Why do you want to promote your firm?

A recent conversation with an accountant I’ve not worked with before started as follows:

Accountant:  Do I need to promote my firm better?

Mark: Probably, but it depends on what you want to achieve.

Accountant: What do you mean?

Mark: Marketing and promotional activities work best for accountants when you have first identified clear objectives. Otherwise you’re likely to waste time and money on exercises that may or may not be worthwhile.

Accountant: I was thinking of promotion to help me win more clients.

Mark: That’s fine. There are still some other factors to consider before you do anything by way of promotion. Anything you do in this regard will be more successful if you start by first clarifying exactly who you want to influence to become clients of yours, what sort of people are they and what sort of messages will resonate with them. Only then can we consider where you likely to find them (be that face to face or online) to influence them with your promotional messages – which may be overt or, often, more subtle in order to be effective.

This accountant’s objective was not unusual of course. Those with whom I have worked quickly come to see the benefits of thinking through their objectives before they start investing time or money in promotional activities. This includes whatever they might do on social media, how they project themselves online, on their website and when attending networking events.

In case you were wondering, here is my list of reasons why accountants might want to promote their firm:

  • To attract and secure more clients
  • To generate PR coverage
  • To aid your recruitment efforts
  • To increase the referrals you receive
  • To encourage more clients to ask for additional services
  • To evidence your ability to provide a wider range of services

Maybe your objectives overlap. That’s fine too. But the clearer you are about the end point you seek, the more effective you can ensure your promotional activity will be.

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WHO do you need to stand out from?

One of my talks for accountants, and much of the advice I share generally, concerns WHY it’s important to STAND OUT from your competitors – and HOW easy this is to do when you put your mind to it. A related question I’ve never really addressed in detail is WHO do you need to STAND OUT from?

I’ve long known the answer to this question but a recent conversation has prompted me to address it here as I realise it’s not as obvious as I had thought.

There is a temptation to feel that you need to STAND OUT from ALL other accountants. I think not and yet I see it as a common ambition encouraged by many marketing and personal branding ‘gurus’.  Such an approach implies a similarly flawed strategy as when accountants are unable (or unwilling) to clarify who they would like to have as new clients. Claiming that this could be ‘anyone’ makes it difficult to grow and build a successful practice. It means your marketing isn’t focused and doesn’t connect with the people you really want to have as clients.

STANDING OUT is important if you want to win more clients (and maybe even to retain your existing client base). But you don’t need to STAND OUT from ALL other accountants. Only those other accountants whom your prospective clients might see as your competitors. In most cases this is the other accountants in your locality or who specialise in the same niches as you do.

The messages you share and the actions you need to take to STAND OUT out will differ depending on who you wish to distinguish yourself from. And WHY you want to be remembered as distinct from others? What’s your reason for wanting to STAND OUT? It’s not always just to win new clients or to retain existing clients. You may want to recruit better staff? To get more media attention (and through that to win more clients)? Or simply, as I often suggest, to be better Remembered, Referred and Recommended (the 3 Rs) by those you meet in real life and online?

Are you really competing with other local accountants on social media? If not then maybe you don’t need to be active here. For example, there’s no point in jumping on the twitter bandwagon and wasting time and money (like so many others) if your clients and prospects are not themselves likely to find you or interact with you on twitter.

Away from the major towns and cities your main competition is likely to be other local accountants. What makes them STAND OUT (if they do)? Or maybe you want to ensure that you also STAND OUT from anyone new who might might move into the vicinity. Local knowledge and involvement in local community activities may be key here.

Do you need to make a point of STANDING OUT from other accountants who are of a DIFFERENT generation, gender or background to you? Or are these factors obvious from a simple photo? If so then you can focus your efforts on STANDING OUT from those who are a SIMILAR generation, gender or background to you.

It’s obviously important to STAND OUT from other accountants who attend the same networking events as you and who know the same people in your town or city.  You can only do this though if you know what, if anything, they say or do to in an effort to STAND OUT themselves.

I’m not a big fan of accountants claiming to have a USP (Unique Selling Proposition). It’s so rare to find one that is truly UNIQUE. In any event, you only need for your specific audience to perceive you as different and distinct from the other accountants they encounter.

Similarly you don’t need to STAND OUT from ALL other accountants all of the time. The clearer you can be as regards exactly who you need to STAND OUT from, the easier it will become to hone your business messages, your marketing, your networking and your social media activity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How to attract and retain high end clients

There is a wonderful restaurant in Temple Fortune (a suburb in NW London). It doesn’t look like a high class place. Indeed it looks quite ordinary and seems to be under the same ownership as the bookshop next door.

Unexpectedly the quality and presentation of the dishes they serve at Cafe Also are outstanding and yet the prices are quite reasonable.

