Selling tax schemes is NOT a route to riches

I recently blogged about the 5 things accountants can do to make more profits. Selling tax schemes was not on the list. Why not?

Quite simply because the idea is vastly over rated, over hyped and mis-understood. (Typically by non-tax specialists).

There are plenty of people who will tell you that you can generate a good commission whenever you persuade a client to ‘invest’ in a structured tax avoidance scheme. They are right. Such schemes are (usually) legal and fully disclosed to HMRC. So what’s the problem?

Let’s start with the need, for most qualified accountants, to comply with their professional body’s fundamental ethical principles. These include acting with integrity, objectivity and professionalism. Clearly this means only advising on things you understand and being clear that the prospect of commission is not uppermost in your mind when advising clients.  Of itself this does not preclude you from advising clients to consider structured avoidance schemes. But it’s worth bearing in mind in the context of the following points:

  1. Encouraging a client to undertake a structured tax avoidance scheme is much like encouraging them to make a specific investment;
  2. It takes a fair amount of time to get to grips with all of the relevant details of a structured tax avoidance scheme;
  3. HMRC may announce a change in the law at any moment – leading to rushed (and perhaps botched) attempts to revise the scheme by the promoters;
  4. Having committed all that time to learning about the scheme there may be a temptation to persuade someone to ‘invest’ even if they might not otherwise choose to do so;
  5. If, some years later, the scheme is ultimately held not to work the client may sue the accountant for failing to adequately highlight the risks.
  6. Accountants should only promote such schemes if they are confident that they understand ALL of the risks and consequences for their clients;
  7. Accountants who promote such schemes honestly will find that typically only around one in ten clients will proceed once they understand all of the risks;

And it is this last point that explains the principle reason why I say that selling tax schemes is NOT a route to riches. Perhaps things were different ten years ago, before DOTAS, before the Courts adopted a more principled approach to legislative interpretation and before HMRC started to adopt such an aggressive response to tax avoidance schemes.

These days though there is plenty of evidence that when clients are fully appraised of the risks and downsides of schemes, they say things like:

“Now I understand it properly, why would I want to go into a scheme like that?”

And, just as I concluded a few years back, there is a limit as to how much you can charge a client in such circumstances for the time and effort involved in reviewing, checking and advising on the scheme – especially if the client decides not to proceed. This is one of the reasons that promoters pay high commissions. It is partly to compensate for all of the conversations and meetings that do NOT result in a client signing up for the scheme.

If you are focused on generating more profits there are many more productive ways to spend your time than learning enough about tax schemes to be able to promote and sell them to your clients.

I have written more extensively about the risks and downsides of tax avoidance schemes on the TaxBuzz blog.


How to avoid giving free advice to prospects

I’m reminded of the old sex education message: Just say ‘no’!

As professional advisers we are all used to prospective clients seeking free advice. As I’m no longer in practice and as a frequent blogger I have very different perspective now. So here is some free advice from me.  When a stranger/prospect calls you need to set clear parameters. Why give any free advice?

I think the most common reason accountants give themselves is that it helps evidence their credibility, style, approach, knowledge and willingness to help clients.  In reality it is only the accountant themselves who doubts their ability and knowledge. The prospect generally takes all that for granted – after all our adverts or website makes clear we’re an accountant. All accountants know everything don’t they? We know this isn’t the case but prospects assume it is so.  Even more so if theye have been recommended or referred by a third party.

So accountants are generally proving nothing by giving free advice. They can evidence the other key qualities they want to exhibit without giving free technical advice.

I also tend to think that a side benefit of the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) legislation is that it gives accountants a statutory justification for any apparent reluctance to provide answers to technical questions before engaging a new client.  “I’m really sorry Mr Prospect but as a professional adviser I’m precluded by law from giving any advice before we’ve been through the anti-money laundering checks. I know it’s a pain but it’s the law.” The consequence of this will often be that you have engaged the client and secured their agreement to your preferred billing procedures before you give them any valuable advice. So the AML laws do have an upside after all!

Finally I would suggest you establish a process to qualify a prospect or to let them go elsewhere before you waste too much time on them. Initially you may want to qualify out time wasters on the phone. You will also want to determine what you need to cover in an initial meeting.

In many of my seminars I ask accountants if they offer a free initial meeting to prospective clients. Typically the answer is ‘yes’. “How long do you allow for such meetings?” Some put a cap on it. Others say ‘as long as it takes’. I ask the question – “As long as WHAT takes?” It’s not just about getting the prospect to want to appoint you. You need to find out quite early on if they can afford to pay the fees you would want to earn. You also need to determine if this is the sort of person you want to have a client.

Bottom line, I’d suggest you establish a process/checklist (that you will in time commit to memory) to use when you receive such calls in future and indeed when you have an initial meeting with a prospect.


Save time with a travelling meeting room

The bus

This is a first. A friend of mine, Tom Ball, is the brains behind a unique idea that could be of use and interest to many professional firms. Hence the reason I’m blogging about it.

