How to build your personal brand

What do people say about you when you’re not in the room? What would you like them to say?

Few accountants seem to think this through. If you are clear about what you want people to say though you are likely to find success a lot faster than anyone who is ‘just another’ accountant.

There are two elements to consider here. What do you want people to say about:

  • what you do (as an accountant)? and, separately
  • you as a person?

I addressed the first question in a recent blog post. That second question though is especially tough. You need to be somewhat self aware and self analytical to address this successfully.

For example, do you want to be remembered as a thoughtful person who listens to others? Or as someone who is self-absorbed and who talks at people without really taking any notice of what they say?

Do you know how you come across? Or what people currently say about you?

We each create an impression by what we say, how we say it and how we react to other people. This is true of face to face encounters but also of our online engagements on social media and Linkedin. It can be instructive to reflect on the way that other people will remember us.

These memories that other people hold become our personal brand. And if it’s not what we want it to be then it’s upto us to change things.

Going back to the first of the two questions, you also want to provide some clarity about your role as an accountant. People need to know your areas of expertise and of specialism. I have said it before and I will no doubt say it again, you are different to all the other accountants out there. You are You. You have your past experiences and interests to draw on. If you make no effort to distinguish yourself, you will struggle longer than those accountants who are memorable and distinct.

We have all heard the old phrase: ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. The implication being that to be successful, you need to accept that your knowledge and skills are less useful and less important than your network of personal contacts.

I think that old phrase is no longer correct. The truth is that these days, It’s BOTH what you know and who you know. And who knows you. And, this is crucial, What they say about you*.  YOU can determine this by how you behave and by what you say both in real life and online. Take control and build your personal brand to be more successful than those who leave it to chance.

* My friend, Andy Lopata, stresses this point in many of his presentations.

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25 reasons people change their accountants

The following list is a salutary lesson in what not to do if you want to keep your clients.

I have collated these points from various ideas found around the web. Such lists are normally aimed at encouraging clients of one accountant to move to another one.  I thought it would be instructive to consider the same points from the perspective of an accountant.

Some of what follows will be facts. Some will be feelings and some will be false. But, even in the latter case, as I have often said: Perception is Reality. If any of your clients think of you as boring or uninterested you may well be at risk of them being poached by a more stand out and successful accountant.

You are at risk of clients being tempted away if:

  1. Their phone calls are not returned promptly
  2. Promises, expectations and agreed deadlines not met.
  3. Their work is not completed on a timely basis affording clients practically no time to make changes or ask questions.
  4. You are providing poor value for money.
  5. You are not evidently trying to help them to pay less tax.
  6. You are not providing what they perceive to be a proactive service.
  7. You make mistakes or have to accept there is a better solution when clients question your advice.
  8. They have unexpected tax liabilities
  9. They get charged penalties and interest charges about which you had not forewarned them
  10. You charge unexpected or additional fees without warning clients of these in advance.
  11. You seem to lack sufficient relevant technical knowledge.
  12. Your resources are limited such that clients don’t feel they are getting prompt attention.
  13. You are only really in contact with them once a year.
  14. Their business has out-grown you and the resources you are able to muster.
  15. They perceive that you are more interested in last year’s accounts than planning for the future.
  16. You rarely talk about ways to help them increase their profits.
  17. You have not discussed (in recent years) their exit plans – for selling the business or retirement.
  18. You never call them to enquire “How’s business?”
  19. You never ask them tough business questions.
  20. They perceive that you use too much jargon such they they find it difficult to understand you.
  21. They feel that they never know what you will charge them
  22. You don’t explain your ideas, preferring instead to act “the expert”, and expecting them to find enjoyment and value in listening to you pontificate.
  23. They perceive you to routinely say “no” rather than listening to what they want to do.
  24. They perceive that you don’t attempt to formulate ideas to help them reach their true goals.
  25. They perceive that you only talk numbers and taxes, nothing else. Clients feel absolutely no chemistry or rapport with you.

I doubt that all clients would have the same perceptions.  But if you think about that subset of your client base who may be unhappy you can at least start to turn things around with them. The actions to take are implicit in the above list.

The bottom line is to help ensure that clients recognise that you are interested in them, that you care about them and that you are helping them. Any client that perceives you to do be doing those 3 things will see you as a standout accountant. And that will help you to become more successful too.


Lifetime achievement award for Robert Maas

I was thrilled to be seated with Robert when he was announced as the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Taxation Awards ceremony last night. I am proud to count him as a friend and as one of my tax mentors.

In the light of last night’s award I think it appropriate to share my own thanks and admiration for Robert. Here is a man who really stands out in my eyes.

