8 tips if you are considering an accountancy franchise

This isn’t intended to be complete treatise on the subject. I have simply jotted down a few thoughts in preparation for a magazine interview. If my contributions appear online I will provide a link in due course. The journalist seems to be undertaking extensive research so it should be a good piece – but probably won’t be published before the summer.

By way of background: There seem to be more accountancy franchise options and opportunities around today than ever before. Some rely on online marketing of a brand name, some provide exclusive areas and some are better known than others. You don’t need to be a start-up practice to join a franchise as many of them will allow you to migrate an existing practice into the franchise.

Here are 8 tips if you are considering an accountancy franchise.

1 – What is your objective? Many accountants will find it easier to focus on building a successful practice as a franchisee than to do so alone. Different skills are required to build a business then to be a good accountant. Can you do both? Do you want to do both? A good franchisor will probably enable you to build a successful practice faster than if you were to try to do so alone.

2 – Be realistic: Taking a franchise will rarely absolve you of the need to generate clients and, especially, to close the sale with prospective clients. If you need training in how to do this, where will you get it? Or would you be better off with a franchise that generates clients through focused and proven online marketing and conversion? Is marketing support available and do existing franchisees share what works and what doesn’t, perhaps through an online forum, at regular conferences, meetings or elsewhere?  You will especially want to check whether the franchisor has a record of meeting it’s promises re lead generation?

3 – Funding: Some franchises have arrangements with banks to fund the upfront fees – and this may enable you to build your practice more effectively than if you go it alone. Do be careful though to assess the validity of the new business projections and how often these have been fulfilled by other franchisees. And research how financially stable is the franchisor business itself.

4 – Compare and contrast: The various accountancy franchises may have some similarities but they are all different. Different in terms of how they promote the business name, the freedom they give franchisees, the level of fees payable, the length of the franchisee agreement, the level of handholding and support, ownership of clients and so on. Identify the issues that seem important to you and balance up the differences before deciding on your preferred approach. Do you need a big National support operation or would you be comfortable with something more personal?

5 – Legal advice: You may be tempted to sign up without taking independent legal advice. Don’t, unless you are the sort of person who would buy a house without having it professionally surveyed.  How balanced is the contract? How watertight is it? How easy is it to get out if the franchisor doesn’t deliver; not just within the first few months but a couple of years down the line?

6- The founder(s): How involved and committed are they? Are they your sort of people and can they deliver on their promises? Is what they offer more than just a catchy franchise name?

7 – Testimonials: Talk to YOUR choice of a selection of existing franchisees. Find out what has gone well for them, what hasn’t been as good as they had hoped and whether they would have joined up originally knowing then what they know now. You will especially want to know how many franchisees have opened up and how many have closed or left the franchise? And over what period?

8 – Goals: Will joining an established franchise enable you to achieve your goals re building an accountancy practice? Do you want to build something independent and to be your own boss? Will the franchise allow you to do this, help you to do this or restrict your ability to do this?

What other tips do you think would be helpful? 

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing insights, short-cuts, tips and advice for accountants who have already or are about to startup a new practice. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

 

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Why Cameron was right about accountants

I returned from a few days away to see a storm brewing about something disparaging that David Cameron has said about accountants.

The offending headline in the Daily Telegraph on 7 May was: “We’re not just a bunch of accountants”. This was an extract from an article attributed to David Cameron in the paper. He said much the same thing recently during an interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson.

Michael Izza, CEO of the ICAEW, writing on his blog, describes the PM’s comments as:  “uninformed and ill judged”. On this occasion, I think Michael’s comments could be self-referential.

If, instead of focusing on the headline, we consider the full quote we can see that the PM did not take a gratuitous swipe at the accountancy profession.  He said:

“People want to know that we’re not just a bunch of accountants trying to turn round the British Economy as if it were a failing economy, but that we are resolutely on their side as we do this work.”

It’s clear to me that the PM simply used the word ‘accountants’ as a short-hand for for a specific sub-set of our profession. That is the Corporate Recovery and Insolvency Practitioners. And I think he’s right to want to emphasise that the Government is not focused only on that type of specialist accountancy related activity.

The PM and Chancellor have made other negative comments recently in the context of clever accountants cooking up tax schemes. But on this occasion I suggest that those accountants who felt insulted by what they read or heard this week can calm down.

Perhaps any accountants who took offence should  think whether they could do more to avoid anyone jumping to the conclusion that references to accountants are intended to be negative slurs. The more we all do to show that accountants do not fit the old stereotypes the better.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads of valuable insights, short-cuts, tips and advice for accountants who want to STANDOUT and speed up their success. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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6 key factors that can determine your success

I recently watched an old video clip of the professional services firm guru, David Maister, in which he highlights the six most scarce resources in most professional service firms:

  • Energy
  • Excitement
  • Enthusiasm
  • Determination
  • Passion
  • Ambition

David also points out that his research has proved that the top achieving firms are those that energise, excite and enthuse their people to perform at a higher level than their competitors.  I can echo this based on my own experience and observations over the years.

Those who’ve worked with me will also know that the listed resources are all qualities that I possess in abundance. I have no doubt that they helped me reach the top of my career more so than any technical skills or technical knowledge that I developed over the years.

