7 new year resolutions for sole practitioner accountants

Some people make new year resolutions every January. They may share their intentions but we rarely hear how successful or otherwise their commitment turns out to be.

Do you do this at all? If, like many of us, you have not held your resolve in the past, maybe this year will be different. But, if you have struggled previously, then you are more likely to be successful in your ambitions if you change the way you make and review your resolutions.  Doing the same things in the same way and expecting different outcomes is rarely an effective strategy.

Here are 7 ideas that I recommend you include in your resolutions, ambitions and plans for the coming year:

1. Reducing the January rush

I will take responsibility for allowing so many of my clients to delay sending me all the information I need until January. I have had enough and will start planning now to stop this continuing year-after-year.

2. Billing

I will release cash by reducing my lock-up to 30 days through changes to my terms of business, more prompt billing and applying my standard credit terms whenever clients fail to pay on time.

3. Services

4. Linkedin profile

I will add a professional looking photo and an up-to-date summary of my current experience and abilities to my Linkedin profile. This could make all the difference whenever someone is checking me out online: e.g. a prospective client, a prospective referrer or advocate, an ex-colleague or ex-client.

5. Talk with clients

I will make appointments to speak with all of my best clients within the next three months, just to see how things are going for them. Many of these calls and meetings will lead to those clients asking me to provide additional advice and services – that I can bill them for.

6. Dump the duff clients

I will stop complaining about my three worst clients and will encourage them to find new accountants within the next few months. I will replace them with three new clients as I deserve to work only with people who appreciate what I do for them.

7. Mentoring group

I will join a local mentoring group for ambitious accountants (eg: The Inner Circle) where I can learn from my peers and enhance my business and personal (non-technical skills). The group will help motivate me to keep all of my New Year resolutions. I also know I don’t have a monopoly on good ideas and I want to make this the year that I learn to become more successful.

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10 commandments of client service for sole practitioners

Ok, maybe not real ‘commandments’ and maybe they are relevant to a wider audience than sole practitioners. Either way I hope you’ll nod as you look through the list. I suggest you aim to pick out one or two where you know you could do better. And then focus on what you could do to improve your client service in this regard over the next few days, weeks and months.
Could I also encourage you please to complete a quick survey (just 2 questions) re the key issues facing sole practitioners? See here>>>
1. Ask good questions: You need to identify and anticipate your client’s needs. Some clients may just tell you everything they think you want to know. But some need to be encouraged and many clients won’t know what’s important and relevant until you ask them to take about specific issues. You are the expert so you should know what additional information you need to give valuable advice. Do you get to the nub of the issue to find your client’s underlying issues, concerns and worries?
 
