The end of accountants is nigh. Or is it?

Let me save you some time. Yes, the accounting profession is going through (another) period of unprecedented change. There will be fewer jobs for accountants in the future. There will be fewer large firms of accountants in the future. But there will continue to be plenty of work for savvy sole practitioner accountants for many years to come.

The remainder of this blog post explains my thinking. I’d love to know whether you agree.

Another period of ‘unprecedented’ change

Many commentators are (again) suggesting that the move to cloud accounting has reached a tipping point and is now creating a period of unprecedented change for accountants. I’ve tracked similar warnings about cloud accounting back to at least 2009 when I dismissed the warnings as being too loud and too soon.  There has been an increasing move into the cloud over the years and accountants have adapted – as they will continue to do.

Another big change ‘now’ is the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Again, I suggest that the real impact of AI is somewhat down the line. And no, I do not see how it can replace the role of sole practitioner accountants – any more than the move to quarterly reporting to HMRC (part of the Making Tax Digital initiative) will decimate accountants’ client bases.

Fewer jobs for accountants in future

This prediction follows two key changes. The first is the (now) increasing move to cloud accounting, the influx of apps and automated facilities that reduce the need for so many accounting staff in finance departments and in firms of accountants.  The second change is the rise of AI which, over time, will only add to this trend. But neither of these changes will reduce the need for savvy sole practitioner accountants. Their activities may need to evolve but, as always, nothing will change their client base overnight.

Fewer large firms of accountants in the future

This seems obvious to me as the costs of running large firms continue to increase without any commensurate rise in productivity or quality of service to their smaller clients. Every decade sees more mid-sized firms merging and claiming this will help clients. Typically though the mergers are driven more by a desire to reduce overhead costs and thus maintain profits per partner.

Clients, on the other hand, are increasingly looking for lower fees and want evidence that they are better served by a larger firm with higher staffing costs than smaller firms. Over time this means that more and more smaller clients are moving to smaller firms of accountants. The exceptions are those who perceive that they are better served by a larger firm with higher fees and staffing costs than smaller firms.

It is no longer cost prohibitive for smaller firms to promote themselves aggressively in competition with larger firms, thanks to the internet and low-cost online marketing opportunities.  I have long seen a future where accounting firms are increasingly polarised – a few very large ones and thousands of very small ones. This will better match the demographics of the business world. Although many people glibly talk about SMEs, the official stats reveal that over 99% of  UK businesses are small (not medium-sized). And a very large proportion of them are, in fact, micro businesses. How many of these businesses or individual taxpayers need services that cannot be provided by smaller firms of accountants?

 Sole practitioners

A while ago, I decided to focus my advisory and support services on sole practitioner accountants. Yes, I also have plenty to say that is of value to those in larger firms and this is why I am engaged to speak at conferences for larger firms and for international associations. But I love working with savvy sole practitioner accountants who are keen to become more successful. And so yes, of course, I see there is a future for them. Their roles and activities will continue to evolve, as they always have done, and I will be there to help them.

I have worked with sole practitioners for many, many years. And I have constantly been debunking the ill-informed nonsense they are fed about the short-term impact of major changes.  When the first Accountex conference took place in November 2012 I was invited to write an editorial for the show guide. In it I set out dozens of ‘major’ changes to the accountancy profession that we had witnessed over the preceding twenty years. Most had been predicted (by others) as likely to have a major impact on accountants.  However, in every case accountants adapted. Some retired early but they were replaced by more accountants choosing to start their own practice. Many of these new entrants had been made redundant by the larger firms who were slimming their workforce as a result of mergers (see above). This trend is continuing.

The rise in home working and mobile working is also contributing to a rise in the number of sole practitioners and smaller local firms. For some years the professional training syllabus has been evolving to ensure that newly qualified accountants have better business skills than ever before. This, I suggest, is fuelling a desire to be one’s own boss, to run one’s own practice and to move away from the politics and cost pressures of working for mid-sized firms. An increasing facility to allow staff to work from home and whilst mobile can only increase the desire to cut loose from the mother-ship and go it alone or to create a new smaller and local practice.  As I noted earlier it is much easier and cheaper to market a smaller practice than ever before.

Those sole practitioners who are resistant to change will become increasingly frustrated. More will retire early (as did their predecessors) rather than adapt and develop their skills. Other commentators talk about the need for accountants to develop new skills. In many cases though, it’s simply a case of refining and repackaging services to highlight the benefits to clients and the value delivered.  Guess what?  These are topics I have long addressed through my own service offerings to sole practitioner accountants.

Conclusion

The future for accountants depends on whether you are employed in industry, employed in practice or engaged in practice. And on whether you will be in a large firm, running your own accounting firm or running a niche practice of some sort. I believe there is a strong future for savvy sole practitioners who are willing to adapt and move with the times.

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The 3 key steps to effective promotion of your practice

I have lost track of the number of accountants I see trying (and failing) to use social media to build their brand and to attract new clients.