Would your colleagues and clients use all or indeed any of these words to describe you or your firm? If there’s a mismatch as between how others see you and how you want to be seen you will need to do something to close the perception gap. If you do nothing then nothing will change.

What other factors do you think can determine your success?

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads of valuable insights, short-cuts, tips and advice for accountants who want to STANDOUT and speed up their success. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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Event tip: Where are you from?

I was one of the hosts at a recent business event and had invited a number of guests. As is the norm all received name badges that also had their company name on them.

Well, almost.

Those guests who had a single permanent role with one firm or company had that business name beneath their name on the badges.

I had sat down with a colleague before the event to help her decide what business name to put on the badges for those where it was less than clear. The reasons for the lack of clarity were due to certain guests having multiple roles, consultancies and/or business activity. In each case they had accepted the invitation by email but had not confirmed the business name that should appear on their badge.  We plundered my memory and checked Linkedin. In many cases it just wasn’t obvious.

In almost every case this was a missed opportunity as all names also appeared on the guest list either with no business name or perhaps simply that of their personal services company or the smaller of the companies with which they are associated. And this despite my best efforts to help our guests gain maximum exposure and benefit from their attendance.

My tip then is to ensure you always make clear what business name you would like used on guest badges and guest lists when you are invited to events.

PS: I have written a 10,000+ word book specifically for accountants who want to Network more effectively. Click here for full details>>>

If you would like to book me to speak on the subject at your in-house conference or training session, do get in touch. There’s an outline of my talk on ‘How to ensure your networking activity is successful’ here>>>

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4 tips for job hunters

1 – Register on LinkedIn and complete your profile so that you are attractive to prospective recruiters and anyone looking there for someone like you. Here’s a link to a short series of blogs I wrote recently on the value of LinkedIn. Once registered you can then use LinkedIn to connect with past colleagues and business contacts. In due course you can then seek their advice and help to find your next role.

2 – Cut your CV down to 2 pages. Remember the key point is that a CV is not about getting a job. It’s about getting an interview. It needs to describe you as a person, not simply what you’ve achieved at work. And 2 pages is all it needs to be.  In practice you will also want to tailor it to each role you go for.

3 – Think about your friends and other people you know who could introduce you to the sort of new employer you’d like to work with. Then talk to your friends etc and ask their advice about how to secure intros to those people. Have a clear story as to what value you would be to a new employer.  By the way, the more specific you can be as to the type of business you are looking to work with, the more you increase the chance of someone being able to effect a suitable introduction.

4 – Depending on the type of role you are considering going for  you might find networking to be a worthwhile activity.  Important to recognise that networking is best done when you are not desperate, and are in position to ‘give’, help and share more than you seek to ‘take’ or gain until people get to know, like and trust you.   I’ve written quite a bit about networking (on and offline) on my blog.

The above list is adapted from an email I sent to a friend of a friend recently after he sought my advice re his new job hunt. He’s an FD and looking to move into a more entrepreneurial environment. 

 

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Are you assertive or aggressive?

I was recently asked my views on the benefits of being assertive rather than aggressive in getting a tax job and in your tax career.  Here’s what I said as is published in Taxation 2 magazine:

While we are used to seeing aggressive characters getting their way on the screen and maybe even in the office it’s not a good way to act during an interview. And it’s unlikely to be a successful tactic when negotiating a  pay rise or dealing with clients – even the most difficult ones.

I have long remembered the rationale for being assertive. It means you recognise that although the other person may have rights, so do you. When you act aggressively you deny the other person their rights.  And when you act submissively or non-assertively, you deny your own rights. If this is your default position then you would probably benefit from some assertiveness training. It’s hard to respect non-assertive interviewees or professional advisers.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Many of us have worked for an aggressive boss who we think revels in his ability to bully us. This may force us into a non-assertive stance. it will rarely enable us to get the best outcome.

I would add that many people confuse being assertive and being aggressive.  To reiterate the distinction above:

When you are assertive you recognise that you are entitled to information, clarification or a reply but that your entitlement is no greater (or less) than the other person’s entitlement to respect, politeness and honesty.

You are being submissive, passive or non-assertive if you remain silent when you ought to ask for help or explain your needs. This behaviour communicates a sense of inferiority. Typically it involves you thinking or acting as if others’ rights and needs are more important than your own. When you do this, other people may not be able to help you because you act as if there’s no problem. This approach will rarely serve you well in interviews, in the office or with clients. Much better that you should feel comfortable, and know that you have the right to ask for assistance or clarification when needed.

Many people confuse assertive behaviour with aggressive behaviour.  The latter typically comes across as bullying or disrespectful, implying that “my needs, wants, and rights come first.” When someone is acting in an aggressive manner, he or she doesn’t ask for assistance, but demands it.

Assertiveness is a skill. It’s not natural for everyone and can take practice to strike the right balance so that you do not come across as aggressive.  Being naturally assertive is a skill worth developing.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads of valuable insights, short-cuts, tips and advice for accountants who want to STANDOUT and speed up their success. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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Confidence is good – but not if it’s naive or deceitful

Years ago when I joined a new firm I remember an audit partner telling me about two tax managers in his team.  He preferred ‘Dana’ because she always knew the answers. He didn’t like ‘Sarah’ as much because she was less sure of the answers to questions he posed and often wanted to check with a tax partner.

