What happened after I told an accountant he didn’t need a website

In this blog post I will explain the reasons I advised an accountant that he did not need a website in January 2018 and also how I would adapt this advice going forwards.

I initially wrote about this on Linkedin and sought feedback there. Within days that post secured over 24,000 views as well as dozens of likes and comments.

Many people agreed with me but even more people disagreed, although their logic didn’t always stack up. A couple of people however then added a new perspective and made me think again. Read on and let me know what you think.

Background

It was when I was chatting with an accountant in his late 60s recently that I advised him to ignore all the people telling him he needs a website.

He had been badgered by marketing experts, website designers, SEO consultants and accountancy gurus, all of whom have said he must get a website. I disagreed. And he was pleased to hear my reasoning, with which he agreed.

This accountant had taken up a recent invitation I sent him to book a call with me to get some unbiased input on a topic of his choice to help him in his practice. (Normally I call accountants on spec but I don’t do that in January!)

When he called we chatted for a couple of minutes and I then asked him to tell me what was on his mind. This led to him explaining how he had built his practice, what sort of work he enjoys doing and what sort of new clients he now wants. I offered some positive suggestions and advice as regards his main issue before the subject of his website came up.

He said that he has never had a website and that he only wants more clients like those he has and who are referred by clients or people he knows.

He isn’t looking to pick up lots of new clients. He barely has time to deal with all those he has and anticipates encouraging some of the smaller ones to move elsewhere. As regards new clients he doesn’t want to take on any start ups or to work for anyone who is searching randomly online for an accountant.

He is widowed and doesn’t intend to retire or to sell his practice but to keep going until he is no longer able to do so.

My advice

I suggested that some of the best people referred to him may not get in touch if they can’t find out ANYTHING about him online. This is one reason everyone has been suggesting he needs a website.

However my advice was that he doesn’t need a website. Instead he should simply update his Linkedin profile and add a profile photo to it.

In my view, if he does that well enough, it will be sufficient. The important point is to allow people who are referred to him to see that he has the skills, experience and approach that they seek and that he is the sort of person they would like to work with. In effect, for the recommendation they have received to be endorsed and confirmed.

Support

Among those people on Linkedin who agreed with the basic rationale for my advice, some neat refinements were suggested. Someone also pointed out that a Linkedin profile is akin to having a website with amazing built in SEO – it’s just hosted on a LinkedIn URL rather than a WordPress URL or a custom domain.

Missing the point

Dozens of people on Linkedin suggested that a website is crucial for him to be found on google, to appear in online search results, to evidence his credibility, to build up his practice, to show he is a 21st century accountant and to show that he has an established and substantial practice.

They had all missed the fact that he is in his late 60s and already has a good strong practice. He doesn’t want to be found by people searching for An accountant. Only by those who know of him already.

He only wants to take on a few new clients a year and can afford to be very choosy. He chooses to only consider those who are referred directly to him. To date the absence of a website doesn’t seem to have stopped any such referrals getting in touch with him.

Some people also seemed unaware that the search engines will find and display your Linkedin profile to anyone who searches for you even if they are not themselves on Linkedin. And you can decide how much of your profile is visible to the (non-Linkedin) ‘public’. Generally I suggest making everything public.

A different point of view

A couple of people commenting on the Linkedin post made very valid alternative observations.

Relying solely on LinkedIn and not having his own website means my accountant friend is not in control of a key element of his business.

If Linkedin block him or remove his profile by mistake (or for any other reason) he would no longer be findable online. This could happen, for example, if someone with the same or a similar name does something wrong. Or, less likely, if Linkedin change their entire business model.

He also has no way of knowing how much business he is losing by not having a website. Various reports suggest that a significant majority of all buying decisions are now made online. A lack of a website is seen as a key indicator in trust reduction.

He may get all the business he wants without a website, but with one he could get more and better quality business leading to higher profits.  Perhaps the best of the prospects referred to him would not be satisfied by a Linkedin profile rather than a website?

Refinements

I have supplemented my advice by encouraging the accountant to acquire a domain name related to his practice (eg: JonesAccountants.co.uk) and to initially direct this to his Linkedin profile.

At a later date he could create a simple one page website that contains basic information and makes clear both who he would like and who he would NOT be interested in as clients. That webpage could also link through to his Linkedin profile rather than replicate the information.

He could also add a company page to Linkedin with brief details of his practice and his firm’s logo – which will then also show on his personal profile.

By the way, if he ever has to look at selling the practice it would be good if his firm had its own website that would move with the clients to the purchaser.

For the moment he is in a similar place to loads of mature accountants I know who are frustrated that the likely ROI following sale isn’t high enough to justify a sale in the first place. As such their preferred approach is to continue working (reduced hours often) until they can no longer do so. The prospect of MTD is forcing some to reach that conclusion sooner than they hoped – as they don’t relish the idea of adapting to the quarterly reporting regime.

