Lessons for accountants from….. a childrens’ party entertainer

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

Specialisation

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

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

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

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

Pricing

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Can accountants ‘close the sale’ effectively?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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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 can you do if your fees are too low?

Let’s start with a truism. No accountants complain that their clients are paying them too much. Conversely there are five main reasons why accountants think their clients are paying too little:

1. They haven’t put the basic fee up to a commercial level;
2. They don’t charge more during their busiest period;
3. They haven’t asked their clients to pay for ‘extras’;
4. They think their clients would struggle to find the money;
5. Their clients won’t pay higher fees or for ‘extras’ even when asked

If your basic fees are too low, don’t put off raising this with your clients. All you really need to do is plan your approach and remember that this could be different for different clients.

One accountant I mentor uses me as a sounding board to test his approach to having these difficult conversations with clients. He reports that his confidence is always higher afterwards and he doesn’t lose that many clients when he advises them of his new fee rates.

If your clients are struggling with cashflow you have a choice as to whether you increase your fees or continue to act as a charity or credit agency. With very few exceptions I would rather stop working for people who cannot afford to pay my fees – and to ensure I don’t end up having worked for free (eg: if they go into liquidation).

Much better to ensure all clients are paying fair fees and that those who cannot afford to do so move to another supplier who can provide the level of help they need at a lower fee. What you want to avoid is hanging onto such clients and then suffering bad debts (which includes building up work in progress that cannot be billed because the client has gone out of business).

You’ll need to think this through before you start approaching clients to start work on this year’s tax returns.

I suggest you book a chunk of time in your diary to plan how you will do this and maybe to brainstorm some ideas that will work for your practice and your client base. In my experience whilst there are plenty of issues that are common to many firms, everyone is different so what works well in one firm is not automatically right for another.

I normally suggest that accountants start by focusing on how much they want to earn from their practice. Then you can determine what they will need to do to achieve that ambition. Only you can decide what you want and how you’re going to get it.

When your fees go up you will invariably lose some clients but even if you do, overall you are likely to end up with more fees and more time – a win-win situation. And if you also make a reciprocal fee arrangement with a smaller accountant to whom you refer your ‘lower value’ clients you can ensure that everyone is happy.

 

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Is it better to have lots of small clients or a smaller number of larger clients?

The question I was recently asked by an accountant was actually: “Is it better to have 500 small clients paying me £500 pa or 50 larger clients paying £5,000 pa?”

A little background from the accountant concerned:

“The reason behind this question is that I have been running my practise for many years looking after clients that perhaps most others accountants wouldn’t entertain. However, these small clients are always polite and pay on time even though they can be quite messy i.e. Shoe box or carrier bag type book keeping. But I do enjoy preparing their VAT, payroll and accounts, and they are always appreciative. I also have a few much larger clients where fees are £3k – £5K but find these clients are typically very demanding and often impose strict deadlines for when their work needs to be delivered. They rarely say thank you, even when we deliver before the deadline.”

My reply picked up on the following:

The answer as to what type of practice is best depends on a number of factors including:
  • what work do you enjoy?
  • what client base do you currently have?
  • how easy do you find it to win new clients (and what type of clients)?
  • how much effort do you want to put into winning new clients?
  • where do you want your practice to be in a few years time (taking account of regulatory changes and your own plans)?
  • how do you want to make your money?

You also need to consider where and how you will find the larger new clients. Inevitably they are tougher to win than are the smaller and less demanding clients. Some accountants are happy to only go for the larger fees. Others prefer to take on up all-comers – some of whom may grow into larger clients in the future. You need a very different strategy to win larger clients than smaller ones; also different marketing messages and a different approach to sales. It suits some people, but not everyone.

I do not believe there is one perfect solution that is ‘best’ across the board. The grass often seems greener on the other side.  At meetings of The Inner Circle for Accountants the members often note that they each run their practices in different ways and that no one approach is perfect.

One member said his practice is on course to reach: 5 clients paying £25k pa and ten clients paying £5k pa.  He says he won’t take on a new client that pays less than £3,000 for recurring compliance work. And he doesn’t do any bookkeeping for clients.
Most other members have much lower average fees and minimum annual fees ranging from £250 to £1,600. Some want to grow their average site here. Others want to grow their numbers and like to play the volume game, passing over any extra advisory work to specialists. That way the accountant can just focus on doing what he does best.

 

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Can you choose your clients?