Indeed you could be served comparable dishes in a top rated London restaurant. But, if you were, you would be charged two or three times the menu prices at Cafe Also.

Why is that? It’s probably because an ordinary looking restaurant in Temple Fortune cannot attract enough of the customers who would pay top London prices. But this doesn’t dent the chef’s ambition or commitment.

The comparison with accountants isn’t perfect but I hope you get the idea. Your appearance conveys your status and often impacts the fees you can charge. First impressions count.

If you’re based in a dingy room above a high street shop, if you have an old fashioned website, a cheap business card, a hotmail email address, a photo of your home appears in the google search results and you don’t otherwise give the impression of being successful…. Well, quite simply, you will probably struggle to attract and retain high fee paying clients. The fact that you make an effort to provide a high quality service often will not be enough.

I provided a longer list of the ‘wrong’ reasons for Standing Out in this earlier blog post >>>>

The bottom line is clear. If you are looking to secure premium clients paying premium fees you will find it easier if you give an appropriately positive first impression. If you want to keep those clients you will need to follow through and show that the value you deliver warrants higher than average fees.

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25 great answers to the question: How much do you charge?

One of the questions Accountants don’t like hearing, when approached by a prospective new client, is “How much do you charge?”
All too often the question is asked, too early, out of context, and before you’ve established exactly what accountancy and related services you will be providing. And yet, if you blow the answer, your prospect is gone.
Keep in mind that many people have no idea how else to start a conversation with an accountant other than asking about fees. It doesn’t always mean this is all they care about and that they simply want to find the cheapest accountant around.
Too often we worry about how to transition from one question to another, or we remember the childhood rule that when someone asks you a question, you have to answer it. This is not a rule for adults in business.
Here then are the 25 great answers to the question: “How Much Do You Charge?”
  1. I’d love to answer that but I can’t yet because I don’t know exactly what help and support you need. Can I just check some things with you first and then I’ll be able to quote you a fee.
  2. I’ll answer your question in a moment but to give you a more accurate answer, may I ask you three questions first?
  3. It depends on exactly what you need. I have learned not to assume that every client wants or needs exactly the same services. Let’s run through a few things that experience has taught me I need to clarify before I can quote a fair fee.
  4. Well, the friends and family rate might apply but we’re not friends yet – do you mind if I ask you a few friendly questions that will help me understand exactly what you need, before I determine what the fee will be?
  5. It could be over a million until I know exactly what services you need. Can we spend a few minutes narrowing things down to help us get down to a more realistic figure?
  6. I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that you don’t have a half million pound problem. The bad news is that you don’t have a £10,000 problem, either… If you can help me answer some key questions, we’ll both know a lot more about what your investment might look like.
  7. Unlike some other accountants I don’t charge standard fees as my clients receive a personalised service. And that means a personalised fee too. Let’s see what you really need and then you can decide if you can afford me.
  8. If it works, it’s cheap. If it doesn’t, it’s expensive. What’s it worth to you?
  9. Tell you what. Let me check a few points with you and then I’ll be able to give you a rough idea – a range of fees. If that’s ok we can then check some more details so that I can give you a specific quote.
  10. Let’s talk about what you’re trying to accomplish first and then we can get to what you’ll need to invest to get what you want.
  11. I’d love to find out more about your company first so that I can give you an accurate quote that covers everything you’ll need. Would you like to set up a time to talk?
  12. Most of my clients are paying something between £60 and £250 a month for the sort of services I think you’re going to want.  Some pay more.  Few pay less. How does that compare with your budget?
  13. I don’t know. Let’s talk about your objectives and what you really need from me first.
  14. Before we discuss fees can you help me get a better idea of what you’re looking to achieve? That will also enable me to work through exactly what services you’ll need and how much contact and meetings are likely to be required.
  15. Moving to a more proactive accountant like me only makes sense if it’s already in your budget. None of my clients woke up one day and suddenly found the money to invest in more commercial accountancy and business support. If you can share the budget range you have set aside for this, I can tell you if it makes sense for us to talk any further.
  16. I have a feeling that if I quote a random number right now, I’ll be dead in the water. Do you mind if I ask you some questions to get a better idea of what your goals are? Then the numbers we talk about will be specific to you and your situation.
  17. There’s no good answer to that question in a vacuum. Can we talk a little more about what you’re hoping I can do for you? Then I’ll give you some fee options that make sense for your budget.
  18. Smile and hesitate and then say: That’s the best part! Review the benefits and intended results and then say: You get all that for X. Now smile again. THEN say: When do you want your monthly direct debit to start?
  19. Just like you need to make an educated decision about which accountant to appoint, I need to give you an educated answer to your question about my fees. But I don’t know enough about what you need or your circumstances to quote a fee yet. Do you mind if we have a 10-minute conversation about your situation? After that, I’ll have a much better idea of what you’re after and some different ways we can help.
  20. Sounds like price is the most important factor to you. In my experience, everything is expensive until you want it. Can we talk about what you want and then work our way to the pricing options based on that?
  21. It’s going to cost you more than a cab ride to [local landmark, e.g.: The London Eye”] but less than what it cost to build [the landmark, e.g. “The London Eye””]. If we can chat for 10 minutes about why you called, I can give you a much more specific answer. Do you have 10 minutes now or shall we book a time later in the week?
  22. Until I have a better idea of what you want – and whether or not we can even help – any number I give you is going to be too high. Would it be OK if we spend a few minutes discussing why you called? Then if we can help, I’ll get you the pricing options you need. And if we can’t, I’ll refer you to some other great resources that do things we don’t. Fair enough?
  23. If my fee is your primary concern then I may not be the accountant for you. Can you help me understand why you’re looking for a (new) accountant and what difference it will make to you if you choose the right one?
  24. That’s the best part. Unlike many other accountants who only [do part of the job] we also ensure you [get more value]. And yet the total monthly fee you’ll pay is less than you would pay those other accountants. It’s typically between £xxx [the lowest fee you would ever charge such a client] and £zzz [the highest such fee].
  25. At this stage I can simply tell you that I’m not the cheapest accountant around, nor the most expensive.  If you’re looking for the cheapest service regardless of experience, expertise and advice maybe I should save us both some time and let you choose someone cheap.
Clearly the next part of the conversation is also crucial, as is the way you present your fee, any caveats and conditions you want to apply, your payment terms, and your fee review process.
These are topics we regularly address during the Sole Practitioner Breakthrough webinar Programme and at round table meetings in London with The Inner Circle for Accountants. These topics are also addressed in the Successful Practice email Programme and often come up during 1-2-1 mentoring sessions.
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Do people see you as successful or struggling?

