At worst you will have discovered one of the things you do NOT want to do long-term!

Duncan also advises that you take responsibility for your professional development:

In the early stages of my career there was little or nothing available to me in terms of professional development.

That all changed when I went to work for a bank. Areas for improvement to make you more effective were openly discussed and then courses found to build capability.

When I worked in the Big 4 this was even more evident.

Despite it never being easier to access professional development opportunities, it’s surprising how few take personal responsibility for it.

That is really good advice. When you ask for permission to attend specific courses, make sure you can identify for your bosses why you will be more of more value to them after you have been trained in these new skills or enhanced your abilities.

Duncan also suggests that you actively seek out new challenges and responsibilities

You can very easily just plod along doing what you can do extremely well. The problem is that if you are not challenging yourself you are probably not growing.

I found that getting involved in business projects was a great way of building knowledge, skills and attributes.

And adopt a long term outlook.  Yes some make it to a senior level quickly. For the vast majority it is a much slower progression. I encourage people to take a long term view of their career. In my experience a career is more like a marathon and less like a sprint.

Don’t expect it to be plain sailing. There will be:

  • Setbacks
  • Disappointments
  • Rejections
  • Judgements
  • People who don’t rate you

The important thing is to stay positive and believe in yourself, even when the going gets tough.

Many thanks to Duncan Brodie for sharing his careers focused advice for accountants. You can access his free guide The 7 Biggest Barriers To A Successful Career In Accounting here >>>

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