An accountant I know inherited his practice from his father and still acts for many of the same clients. He feels he owes them some loyalty and support even though they do not fit the profile of the practice he has been building.

He described his ideal clients – of which he seems to have a quite a few. Those old legacy clients do not fit but he doesn’t want to let them go. I understand the dilemma.

Then he told me that those legacy clients tend to be the ones who quibble about fees, sometimes even after they’ve been agreed. The accountant feels conflicted. On the one hand he understands the theory behind pricing by value. On the other hand he would rather get paid promptly even if that means accepting he has to agree a discount.

I said I would understand this attitude better if the fees in question were thousands of pounds.Then there would be understandable fear of having to replace the fees if the client goes elsewhere.  But the example this accountant gave me was of a fee for just a few hundred pounds. I suggested that he decide upfront what is his BATNA in such cases.

BATNA means: Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.  If a client won’t play ball and you don’t want to reduce your fee, what’s your best alternative? Are you going to sue? To let them go? To introduce them to another cheaper accountant? To refuse to act for them any more? There are numerous options.  We generally find negotiations easier if we are clear on our stance at the outset.

Another option might be to seek something else from the client in consideration of you agreeing the lower fee.

I mentioned that one accountant I mentor started to call me to give him a boost before he starts or concludes tough fee negotiations. When we started working together he generally backed down and gave in to all clients who queried fees or fee quotes. Now he has the confidence to quote higher than before, secures agreement and gets paid with less hassle – in most cases.  He says I give him the courage to be firmer than before. All that matters to me is that it works and he feels more successful.

Going back to the question in the title to this piece: Can you choose your clients? Yes and it’s probably a good idea to choose only those who will pay you a fair fee for the work you do. Otherwise, what’s the point?

 

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Lessons for accountants from…. hairdressers

The question of how to set professional fees is an old one. I’ve talked before about EasyJet pricing and referenced the way that we pay upfront for most forms of transport and holidays.  But we are not used to doing this when we are engaging someone to provide a personal service – such as hairdressing.

Nevertheless some entrepreneurial hairdressers do operate pricing policies that could be adapted by accountants. Many accountants already replicate the concept of a menu of services and extras – in the same way as these are set out whenever you visit a hairdresser.

Some hairdressers also offer special rates for senior citizens and other favoured categories of customer. I’d like to think this is sometimes simply due to a willingness to help people who cannot afford the hairdresser’s normal rates.  But even then these rates are generally only available at times that suit the hairdresser. And this will typically be when they aren’t otherwise expecting to be busy. If you want your hair cut during the busiest time of the week you’ll have to pay the normal rate.

By offering the special rate the hairdresser gets to move some of their trade to days/times that are less busy. They might not be able to get their normal rates but overall they generate more money than if they charged the same rate to everyone, every day of the week.

Do you offer special rates to new clients who are willing to let you do their accounts/tax during your quiet season?  I say ‘new’ clients as moving existing clients to a lower fee scale would reduce your income so may not have any appeal.

Another variation on this idea is to offer a ‘Stand-by’ service.  I saw a sign offering this facility outside a local hairdresser recently.  It said terms and conditions apply. But the inference was that if you were prepared to take your chances re how long you waited, you could have your hair done at half the usual price.

I suspect that plenty of accountants could offer a stand-by service. You would need to ensure that clients who opt for this appreciate the difference from your usual service. It won’t be much help if you already only service clients in the strict sequence in which you receive their paperwork. Turning this around, you could offer a premium service whereby clients can book in and pay extra for for a special speedy service at certain times of the year.

As I have long pointed out, there is no legal or other obligation to charge all clients on the same basis. Experiment and find what works for you.  I suspect that’s what hairdressers do. Why not accountants too?

 

 

 

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The end of accountants?

In early 2013 Professor Richard Susskind published a new book, ‘Tomorrow’s lawyers’. This included some updated observations of the views expressed in his previous book, published in 2008: The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services.

As I share many of Professor Susskind’s views I thought I would pick out one theme for this blog. He has been suggesting that technology and standardisation would make lawyers less important. Even five years ago, in 2008, he felt that this was already having a major impact on the structure and future of law firms. Professor Susskind was clear that he thought the same principles would also apply to other service professionals. Could the same be true of accountants and tax advisers for example?