Some accountants I know are proud of how efficiently they look after their own business affairs. Others though are embarrassed at their inefficiencies. And there are some who do not appear to give any thought as to how they are perceived.

If clients or business associates become aware that you are not running your practice very well, they may come to question the business advice you offer. And clients may choose not to accept your offer to provide business advice on a regular basis (for a fee). That would be a shame as it is a key ambition for many sole practitioners who want to grow their fees.

This is much worse than the old story of the cobbler who did fine work for his customers but allowed his children to run around in shoes that fell apart. The cobbler’s customers could judge the quality of his work as they could see and feel it. Clients cannot do that with the advice you provide. All they can do is ‘look’ at how well they perceive you to be doing.

Do you give the impression of success or of struggling? Are you practicing what you preach?  The people you meet in business and when networking associates may know and like you. They may also trust you in a general sort of way. But do they trust you to be competent to give good business advice to the people they might be able to introduce as clients?

Is there a risk that you don’t really understand or believe in the advice you are sharing? Do you talk about your problems and challenges with clients? Does the way you ask for referrals smack of desperation? Do they think of you as professional or pathetic?

When you offer business advisory services to your clients they will only agree to pay you if they believe the advice will be of value. Once they are sold on this they could choose to take advice from someone else. Someone successful. Or, at least someone who seems successful. How do your business clients and contacts see you? That will often depend on how you see yourself and the impression you give.

If you’re not getting the referrals or business you would like, do consider whether this might be due to the perception you give as regards how you run your own business.

 

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Key tips for new accountancy practices

I am often approached by accountants who started up a year or so ago or who are planning to start a new practice. So when I was asked recently to provide some tips for an online interview on this topic I decided to repurpose my replies for this blog.

Let’s start with the most common mistake I see. This is when the website for a small firms of accountants tells me nothing about the accountant themselves. When you’re starting out (and often, down the line too) YOU are the firm and you need to reveal who YOU are as a real person and as an accountant. The sooner you can reference positive vibes and feedback from clients the better. Unless you’ll be happy with lots of low fee paying clients, you’ll want to help prospects appreciate why they will be better served by you than by others. Finding your voice at the outset is key.

All too often start-up accountants have invested in a website but made the mistake of thinking that this will magically attract the clients they want. Or maybe they’ve invested in some SEO, content marketing, blogging or social media activity that someone told them would help. Yeh. Right. This all takes time and generally doesn’t work in isolation. This is why so many start-up firms struggle to win as many of the clients they want as quickly as they hoped. There are thousands of small firms who were so desperate at the outset that they took on anyone and everyone as a client. And now they are frustrated by the pressure to service loads of low fee paying clients who don’t want to pay more.