It’s tempting to try things out and to experiment on social media, as we think of it as being ‘free’. Except that it’s not. It takes time to make it worthwhile. And our time isn’t free. There’s always something else we could be doing. And that other activity could well have more value to us.

Paying someone else to ‘do social media’ for you is equally a waste of money if you haven’t first followed the 3 key steps I summarise below. Wherever, whenever and however you choose to promote your practice, your choice of the media to use is the last of the 3 key steps. You will waste time and money if you focus on the media before clarifying the first two steps.

The 3 steps, in order, are: Market, Message, Media.

Expanding on this:

First identify your Market – who do you want to influence when you promote your practice and your services etc? Who is your intended audience? The more specific you can be the more effective will be your messages and the more influence you are likely to have. This in turn is likely to lead to more clients – of the type you want. Counter-intuitively perhaps, but you’ll invariably do better if you clarify and target a specific market rather than try to promote your wares to anyone and everyone.

When you know WHO you want to influence, then you can clarify your Message. You want to ensure that what your promotions say will resonate with your desired Market/audience.

Then, when you are clear as to your Market and your Message, you can choose the right Media to reach your Market with your Message. This means choosing HOW you are going to get your Message to your target Market. Again, this is much easier if you have clarity as to your Market and it’s not ‘anyone and everyone’.

I see so many accountants experimenting with twitter and then giving up after a few weeks or months. I suspect the majority just jumped on the bandwagon and hoped it would help them to build their brand and identify prospective clients. Such aspirations are rarely fulfilled in practice. Who is your market? Are the local business owners you want to target actually active on twitter? And, if they are, why should they follow you? Is your Message attractive and enticing or simply promotional, occasional and lost in the fast flowing twitter river?

Most of the accountants I work with are more likely to benefit from being active on Linkedin – but even then, only after first clarifying their Market and their Message 😉

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Should I focus on my logo or my face?

Few of us have such a clever brand that we can rely on this or even a logo to secure business.

A brand takes time to establish. A logo may attract interest. But ultimately it is you who will need to engage prospects and win the business for your accountancy practice.

Your photo, personality and personal style are key here.

Most people choose to engage you, or choose not to engage you, as a person, almost regardless of your firm’s branding.

This is why I think it is so important to show who you are on your website and on your social media profiles.

Does your website include:

  • your name,
  • an appropriate, up to date and recognisable photo of you, and
  • talk a little about you?

Does it help visitors to think – yes, I’d like to talk with this person?  Or do you make that most common of mistakes among small accountancy firms: Having an ‘About us’ page that tells people nothing about YOU at all?

A related point is to then make it easy for prospects to get in touch with you. Do you do this or do you just have a generic info@ or admin@ email address on your website?

Why hide who you are? Are your ideal prospects more likely to get in touch and call a generic office number or to try to make contact with a specific person (you)?

Some accountants, typically sole practitioners, start out using their website to imply that their business is more than just them. If you don’t work alone you can include reference to the team on your website. But if it is just you, then referencing a non-existent ‘team’ and pretending to be bigger than you are could damage your credibility. This happens when people find out there’s no substance to your implied assertions that your business is bigger than is actually the case. If you’ve lied about that, can your advice be trusted?

Big brands secure business through the reputation and longevity implied by their well known logos. This isn’t the case for small firms of accountants. And there isn’t enough real upside of building up name awareness of your brand and logo. Much better to show who you are and to ensure you are recognisable when you attend a meeting or event.

Similar points apply to your Linkedin and twitter profiles. Make sure again that there is a recognisable and appropriate photo of you on your profile page rather than just your business logo. On Linkedin and Facebook you can set up separate business pages. Your personal profiles can link to them.

Also, as I always say, Linkedin is an online business network. It’s all about connecting business people, so your logo is not a good substitute for a headshot.

You could have a separate twitter account for your practice – but that would be a waste of time and energy. Instead I strongly urge you to again use your photo and your name rather than your firm’s name or brand. If you already tweet using your business name do at least include your name on your twitter account. This makes it much easier for users to engage with you and more likely that you will attract relevant followers and ‘conversations’. It’s much harder to do this with a ‘corporate’ account than with a personal one. And you can’t expect everyone to check out your ‘business’ twitter profile so they may never notice your name is there.

Back to the question in the title of this blog post. I trust the answer is now obvious?

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“None of my clients want anything more than the basics”

Unlike some commentators, I entirely accept that many accountants have some clients who want nothing more than a basic compliance service.  And that you get very frustrated to be told by consultants that you should offer your clients advisory services. After all,  you know your clients don’t want, cannot afford and will not value such advisory services.

Assuming that to be the case you have a choice. Either:

  1. Accept that over time you MAY struggle to replace the odd client who leaves, dies or retires. Again, I doubt anything will change overnight, so much depends on how much longer you plan to be in practice; or
  2. Start to offer relevant advisory services to those of your clients who might actually appreciate it and be able to afford the additional fees; or
  3. Look to attract new clients who are not the same as your existing clients and who do value advisory services.

Or of course, you could also pursue a combination of the 3 choices.

One of the accountants I work with started by telling me about the problems he was having with many of his clients.