Professor Susskind effectively urges readers to ask yourself, with your hand on your heart, what elements of your current workload could be undertaken differently – more quickly, cheaply, efficiently, or to a higher quality – using alternative methods of working? The challenge we face is to identify what distinctive skills, talents and capabilities you possess that cannot, crudely, be replaced by advanced systems or by less costly workers supported by technology or standard processes, or by lay people armed with online self-help tools.

Professor Susskind’s view is that the market is unlikely to tolerate expensive advice that can be better provided through automation, low cost online facilities and the support of modern systems and techniques. I would agree. He also suggested that the legal profession will be driven by two forces in the coming decade:

  1. by a market pull towards the commoditisation of legal services, and
  2. by the pervasive development and uptake of new and disruptive legal technologies.

Again, similar changes have been impacting the accounting profession over the last five years. However I don’t think the changes have yet been as dramatic as Professor Susskind was predicting. But in essence I am sure he was right and that there lessons here for ambitious accountants.  I’m not sure that ‘technology and standardisation’ are making accountants less important but the role is evolving – in much the way that some accountancy commentators have been predicting for a lot more than five years.

As I have long maintained, most accountants evolve and change only when they absolutely need to do so. This often means that the extent of the changes are only obvious when we look back and think how different things were even just a few years ago. If you don’t think much has changed then perhaps your memory is playing tricks on you. Or are you resisting the impact of ‘technology and standardisation’? How much longer is that approach sustainable I wonder?

I am relieved that Professor Susskind believes that there will continue to be a market for bespoke advice and that many people will continue to be willing to pay for expert judgment, intuition and the application and communication of complex expertise. I was relieved to hear that in 2008 and I think it is still true now. After all, that’s just what the Tax Advice Network is all about!

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

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The only six ways accountants can increase their own profits

Over the years I have addressed this topic many times in training sessions that explained how to make more profits from your smaller clients (without fancy schemes)*.

It seems that I have yet to include on this blog the opening summary in which I share what seem to me to be the only six ways in which accountants can make more profits from their smaller clients:

You can:

  1. Increase your charges for doing the same work (which often means increasing the perceived value of what you do);
  2. Speed up the collection of your fees (this includes adopting more commercial billing strategies);
  3. Reduce the time you spend doing the work but keep the fees the same;
  4. Provide more services and charge accordingly for these;
  5. Encourage existing (good) clients to introduce new prospects (just like them);
  6. Sack the duff D-list clients who get in the way.

Of course this advice can be adapted to help clients make more profits in their businesses too. But it would be a shame to do this before applying the advice to one’s own practice wouldn’t it?

 * Variations on the same talk can be presented under a variety of titles, either in-house, at conferences or seminars, as required.

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Are your fees high enough?

Let’s start with a truism. No accountants complain that their clients are paying them too much. Conversely there are four main reasons why accountants think their clients are paying too little:

1. They haven’t put the basic fee up to a commercial level;
2. They don’t charge more during their busiest period;
3. They haven’t asked their clients to pay for ‘extras’;
4. Their clients won’t pay higher fees or for ‘extras’ even when asked

If your basic fees are too low then now is the time to consider how to break this to your clients. And you need to decide whether this is necessary as regards all or just some of your clients.

In an uncertain economic climate you would be forgiven for thinking about again holding your fees at the same level as last year. And that may be the right decision for some of your clients. Only you know your clients well enough to know if that will make sense and whether you need to adopt the same position for all of your clients – even the ones who are more of a problem than a pleasure to deal with.

When things are tough the chances are that you will lose some clients – and those that you can’t afford to spend time with are probably most at risk. Either they pay you more or they should move to someone else who can provide the level of help they need at a lower fee. What you want to avoid is hanging onto such clients and then suffering bad debts (which would include building up work in progress that cannot be billed because the client has gone out of business).

I suggest you book a chunk of time in your diary to plan how you will do this and maybe to brainstorm some ideas that will work for your practice and your client base. In my experience whilst there are plenty of issues that are common to many firms, everyone is different so what works well in one firm is not automatically right for another.

I normally suggest that accountants start by focusing on how much they want to earn from their practice. Then you can determine what they will need to do to achieve that ambition. If it’s more than you currently earn you will probably need to consider a mix of increasing the fees paid by  existing clients, increasing the services you provide to existing clients and charging extra for these and generating new fees from new clients. Only you can decide what you want and how you’re going to get it.