AllABoardroom is a meeting room and bar aboard a customised bus. They removed the seats and put in a proper boardroom for 8 people and a bar – and a fireplace.  It’s an inspired idea and provides an innovative working environment for upto 8 people. A boardroom and an executive bar so you can work together and have fun as you travel.

I think it could work well for small team away days so you can work while you travel to your eventual destination. It can also be used for meetings on the go between clients, meetings with prospects – you take the boardroom to them, touring offices and at an exhibition. I’m sure there are many more uses too.

They’ve got a competition to win a free day for your team. Have a look if the idea intrigues you:


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

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

1 – Draft a business plan

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

2 – Clarify your service offerings

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

3 – Draft a marketing plan

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

4 – Distinguish yourself

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

5 – Consider your pricing and billing strategy

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

6 – Target a niche

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

7 – Clarify the competition

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

8 – Establish commercial processes

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

9 – Keep uptodate

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

10 – Identify reliable technical support

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

What else do you suggest needs to be done?

2017 Edit: A bonus tip

11 – Ensure you have a decent profile on Linkedin.

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


How uptodate are your newsletters?

I was in an accountant’s office recently and was impressed by the range of promotional leaflets and booklets for all of the firm’s different service lines.

The only one I picked up though was their 10 page colour ‘magazine’. It was on the table in reception and looked as if it would be more interesting than the promotional leaflets.  I appreciate that I look at such documents in a different way to the target reader (clients, prospects and referrers) so perhaps my view is not relevant.

The magazine was well laid out and contained some interesting commentary and articles. Full marks? Er, no.

Although the first few pages were still current the tax news was decidedly out of date. And out of the 12 tax and VAT items I counted 5 that had been either been superseded by events or by more recent announcements. And there were 3 others that mentioned relevant dates in July, August or September 2009.

I checked the front cover – This was the summer 2009 issue of the magazine. The winter issue won’t be published until February.

On balance I think that, in this case, the typical reader would not be put off. But the publication schedule strikes me as odd – and indeed risky, especially as regards tax news and advice. Should the firm have removed the magazine from display at Christmas?

If you’re going to publish a regular mag of some sort you either need to ensure it excludes time sensitive material (and for this purpose tax content is invariably time sensitive). Or publish at least 4 times a year – no more than 3m apart. OR, and I think this is probably the most cost effective solution for smaller firms – buy in the magazine, newsletter or content from a third party copywriter or publisher. Ensure it contains your branding and some news on your practice and spend your time on other activities rather than collating, editing and/or writing a newsletter/mag.

What do you think?


Trends that will matter in 2010 – for accountants

I’m not one for making predictions generally. However, for reasons I’ll explain later I’ve set out below a few ‘new’ trends that may have an impact on accountants this year. What do you think?

1 – More clients will be texting communications to their accountants. NB: how do you print off any such instructions if you want to retain an audit trail of evidence? (instant messaging using skype will also become more prevalent but you can print these off, as you can emails;

2 – Increased use of VoIP (principally Skype) in place of telephone;

3 – As many have predicted for years there will be a continuing and growing demand for by clients for more than ‘just’ accounts and tax return services from their accountants each year. Again I’ve been blogging about this for some time too.

4 – More and more accountants will start to experiment with twitter and other online ‘social networking’. Most will make the mistake of using it as a broadcast mechanism and will then stop using it when they find that their approach fails to win them new clients. If you’re tempted or simply curious, I’ve written a series of hints and tips for accountants who want to find out more or to experiment with twitter.

I promised to explain what prompted this blog post.  Quite simply I  found I’d posted, two years ago, a piece under the title: Trends that will matter in 2008 – for accountants. The first 3 trends above are exactly what I prematurely suggested in January 2008. The only new one is the reference to twitter.  On past performance maybe that’s at least 2 years premature too!

What do you think 2010 will bring for accountants?


Review of the blog 2009

This blog has been a labour of love for well over 3 years now and contains in excess of 300 posts. Many have either come from my talks or have been incorporated into my talks and seminars. As 2009 draws to a close, you may be interested to see this personal choice of my posts over the last 12 months.  This has been an interesting review for me as it’s revealed a different way of categorising the subjects I have enjoyed writing about.


My output here dropped significantly as I only managed 60 posts in 2009.  I don’t feel bad about that though as I’ve also written well over 100 pieces for the TaxBuzz blog and posted almost 150 items to the Accountant jokes and fun blog.

Commenting on news items

The year started with me questioning whether it was true that “One in four firms expects to lose clients” and that there would be “A flood of mergers in 2009” I also suggested that Clients WANT more support in these trying times.

Other such posts in 2009 have addressed:

Conventional wisdom

Another theme on the blog this year was to challenge conventional wisdom:

Professional negligence

One of the most popular and frequent talks I’ve presented to groups of accountants over the last few years has been on the risks accountants run and how they can reduce these without tying themselves in knots. Among the related items I’ve posted to the  blog this year have been posts titled:

Face to face networking

The importance of effective networking skills is generally recognised but how do we improve our skills in this area? Here’s a selection of my posts offering tips and advice on this subject in 2009:

Social networking

A year ago I wrote a piece explaining why, in my view, Accountants do not NEED to both with twitter. What I was saying was that accountants need not bother with twitter especially if they think of it as a route to securing new clients. Since then twitter’s popularity has increased and I’ve noted more and more accountants are experimenting with it. As a result I then wrote a number of more positive and helpful pieces which are summarised on the twitter page of this site.