2. Listen attentively:  It’s all too easy to assume that one client’s situation and needs are the same as ‘all the others’ with a similar background. Even if that turns out to be the case, the fact that you listened to them will form a stronger bond, give them more confidence in your advice and increase the prospect they will speak positively about you – leading to more referrals and recommendations. Do you KNOW, as regards each client, what are their 3 most important concerns?
3. Make clients feel special: Smile when you meet with them. Be careful to only make promises you know you can keep. Be sincere. Only ever under-promise and then over-deliver. Give them more than they expect (as long as they will value the extras). Be respectful of clients’ time. Resolve their problems as quickly as possible and keep them informed of your progress (or lack of it). Every client interaction is an opportunity to show you care and to provide outstanding service. Deliver a solution that meets or even exceeds a client’s expectations and you’ll strengthen your relationship with that client.
4. Avoid jargon: Remember that clients don’t generally use the same acronyms and abbreviations as accountants. They may feel daft not understanding what you’re talking about and just nod quietly. Speak to clients using language they understand. Communicate to be understood, not to impress. Are you even aware of how often you use terms and jargon that clients may not follow? Clients hate it. Most people do, which is why I didn’t simply say: DUTMA.
(DUTMA = Don’t Use Too Many Acronyms!)
5. Bill promptly and fairly: With the possible exception of your smallest clients, you and your clients will benefit from regular billings across the year. ‘Prompt’ billings means around the time you provided the service and in line with your terms of business/engagement.  ‘Fairly means, fair to YOU as well as fair to your clients. If your fee is going to be higher than they might have expected, you should DISCUSS this with them before sending out the fee note and chasing payment.
6. Apologise promptly: None of us is perfect. When something goes wrong, be honest about it and apologise. Suggest how you might make amends and seek your client’s feedback as to what they want. Clients rarely swap accountants simply because of a mistake or two. The client service failing comes when your client perceives that you don’t care enough. Make it simple for clients to let you know if they have a problem. Make it clear that you value their complaints. Better they should let you know than tell other people! It also gives you an opportunity to improve. Even if customers are having a bad day, go out of your way to make them feel comfortable The client isn’t always right but they like to feel as though they have won – even when they are wrong.
7. Make it easy to do business with you: You don’t need to be available 24 hours a day. But you do need to be easy to contact. If you’re often out and about, consider a telephone answering service so that a real person takes messages. Consider an online diary scheduling service to allow clients to book meetings with you at mutually convenient times. I use calendly – but there are many other options. These facilities can make your life easier whilst also removing the frustration that follows when a client cannot easily reach you.
8. Focus on solutions vs problems: Clients don’t ‘really’ buy an accountant’s services. What they are really buying are good feelings and solutions to their problems. The more you can talk in terms of providing solutions to their problems, the more they will appreciate what you are doing for them and what you can do for them.
9. Admit what you don’t know: You are rarely doing clients a favour if you pretend to have more knowledge and experience than you do. Clients will rely on you more if they know they can trust you to be honest with them.
10. Seek regular feedback: If you are serious about wanting to provide great client service, you will only know if you seek feedback from your clients. How do you do this? Casually or in an organised way that adds to your credibility? The best method invites constructive criticism,  comments, and suggestions.
If you are a sole practitioner, do please complete this quick survey (just 2 questions) re the key issues you are facing.
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The 3 factors that will determine your social media success

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the game of chasing followers, likes, connections and social media klout. It may be fun to keep track of these metrics and to keep increasing them. But, in real life, they are not important by themselves.

There is little point in simply pursuing these metrics. You need to have key business focused targets instead. It may be that you want to raise your profile and to become a go-to person for media comment in your area of expertise.  Most accountants and lawyers for example, are experimenting with social media to generate additional fees.

And that is the key metric that you need to measure. How much of the additional fees you generate can be attributed to your online social media activity? There will rarely be a quick or short payback in this regard.

It is also important to note the 3 factors that will influence the speed with which you can gain a payback. These factors are all relevant whether your social media activity is focused around facebook, online forums, blogging, twitter or Linkedin.

The 3 factors are:

1 – Effective use

How effective is your use of the social media platform? How consistent and congruent are your messages, your profile and your online activity?

2 – Your website

Most accountants using social media will include links back to their website.  Your social media activity may be exemplary but your website could be a turn off. Does it reinforce the messages you have been promoting on social media? Does it engage visitors? How easy is it for them to get in touch with YOU (as distinct from a faceless ‘admin’ person)? Does your website even reference your name and profile?

3 – Offline follow up

Just like with any other form of networking, personal contact is crucial. If you are not leveraging your use of social media to meet with people face to face or at least to speak with them on the phone, you will wait longer to secure a valuable ROI.

Agree? Disagree? Are there any other factors that will determine your success of your social media activity?

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Resolving issues with problem clients

This was the main topic for discussion at last month’s meeting of The Inner Circle for Accountants.

Once again Members of <a href="http://www this hyperlink.bookmarklee.co.uk/inner-circle” target=”_blank”>The Inner Circle benefited from the willingness they all had to share their experiences and insights during our round table discussion. In accordance with one of our key membership principles everyone agreed to abide by the Chatham House Rule.