When your fees go up you will invariably lose some existing clients but even if you do, overall you are likely to end up with more fees and more time – a win-win situation. And if you also make a reciprocal fee arrangement with a smaller accountant to whom you refer your ‘lower value’ clients you can ensure that everyone is happy.

I’ve addressed related points in many previous blog posts including:

Are you charging enough?

Clients will pay high fees for good advice

What is a fair fee?

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How do you bill for extras over a fixed fee?

We’ve all done it haven’t we? Estimated a fee (or maybe even quoted a fixed fee) for a specific piece of work and then the scope of the work has changed slightly. And then a bit more. Perhaps we’ve delegated the work and have not kept in touch with how much extra time the ‘tweaks’ have involved.

And then we see the WIP reports and realise that the cost over-runs are more than we anticipated and certainly more than the client might have expected.  So what do we do? Swallow the ‘loss’? Promise ourselves to be more on top of things next time? Or do we write a bit off and then approach the client with what we consider to be a reasonable amount to bill them on top of the expected fee.

If we’ve taken the coward’s route we await the dreaded phone call or letter; and if we hear nothing for a few days we relax. We got away with it!  We can bill the extra and we’ll get paid.  Of course we still don’t know the client’s reaction. They may be fuming and bad-mouthing us all over the place. We promised one fee and then charged a higher one. It’s not good PR.

I’ll admit that, in the dim and distant past, I pursued that approach.  I later learned that although a letter/email may be a good way to broach the subject it is critical to proactively follow up with a prompt phone call. Much better than simply to just wait for a reaction.

I recently found myself on the other end of such an arrangement. As a result I am now more convinced than ever before as to how important is that timely follow up call.

If you’ve underestimated a fee and want to increase your prospect of recovering more than the expected amount you MUST take the initiative. Set out your justification and plan your approach to the client. Don’t just send the bill. Don’t even send the bill if you hear nothing back after sending the client a note of the proposed additional fee. Even if it gets paid you cannot assume the client is happy. They may well be looking for a new accountant.

You will only know what your client thinks if you SPEAK to them – and you trust them to tell you the truth!

How do you deal with such situations in practice?

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Apparently this is one of the Top 30 accounting and finance blogs

Last month I received what appears to be a genuine endorsement of all my work to make this blog useful, relevant, commercial and valuable to ambitious accountants.Best Accounting and Finance Blogs 2012

I was initially a tad cynical but this blog really is the fourth in a list of the Top 30 Accounting and Finance Blogs of 2012.

The note I received last week from Tina Ray, editor of BestAccountingSchools.net, said that:

“Of the hundreds of blogs we reviewed, yours was selected as being among the most helpful and offering the sharpest insight.”

If you scroll down you will note that I am now proudly displaying the award badge on the right hand side of this blog.

For the record, Best Accounting Schools’ mission is:

“To help you in your quest to become an Accountant or advance in your career in Accounting. We do this by providing high quality resources about how to get started in this field, along with information about the best accounting schools and degree programs available.”

It is an American focused resource which is ironic as my focus is UK based accountants.

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What are your options if you want to charge more then your fee quote?

We’ve all done it haven’t we. Estimated (or maybe even quoted a fixed) fee for a specific piece of work and then allowed the scope of the work to evolve slightly. And then a bit more. Perhaps we’ve delegated the work and have not kept in touch with how much extra time the ‘tweaks’ have involved.

And then we see the WIP reports and realise that the cost over-runs are more than we anticipated and certainly more than the client might have expected.  So what do we do? Do we:

  1. Bill the full time costs regardless of the quote we gave?
  2. Write-off a bit and then approach the client with what we consider to be a reasonable amount to bill them on top of the expected fee?
  3. Write-off everything over and above the quoted fee? or
  4. Speak to the client to discuss what happened?

Some will say it depends on the circumstances, on the reason the work went over budget, how much of this can be attributed to the change in scope of the work and how well we know the client and can anticipate their reaction.

If we’ve taken the coward’s route we follow options 1 or 2 and then await the dreaded phone call, email, letter or visit. If we hear nothing for a few days we relax. We got away with it!  We can bill the extra and we’ll get paid.

I’ll admit that, in the dim and distant past, I probably pursued that approach.  I later learned that although a letter/email may be a good way to broach the subject it is critical to proactively follow up with a prompt phone call rather than to just wait for a reaction.

More recently I recently found myself on the other end of such an arrangement and am now more convinced than ever before as to how important is that timely follow up call.