I expressed the view that ‘Sarah’ was probably the better tax adviser as she was more cautious. ‘Dana’ was probably more dangerous as it was likely that she was overstating her real knowledge if she never needed to seek a second opinion.  I suggested that she was either naive or being deceitful. I suspected the latter. No decent tax adviser ever knows all the answers  – even after researching them alone. It’s  a sad consequence of our overly complex tax system that all too often we cannot give absolute advice as to tax consequences or accurately predict HMRC’s reaction to transactions.

The audit partner understood what I was saying and started to adopt a more open minded approach to the two tax managers. Within a few months he realised that ‘Dana’ had indeed been offering definitive advice that would come back to bite him and the firm at a  future date. He also had another colleague check back and offer a second opinion on earlier advice provided by Dana. As I had suspected Dana’s advice was often quite flaky and could have caused all sorts of problems in the future.   The partner started to rely more on Sarah and encouraged her to develop her approach so that it was more commercial.

The fact is that audit partners and general practitioners generally want their staff to be constructive and commercial. Being cautious is good upto a point but ultimately it is the partner who makes the decisions. If you are always overly cautious you may be seen to be uncommercial. So you need to develop confidence in your own knowledge and ability but this should not come from bravado.

It is generally the partners or the business owner who should decide on the level of risk they want to take when it comes to advising clients. Give them the information so that they can make such decisions.

Equally you should never present unresearched technical advice as if it were gospel. So, even if you have to advise in a hurry, qualify your advice if it is unchecked. At worst you will be given more time to research things. At best the person who runs the practice or the department can decide whether further research is required. Failure to do this may be naive and dangerous for the practice; The other possibilities are that you are a genius or are being deceitful which will rarely help your career ambitions in the long run.

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Finding, Minding, Binding, Grinding

It’s been a while since I referenced the key roles we tend to adopt in our firms. There are four essential such roles. Most firms need partners and team members with skills in each of these 4 areas.

  • Finders – who go out and find the new work
  • Minders – who look after the relationship with the clients
  • Binders – who keep the team working well together
  • Grinders – who do the work

It seems to me that most accountants focus on enhancing their technical knowledge and skills. Update courses tend to address such areas. Of course this is important. The focus though is simply on helping us to be effective or more effective in the ‘grinding’ role. What about all the others?

Sole practitioners will typically be good Grinders and Minders. If they have some staff they may need to be Binders too.

Those accountants who are looking to grow their practice need good ‘finding’ skills – perhaps in addition to the others.

What do you think about this analysis?

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Graduates are too expensive as accountancy trainees

Last week Personnel Today reported that PwC is launching a new graduate assessment route with less reliance on degrees. In effect this is PwC stating that they will cease to be seeking only those with top degrees. About time too in my view.

Some years back when I was a partner at BDO I offered a cost-cutting suggestion that was roundly dismissed by the then powers that be. I had noted how much time and money was devoted to graduate recruitment. The aim then was to persuade top graduates to choose a career with BDO rather than one with the Big 5 or 6 firms (as they then were). This exercise was costly and often disappointing as applicants frequently chose to accept offers from the bigger firms over the offers they received from BDO.

I was conscious that many of the partners in the firm had only ever worked for BDO (Stoy Hayward as it then was).  It seemed to me that the graduate recruitment process was predicated on the idea that the best recruits would continue to want or could be persuaded to stay at the firm post qualification. And that all future partners would thus be home grown.

I offered the view that, “these days” the best people often chose to switch firms after they qualified. Those in smaller firms often wanted the experience of working for larger firms. Those in the (now) Big 4 want the experience of working for smaller but still ‘large’ firms. I also noted that as the firm grew so would it’s need to recruit expert partners who had trained and worked in other firms.

I suggested that we should focus our time and money on seeking to attract the best qualified accountants rather than the ‘best’ trainees.  This would reduce graduate recruitment costs and would free up resources to recruit potential partners of the future only after they had qualified.

But for the recession and the consequent reduction in job opportunities for newly qualified accountants I am sure that the pressure to move post qualification would be just as strong now as it was 12 years ago.

I applaud PwC’s move to widen its net although I sense from their press comment that the change is not as big as it seems. But it is a sign of the times.

I predict that the profession will reduce its intake of graduates into trainee positions in the coming years. Increased automation means that many compliance related services will no longer appeal to graduates (if they ever did). And audit work is largely drying up at the smaller end of the market. Most importantly, firms looking to reduce their costs will not want to engage new graduates to perform ever more basic tasks. These will increasingly be performed by non-graduates. In effect graduates will become too expensive to be accountancy trainees in the conventional sense.

What do you think?

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10 key actions you need to take when starting an accountancy firm

These are not the only ten things you need to do, but they may be the most productive:

1 – Draft a business plan

What do you want to achieve in revenues within a year, 2 years, five years? What will you need to do to achieve those objectives and what will be the consequences and cost of doing so?  Drafting the plan and incorporating cashflow projections will force you to consider related issues and to plan what actions you will need to take to achieve your objectives. Identify and arrange all relevant business insurances as well. Will you work alone or need admin, secretarial or technical support staff? Will you do everything alone or use a Virtual assistant? Sub-contractors? How  will such decisions impact your cashflow projections?