One way to avoid this is to start by building your reputation and the relationships that will generate referrals and introductions. From the outset. And to ensure your online messages (on your website, linkedin and any email marketing) are congruent.

Other tips:

  1. You will need to develop your ‘closing’ skills. Even when your website, referrals, emails and other promotional activities are bringing the right prospects to your door/phone, YOU need to have the skills to reel them in as clients. And then to have efficient client take-on procedures so that the process is smooth and easy for them (and you).
  2. Think about who you want to have as clients. The type of people, the services they will require and why they should come to you rather than another accountant Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re no different to other accountants. You are. I have yet to meet two accountants who provide identical services in the same way. So, if you want to work with clients who need more than the basics and are not looking for the cheapest service, ensure you talk to them and about them. One start up I worked with recently wanted just that. He’d invested in a flashy website that probably alienated the very people he wanted to attract. It said nothing about him and focused on 3 levels of low cost services for local trades people. No wonder he wasn’t attracting the type of clients he wanted.
  3. Think about the advice you would give to a new start-up business. Remember that you too are starting a business (it just happens to be an accountancy firm business). Your plans (rather than simply hopes and dreams) need to be focused on generating profits both in the short and longer term too. Why should your business thrive without a practical business plan that includes reference to how and where you will attract the clients you want?
  4. From the outset put in place standard systems for new client take on procedures and for the delivery of each of your services so that you can scale and grow your practice over time.  You don’t want to be caught out having to constantly reinvent the wheel which also means wasting lots of time.
  5. Take time to plan how you will deliver value to your clients. Value that they will appreciate and be prepared to pay for over and above the basics. If you only focus on delivering tax returns, accounts and VAT returns you will struggle to grow the practice and to generate higher fees.
  6. Resist the temptation to try to appeal to ‘anyone and everyone’. The clearer you can show you have a specific client type in mind, the easier it will be to win those clients. It’s counter-intuitive but also a fact that you will win more clients if you can be more specific and choosy about who you really want to help (serve) – even if you also do all the things expected of a typical local accountant. If you simply talk about those things you will struggle to become sufficiently distinctive and remembered, referred and recommended.
  7. Plan for how you will charge for the services you provide and when you will expect payment.  You may need to adapt your terms in the light of experience but do not start without clarity. You need to be clear and focus on the value you provide, not simply the hours you spend. Unless you are only seeking clients who want to pay the lowest rates around, you can relax and pick your own rates. There is no ‘going rate’ if you recognise that your service style, approach and experience is unique to you. You will also want to learn to quote with confidence and to give clients what they want and need.

The Successful Practice Programme (of weekly emails) addresses all of these points, and much more. You don’t have to do everything alone. Check it out now and see how you could build a more successful practice for just £1 a week >>>>

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“What tools do you recommend to help a sole practitioner stand out?”

This was another question I was asked during a recent interview. This post is drawn from the notes I made before giving my answer on air.

Many accountants and bookkeepers reference their best source of new business as being referrals and recommendations. So let’s deal with this first.

Tools I would recommend here include:

  • Linkedin – you can use this to keep in touch with what clients are doing , to like, share and comment on their updates and news. It helps to have a decent profile here yourself. Check out my free Linkedin profile tips here>>>
  • Your website is key of course. It’s a tool to attract people to your practice rather than to your competitors. I’ve mentioned many times on this blog how important it is to reveal who YOU are rather than hiding behind your firm’s name and brand. You don’t need to invest a fortune in your website. You can STAND OUT positively simply by addressing the basics and making it really easy for prospective clients to find key information before they get in touch.
  • A decent CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system to ensure that you’re keeping in touch regularly and can recall key facts about each client.
  • A practice management system – monitoring time limits and deadlines, so you can avoid doing things at the last minute and provide a timely service to your clients. You only tend to get positive referrals when clients feel that you are on top of things.
  • A referrals strategy – this could be a simple spreadsheet or it could be built into your CRM system.

Other tools that could also help you to STAND OUT positively to people who don’t yet know you include:

  • Twitter and facebook – but only if you believe that your target audience are active on these platforms.  With twitter you’ll stand out more if you tweet in your own name with a decent profile headshot than if you tweet in your firm’s name.
  • Linkedin – once you have a decent profile you can use the advanced search facility to seek out either specific prospects or those who fit your target profile. Then you can ask to connect with them and start to build a business relationship with them – before meeting up if you both feel this could be worthwhile. Don’t move into sales mode until you know what they want and need.
  • Giveaways – I don’t mean you need to create a promotional brochure or  gimmicks. But if you have branded giveaways that people will find of use and value, you can use these to stand out from your competitors. As will focused tip sheets that highlight a specific sector or niche – as distinct from being the same old, same old generic tip sheets everyone else sends out.

