Cloud accounting – Do you lead your clients or let them lead you?

This is the first of what I anticipate will become a series of cloud accounting related blog posts.

Back in 2009 I disagreed with those commentators who were warning accountants about an urgent need to embrace cloud accounting technology. The alternative, warned these merchants of doom, was that accountants who failed to embrace the cloud would go out of business.

I felt that such warnings were premature in 2009 and continued to think so until very recently. I believe however that we are, at last, reaching a tipping point.

More and more accountants are embracing cloud accounting solutions and an increasing number of clients are aware of the concept.  Plenty of accountants are being led by their clients and I often encounter firms who are happy to promote their ability to work with a range of cloud accounting solutions. This is often apparent from the inclusion, on the firm’s website, of a dizzying array of software badges and logos.

Other firms, including some pretty successful ones, do not take on new clients unless they are prepared to use the firm’s favoured bookkeeping solution.

I understand the arguments put forward by both sides.  In summary:

  • Anything for anyone: “We can help you, regardless of how you prefer to do your bookkeeping”
  • One size fits all: “We encourage our clients to all use [specific solution] as they find it easy to use and know that they will receive full support from us as we can focus rather than try to keep up with changes to a number of different online bookkeeping systems”

Advocates of the ‘anything for anyone’ approach don’t want to dictate to clients how they should do their bookkeeping. This is understandable especially if those clients have made an informed choice and/or have been using their solution for some time.  Some accountants have also concluded that different solutions are better suited to different types of clients eg: small businesses, contractors/freelancers and larger businesses. From what I have seen recently I’m not sure that distinction is sustainable as some suppliers offer different packages for each of those groups.

Advocates of the ‘one size fits all’ approach evidence a degree of confidence and are able to standardise their systems and processes. And this allows them to become more efficient whilst still providing a personalised service to clients. And then there are the range of add-ons and apps that accountants need to review and advise clients about. Which ones are worth their attention? If you don’t know what’s out there how can you provide pro-active advice in this regard?

There are plenty of reasons put forward by sole practitioners who resist specialising in a specific bookkeeping solution. These include:

  • A mistaken view that the ‘client is always right’. This is evidently not true as they pay their accountants for advice, not just agreement.
  • The challenge of having many clients using different solutions.
  • A reluctance to specialise in a specific bookkeeping solution as it might limit the number of new clients who would appoint you. This is the same concern as is raised in any conversation about specialisation. In practice the benefits typically outweigh the disadvantages.

What about you? When it comes to cloud accounting and bookkeeping solutions, do you lead your clients or do you let them lead you?

This blog post was not sponsored, but was inspired by what I saw, heard, and conversations I had at QB Connect 2017 about QuickBooks Online.

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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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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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How’s business? – Avoid falling in the trap when you reply

If you’re either a busy accountant and/or a regular at networking events, you probably get asked this question all of the time. You may also be asked by friends and family, ex-colleagues and prospective clients as well as by your bank manager, suppliers and potential advocates.

How carefully have you thought about the way that you answer this question? Did you realise that, completely unwittingly, the person who asks the question is setting you a BIG TRAP?

You probably want to avoid jumping in with both feet.

What’s the trap?
Quite simply it’s either implying that you’ve no time for more work or that you’re no good in any event.

It’s easiest to see the trap when someone else jumps in.

Imagine you’ve just met me for the first time in a few years. You’re aware that I have this new focus for my talks: Be ReMARKable and show you are more than just another….‘ and that I am keen to present my keynote and after-dinner talks at conferences and events for accountants in the UK.  You may even have received my weekly email containing tips and tricks for accountants or visited this blog. After the initial introductions you look me in the eye and you ask me, “So Mark, How’s business?”

How would you react if I gave you one of the following answers?

– It’s great thanks. I’m really busy; or
– Really good thanks – I’ve got loads on; or
– Fabulous. thanks for asking. I’m flat out.

If you’re like most people you might be pleased or relieved by my response. But what would your reaction be as regards referring conference organisers and anyone else who might want a speaker for their event to me? What if a day or two later you met the managing partner of 20 partner firm of accountants who was frustrated by the lack of relevance or credibility most speakers have to his firm?  Or you meet one of the team who are organising a conference intended to attract accountants? Would you think of suggesting that either of them contacted me? [I certainly hope that you’d do exactly that as I’d love to help them and to speak at their events.]

Or would you think something like – There’s no point in recommending Mark – he’s already got plenty of work? Even though you probably know that I would love you to recommend me in such situations, you might be hesitant. [Please don’t be as there’s plenty of room in my pipeline and I thrive on referrals].

Can you see the trap now?
If you tell people you’re busy you can discourage them from referring or passing work to you. It matters not that it’s your automatic response; that you weren’t thinking when you said it. The word ‘busy’ or any inference that you have plenty of work is often enough to put off people passing more work your way. They may well think to themselves: “Shame. I was going to refer some work to you, but now I’m not sure that you’d give them enough time and attention.”

Clearly there’s a need for balance here. The other way of falling into the trap is if your answer is something along the lines:

– Not so good at the moment; or
– Still plenty of space for new clients; or
– Thanks for asking – I could do with some more referrals please.

Again, if you’re like most people you might well wonder ‘why’ business is not that good and wonder how much of a risk you might be taking if you refer work to someone in such a situation. You might think: “How can he/she be any good if they don’t have much on at the moment?

So…?
Years ago an entrepreneurial marketing guru, Chris Frederickson, suggested that a good answer to the question “How’s business?” was: “Business is great and we’re looking for more!”

I tried that for a while but it seemed a bit too ‘American’ for me. For some years, when I was still in practice, my reply was more along the lines “Everything seems to be going really well at the moment; I’ve plenty of work, largely from referrals, and still scope for more.”

But I’ll bet you’ve got some even better ideas. So tell me: How’s business?

If you would like me to speak on this topic or a related subject at your in-house conference or training session, do get in touch. 

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