Whilst I no longer give tax advice I did initially start my career in tax shortly after qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1982. Robert was already well known and respected in the tax world even then. I believe he started in tax in 1965, the year that Corporation Tax and CGT were first introduced. It is also almost 50 years ago!

Some years later I think I met Robert at a conference. I assume I must have already started writing on tax matters as Robert recognised my name. He encouraged me to join the London Society of Chartered Accountants Tax Committee. Robert was the Chairman at the time. I was so proud and thrilled to be invited. In time I became Vice-Chairman of the Committee. Robert also then encouraged me to join the ICAEW Tax Faculty Committee, which in turn then led to me being invited to stand for election as Vice Chairman and then Deputy Chairman of the Faculty.

I benefitted from working with Robert on various Institute committees over the years including the ICAEW Tax Technical Committee, the Personal Tax and Finance Committee and the main Faculty Committee. I think I also provided a little support when he initiated the Faculty’s Younger members’ Tax Club and also the Faculty’s Tax Investigations Committee. Over the years Robert has kindly invited me to speak to various groups of which he is the prime mover. It is also due to this chain of events that he started which led to me recently being appointed Chairman of the ICAEW Ethics Advisory Committee.

In 2001 when I left BDO I seriously considered moving out of the tax world. I remember Robert, on hearing me suggest this after the CTA Address that year, taking me for a drink and persuading me to stick with it. He complimented my communication skills and said my departure would be a loss for the Tax World. I always thought he was exaggerating but I took his advice and this also allowed me to then go on to be Chairman of the Tax Faculty from 2003-2005. In the end I stayed active as a tax adviser until 2006 when I finally gave in and concluded that my brain just isn’t big enough.

During one of my talks (at least) I quote Robert. He taught me long ago that there is no shame in admitting you don’t know the answer to a tax question or problem. Despite his general reluctance to accept how highly regarded he is, he did tell me once that he couldn’t understand how any general practitioners could cope without ever engaging tax specialists. “If I have to stop and check with someone else every now and then, how much more likely is it that someone less experienced should need to do the same and more often?”

Robert is a giant in the tax world. But he is also a very unassuming man. Nevertheless I am aware that there are many other tax practitioners who have been influenced by Robert during their careers. Whether by attending one of his lectures, reading one of his books or articles or through his personal encouragement to join a committee. Many more people have been influenced by Robert than probably even he knows.

I recall attending Robert’s 65th birthday party some years ago – I have lost track of how many. I was so touched and proud to be invited. More recently Robert has taken up blogging. He loves tax and although he is still in practice at Blackstone Franks, he continues to write regular articles for the professional press. But if no one wants to publish what he has written he posts it on his blog – ‘Two cheers for the Chancellor’. This now has over 130 insightful and educational pieces on it and is well worth reading. Robert has also taken to LinkedIn but is reluctant to connect with anyone there he doesn’t know.

I don’t imagine Robert will ever retire. For now though his unswerving commitment to the tax profession has been recognised and rightly so. The announcement last night was met with a standing ovation. Robert is well-loved and much respected – with good reason.


What makes you or your firm stand out?

I’m often struck by the difficulty many accountants have when trying to identify what’s special about them or their firm. When asked, almost everyone uses the same adjectives, the same aspirational service levels and the same so-called distinguishing features. What’s really special? What really makes you stand out and memorable?

Not a lot, it would seem.

Do you use variations on any of the following to describe how your firm stands out?

  • We provide a partner-led service
  • We don’t just prepare your accounts and tax returns
  • We aim to be your long-term business partners
  • We avoid surprise fees
  • We specialise in helping SME businesses
  • We keep in touch with you throughout the year

Good, good. But what’s really memorable, special and different  about your firm? Why should a prospective client who is comparing you or your firm with another one choose you? In what ways do you or your firm stand out as different to the other options? By ‘different’, I mean in what ways will a client benefit more from working with you than with any of the other accountants out there?

If you haven’t thought about this you should do – assuming you want to win more clients.  And you can only do this if you know what the competition are claiming make them memorable, special and different. Do you?

This is also a critical issue when networking. How easy do you make it for the people you meet to act as your advocate? Even if they like you and want to help you, what do you expect them to say? “I know this ‘great’ accountant” or “I know this ‘great’ employment lawyer” or whatever. What can they say to evidence what makes you ‘great’? What makes you stand out? What would you want them to say about you? How do they know this?

Few accountants or other professionals have thought about HOW they market themselves, WHAT messages they project and WHY anyone else should recommend them. Too many focus simply on an ‘elevator’ type statement that simply sets out what they do and who they do it for. It’s a start, but’s not enough.

Do share your thoughts below as comments or get in touch direct to let me know what makes you standout from the crowd.