If you’re aware of other tools you would recommend for sole practitioners, do please add them as comments on this post.

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How should I reference fees on my website?

One of my sole practitioner mentoring clients asked me this recently. I thought it would be helpful to share my advice here as the last time I did so was in 2007! Back then it was quite rare for accountants to include specific reference to their fee rates on their websites. Now it is much more common.

My starting point is that it is normally good to manage expectations. Do you want to encourage low or high fee paying clients? Do you want to encourage or discourage prospects who are shopping around for the lowest fees? Do you want to encourage prospects to focus on your fees or on the style, level and distinctions inherent in the service you provide?

I remember one accountant I worked with telling me about his big ambitions and the typical fees he wanted to earn. Why then, I asked, did his website reference 3 client packages priced so as to appeal only to those who wanted to pay lower fees than his local competitors charged? Why was there not reinforcement of his ability to service the clients he really wanted to act for?

How does your website stack up in this regard?

If you want to appeal to people looking to pay low fees then go ahead and feature these on your website.  Alternatively, if you want to reduce the time you spend talking with people who don’t want to pay a decent fee, you can discourage them through the way you reference the subject on your website.

Most of the accountants I work with want to get more out of their practice. More clients sometimes, more fees often, otherwise more time or more satisfaction.  You won’t get more fees if your website, adverts and promotional materials only reference your lowest fee.

These days I believe that you need to decide which of 3 options is best for you and your practice:

  1. Commoditise each service you provide and quote typical fees for each service. This is the menu approach some accountants follow. If most of your clients only want your ‘standard’ services you avoid the need to spend time discussing and negotiating specific fees each year. Those clients whose affairs take longer than average are balanced by those that take less time than average. The downside of this approach is that it denies you the facility to highlight the value side of your proposition.  Everything is just down to price.
  2. Reference your minimum fee and the range of fees that most of your clients typically pay. You might add that each case depends on the quality of a clients’ records and exactly what services they require – “which varies more than you might imagine”;
  3. Give no specific reference to the level of fees you charge. This was, historically, the most common approach adopted by accountants, who just promised that their fees would be cost effective, fair or reasonable.

The second approach enables you to maximise your fees and, when quoting a fee, to take account of all surrounding factors including the amount of time and effort it has taken to win the piece of work in question.

The last approach is, in some ways, akin to the expensive clothes shops that have garments in the window but do not put price tags on them. If you go into the shop you know it’s going to be expensive. Is that the impression you want to give?  This approach is also adopted by accountants who haven’t really thought through the issues or who still charge fees by reference to how long the work takes them. As a result they end up wasting both their time and that of the prospects who may not agree to willingly pay the fees when they are are eventually estimated or forecast.

In practice the first approach is generally preferable for low value work. The middle approach is better for high value work. And the third approach works best for good referrals where you are not really in competition with anyone else.

On this occasion I suggested that my client include the following wording on the home page of his website:

“Our fees are more modest than some but we are not the cheapest accountant around. If price is your only concern then we are not the firm for you. Monthly service packages start from £XX for the simplest of cases. Most of our clients’ monthly fees are between £ZZ and £ABC. For further details….”

He wants to discourage people who are looking for the cheapest quote. I suggested making clear that £XX should be the lowest fees he would want to earn from a client. This means that if anyone is looking for a cheaper accountant they won’t waste his time. The next sentence is to manage expectations and to avoid anyone thinking that they will only have to pay his lowest fee.  The ‘further details’ link goes to the page of his website that sets out service packages and options for different types of client.

I have suggested variations on this approach to other accountants as the same formula doesn’t suit everyone. Which approach would work best on your website?

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3 lessons for accountants from….. personal trainers

I recently heard John Hardy the Founder of FASTER Health and Fitness introduce his business.  He mentioned he throught there were similarities with accountants. I have taken what he said and adapted it to provide some lessons for accountants from the business side of personal training and fitness.

1  Personality

John has noted that a bad trainer with a great personality will keep their clients for longer than those who focus on simply helping someone achieve a short-term goal (eg: weight loss).

Equally there are plenty of bad accountants who hang onto clients even though they’re not doing a very good job. The clients don’t really know what they could expect from a good accountant, so they stay with the bad accountant as long as they seem like a nice person.

Lesson: It’s easier to hang onto clients if they like you as a person. If you think you may be perceived as more of a traditional boring accountant, get out there. Attend  a local networking group on a regular basis and help people get to know and like you. It rarely happens overnight, but practice can help.

2  Context

Successful trainers do more than simply explain to clients how they can get fit. They also reference ‘how unfit you’re not getting’. They encourage and congratulate small successes.