2 – Clarify your service offerings

Will you be servicing private clients? Unincorporated businesses? Partnerships? Limited companies? Everyone/Anyone? (That’s always a mistake by the way). Will you be compliance led or also offering advice? On what subjects do you have the credibility and experience to provide valuable advice?

3 – Draft a marketing plan

How are you going to secure new clients? Where will you go? What will you do? What will you say? What will you spend?

4 – Distinguish yourself

Avoid being seen as just another accountant. Unless you do this you will probably struggle to pick up work from established businesses and from taxpayers who already have an accountant. Your distinction needs to be real and not a figment of your imagination. And it needs to benefit your target clients.

5 – Consider your pricing and billing strategy

Many new firms start by undercutting the competition. This means they build small practices full of cost conscious clients who will never move onto paying commercial fees. Decide whether to set fixed fees for compliance work, value based fees or the more traditional time based charges. Beyond fee levels determine your payment terms – up front, partial upfront, standing orders or only billing after the work is completed with payment due within 7 days? 14 days? 30 days? And what will you do if your payment terms aren’t met?  Factor such decisions into the cashflow projections in your business plan.

6 – Target a niche

You will secure more clients faster if you are perceived as having a special focus on a specific niche – be that clients in a specific business type (eg: shop owners, hospital consultants or dentists), or those with specific issues (eg: overseas property, divorce, large family, business start-up)

7 – Clarify the competition

Research online, in local newspapers, directories and in high street. Check out what others are doing, saying and claiming. You may find someone else has a similar focus to you. Their credentials and promises will be different to yours. You will need to understand those differences and whether this offers prospective clients a choice or means you should consider an alternative niche.

8 – Establish commercial processes

From client sign-up through to billing and cash collection. From the production of tax returns, accounts and reports and your IT infrastructure. Will you be happy to work in the ‘cloud’ or will you need hosted applications and backup facilities?

9 – Keep uptodate

Sign up for online and relevant technical updates across all the areas of work you will be doing. If you prefer hard copy updates subscribe to relevant magazines too. Consider your CPD obligations and how you will satisfy these. Many accountants (over 2,000) have registered to receive unique weekly practical tax updates written especially for accountants in general practice.

10 – Identify reliable technical support

Your professional body may provide a helpline facility. You may be able to call on ex-colleagues. And of course there’s the Tax Advice Network where you can source specialist tax advice as and when you or your clients have a tax problem, challenge or issue that goes beyond what you’re comfortable dealing with yourself.  Register to receive complimentary weekly practical tax updates written especially for accountants in general practice.

What else do you suggest needs to be done?

2017 Edit: A bonus tip

11 – Ensure you have a decent profile on Linkedin.

I say this as it will be found much faster and more often, when anyone looks you up online, than any website you might create. And a cheap website won’t do you any favours – whereas you can set up a Linkedin profile for free. You can create a personalised link to your profile and put this on your first business cards too.  YOU can access my free guide to creating a great Linkedin profile here or via the free stuff link at the top of this page.

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What does CPD really mean?

Having just shared my views re CPD over on AccountingWeb I offer below an adapted summary and a few additional ideas and tips.

CPD of course stands for Continuing PROFESSIONAL Development.

To some (older?) people this is synonymous with attending courses. It’s what we always did. Historically I recall my obligation to the ICAEW was to evidence 150 points of CPD each year. Of these a large proportion had to be  ‘structured CPD’ such as attending courses. These qualified for 3 points per hour. Reading technical updates only counted for 1 point per hour. As far back as I can recall I hit my 150 points target within the first few months of each year. I think that was more common with tax advisers than audit partners for some reason.

The ICAEW CPD rules changed a while ago to a much more sensible system in my view. Now there is a simpler obligation on each member to  judge what CPD is most appropriate for you, and how you intend to acquire that knowledge. (See: ICAEW What is CPD?).

ICAEW also point out that effective CPD can include:

  • Technical reading
  • Learning at work
  • Meetings with experts
  • Conferences
  • Courses and seminars
  • Online learning
  • Workshops with your peers
  • Reading magazines, newspapers and journals
  • Registering for updates and email alerts

And PLEASE let’s remember that our Continuing Professional DEVELOPMENT means far more than simply being uptodate technically. What about personal skills, business skills, management skills – and so on?  These are equally important aren’t they?

Cost effectiveness is one of the keys, especially as we move into 2010. The big course providers try to keep the cost of places low by encouraging the use of annual tickets and large numbers in one central location.  One to one training can be far more productive and personal (which is what really counts) but is likely to be more costly although it will take less time. If you’re able to undertake good billable work for much of the time it can be a false economy to lose that billable time to take time out to attend a cheap big course miles from the office.

Everyone is different.

Some will benefit most by attending big generic courses and listening to a speaker whilst watching their powerpoint slides and then reading the notes afterwards. It is an approach that many of us are very comfortable with, it gives us a break from the office, perhaps we also get to chat with other delegates and to interact with the speaker.

It’s a little ironic for me as an organiser of training sessions for professionals and as a speaker at such events to admit this but there are many alternatives available now – including the online provision of almost identical course content to that which you might otherwise travel miles to hear live. An increasing number of providers are offering you the choice.  If this is of interest do please add a comment below this blog or send me a note and, if there is sufficient interest, I’ll look into it further as regards my own seminar materials.