Other related posts this year included:

Top tips

I’ll complete this review of blog posts in 2009 with these reminders of key tips for accountants who are keen to be more productive and more successful:

With all best wishes for the New Year.


Do as you would be done by….

One accountant I know advertises his services using what I think is a pretty good message.

He suggests to recipients of his ad that if they do their own tax return it probably costs them far more than they realise. More in terms of the opportunity cost of their time, the hassle, worry and the prospect of making mistakes.

In other words he’s advocating the reasons to use a professional. And he’s right of course.

On the other hand I noticed the same accountant plans to run his own telemarketing campaign. He may have a good reason for doing this but it seems like a big risk to me.   It seems he’s going to use untrained staff to make calls, using a script/approach that hasn’t been checked by anyone who understands what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to telemarketing.

Perhaps he has had a bad experience with previous attempts using so-called professional telemarketers. Perhaps they did not have the requiste experience, perhaps the offering was wrong, perhaps the follow up was inadequate, perhaps the pre-meeting confirmation with prospects was lacking, perhaps the accountant needs to develop better ‘closing’ skills. There could be all manner of things to tweak or test.

I suspect that the outcome of a DIY approach to telemarketing will probably cost the accountant far more than they realise. More in terms of the opportunity cost of their time, the hassle, worry and the prospect of making mistakes.

Imagine if someone who has had a bad experience with an accountant decided that all accountants were rubbish and decided to attempt to save money and to complete their own tax returns in future…..

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Not all Accountants are business advisers

AccountingWeb recently ran a series of articles about accountants as business advisers. My contribution as Consultant Practice Editor approached the subject from an unusual angle.

There is already plenty of material that seeks to persuade accountants that they need to become better business advisers, and how they could do this.

My article was titled: Do accountants want to be business advisors?

I felt vindicated in my stance both by the comments added by readers and also by the number of times the article was ‘viewed’ – it was consistently running at about 3 times the number of people reading the related piece about ‘How to be a business adviser’.

Here’s an extract:


Although many accountants describe themselves as ‘accountants and business advisers’, I have a suspicion that general practice accountants typically fall into one of four camps when it comes to the provision of business advice to clients:

  • It’s a no go area: The accountant’s business experience is limited and perhaps they don’t feel that confident with the idea of providing business advice.
  • Personal experience: The accountant is willing and able to share their own experiences of business over the years, perhaps drawn in part from working with other clients.
  • What others say: The accountant offers advice based on what they have read in books, magazines and websites and possibly what they recall from their studies and from attending seminars and conferences. However, their level of interest in developing this area of skill is much lower than their desire to keep up to date with technical knowledge.
  • A systemised approach: The accountant has bought into a programme that assists them in adopting a structured approach to the provision of business advice and either they actively promote the service to their clients or they shy away from doing so and quit the programme.

If I were still in practice I’d like to think that I would probably move up the scale into the fourth category above. Others are happier lower down the scale, and that’s fine as long as their clients are not expecting anything more. Time and again I hear business owners complaining that their accountants fail to provide business and tax advice; they simply do the books, produce tax returns and tell the client how much tax to pay.

Only a relatively small number of accountants seem to be willing to experiment with the systemised approach, however there is plenty of pressure on the others to do this or to beef up their approach and provide business advice, as well as to learn how they can get paid for doing so.

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Carry on bumping?

Do you recognise the following quote?

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

It’s from the opening lines of “Winnie-The-Pooh” (by A.A. Milne).

Can you think of anything that you continue to do the same way you have always done it even though a casual observer might have good cause to question that approach and to suggest there might be a better way?

If you run your own practice you may be quite happy with the rate of growth or the lack of it. You may get a raw thrill from going into your office each day and love both what you do and the way your business operates.

Alternatively,  if you are honest with yourself, you may recognise that you are effectively just bumping down the stairs, bump, bump, bump because that is the only way you know to do things.

One mistake I realised I was making recently, thanks to some very valuable feedback, was that I have made it seem that my mentoring programme is only available to people in larger firms. In fact I am happy to mentor sole-practitioners, those running their own smaller practices and also ambitious professionals who work in business or for institutions of one sort or another.  I need to revise my marketing literature to make this clearer. I can’t blame anyone else for my oversight. It was just me, bumping down the stairs. Mind you, my mentoring services are not cheap and I know that some smaller practitioners will not want to invest sufficiently in themselves to engage me.

What about you? Can you think of anything you do that you’re doing the way you’ve always done it even though it may not be the most effective or comfortable ways of doing things? Do you ever take time out, do you ever MAKE time to work ON your business rather than just keep bumping along working IN your business?

If any of this resonates it’s upto you to do something about it.

I’m always happy to have a conversation with ambitious professionals who sense there may be some value in developing a relationship and engaging me as their mentor. Such conversations are always without prejudice and will not always lead onto anything further. We have to like the idea of working with each other, for starters!

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