Many accountants will tell clients what books and records they need to keep and leave them to it until the next set of accounts is required. Then the client finds out they haven’t been doing things as they should and that the accountant is having to do more work than planned just to get things straight.

Lesson: Check-in with clients to see how they’re doing – not just with their books and records, but generally. I have often pointed out the benefits of simply calling clients and asking them “How’s business?” and evidencing a genuine sense of interest and desire to help them to do better.

3  The technicalities

Apparently the training that personal trainers receive largely addresses just the medical and physical side of things. This leads to them focusing on all kinds of measurement, numbers and statistics. When they then go self employed they quickly learn that they need to also understand the business side of things. Being a good personal trainer is not enough to build a sustainable income as a personal trainer.

Can you see the analogy here?  Accountants’ training is focused on doing a good job as an accountant – from a technical perspective. There’s rarely any reference to the skills and activities you need to build a successful accountancy practice. As a result lots of well trained accountants struggle to build their own practice.

Lesson: You cannot rely on your technical expertise to build a successful accountancy practice. You need to apply good business planning skills too.

Sole practitioners who want to build a  more successful practice can tap into my guidance and support through the Successful Practice Programme (emails), The Sole Practitioner Breakthrough Programme (webinars), or 1-2-1 mentoring and support.

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4 things to change if you don’t get good value leads from your website

I have lost track of the number of accountants who tell me that they don’t get good quality leads from their website.

They generally either say that their website is a waste of space or that the people who come via their website are just looking for a low price. This then leads the same accountants to claim that most of their better new clients come through recommendations and referrals.

Let’s examine these observations briefly:

  • If your website seems to be a waste of space this could either be because it doesn’t attract the right people or because it doesn’t engage them and encourage them to get in touch.
  • If the only people who come to you via your website are just looking for a low fee quote, then perhaps your website needs to be clearer as to the sort of new clients you want.
  • It would be a mistake to think that having a website is a waste of space simply because you don’t get the sort of business you want through it. Indeed a badly out of date and non mobile friendly website can be problematic as it may also be working against you. As well as not attracting the new clients you want it could be putting off just the people who you DO want as new clients. Would you even know how often clients have recommended you to someone who then checks out your website and chooses NOT to get in touch as they don’t like what they see?

The reason you get good recommendations and referrals is because of the service you provide, because of your style and approach and because clients believe you are doing a good enough (maybe even a brilliant) job for them.  They talk about you. Not your practice. You. They talk about YOU.

Does your website seek to give the same impression as clients provide when they recommend you? Does it say enough about YOU and what clients think about you?

Also remember that your clients may not know how you compute your fees but they know what they are paying. And often they will tell people. This means that many of the referrals who get in touch already have some idea as to what you charge. If they thought your fees are high (and they find this a turn-off) they probably don’t even get in touch.

Put all this together and what can we see? Well, in brief, my conclusions are:

  1. If your website is disappointing you in terms of new business, you need to review and update the site.
  2. Your website should make clear the sort of new clients you hope to attract and those you’re not able to help too. If it’s only very generic (just like all the others) it’s no wonder you get low value enquiries.
  3. You can discourage prospects who are looking for the cheapest accountant they can find, by referencing your minimum fees (eg: “We are not the cheapest accountants around. Our clients typically pay between £800 and £5,800 per year. Some pay a lot more than this. As of 2017 our minimum fee for new business clients is now £500”)
  4. Your website should profile you as a person – just as clients do when they recommend you.

The fees I have used in the above example are based on those discussed at a meeting of The Inner Circle which comprises London based accountants. Your figures may be lower than this. The key point is that you will want to make clear the sort of fees you look to earn – which should be higher than your minimum. You may include more clarification elsewhere on your website but do not focus too much on fees there unless you really are going for those people who are looking for the cheapest accountant around.

Please don’t assume that everyone looks for the cheapest accountant. They don’t – any more than everyone looks for the cheapest car or smartphone. If that was true then higher priced models wouldn’t sell. But they do. And plenty of accountants who have learned to promote themselves more effectively secure higher than average fees. If you are keen to do this, pick one of these ways to learn more >>>

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How NOT to tell people that your business grows through referrals

Most of the accountants I meet claim that most of their best new clients come through referrals.  When I dig deeper I find this is typically for one of the following reasons:

  • They remember that their most recent new clients were initially generated by referrals;
  • They don’t get many new clients and also don’t ask for referrals, but they think that one or two definitely came via referrals;
  • They don’t get much contact via their website, don’t advertise or market the practice and are not active on social media, so they assume that new clients must be coming through referrals;  Or
  • They actively encourage referrals – either indirectly or directly. But this is rare 😉

Many accountants don’t feel comfortable actively asking for referrals. That’s a shame but I understand. It can feel pushy and make you feel like a grubby salesperson. You don’t need to feel like that. It all gets easier when you learn:

  • how to ask for referrals (in a way that works); and
  • when is the right time to ask.