Some people may absorb more information simply through reading relevant content online or in magazines, books or newsletters.  For example I’m sure that reading the Tax Advice Network’s weekly practical newsletters counts as CPD – although they don’t take very long to read given their practical focus for accountants in general practice.  Reading this blog and the posts on the TaxBuzz blog too should count as CPD – although this is less likely as regards my blog containing accountant jokes and fun! 😉

What really matters is whether your PROFESSIONAL skills and knowledge are improved/developed in some way by the activities you undertake.

It’s also worth stating that attending a course doesn’t always count (if you’re honest). For example, if you leave the course thinking it was a waste of time and you’ve learned nothing new; in what way has your attendance contributed to your Continuing Professional DEVELOPMENT?

Please share your views as comments below if you care.

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What does Networking have in common with inheritance tax planning?

This is a first. It’s the first time I’ve had something to blog where I can see how it could fit on any or even all 3 of my blogs!

  • It sounds like a riddle or joke – so would fit well on: Accountant jokes and fun
  • It includes reference to tax planning – so would seem well suited to the TaxBuzz blog
  • On reflection though, the rationale for the post is related to my advice and tips for ambitious accountants.

Earlier this week I was chatting with a nice guy who has been on a sabbatical since taking early retirement from a public sector role. He is now thinking about what he’s going to do next and is quite happy to accept that he may need to start networking once he secures a position.

I suggested this was to confuse networking* with selling. He would be much better off to start networking asap. Networking to build relationships. Networking to identify ways in which he can help other people. And Networking to build a deep and wide network of people who know him, like him and trust him. This cannot be done overnight.

It’s the same with inheritance tax planning. Ideally one would do this at least seven years before dying. I’m not suggesting that you need to start networking seven years before you hope to reap the benefits. Of course not. It’s just that seven years pre-death is the optimum time to start inheritance tax planning. Of course it’s not possible as you rarely know when that seven year period begins. Still, if you leave it too late your inheritance tax planning may be ineffective.

So, returning to Networking: If you want to achieve promotion and advancement within your firm you will generally increase your chances if you are well known and liked before your name is first mentioned as a potential partner.  If you are thinking of setting up your own practice, how much easier would it be if you were already well known  in the local community – by people who could become clients, recommend clients or help you source trusted suppliers? You get the picture.

If you leave it too late to start networking you could come across as desperate, needy and ill-prepared. In effect if you leave it too late your networking efforts will be ineffective – for a while at least.

PS: I have written a 10,000+ word book specifically for accountants who want to Network more effectively. Click here for full details>>>

If you would like to book me to speak on the subject at your in-house conference or training session, do get in touch. There’s an outline of my talk on ‘How to ensure your networking activity is successful’ here>>>  

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Where smaller firms of accountants are going wrong

Accountancy Age has published a profile piece on Peter Hargreaves (Chartered Accountant and founder of Hargreaves Lansdown).  In it he is quite scathing about certain elements of the profession. None more so than the smaller practitioner:

“They’re not doing a good enough job for clients, hence they can’t charge much for the work. A self-defeating spiral, where pressure on fees is rife from client and competitors.‘The problem is they can’t command the fees to do the job properly. The profession has failed singularly to create the right aura for the charging of fees. They’re different to lawyers, who tend to make good businessmen.”

“The problem is the mindset of accountants. They tend to be ‘mean’ with money, which makes them fear charging. ‘Because there are a few doing it for nearly nothing, the others feel they have to compete, but they’ll give you a bad service. A false economy.”

“Those who want accountants don’t know who’s good, and they try and pay very little.”

“Adding value is the key for practices, instead of just preparing accounts from a ‘bunch of invoices’, because ‘if that’s the service they’re offering they don’t service much for it – and if that’s what the client wants they don’t deserve a good accountant”.

“They should say to clients “we want to be in your offices every three months finding out what’s going on, where you make money, to help financially plan your business. If you make a big profit, should you do something before then, perhaps a marketing promotion and spend it this year while we’re profitable” etc. but of course lots of business don’t even know if they’ve made a profit until the accountants produce the accounts.”

Do you find that insulting or does any of what Peter says strike a chord? It’s pretty much the same sort of message as is offered (a little more gently perhaps) by organisations such as AVN, the 2020 group and Probiz. Please tell me what you think by way of comments on this blog.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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3 time management tips

I was asked for these when contributing to a business survey recently.

1 – Set up rules in your email management system to reduce the time absorbed by incoming emails.
2 – Book time in your diary for regular activities such as bookkeeping, invoicing, personal development, replying to emails etc. If client work has to be done in a slot reserved for key activities, move them to another date – in the same week.
3 – Set up a simple strategic plan with month by month activities to ensure you focus on working ON building your business beyond simply working IN the business. Then monitor and work that plan. (And reserve time in your diary to do this each month)

What else do you find works for you?

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Two top interview tips

Having been asked to contribute some tips to a careers magazine I thought I’d replicate them on this blog too.