“They’re all legacy clients, have been with me for years and I know they don’t want advice and won’t pay higher fees.”

I asked if he was sure this applied to ALL of his clients. He wasn’t sure. When we talked he realised that he had won a good few new clients in the last couple of years and hadn’t yet explored whether they would be willing pay for commercial business advice. In effect he was still operating like a start-up practice and wasn’t adapting his service to reflect his wider experience and desire to earn higher fees. I shared some tips and tricks he could use to move things forward. And we now speak regularly as he find s this a helpful incentive and support mechanism.

Another accountant (who I don’t work with) approached me as he wanted to increase his fees and offer more business advice to his clients. He then added:

“None of my clients want anything more than the basics”.

He assured me that all of his clients were tight on fees, had pretty simple affairs and earned too little to afford or warrant business advice. He was adamant that nothing I did with other accountants was relevant or would work for him.

I apologised that I could not just wave a magic wand and change his clients’ attitudes. If he knows – with certainty – that none are capable or willing to pay more, then nothing I or anyone else can do will change things. If he wants the profile of his clients to change he will need to take action himself to attract and then bring on board some new clients. He didn’t want to do this.

I sympathised with his position and let him go off to find someone with more patience who would persuade him to change his attitude and approach. I prefer to work with accountants who are prepared to take my advice.  I choose who I work with. As can you.

In an ideal world I wouldn’t have to continually seek out new clients. But I accept this as a necessity given that I want to earn a decent living from my work with accountants. I also only want to work with accountants I like (and who like me).  You can make a similar choice. It’s easier if you are clear what this means and if you make it easy for clients to tell whether you are the right sort of accountant for them.

Do think about what decisions and actions you could take to make sure you’re living in a world with great clients that are a pleasure to work with.

 One action you could take is to develop  your ‘lead generation’ skills. This will mean you have a steady flow of good new prospects approaching you to act for them.  

If you’re in a lead desert with very few leads, you basically have to work with whoever you can get. And, as you’ve seen to date, that means you end up with low fee paying clients who don’t want to pay you for advice they don’t value..

If you have a surplus of leads, and significantly more potential clients than you could work with, then you get to pick and choose. You can focus on clients who are the very best fit for you and who you’re going to enjoy working with.

Simple in theory. But generating lots of high quality leads isn’t easy. For many accountants it’s the hardest part of marketing. That’s why they end up desperately negotiating and bargaining with the few leads they have to persuade them to become clients.

I address these and related points in my emails, webinars and round table groups. And in my blog posts too 😉

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Connect, know, like, trust, need – what do you do to make this work for you?

I frequently hear networking gurus stress a mantra that originated in the book ‘Endless Referrals, written by Bob Burg:
“All things being equal, people do business with, and refer business to people they know, like and trust.”

I understand this is also the mantra shared at certain networking groups. The focus then is on encouraging you to make an effort to ensure you are easy to get to know, like and trust. But I think it is too simplistic.

There are two further elements I believe that demand your attention. One at the start and one that can float around at either end of the chain:

Connect – Know – Like – Trust – Need


Connect:
– People may connect with you face to face (eg: at a networking event) or online (eg: via social media, Linkedin or by engaging with you initially though commenting on your blog post or getting in touch after reading an article you have written or after hearing a talk you have presented).

Know
: People can only get to know you after you have connected with each other (face to face or online). Typically they will want to know more than just your name and profession. They are more likely to engage you or to refer you if they have more to go on than this. How easy do you make it for people to get to know you? Your background? Your interests on a professional and personal level? Which organisations do you belong to? What makes you you – as distinct from just another accountant?

Like
: People rarely engage or refer work to people they don’t like. There are exceptions to this principle. We tend to refer people to surgeons if we rate them even if they have no bedside manner. And some legal work is best done on our behalf by really tough negotiators. But in the main, likability is key. People like people who are helpful, kind, and not pushy.

Trust:
 People tend to choose accountants they can trust in two ways. to know your stuff (do you have sufficient expertise?) and to be a decent person?

Need:
No one ever engages an accountant unless they need one. Equally they rarely go around promoting their accountant until they hear that someone they know needs one. If no one you connect with needs an accountant or knows anyone who needs one, you won’t get much work!

So

Where do advertising and other forms of marketing fit into this analysis? At the beginning of course.  It is simply a way to encourage people who need an accountant to connect with you. Once they have done this you need to help them get to know you, then to like and trust you. This is why I suggest that ‘Need’ can float around either end of the chain. If someone realises they need an accountant but doesn’t know anyone suitable they may respond to your advert or your other marketing promotions and connect with you.
When you recognise that there are 5 links in this chain you may be able to see why your networking, marketing and online activities are not generating the business or referrals you seek. Are you meeting, engaging or connecting with enough people who need your services? Are you going to the right places? Are you active online in the right places? Are you encouraging the right referrals? Are you then helping your new connections to get to know, like and trust you – both generally and specifically to do the work and give the advice they need?
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, feel free to connect with me 😉  I’d love to do something to help you. Let’s have a chat and see what I can do >>>>
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