Part of the challenge is that we don’t always ask in an appropriate manner; or we say the ‘right’ things but at the wrong time. When we then get rebuffed we are discouraged.

The indirect approach

This is how some accountants try to encourage referrals via their website and, more commonly via their email message footer. I saw the following phrase on an email I received from an accountant recently. I’ve seen variations on it before and, having now checked, I note that the same phrase is also used on lots of accountants’ websites.

“My Business grows through referrals.
If any of your friends or colleagues are concerned about any areas of their accountancy or taxation, please feel free to pass on my details.”

It was this referrals request that promoted the title for this blog.  No doubt it works – to a degree. But before you copy it, let me suggest that you adapt it to suit your practice.

The more specific you are the more successful you’ll be

Who do you really want as new clients? ANY ‘friends or colleagues’ with ANY ‘concerns about ANY areas of their accountancy or taxation”. Wow. You must have plenty of time on your hands. And that would make you very different to most of the accountants with whom I speak. The reason I suggest this approach requires you to have plenty of time is that it suggests that you are keen to be referred to any of the following:

  • A retiree with a small pension and no other income
  • A student wanting to claim a refund of PAYE from their part-time job
  • A self employed trader simply looking to pay less than the £200 they currently pay each year for their accounts and tax return!
  • Someone needing help with their self assessment tax returns every year but who is unlikely to ever need much more than a basic compliance service.
  • Someone who matches the profile of your best client and who will value your services sufficient to pay you £1,000, £2,000, £5,000 or more each year

Please understand that I am not suggesting there is anything wrong in having clients who need very little help and who can only afford to pay low fees. If you are happy to encourage more of these, that’s fine.

My point is simply that without any clarification you are at risk of wasting time meeting with people who you don’t really want to take on as clients. And your lack of clarity actually reduces the number of referrals you will receive. If you make your referrals request more specific you will make it easier for people to refer exactly the right type of prospective new clients. And, typically, such referrals happen more frequently too 😉

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How do you allow clients to communicate with you?

In the days before email there were only 3 ways that clients could communicate with their accountants. In person, by phone and by letter. Now the list of options is much longer. Do you encourage, tolerate or refuse to accept communications by less conventional methods? How does this impact your client base?

Email is perhaps the most common form of communication these days but some accountants talk about how they are being approached by prospects and by clients using skype, facebook, twitter, whatsapp, text messages and Linkedin.

I’ve been asked whether it’s acceptable to engage with clients and prospects using these platforms.  My answer is simple. ‘Yes’. The key question is whether you come across as professional and appropriate in your communications.  There is also the question as to why have facebook and twitter links on your website if you do not want to encourage communications via these platforms? There’s little point trying to look modern and uptodate if you can’t cope when people choose these facilities to communicate with you.

Ground rules

Moving on, you need to decide whether to allow clients to do whatever they want or if you want to set some ground rules. And you need to decide how to record or keep track of communications across multiple platforms.

My advice depends on how often you get enquiries and questions via less conventional methods. 

You could welcome and embrace such approaches. “I’m flexible and modern and let clients engage with me however they choose. But we do encourage email for substantive conversations and when we provide ‘written’ advice”

Or

You could adopt a different stance and reply to initial enquiries, along the lines: “Many thanks for getting in touch here. I’d love be to discuss your issues on the phone or face to face. 

Please note that we are happy for clients to contact us use by whatever media they choose. However as a professionally qualified accountant I cannot engage with non-clients on platforms like this.”

Social media

If clients want to ‘meet’ via Skype – you need to agree or accept that they may choose to go elsewhere. Skype offers the advantage of face to face communication (over the web) but avoids anyone having to travel to a meeting. This is the same reason that I run monthly webinar meetings for sole practitioner accountants who do not want to travel into London to meet with me regularly.

Like many people I tend to think of facebook as a non-business communication platform – principally for friends, family and fun. However I also know that some accountants have popular business pages on facebook and that prospects and clients may communicate with them on facebook or via messenger.  This is most likely to be the case if your clients are themselves very active on facebook.  Whether you want to encourage or discourage communications via facebook, make this clear on on your facebook page. 

Again, you may have some clients who see you are active on twitter and send you messages there. Or they may have a preference for whatsap or texting. It’s up to you whether to reply in detail (not easy – even via direct messages) or to copy their message then reply to it via email. If you copy their message into your email reply it will be easier for you to keep an audit trail of your communications. Just bear in mind that some clients may check their twitter accounts and texting apps more often than they check their emails. So I’d advise that you always send an acknowledgement back by the same method that the client approached you eg: “Thanks for that. I’m replying in detail by email. Will aim to get you something within in the next few hours, or do you need advice more urgently?”