I have always remembered the first time that someone I was interviewing asked if they could make notes. Of course my reply was ‘yes’.  Indeed I was impressed that they were evidently prepared, had asked my permission and noted down only key facts. Their notebook also contained prompts for questions they asked of me later in the interview.  This took place 20 years ago. I still remember it because it was the first time. But looking back I don’t recall many other candidates for jobs doing the same thing and when I was in practice I must have interviewed dozens and dozens of people.

So that’s my top tip. Remember that an interview is quite distinct from sitting an exam. I explained this to a young family friend recently before she attended her first ever job interview. I explained that she wasn’t “cheating” if she needed to check her notes before asking a question. I also stressed that it can look very professional to make notes during an interview as long as you don’t lose too much eye contact. So only try to note down key points. You can always supplement the notes later.

Tip number two is something that I would do if I were ever again an interviewee. I would look up the interviewer on the web. I’d check the firm’s website, I’d look them up on Google and on LinkedIn. I’m assuming that you will have already checked out the firm or company online before applying for the job or when the interview is arranged. But these days you can go a step further and look up the interviewer too.

I always try to check people out online before I attend pre-planned meetings. I note down a couple of salient facts and may use these or refer directly to the online profile during the meeting.  This can help you prepare for the meeting as you may find a photo of the person, you’ll remove a little of the uncertainty and you’ll often pick up a couple of things that will help you in building rapport with your interviewer.  But you do have to be careful when you do this. Not everyone I meet is net savvy (and the same will be true of some interviewers). It’s all too easy to freak someone out by revealing how much information you have found out about them online. And that’s something to avoid doing during an interview (and indeed at any time). So be careful!

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A twitter case study and intro for professional advisers

Twitter seems a bizarre concept. In theory you post brief messages (up to 140 characters at a time) about what you’re doing and these are seen by your ‘followers’. Equally you can read what other people who you’re following say they’re doing.

In practice ‘tweets’ are far more varied than some of the media would have you believe.

Through twitter I have secured attendees at my seminars, traffic to my websites and to my blogs. I have also benefitted from having my messages ReTweeted to wider audiences than the people who ‘follow’ me. And following links from other people’s tweets has led to useful material for my blogs. I’ve also started to build online relationships and have experienced strangers acting as my advocate.

Each time I add new posts to my Ambitious Accountants blog, my TaxBuzz blog or my Accountant jokes blogs an automatic Tweet goes out with a link back to the new blog post. And it’s not only my ‘followers’ who get to see them. Many people search twitter for real time commentary and then tell others.

So, for me twitter is shaping up as a fun business tool. But, do I think many UK accountants will become active on twitter? No. It’s too time consuming as compared with other ways in which they can achieve their business objectives. In this connection I refer back to a blog post I wrote last December in which I explained why ‘Twitter is not for accountants’. My views are unchanged despite knowing a handful of accountants who are now active on twitter – some are even enthusiastic about it. Maybe more will try it out, but I doubt many will stay the course (for business).

Twitter is the latest phenomenon in the area of ‘online business networking’. Business or social? It depends how you choose to use twitter, what you tweet about and who you follow. If you follow all the internet marketing enthusiasts, the celebrity twitterers and the novices who don’t really ‘get it’ you’ll certainly consider twitter a waste of time.

You may know some of your ‘followers’ personally. Others will find you through friends, through real time searches re accountancy and tax subjects or subjects o mutual interest. There are loads of would be twitter spammers – but if you don’t follow them they can’t spam you! And you choose who you follow. If you don’t like the way that someone tweets, ‘unfollow’ them.

I doubt many of my followers read all of my tweets. I certainly don’t have time to read all those of all the people I follow. Many of them in fact only tweet occasionally. As well as friends and business associates I follow other commentators, some journalists, some firms, some publications and some organisations. Many are still experimenting with their twitter strategy – as am I.

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If you decide to join in, by all means follow me at www.twitter.com/BookMarkLee. I’ve explained my approach in more details on the twitter page of this blog.

Through the Tax Advice Network I also write the The Tax Buzz blog and twitter feed which you can follow at www.twitter.com/TheTaxBuzz

And if you have a contrary view, whether you are an accountant or not, please add your comments to this post.

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“Death by Accountancy” – business is more than numbers

When I first saw the headline ‘Death by Accountancy‘ I assumed this would be an item for my blog covering  The lighter side of accountancy and tax. But I’m afraid it’s a further lesson that Accountancy is about more than just numbers.

The article headed ‘Death by Accountancy‘ argues that accountants cannot afford to ignore the need for strong personal and business focused skills when advising on restructuring plans.

The article looks at the recent failure of MFI and suggests that:

it wasn’t the recession that killed MFI. It’s death warrant was signed by its own executives in a restructure some five years earlier. Like thousands of other companies, it has been killed by the absurd pretence, cemented in MBA orthodoxy, that a company consists of little more than costs and resources, and that people and skills represent the ‘soft stuff’.

Continuing in a similar vein:

In truth, the company was destroyed by a cost-reduction programme that took no account of staff skills and customer service.

I wonder if the common experience of accountants in practice (whereby all the emphasis is typically on technical competency) has an impact on how they view businesses in the commercial sector? And if so, are there any lessons that can be learned?

What do you think?