Are accountants the new bogeymen?

Were you as angry as I was at the headlines and media focus on a clearly misguided element of the latest report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC)?

Committee chairman Margaret Hodge said accountants seconded to government represented a “ridiculous conflict of interest” that should be ended. She had clearly made up her mind based on no real evidence and was determined to use her position to grab a few more headlines and to make sure accountants become the new bogeymen (sorry – I cannot find a gender neutral word).

Hodge referenced just ONE (non) example to justify her sweeping criticisms. Despite the paucity of her arguments the media is gleefully repeating Hodge’s criticism of all the Big 4 firms and, implicitly, accountants in general. Re Hodge’s single ‘proof’, what really happened I suspect is this:

The last LABOUR Gov’t wanted to introduce a tax relief to reduce taxes for those who qualify for the patent box regime. To ensure the relief worked as intended they sought outside help (from KPMG). Could have been any of the Big 4.

Once the law was introduced, KPMG (and all the others) then helped promote the concept so that the regime (introduced by LABOUR) would be a success. There were no loopholes to exploit. The advice given to clients was to ensure they could benefit from the new regime – as the Government intended.

I listened to Mrs Hodge being interviewed on the Today programme on Friday and was frustrated by her outrageous slurs on our profession. The Treasury also disagreed with the criticisms saying the PAC’s analysis and conclusions:

“bear almost no resemblance to the reality of what government is doing or what is happening. In particular, as a matter of principle, the suggestion that government shouldn’t work with business, and indeed anyone affected by its policies, is totally absurd.”

Treasury Minister, David Gauke, was also critical of the report, saying:

“The idea that we shouldn’t make use of private sector expertise in developing a tax system that would bring investment and development to the UK is absurd. They’re not going out to advise clients on how to dodge the legislation, they’re going out to advise clients on how to abide by the legislation.”

As the FT noted, also critical of the ill-informed PAC report were ICAEW, CIOT and the trade union that represents senior staff at HMRC (The Association of Revenue and Customs). But of course most of the media have chosen to ignore such criticisms. They seem to like having someone new to criticise even if the facts do not support this. The media have got fed up of criticising MPs and the bankers.  I fear that accountants are to be identified as the new bogeymen. What do you think and what can we do about it?

ps: The other thing that worries me is that I know how biased and inaccurate Hodge and the PAC are on this matter. It makes me very cynical as to the reliability of other reports produced by the PAC and, indeed any Parliamentary committee. If this one can be so far off the mark, it’s likely that others are too. How much reliance should be placed on any of them?

Some of the recent headlines:


Why consistency is important on social media

Most accountants who become active on social media do so in the hope of attracting more clients.

If this is your intention or you want to evidence your credibility, I suggest that you adopt a consistent business focus across your websites, blogs, online networking and contributions to business forums. It also helps to show that you’re a real person with more to your life than accountancy and tax – although you should try to avoid a situation where there are conflicting views of who you are and what you do – as this causes confusion.  I know. I confuse people!

Careless status updates and tweets can damage your reputation if they suggest a very different level of activity and focus as distinct from your website.

  • One accountant claiming to have quickly established a busy practice routinely posts status updates that suggest he has very little work and perhaps is not the start-up success he claims to be.
  • Another accountant tries to use Twitter to highlight his expertise as a tax adviser. This might have been a good idea, except that his website highlights his expertise is only in the area of corporate finance. In practice he is simply using an automated tool (badly) to promote his services. He doesn’t engage online and is only tweeting ‘adverts’. This is generally regarded as a pointless tactic – whether on twitter, Linkedin, on business forums or on blogs.

These are just two examples from many I have noted online. Please share any others that you have seen or that you would like to warn readers about.

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6 key factors that can determine your success

I recently watched an old video clip of the professional services firm guru, David Maister, in which he highlights the six most scarce resources in most professional service firms:

  • Energy
  • Excitement
  • Enthusiasm
  • Determination
  • Passion
  • Ambition

David also points out that his research has proved that the top achieving firms are those that energise, excite and enthuse their people to perform at a higher level than their competitors.  I can echo this based on my own experience and observations over the years.

Those who’ve worked with me will also know that the listed resources are all qualities that I possess in abundance. I have no doubt that they helped me reach the top of my career more so than any technical skills or technical knowledge that I developed over the years.

Would your colleagues and clients use all or indeed any of these words to describe you or your firm? If there’s a mismatch as between how others see you and how you want to be seen you will need to do something to close the perception gap. If you do nothing then nothing will change.

What other factors do you think can determine your success?

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Protecting the title ‘accountant’ would be counter-productive

Although qualified accountants are aware that anyone can call themselves an ‘accountant’ I find that very few ‘real’ people appreciate this fact. They tend to assume accountants are like dentists, doctors and solicitors. If only that were the case!