As usual I have prepared a follow up summary including members’ selected key learning points and some useful links.

What follows are simply some of the opening comments that set the scene for our round-table discussion. We started by considering the various issues that contribute to problem clients:

  • Lateness – supply of info, payment of fees
  • Rudeness – to you, colleagues, contractors, staff
  • Unreasonable demands/expectations
  • Tried to do it themselves
  • Quibblers – overly price conscious
  • Fudgers – over claiming and under disclosing
  • Time vampires – be this the client or their in-house accounts staff
  • Needy, sad and poor
  • Those who no longer fit your ideal client profile (if they ever did)

Possible solutions varied from those requiring courage to those that could generate more income even if the problem client took their business elsewhere. Members were amused but unsurprised to hear how they all had similar problem clients. The real benefit of the meeting came from the round table discussion and ideas as to how to resolve specific situations.

The Inner Circle is for the owners of smaller accountancy practices who are keen to be more successful without spending a fortune on marketing and branding. To find out more just click the link>>>

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10 time saving tips for busy accountants

Hard to believe that the last time I shared any time saving tips on this blog was back in 2009.  I’ve taken the 3 tips I shared back then and added several more below, picking up on what accountants have told me, together with my own research and experiences:

  1. To stop wasting time deciding what to do next, try creating a prioritised ‘todo’ list. A = must do; B= should do; C= can wait (for now). You’ll also get a degree of satisfaction from crossing things off the list. You might prefer to find a suitable ‘to do’ app that allows you to do much the same thing on your smartphone.
  2. An extension of this concept and another ageless tip is to list, every evening, the top 3 things you must do the next day.
  3. To avoid spending longer doing things in a panic consider booking time out in your diary to do client work, preparatory work re meetings or other stuff, just as you would if meeting a client, prospect or contact. Sometimes this ‘meeting with self’ needs to be rescheduled to suit client commitments but at least it doesn’t get forgotten.
  4. You can also book time in your diary for regular activities such as bookkeeping, invoicing, personal development, replying to emails etc. If client work has to be done in a slot reserved for key activities, move them to another date – in the same week.
  5. Create a ‘Not todo list’. This would contain those things you want to avoid sidetracking you. These days there are more distractions to tempt us than ever before. Many accountants spend too much unscheduled time on twitter, facebook, linkedin, online forums or apps on their phones. I find it helps to set myself a time limit and an objective when I visit those sites.
  6. Personalise your email, text, twitter and facebook notification settings so that you are not constantly distracted by these. If something is that urgent you’ll get a call. You can set MS Outlook, for example, to only download new emails every hour, rather than immediately.
  7. If you are looking to grow your practice set up a simple strategic plan with month by month activities to ensure you make time to work ON building your practice beyond simply doing all the client work that needs doing. Then monitor and work that plan. (And reserve time in your diary to do this each month – see point 4 above!)
  8. Think about all those IT related tasks that take time and which may well be addressed by in-built facilities you have yet to master. Few of us know how to get maximum value and benefit from the most common and relevant features of our office and accounting software. Perhaps we struggle with spreadsheets, formatting, printing, document and presentation templates, design related tasks and so on? Make a note of those challenges that take time or which you find frustrating. Search online for ‘How to ….’ do whatever it is and take five minutes to find out and save loads of time going forwards.
  9. Consider delegating or outsouring work that can be done by less experienced people; you can probably earn more than it costs or relax in the time this frees up.
  10. I am regularly thanked for making this final time saving recommendation to accountants. Download shortkeys (for PCs) or typinator (for macs) to save you having to retype the same paras of text time after time. Both facilities provide a quasi permanent clipboard that you can access from any application with just a couple of key presses.

What timesaving tips work for you? I’d love to see some more examples here.

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Are fees all that matters?

There used to be a commonly held perception that the drive and focus of a firm of accountants is solely reliant upon the fees the partners generate. As long as everybody focused on fees, all will be well. Of course there is much more to building a successful firm than this.