If you’ve underestimated a fee and want to increase your prospect of recovering more than the expected amount you MUST take the initiative. Set out your justification and plan your approach to the client. Don’t just send the bill. Don’t even send the bill if you hear nothing back after sending the client a note of the proposed additional fee. Even if it gets paid you cannot assume the client is happy. They may well be looking for a new accountant.

You will only know what your client thinks if you SPEAK to them – and you trust them to tell you the truth!

I welcome your comments and ideas as to how you deal with such situations in practice.

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The January tax return rush is your own fault

Chatting with an accountant recently he told me he was amazed why so many clients leave their tax returns to the last minute.  He told me he chases clients throughout the year. He sends reminders and prompts. He has recently asked around his business networks to clarify why small business owners and investors do this. It became clear that there are typically 3 reasons:

  • They find the collation of their papers boring
  • They have more important things to do
  • It’s not a priority until the filing deadline is looming

My friend was frustrated by these replies but also satisfied. It’s not just his clients and it’s nothing to do with him.  All accountants struggle to cope with the January tax return rush but at least now he knows why.

WHAT ROT!

There is only one reason for the January tax return rush and, I’m sorry to say but it is entirely the accountant’s own fault. I’ve been saying this in talks for years and offering solutions on how to overcome the issue.

Quite simply your clients leave things to the last minute because you let them do so.  Yes you do. And, yes, YOU could change things. There are three main ways to do this:

  1. Reference an earlier deadline and stop drawing your clients’ attention to the 31 January filing deadline. YOUR deadline is (say) 31 October. Treat it seriously and be as forceful around YOUR deadline as you have previously been re HMRC’s deadline.
  2. Establish a stepped fee structure whereby clients have to pay higher fees the later they produce the information to enable you to complete their tax returns. And stick to it.

What do you think the third option is?

Related posts:

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Seth Godin steps into the time vs value billing debate

Seth Godin is renowned for his pithy and thought provoking blog posts and books.  His most recent post is a new (to me) way of looking at the age-old ‘time vs value based’ billing argument:

“Long work is what the lawyer who bills 14 hours a day filling in forms does.

Hard work is what the insightful litigator does when she synthesizes four disparate ideas and comes up with an argument that wins the case–in less than five minutes.

Long work has a storied history. Farmers, hunters, factory workers… Always there was long work required to succeed. For generations, there was a huge benefit that came to those with the stamina and fortitude to do long work.

Hard work is frightening. We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up. You fail at hard work when you don’t make an emotional connection, or when you don’t solve the problem or when you hesitate.

I think it’s worth noting that long work often sets the stage for hard work. If you show up enough and practice enough and learn enough, it’s more likely you will find yourself in a position to do hard work.

It seems, though that no matter how much long work you do, you won’t produce the benefits of hard work unless you are willing to leap.”

You may not record 14 hour billable days. But if you focus on how much billable time you can record on your timesheet each day you are of the same mindset.

I would suggest that Hard work, in this context, is the application of knowledge, skills and experience to solve problems and to provide valuable advice – without the need for detailed research or long advisory letters. I would stress though that it should be genuine and not guess-work or risky half baked ideas that would have benefitted from proper research.

Hard work requires discussion over the value to the client. It also means the adviser has to decide whether the agreed fee will provide sufficient reward. Sufficient to cover not just the time but also to contribute to the build up of knowledge skills and experience which put the adviser in a position to provide the advice. Thinking that all through, having the discussions and accepting the outcome is Hard work.  But it can pay very well as a result.

Do you focus on Long work or do you have a way to get paid a fair fee for doing the Hard work?

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Yellow pages bingo for accountants

I love a blog post written by Paul Simister on his ‘Differentiate your business‘ blog.

He explains that Yellow Pages Bingo is a game for checking that your marketing hasn’t fallen into the trap of being too similar to your competitors. And he then reveals the results of playing the game with accountants in central Birmingham.

Paul’s game shows the high level of similarity when comparing accountants’ adverts in Yellow Pages. He looks at descriptions of firms, services and offers. I suspect the results would be the same across the country and that the content of accountants’ websites are also pretty similar.

Paul’s concludes by answering his own question:

What happens when every supplier looks the same?

The choice comes to either the cheapest or the most convenient.

I agree, but I’m not sure it’s a bad thing as it’s what most people want and those are pretty much the two most important factors determining how they will choose their first accountant. Cost and convenience.