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How to choose which personal skills to develop

Recently I was approached in the following terms:

“I have been authorised to sign up for up to three soft skills courses this year.  I know that you are an expert in these things and was wondering if you could suggest three you think most appropriate and the right order.”

Here’s an extract from my reply:

“Think of soft skills in the same way as technical skills. Which approach works best for you?

Are you still at the stage where you look at the list of available courses and then pick from the list or do you start by asking – where I am weakest? Or which areas do I most want to keep on top of? And having decided where to focus, you then look to find specific relevant technical courses on those subjects?

In my view the same approach is key to developing ‘soft skills’.

I’d suggest that the best starting point is to identify which areas would most benefit from development. As a starting point I have attached a checklist of a dozen key skills.  Pick those that are most important to you in your role at [your firm]. Then rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 for those skills that are important. That should help you to identify where to focus. Once you’ve done that it’ll be easier to recommend some suitable courses or training.”

I included a link to a white paper I wrote a couple of years ago about personal skills development for ambitious professionals. This contains the 12 key skills too, so you could use that list if you wanted to follow the approach I’ve suggested above.

 

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Social Networking for Accountants (part one)

This is the inevitable follow up to a number of recent blog posts here.

I am probably one of the most active UK accountants on what are commonly referred to as ‘social networks’.  I prefer the term ‘online communities’. Some have more of a social than business focus. Others are evidently only for business related networking. And some of these miss the fact that professional services (such as accountancy services and tax advice) are provided by INDIVIDUALS, not by businesses.  And People buy People.  The brand message, especially of the bigger firms, MAY provide a degree of comfort and reassurance but in the main the ‘sale’, the engagement and the services will be attributed to individual advisers.   RELATIONSHIPS are not built up overnight – whether in a business or a social context.

That’s one of the reasons why I am so excited by the developments in online communities. It’s also one of the reasons why I started my own in 2007 (The Tax Advice Network) although it’s not as sophisticated as the more mainstream communities.  That’s deliberate as I’d like to think that I know and understand my main target audience (accountants in practice in the UK).  I speak to thousands of them at conferences and seminars around the UK each year. I don’t sense very much real interest (yet) in online networking and online communities.  When it happens I’ll be ready for it – or maybe I will inspire it?!

For the moment there are a few sites that facilitate and encourage accountants to post blogs  (but see my expose of Blogging myths for accountants), to comment on current news threads and to ask and answer technical questions.

I’ll write about these in a subsequent blog. I’ll also discuss and highlight some of the non-accountant specific business and social online networks and how accountants could benefit from becoming more involved with these – and how to do so without wasting loads of time.  But there’s no rush. None  will become mainstream for accountants in practice in the UK in 2009 (for much the same reason as to why Twitter is not for accountants.

[Edited 2013] Like this post? You can now obtain my 10,000 word ebook containing loads more Social Media related insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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If you’re not on Facebook you need to be on LinkedIn

This is my advice to all accountants in business and to those in practice who could face redundancy at some stage in the future.

My reasoning for such advice became clear when talking to my son and his friends on their return from University for the holidays.

A significant majority of the current twenty-something generation have Facebook accounts. When they bump into old friends or meet new people they don’t exchange phone numbers, addresses or business cards(!). They simply undertake to link up on Facebook. This generation instinctively understand how to maintain and build networks. They are networking before they need to do so for business purposes. In the 21st century your network is your key to the future.

Through Facebook the younger generation has the facility to remain in touch with or to get back in touch with all their friends from school, from college, from Uni and their colleagues when they start work.  I have written a number of posts previously on this blog about Facebook which is principally a ‘social’ networking website.  It’s not the exclusive domain of the younger generation and a significant proportion of ‘users’ are over 35 (or even over 50 as I am!).

LinkedIn, unlike Facebook is largely a ‘Business’ networking website. I’m always amused when commentators describe them both as ‘social’ networks.  I think this confuses people who are unfamiliar with them and assume that they are very similar.  A more accurate collective noun is ‘online networks’.

I heard about an accountant today who is between jobs. The company he used to work for as FD has been sold and he’s now looking for a new role. He may have a strong offline network of business contacts on whom he can rely to help him find a new job/opportunity. In the current economic climate this may not be sufficient.

I would encourage him and anyone else without the perfect offline network to register on LinkedIn for the following reasons:

  • You can put your generic CV ‘out there’ showing your career history and key skills;
  • This will make it easy for you to be found by the recruiters who use LinkedIn to source candidates to fill vacancies;
  • You can reconnect (online) and remain in contact with ex colleagues and other business contacts – ie: build and enhance his network;
  • You will have a business environment in which you can communicate without using an unprofessional ‘personal’ email address and as distinct from the Facebook ‘fun’ environment;
  • You can be found online by new contacts who you meet on a day to day basis;
  • New contacts can get in touch with you without having to rely on a scrap of paper containing your scribbled phone number and email address.

Better than this would be to register on LinkedIn before your job/role goes. The additional reasons for doing this are:

  • Your profile can include reference to your current role as your current role;
  • You can get to grips with the LinkedIn website and features before you NEED to use them;
  • You can build your reputation as a helpful person before you start needing help;
  • Those who try to use any online network solely for what they can get out of it will be less successful than those who seek first to contribute to the network.