What’s your reaction to my advice here?

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Categorising your accountancy firm’s clients for the future

Do you ever think about how your practice and your client base might be impacted in the next few years by changes in technology?

Historically most clients stay with their accountant for many years. They generally move only when they feel their accountant doesn’t care enough about them, puts their fees up significantly or messes up.

What we are likely to see more and more of over the next few years concerns what I might call ‘simpler’ clients, deciding that they don’t need an accountant any more. It won’t be long before they decide that it has become so easy to go the DIY route; and that their accountant doesn’t provide sufficient peace of mind or added value to justify continuing to pay them an annual fee.

In this context I would suggest that it makes sense to consider the impact of such changes on your client base by categorising your clients in terms of the level of service required, the amount of time they take and their future value to the practice.  I have summarised this approach as follows:

  1. Complex (or sophisticated) clients – those that require advice to resolve issues on a regular basis
  2. Ambitious clients – those that recognise they benefit from your business advice, but whose affairs are not very sophisticated or complex
  3. Typical OMBs – the majority of  ‘Owner Managed Business’ clients
  4. Sole traders, consultants, contractors – those swapping their time for money and whose growth is therefore limited by the hours available.

This is quite distinct from more traditional categorisation approaches, such as the ABCD client types I have referenced before:

  • A = Best clients (however you define them)
  • B = Those with the potential to become A clients
  • C = Those who are no trouble but are unlikely to become A clients
  • D = Those you’d rather not act for.

Most accountants know only too well who are their D-list clients 😉

Each accountant will set their own criteria for ‘best’ clients. Fee levels may have a bearing but so too may other factors such as the range of services required, each client’s attitude to you and to paying decent fees as well as their propensity for referring other good clients to you.  Clearly you want to nurture and keep in touch with your A-listers. Many, if not all of them, will be Complex or Ambitious (as defined above).

The distinction between clients on your B-list and C-list is less crucial. If you ever get this far, the value comes in identifying those B-listers who, with some encouragement could become A-listers. And those C-listers you want to retain even though they aren’t contributing very much. Crucially, they are good payers and nice to deal with so should not be confused with D-listers.

In contrast, the four new categories I have highlighted are intended to focus attention on those clients most at risk as compliance work becomes more commoditised, as clients become more familiar with cloud accounting systems and as AI further simplifies the role of the traditional accountant.

My conversations with sole practitioner accountants suggest that the vast majority of their clients are in categories 3 and 4 above.

Looking at them in turn:

Sole traders, consultants and contractors –  The liklihood is that these clients will have less need, than they do now, for accountancy support in a few years’ time. Much of the recurring compliance focused service they get from you will fall in value due to the increasing popularity and ease of use of bookkeeping apps and new simplified tax filing obligations. And so the fees that such clients will be prepared to pay you each year will also be lower (or maybe non-existent!). Chances are they won’t be paying more than now or requiring much in the way of ongoing advice.

Typical Owner Managed Businesses – Much the same will be true here as for the sole traders etc. I distinguish them though as they could grow, so they may have more potential for additional services and advice. They may also need help with more frequent enquiries from HMRC. The question will be whether you can ensure they appreciate the value of the advice you can provide to them and that they are willing to pay decent fees to you for such advice.

Those clients you want to encourage and retain are those in the first two categories (Ambitious and/or Complex). The sooner you start focusing your attention  on winning and retaining such clients the more confident you can be that your practice will survive and thrive in the future.

To what extent do you currently attract and advise Ambitious clients who recognise the value of your business advice (and are both willing and able to pay for this)? And also those ideal (for many) clients, whose affairs are Complex such that they regularly require your advice on a range of issues? These might include: property/business acquisitions, sales, HMRC challenges, specific tax incentives, anti-avoidance rules and so on. If you do not consider these to be areas of expertise at the moment I would encourage you to expand your skill set so that you are better placed to retain these clients in the future and to win new ones too.

Larger firms have long recognised the importance of focusing on clients who fall into the Complex and Ambitious categories. Historically though this has been because the smaller and less complex  clients are less economic for bigger firms to service. Imminent developments in technology mean this could well become the same for smaller firms too.

Does this analysis resonate with you? If not, how would you  categorise your clients for the future?

What’s next?

Once you have categorised your clients you can start to forecast the likely impact on your firm’s finances and resource requirements. Historically you may have assumed that little will change in the foreseeable future. I have echoed these views for a long time now. But we are now approaching a tipping point. You can probably continue with those assumptions for another couple of years but I’d strongly encourage you to forecast what might be happening thereafter. Then you can start planning now so that you don’t lose out or have to panic as you play ‘catch up’.