This old perception is still commonly endorsed however by the traditional way that firms operate. It is a truism that a firm will get the behaviour that it is seen to record, to report and to reward.

This common focus on fees therefore follows because most attention is commonly directed to:

  • Recording chargeable time and fees billed;
  • Reporting new client wins and forecast fees that will flow therefrom; and
  • Rewarding the highest billers and best fee winners.

Of course increased fees are essential to the future of any professional services firm.But the future of a firm, of its reputation, of it’s attractiveness to the next generation of partners and of its credibility with its stakeholders, depends on much more than the fees generated each year.

What else gets recorded, reported and rewarded in your practice?

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How naturally good are you at what you do?

Some people assume that all of the important non-technical skills evidenced by successful accountants and partners can be developed merely by working alongside experienced colleagues.

A common view is that some people are naturally ‘good’ at things as though their experiences, background and training were irrelevant. Thus no more formal training is necessary. Older partners didn’t have such training. Anyone who needs training or support in ‘soft’ skills is not worthy of becoming a full equity partner.  Is this true actually?

Many people believe that these skills develop over time and that no support or assistance is required.They repeat the old mantra ‘Practice makes perfect’. Yet this is very misleading. ‘Practice’ alone doesn’t make ‘perfect’.‘Practice’ makes ‘permanent’. And this is not always a good thing.

If you develop bad driving habits and practice driving, you won’t become a better driver. You will merely reinforce your bad driving habits. Equally we have probably all experienced at least one senior professional who is an unpleasant selfish bully. They practiced their approach and ‘perfected’ it. But no one would suggest that such an approach is ideal.

If you’re not naturally brilliant at something do you give up or take more lessons?  Or are you good enough? Does everyone else agree with 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 stand out and speed up their success. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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Making the 80:20 rule work for you

Although many people have heard of this ‘rule’ very few accountants consciously think about how applying the rule could help them and their clients.

The 80:20 rule is also known as the ‘Pareto principle’, the ‘law of the vital few’ and the ‘principle of factor sparsity’. Simply stated, the idea is that for many events, 80% of the effect comes from 20% of the causes. Another way of putting this is that 20% of what businesses (and individuals) do generates about 80% positive results. The percentages are not fixed; they are simply indicative of the fact that when you examine what is going on in your life, you will often find that a small proportion of your activities have a disporportionate impact as compared with all of the others.

I first read the seminal book by Richard Koch, (“The 80 20 principle“) in 1996. This explains how we might benefit from recognising how often this counter-intuitive principle impacts our business lives. I often return to the book for inspiration. Equally I often raise the idea in my talks and during mentoring sessions.  Essentially about 80% of what you or your practice does is unimportant or a waste of time. The key is to figure out what’s really important or produces the most positive results and do it.

How might ambitious accountants apply this principle?

  • Identify those 20% of clients who generate 80% of the firm’s profits (or of the partner’s contribution) and focus attention on them rather than on the 80% of clients that take most time but only contribute about 20% of the profits;
  • Allocate more resources to those 20% of your activities that generate the highest margin, rather than the 80% of activities that contribute much less – and take more time;
  • Focus on those (20%) Networking activities that you most enjoy and which have the most prospect of generating worthwhile referrals, and stop wasting time by attending the others (80%);
  • Devote more time to reading the 20% of accounting and tax news that is immediately useful and relevant as compared to the 80% of magazines, papers, emails and website feeds that are simply ‘interesting’;**
  • Keep in mind the idea that there is often a ‘vital few’ as compared with the ‘trvial many’;
  • Help clients to appreciate the importance of the concept to their own businesses.

** NB: It was partly this idea that led us to develop the weekly newsletter published by the Tax Advice Network. It simply contains timely, practical and commercial advice re at least 3 key points of immediate relevance and interest to accountants in general practice. No wonder so many subscribers renew year after year. Try it now for 4 weeks – no charge – to see what you’re missing.

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