It is precisely because of this confusion that various groups of accountants campaign to secure protection of the description ‘accountant’.  The arguments in favour of this are made strongly, vociferously and repeatedly.  And, I suggest, short-sightedly. The proponents seem unaware of the wider consequences that a successful campaign would bring.

My alternative view is borne of many discussions with members of the public in connection with the Tax Advice Network. I quickly realised that that most non-accountants assume that all accountants are tax advisers as the words are thought to be synonymous.

Leaving aside company directors, why does anyone typically appoint an accountant? Is their main concern to have a decent set of accounts? Or are most people more interested in obtaining help and advice as regards their tax returns and tax planning? Private investors, the retired and many other clients do not even have accounts in the conventional sense. Yet still the majority of such taxpayers turn to accountants for help. With apologies to the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT), the concept of a ‘Chartered Tax Adviser’(CTA) as distinct from an ‘Accountant’ has yet to enter the public consciousness.

I cannot imagine that members of the CIOT would want or ever agree to describe themselves as ‘accountants’.  Equally there would be an uproar if CTAs were precluded from completing tax returns and advising on tax matters.  There’s also the Association of Tax Technicians (ATT) which has just celebrated its 21st birthday. They would be equally disenfranchised. No one is arguing that they should call themselves accountants. But equally no one is arguing to restrict use of the term ‘tax adviser’.

So what would happen if only qualified members of approved accountancy bodies could call themselves ‘accountants’?

Quite simply, unqualified accountants would promote their services (more accurately) as ‘Tax Advisers’. The public would then quickly become much more familiar with the distinction between an Accountant and a Tax Adviser. And given the choice between going to a specialist in preparing accounts or one specialised in advising on tax, which will they choose to appoint?

I am convinced therefore that if the campaign to ‘protect’ use of the title ‘Accountant’ were ever to be successful, it would be largely counter-productive. Unless, at the same time, the term ‘Tax Adviser’ was restricted such that it could only be adopted by those who are members of an approved accountancy, tax or legal body. And that’s even less likely to happen than restricting who can claim to be an Accountant.

Simply stopping unqualified accountants preparing accounts etc would not prevent them working on tax returns and giving tax advice.  Limiting use of the term of ‘Accountant’ would lead to an inevitable increase in understanding as to the differences between accountants and tax advisers  And if that happens I fear that qualified accountants would lose more than they gain.

What do you think?

This is an updated version of a piece I posted on this blog in July 2008.


Some trusted advisers shouldn’t be trusted

In a recent posting I highlighted some of the scenarios that suggest that an adviser has not achieved the level of trust that we tend to seek from our clients. I have also written about what it means to be a ‘Trusted adviser’ and that just because an adviser is trusted by clients doesn’t automatically mean that the trust is justified.

The adviser may not have sufficient knowledge to give reliable advice on the matter at hand. If he or she goes ahead however the client may still feel able to rely on it as they are unaware that the accountant is either naïve, lazy or out to deceive.

  • Perhaps they give advice in good faith but have insufficient knowledge or expertise to realise that the advice is wrong, incomplete or inappropriate;
  • Perhaps they hope the advice is ok even though they haven’t checked; or
  • Perhaps they are out to deceive in that they know they don’t know the answer but seek to convince the client that they do and that their waffle is good advice.

In all 3 scenarios the client may be unaware that the adviser should not be trusted.

The motivations are different in each case. Which is worst do you think and which is the most common?

Some years back I recall discussing two tax managers with a fellow partner in the accountancy firm where I worked. He was a general practitioner and evidently favoured one manager over the other. He told me why:

‘Rosie’ never seemed confident of the tax advice she gave him. She always wanted to double check it with someone else. He preferred ‘Cathy’ as she always provided him with definitive advice and never insisted on ‘wasting time’ getting confirmation.

I told him that I would prefer to rely on ‘Rosie’ any day. She knew what she didn’t know. She was neither naïve, lazy or out to deceive. ‘Cathy’ on the other hand evidently wanted to please the partner but I knew she did not have the experience or expertise to always have the right answers.

Some months later my partner thanked me for opening his eyes. He had been checking up on ‘Cathy’ and found that her advice was not always reliable. Several mistakes and problems had come to light. She had attempted to explain them away but on reflection he knew that they were a function of her over eager attempts to give advice and to appear to be more knowledgeable than was the case.

If this had only happened once or twice he might have thought her simply naïve. She had attempted to cover her tracks – in a further effort to deceive.

She left the firm shortly afterwards.

If your colleagues can’t trust you why should your clients?

* Names changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty!)