If you’d like to have a chat about how you can promote and build your practice so that it is sustainable into the future, feel free to book a call with me >>>

Why your current client base may not survive into the future. A new way of analysing an accountant's client base. Click To Tweet
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Lessons for accountants from….. a childrens’ party entertainer

As a teenager, before I started studying to become an accountant, I was a children’s party entertainer – and I continued doing this for about 25 years. When I look back I realise that I quickly learned 2 lessons that now, many years later, inform my thinking and advice to accountants.

Specialisation

I was only available to perform at the weekends and I wanted to enjoy myself. That meant focusing my attention on the children most likely to enjoy my magic shows and to respond positively to my tricks, jokes and games etc. I had come to the conclusion that 2 and 3 year olds were too young to really appreciate the magic. To them, so I felt, life itself is magic. And once the children were over 7 I felt they were too bright and more likely to challenge my presentations.

So, after a few years of learning the ropes I made clear on my business cards and yellow pages adverts(!) that ‘Marks Magic’ offered “Specialised Childrens’ Party Entertainment for 4-7 year olds”. I remember that, soon after the first such advert appeared, the number of enquiries I received each week INCREASED and I was fully booked almost every weekend.

Looking back I realise this was because parents liked the idea of engaging a specialist, someone focused on entertaining children of a certain age and someone who didn’t attempt to be all things to all people/children. By definition I wasn’t doing babyish magic or anything too sophisticated.

This lesson translates across to accountants. If you are seeking more clients you will often find it easier to attract them if prospects see you as a specialist in helping people like them, rather than ‘just another accountant’ who attempts to help anyone with everything.

Pricing

When I quoted a fee for my first booking at a childrens party in the 1970s(!) I asked for 25p per hour, before I realised that the party would only be 3 hours long. I quickly realised that the mother of the child wasn’t interested in my time as such. She was only interested in having her needs met: For the duration of the party the children should be occupied, entertained, happy and safe.  She offered me a simple fixed fee of £1 for the afternoon.

Thereafter I always quoted a simple fixed fee for each party – with every element of my service fully covered by the fee.  My ‘specialisation’ helped here as did my confidence. At some point I also learned to ask the person who called (typically the mother) what she wanted from an entertainer.  The answers were all pretty similar, but the fact I asked, rather than assumed, helped me stand out. I empathised and reflected back my understanding of the mother’s objectives. Where appropriate I referenced other parties where the parents had thanked me for doing much the same as this mother was requesting. And I won almost every booking enquiry I received.

Again, this lesson translates across to accountants who charge fees for the time they spend on a client’s affairs. Few clients care how long it takes you to do their work. They are not interested in your time as such. What they want is the output that they get – the accounts, tax returns, estimates of tax payable, the peace of mind you provide as well as the confidence and trust you encourage that your advice pays for itself and that they will get what they want.

Quoting and negotiating fees with prospects is a perennial issue for accountants and one that I often address during mentoring sessions, The Inner Circle and the Sole Practitioners’ Breakthrough Programme.

 

 

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Can accountants ‘close the sale’ effectively?

What does ‘closing the sale’ mean in the context of accountancy services?

None of us like to think that we are in ‘sales’, so perish the thought that we might ever come across as a pushy sales person.

In our world I suggest that ‘closing the sale’ means advancing the sales process to secure absolute confirmation from the prospective client that they are appointing you as their new accountant. This isn’t when they first agree to do do so – it’s when they sign your letter of engagement and confirm payment of your fees. Until that point the ‘sale’ has not been completed or ‘closed’.

Every time you have a conversation with a prospective client you need to ensure that you are both clear as to what happens next. Will you send some information? Will they visit the FAQs or testimonials page of your website? When will you speak again?

Equally it is during preliminary conversations that you will want to help the prospect to realise why they should appoint you rather than any other accountant.

Helping them does not mean being pushy like someone selling double-glazing. But you cannot help them to understand why they should appoint you until you know sufficient information about them – which means starting by asking the right type of questions and listening to their replies.

If you ask good questions in this regard you will be able to remove any obstacles that are preventing the prospect from saying ‘yes’.

When I think about the times I’ve felt uncomfortable when someone tried to sell me something, it was always when they had no idea what I was looking for or what I needed.

They never asked me any questions or listened to what I was saying. Instead they just launched into explaining the features of their particular product or service. And quoted their standard fees. Take it or leave it. This is rarely an effective route to securing more of the clients you want for your practice.

You must connect with your prospect, asking them what they are looking for, how you might help them, and what they might have in mind.

Taking the time (and the opportunity) to really get to know your prospect, find out what makes them tick, what they might be struggling with and what might solve their problem, are the first keys to successfully closing of a sale.

There’s a lot more to closing the sale of course and to resolving any push-backs you might get from prospects who are not sure. Getting clarity as to the real reasons they are holding back is crucial here.

And PLEASE, PLEASE, do not assume it is all about the fee you quote. If you believe that this is all that matters you have bigger problems than learning how to ‘close the sale’.

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