Readers of this blog who are registered on Facebook or LinkedIn – or who register on them are welcome to look me up and connect with me on those networks.

And if you are on LinkedIn and feel there are other reasons for our fellow professionals to register a profile there, please add your comments below. Equally if you disagree, please provide a contrary view.

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If in doubt – imagine you’re advising a loved one

One of the pressures that all ambitious accountants endure is the need to advise on issues that do not arise every day. The more experience you have the more confidence you gain to know whether or not you have enough knowledge to give the advice without double checking it’s right.

Double checking might simply involve checking the rules in a book on the shelf, online, asking a colleague or going outside the firm to an independent specialist.  There is no shame in not knowing. You cannot know everything and it’s a mistake these days (and probably always was) to claim to be the font of all knowledge on any accountancy or tax related subject. None of the real experts would make such a claim so why should a ‘generalist’ feel it necessary to do so?

If you’re not sure though, here’s a simple test.  Pretend the client seeking your advice is a close family friend, your mother, brother or someone else you really care about.  Would you be happy for them to act on the basis of the advice you are giving?  If you’d want to double check before letting them follow your advice then you know you should double check regardless.

And if you don’t know where to turn when you require specialist tax input, I’d have to recommend the Tax Advice Network.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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Now is the time to invest in your staff

I often receive calls from recruiters asking me if I know of anyone who might suit this vacancy or that opportunity.  In recent weeks I’ve been telling them that I’m aware of far more vacancies than potential candidates.  Few people are looking to move from one firm to another in the current economic climate.

In one of my posts last year I asked whether you Hope, Pray or Train key staff?  I made the point that:

Employers will spend a fortune in an effort to ensure that ambitious professionals keep upto date with technical developments. But when it comes to maximising the professionals’ potential to do their job, to progress and to get more done, little time or money is invested.

One reason for this is the difference between a short term and long term perspective. Everyone needs to be uptodate with their knowledge of technical developments.  The alternative is to risk the provision of out dated advice with  all the adverse consequence that can then ensue.  Thus there is a short-term need to train staff in technical matters.

On the other hand, the development of personal and management skills is something that has more of a long term impact.  Until quite recently many partners in accountancy firms were concerned that such training would simply help key staff to become more marketable. In effect there was sometimes a fear that the firm’s investment might not be worthwhile as it would benefit a future employer.

There are still plenty of opportunities for good accountants (especially those with specialist skills (eg: tax).  The difference today though is that staff are far less willing to risk a move to a new employer during what are perceived as tough economic conditions. They are likely to stay put if they can.  I remember making much the same decision during the last recession.  Better the devil you know….

What this means is that firms can afford to invest in their staff more now than ever before. Not only will the staff value the support but the firm will gain a longer term benefit from the investment.

And at this stage I should of course draw attention to my white paper on Personal development for ambitious professionals.

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WikiJob – for ambitious accountants

I came across an intriguing website recently that is worth referencing on this blog.

It will be of interest to ambitious accountants seeking a new job or who work in one of the larger firms.  One of the guys behind  WikiJob tells me that:

We challenge large accountancy employers by offering their employees and prospective employees (students and graduates) the chance to rate and discuss them and their recruitment procedures.

The list of around 70 firms’ profiles discussed on the site already includes most of the ‘usual’ suspects and some smaller ones too – including a fair few that are NOT centred on London.

The Wiki profiles are open for anyone to edit, which means the information inside them has been written by both candidates and companies. For those whose only knowledge of a Wiki is Wikipedia it’s worth noting that a wiki is a collaborative writing effort where users can create, edit and publish articles. Wikipedia is simply the most well known wiki.

Here’s a great 3 and a half minute video that explains what a wiki is in Plain English and how it works. It’s very clear – if you can bear the heavy american accent.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/-dnL00TdmLY&hl=en&fs=1]

I think I would have enjoyed contributing to such a site earlier in my career. I would probably also have  benefitted from using it as, over the years I was in practice, I worked for or had interviews with many of the firms listed!

Have a look at  WikiJob if it’s of interest and do please provide some feedback here by way of comments on this post.

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Accountancy firm alumni lists – do the rules make sense?

I went to a Chantrey Vellacott alumni ‘do’ recently.  I had a most enjoyable time although it felt a little strange as I never worked for the firm – but I had worked for one the predecessors.  I even managed to find a couple of faces I recognised from those dim and distant days; I left shortly after passing my ACA exams in 1982. I have fond memories of my ‘articles’ (as that training period was called in those days).

I also get invited to alumni parties arranged by Deloitte. Again the invitations stem from my time at a predecessor firm – this time ‘Touche Ross’ which is where I started my tax career shortly after I qualified in 1982.

Again I have happy memories of my time at Touche Ross – as I do of most of the firms I worked for before I established the Tax Advice Network.

This is all in stark contrast to one ex employee of a big 4 firm. He had met his wife at a small regional office of the firm. When she left shortly after their marriage she was added to the alumni list. Then he left and started his own small practice. Clearly he wasn’t any competition for the local office of the Big 4 firm. Nevertheless he was not added to the alumni list and his wife’s name was dropped too.

Two years later however he merged his practice with a mid tier firm and after a further two years he left and became MD of a premier league football club.  Guess what happened when his old Big 4 firm tried to tender for the audit!

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