Are you a specialist or a generalist accountant?

Most general practitioner accountants I talk with (and I talk with a lot of them) are, obviously, generalists rather than specialists.
They started out as general practitioners and stay that way as their client base has always been quite disparate. Many of those who specialise do so only because they originally trained in firms that had a specialism. The most popular specialism being ‘tax’ – which is actually a pretty wide subject in it’s own right.

What’s wrong with being a generalist?
Absolutely nothing at all. Some of the happiest and most successful accountants I know are generalists.
Mind you, some of the saddest and least successful accountants I know are also generalists.

What does being a specialist mean?
It means you have some specialist expertise, experience or area of focus. This can mean lots of things. It doesn’t have to mean that you only do one thing though.

Here’s just a few of the specialisms that are practiced by accountants I know:

Tax advice
French tax advice
Probate
Inheritance tax
Capital gains tax
R&D tax credits
Salon based businesses
Restaurants
Contractors
Charities
Franchises

And so the list goes on.

Why specialise?
The starting point is that it becomes easier to attract more clients. This is because it is easier for people to recognise when to choose you or to recommend you, as against any other more generalist accountant.

Having a clear specialism also makes it easier to attract PR. In simple terms such accountants stand out from the other accountants they and others might previously have seen as their competition.

When you try to be all things to all people you end up being the same as everyone else. You are ‘just another accountant’. This is something I work hard to help accountants avoid.

Why should anyone recommend or refer clients to you as distinct from the accountant down the street? Why should anyone who meets you remember you as distinct from the other accountants they have met or might meet in the future?

Having a clear focus or niche also helps your ranking on search engines. The key point here is to rank highly for what prospective clients are searching for. Being number one for ‘Accountants in London’ is a tough ask. Being number one for ‘accountant for taxi drivers in London’ is easier. And easier still when referencing more specific areas than ‘London’.

Does it matter?
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying there is anything wrong in being a generalist and serving a wide range of client types.
I know many hundreds, possibly thousands, of accountants who do just this. Some even secure a continuing stream of new client introductions through referrals from existing clients. Proof, if it were needed, that this model works as well as it ever did.

Equally though I can see that the fastest growing firms, the ones able to charge premium fees and the ones winning more new clients faster than others, are typically specialising to one degree or another.

Where the specialism is a niche market sector it needs to be specific. Not something generic such as SMEs or even ‘owner managed businesses’. These aren’t real niches because everyone ‘specialises’ in them and also because they are insufficiently specific. Claiming them as a specialism ‘ticks’ the box in theory but has little impact in real life.

I would stress that claiming to ‘specialise’ in a long list of business types (that match your current client list) doesn’t fool anyone. You simply come across as the same as the next firm that also claims to specialise in a similar list of client types. How many client types can one accountant reasonably ‘specialise’ in serving anyway? 3? 7? 20?

Cloud bookkeeping software
I used to doubt the validity of accountants suggesting that their choice of cloud bookkeeping software was a genuine specialism. But I have, on a number of occasions, been asked if I could recommend an accountant who is an expert in dealing with the bookkeeping software that a business already uses.

Beyond this though, your choice of bookkeeping software and your familiarity does NOT really matter to business start-ups or to those businesses who have yet to migrate into the cloud.

Yes, you may be able to explain how clients benefit from your choice of bookkeeping software. But few prospects and referrers are really fussed about how you do your stuff. They just want confidence that you do it and that you do it in a way that suits them. (I appreciate the benefits of cloud over traditional bookkeeping, but that’s as far as it goes for me).

What about my ‘other’ clients?
I often hear accountants claim that they cannot start referencing a specialism or niche as they do not want to risk alienating clients who do not fit. My advice is always the same. You don’t need to worry about them.

Firstly, I never suggest that you move exclusively into a niche or specialist area. Even specialists have some clients who do not ‘fit’. As long as those clients are being well served they don’t care either. Indeed, unless you tell them they may not even become aware of your newly promoted specialism. Treat them as individuals and tell them on a ‘need to know’ basis.

If you would like to talk about how you might choose to specialise in order to become more successful, feel free to get in touch. You can book a time in my calendar here >>>>

About the Author:

Mark Lee FCA is an accountancy focused futurist, influencer, speaker, mentor, author and debunker.

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