Paul notes that the latest edition of his Yellow Pages has fewer adverts for accountants than previously. I suspect this is due to an awareness that most people now use the  web to find a new accountant. Back in 2009 I wrote a related piece:  Accountants’ adverts are not working any more

And here’s the rub. To be found on the web when someone searches for a new accountant you need to use the same words as everyone else – in so far as visitors may be searching for those terms.  Of course you have the facility to make your website stand out in other ways, beyond the words you use. But that’s a subject for another day although I have previously provided objective advice here on ‘websites for accountants‘.

What do you think about yellow pages bingo for accountants?

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

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What is ‘Cheap accounting’ all about?

I wonder how many readers of this blog had heard of Elaine Clark before I awarded her the ‘best overnight budget summary‘ last week?

Elaine qualified as a chartered accountant in 1988 and now and runs one of the fastest growing online accountancy practices in the UK. She established it in 2007 and has a number of associates operating their own practices under the same brand name. Indeed Elaine offers a mentoring service for those who want to establish their own practice and benefit from the leads that come from web searches and her related online engagement.

I must admit that I was initially doubtful about the name of her practice: Cheap Accounting, although I do accept that it’s very attractive for online searches. After all, no one googles to find an expensive accountant do they?!

I was always taught that ‘cheap’ went with ‘nasty’. That we should not encourage clients to choose their accountant solely by reference to price – and that a focus on being cheap encourages them to do so.  And then there is the theory that although most clients want accountancy services provided (1) fast, (2) accurate and (3) cheap – they have to choose  just 2 of the 3 .

Having discussed this with Elaine I must admit to being wrong.  I now understand Elaine’s passion and her business model. Her practice offers ‘cheap’ accounting services in that they keep costs down and run an efficient and focused service. They can do this through a reliance on computer-based book-keeping packages and other technology that allows them to operate in a very cost-effective manner.  As explained on her website: “Quality is in no way compromised. CheapAccounting operates to a set of very high service values”.

Inevitably, perhaps, most of Elaine’s clients have straight forward accountancy and taxation needs. Needs that her experienced network of CheapAccounting.co.uk accountants are well capable of addressing. However from time to time there may be a more complex tax issue which requires more specialist advice.

I am delighted to announce that Elaine has chosen my Tax Advice Network to provide tax support when required. We have agreed a working alliance which is clearly promoted on her website.

For obvious reasons I do  not give permission for just anyone to include our logo on their website. Indeed Elaine is the first person to have that authority – beyond the tax adviser members of the Network of course.

I hope that readers are sufficiently intrigued to want to check out the Cheap Accounting website. It’s very different to most accountants’ websites. It’s also popular and successful at drawing in the sort of business that Elaine is targeting. Oh, and it even tells visitors how easy it is to change their accountant. I think we could all learn something from her approach.  Let me know what you think….

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These accountants offer a fixed fee service. Do you?

Let me be clear I’m not saying that everyone should or can do this. Simply that some accountants do it.

I was prompted to write this blog post after engaging with a couple of accountants on twitter. Here are their tweets:

Standing order mandates delivered to the bank. Get the customers paying in advance on fixed fee quotes. That’s the way to do it!

I do the standing order over ten months. They get January and February off. Then we negotiate next year’s fee. People like it.

Any extra work has the fee agreed in advance. Tax planning and tax credits on a value basis adjusted to actual when HMRC agree.

I think the two month post-Christmas payment holiday is a winner. Works for Council Tax!

@James_Hellyer

Every one of my clients pay monthly fixed fees in advance. Nobody ever complains. It should be the norm. It is with Broome.

It helps that we provide a Very Good Service!! backed with money-back guarantee

@BroomeAffinity

During some of my talks I often raise the concept of ‘fixed fees’ as one way in which accountants can reduce the time they spend on the billing process, improve their cashflow and reduce arguments about fees. Those who are implacably against the idea seem to feel that they HAVE to charge clients by reference to their timesheets.

Look. If that works for you, by all means continue. But do recognise that more and more accountants are winning new clients who want to pay a fixed fee for their annual service.  That’s irrelevant of course if your clients are happy, you’re happy and you’re winning new work that pays the fees you feel are fair for the work you’re doing.  The thing is that many accountants, who operate in what we might call ‘the traditional way’, cannot honestly answer ‘yes’ to all 3 of those questions.  What about you?

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

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Quote: January was hell – and it was my own fault

An accountant I was chatting with recently made this astonishing admission. I have to admit I was surprised by his honesty and self awareness.