I would suggest that your emails always reference the platform on which the original query arose (facebook, twitter, Linkedin, whatsapp or elsewhere!)  I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it very frustrating to glance at a new message notification and then to later forget which app I need to review to find it again,

Clients first?

Unless you can afford to alienate the odd client, I think it’s important to allow clients to communicate with you however they choose. So don’t deny them the facility. But you can take control of how you respond. To keep track of the shorter messages, that you don’t confirm by email, you could take screen shots from text, facebook and twitter apps. Then save those photos to relevant client directories or files in the cloud – direct from your phone.

As the number of clients engaging with you in less conventional ways increases, so it’s important to identify the processes and systems you want to have in place to keep track and to retain an audit trail re advice you give clients. This becomes even more important if your advice reflects questions, facts or assumptions you noted via ‘social media’. And you need to ensure that any staff or contractors whom clients communicate with also follow your ground rules.

A more traditional approach would be to tell clients that you only accept instructions and communications by email, letter, phone or in person. I tend to think that approach will not help you to win or to retain clients. But it’s your choice. It’s up to you how you allow clients to communicate with you. If you want more clients of the type who are active users of social media, the more important it is for you to appear flexible and capable of engaging via your clients’ preferred means of communication.

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Be proud and positive about your profession

This week’s blog post is derived from the response I received from a recent attendee at one of my talks. She had been very enthusiastic so I asked her what she had learned specifically. This is her reply:

Things I took away from yesterday:

  • That it’s OK to be on the quiet side at networking events – I am surrounded by [male] ‘chest-beaters’ all justifying their own existence and who talk at people rather than to them!
  • To be specific about what I am looking for in a referral – something that I need to work on …. It’s not all about [a type of target she mentioned during the course] … and that this may vary depending on my audience.
  • And to stop apologising for being an accountant, which I often do and a close friend tells me off regularly for it. This must come across in my ‘first impression’ but won’t be a good impression to make on someone. I can stand out from my peers by being me and being proud and positive about my profession! I definitely need to work on the impression that I leave people with ….

She added: “Your presentation yesterday was very engaging and entertaining.”

Just to amplify her 3 key main points:

1 – I had explained that introverts are often more effective networkers than extroverts. The latter tend to talk too much whereas introverts are better at listening to what other people are saying. If you listen more effectively you can ask better questions and learn more about them. The more you learn the better you can focus the stories you tell so that they resonate. This will help you and your stories to be more memorable.

2 – It’s too easy to sound like ‘just another accountant’ when you talk with people such as bankers, lawyers and fellow attendees at networking events. This means they are unlikely to remember you or to refer business to you. You can ensure such conversations are more worthwhile if you can be more specific about the referrals you seek. This means talking about the type of people you want to meet in terms that are memorable and distinct.

3 – Absolutely accountants should be proud and positive about being an accountant. If you’re not giving a positive impression why should anyone believe that you are the right accountant for them or for anyone they know?

All of these points are also addressed in my Successful Practice Programme, come up in my other work with sole practitioner accountants and in my talks at conferences and seminars.

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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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5 mistakes you make when quoting fees to new clients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 5 key social media risks to your practice

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

1 – Posts on behalf of the firm 

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

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

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

2 – What you post yourself

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

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

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

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

3 – What staff and colleagues post

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

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

4 – What third parties post

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

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

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

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

5 – Absence of social media policies

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

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

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

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

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This is the problem for medium sized firms of accountants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The only mid tier firms that will survive and thrive are those with clearly defined niches. By this I mean those that are known for having an area of expertise that makes them really stand out from the pack. They recruit staff and partners specifically to bolster this expertise and they don’t waste time and money trying to be all things to all people. And these firms will only survive as regards those specialist areas. The more generic areas of their practices will shrink as partners retire or leave to go to smaller firms with lower overheads and potentially higher profits per partner. The smaller firms will often be less pressurised environments too – especially if they stick to clearly defined, promoted and valued niche”.

“Those mid-tier firms that have no such recognised niche expertise will face increased pressure from the egg-timer squeeze of both the largest firms and of the smaller more focused and cost-effective firms. The larger ones are perceived as having more credibility for the provision of a wider range of services – when these are needed and valued. The smaller ones are able to provide compliance, advisory and special services more cost effectively.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ten practical tips to avoid negligence claims

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have you checked your KDIs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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How accountants can take control of their career success

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

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

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

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

Determine what you want from your career.

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

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

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

Duncan continues:

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

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

He advises that you:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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