Most accountants blame their clients for ignoring requests to produce their papers in good time to avoid a last minute rush before the 31 January filing deadline for personal tax returns. My friend acknowledged that with him it’s as much a question of priorities. Even if clients do supply their papers in good time he focuses his attention on meeting earlier deadline such as 31 December for 31 March company accounts and, before that, 30 September for 31 December company accounts.  I’ll bet his personal tax return clients wouldn’t want to hear this.

He told me that he incentivises clients to provide all their papers before the end of October each year. He doesn’t always have time to check that the papers are complete and sometimes has to ask for missing details when completing their returns in December and January.

I suspect that my friend is not alone. What do you think and what lessons can we draw from this situation?

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Avoid this mistake when a client disputes your fee note

We’ve all had them. The client who sends a detailed letter/email listing a load of issues and problems.  Sadly I can recall having the odd one or two such missives when I was in practice.

I remember the feeling of indignation. The frustration at the unfairness of the accusations. The unreasonableness of the assertions and the one-sided nature of the complaint which totally ignored anyone’s perspective other than that of the client.

Yes, I know. The client is always right. Except they’re not. Sometimes they’re wrong, mistaken or liars.

I recall one occasion over ten years ago when I received a detailed list of issues from a client in response to the invoice issued by my tax manager. I went through the list and made a few notes. I gave these and the client’s letter to the tax manager to comment on. We crafted a point by point response. We were satisfied we had addressed all the points thoroughly and fairly. We sent our letter. This had the inevitable consequence.

We got another letter. With the benefit of hindsight I suspect the client was playing with us and playing for time. I don’t remember if there was another exchange of letters or not, but I do recall a meeting where we went through things line by line again.  Eventually the fee was paid and the final amount was not much different to the original bill.

I had made a fundamental mistake in replying to the complaint letter point by point.

What I should have done was to pick up the phone, apologise for any misunderstandings and ask what the client wanted. And then deliver that or discuss it in order to reach a fair result as quickly as possible.

Few clients WANT a line by line, point by point response to their letter of complaint. Your detailed reply simply invites another round of the same game. Perhaps the client is simply trying to buy some time before they will pay you in full, maybe they just want a small reduction in the fee or a change in the personnel dealing with their affairs. Maybe they want a big reduction in the fee. Maybe they are going to be so unreasonable that YOU should decide you don’t want them as a client any more.

Far better to reach one or other of those outcomes asap and get paid what you’re going to get paid asap. Don’t you agree?

Related posts:

7 steps to resolving client complaints

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Billing attitudes to quicky items of advice

The Tax Advice Network includes a private forum area where the tax adviser members can discuss and share ideas and issues. No one else can see or take part. A recent discussion concerned how different tax advisers deal with calls that only take 10 or 15 minutes.  A number of different views were expressed. My contribution was to refer back to a blog I posted last August: “I hope they’ll tell someone about me”

Of all the contributions from advisers who promote their services through the Tax Advice Network, this one seemed to be the most commercial. What do you think?

I am set up to bill small pieces of advice and  regular clients use me as an ad hoc advisory service for both large and small matters so I have no problem in charging for small bits of work. I see no benefit in giving free advice to professionals who phone up a stranger expecting something for nothing because that mindset probably repeats itself and they move on to the next mug. I am surprised that accountants would seek to do this because they, like us, are selling their time and expertise!

As an expert who only does one off work I stay well away from the notion of  a free initial consultation because there’s often nothing more to come anyway.  I have a different view of private individuals who are a riskier issue altogether and I am not surprised with the something for nothing chancers here. I tend not to advise at all without a formal engagement. There is little chance of any repeat work from this source but if bits of advice are given too freely and misused or misunderstood can we get sued and do we always have the full story anyway? I am very cautious with this in mind where I do not know the client.

Finally, why would we want to give our expertise away free? Even small bits of advice are often the product of years of experience and may save large amounts of tax. Surely this is worth something and I am reminded of a discussion at a partners meeting many years ago as to how to value the bit of advice that takes 15 minutes and save £1m. Do you charge 15 minutes or say £10,000+ (OK – it was a big 4 firm) for the umpteen years of training and experience that enables that answer to be given quickly?

It seems to me that if it is good advice then its worth paying for and if it’s good advice at a reasonable price then there should be a potential of good repeat work afterwards.

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