“None of my clients want anything more than the basics”

Unlike some commentators, I entirely accept that many accountants have some clients who want nothing more than a basic compliance service.  And that you get very frustrated to be told by consultants that you should offer your clients advisory services. After all,  you know your clients don’t want, cannot afford and will not value such advisory services.

Assuming that to be the case you have a choice. Either:

  1. Accept that over time you MAY struggle to replace the odd client who leaves, dies or retires. Again, I doubt anything will change overnight, so much depends on how much longer you plan to be in practice; or
  2. Start to offer relevant advisory services to those of your clients who might actually appreciate it and be able to afford the additional fees; or
  3. Look to attract new clients who are not the same as your existing clients and who do value advisory services.

Or of course, you could also pursue a combination of the 3 choices.

One of the accountants I work with started by telling me about the problems he was having with many of his clients.

“They’re all legacy clients, have been with me for years and I know they don’t want advice and won’t pay higher fees.”

I asked if he was sure this applied to ALL of his clients. He wasn’t sure. When we talked he realised that he had won a good few new clients in the last couple of years and hadn’t yet explored whether they would be willing pay for commercial business advice. In effect he was still operating like a start-up practice and wasn’t adapting his service to reflect his wider experience and desire to earn higher fees. I shared some tips and tricks he could use to move things forward. And we now speak regularly as he find s this a helpful incentive and support mechanism.

Another accountant (who I don’t work with) approached me as he wanted to increase his fees and offer more business advice to his clients. He then added:

“None of my clients want anything more than the basics”.

He assured me that all of his clients were tight on fees, had pretty simple affairs and earned too little to afford or warrant business advice. He was adamant that nothing I did with other accountants was relevant or would work for him.

I apologised that I could not just wave a magic wand and change his clients’ attitudes. If he knows – with certainty – that none are capable or willing to pay more, then nothing I or anyone else can do will change things. If he wants the profile of his clients to change he will need to take action himself to attract and then bring on board some new clients. He didn’t want to do this.

I sympathised with his position and let him go off to find someone with more patience who would persuade him to change his attitude and approach. I prefer to work with accountants who are prepared to take my advice.  I choose who I work with. As can you.

In an ideal world I wouldn’t have to continually seek out new clients. But I accept this as a necessity given that I want to earn a decent living from my work with accountants. I also only want to work with accountants I like (and who like me).  You can make a similar choice. It’s easier if you are clear what this means and if you make it easy for clients to tell whether you are the right sort of accountant for them.

Do think about what decisions and actions you could take to make sure you’re living in a world with great clients that are a pleasure to work with.

 One action you could take is to develop  your ‘lead generation’ skills. This will mean you have a steady flow of good new prospects approaching you to act for them.  

If you’re in a lead desert with very few leads, you basically have to work with whoever you can get. And, as you’ve seen to date, that means you end up with low fee paying clients who don’t want to pay you for advice they don’t value..

If you have a surplus of leads, and significantly more potential clients than you could work with, then you get to pick and choose. You can focus on clients who are the very best fit for you and who you’re going to enjoy working with.

Simple in theory. But generating lots of high quality leads isn’t easy. For many accountants it’s the hardest part of marketing. That’s why they end up desperately negotiating and bargaining with the few leads they have to persuade them to become clients.

I address these and related points in my emails, webinars and round table groups. And in my blog posts too 😉

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Have you checked your KDIs?

One of the reasons I do what I do is to help accountants win more clients. And one of the ways you can do this is to identify what makes you different to the competition. Yes, the raw service you provide may be the same but this is only part of the story.

Every accountant I have met is different. An individual. We all have different experiences, backgrounds and attitudes. These combine to ensure that clients will get a different service dependent on which accountant they appoint. If this was not the case, clients would never move from one accountant to another other than due to fee issues.  And yet clients do move for other reasons.

During many of my talks and when I’m working with savvy sole practitioners I make the point that most clients want more than just an annual set of accounts and tax return. They also want advice on how to keep their tax bills down, how much tax to pay and to know when it be due. Clients in business often also want business focused advice. Not everyone will pay for this. But that’s a separate issue.

The fact is that every accountant will deliver their advice differently. We all have our own opinions borne of our past experiences. And there are many different ways of providing (and billing) for advice.

This all brings me back to the main point for this blog post. KDI stands for Key Difference Indicators. We’re all familiar with the idea of KPIs – Key Performance Indicators. My aim by referencing KDIs is to encourage accountants to think about what makes them Different to other accountants and then to focus on their KDIs. And, let me stress, I intend KDIs to be identified for individual accountants, not for accountancy firms.  There is quite enough nonsense talked about USPs – as I have highlighted on this blog previously. For example: Stop talking about your USP – it’s the same as other accountants.

By choosing a different set of initials I hope to highlight the benefits of focusing on what makes you (personally) different to other accountants. Yes, this is a variation on my recurring theme of STANDING OUT from your competitors and peers. Normally when I reference this point it is in the context of being better remembered, referred and recommended.

You can use your KDIs however to boost your self confidence when advising clients. And when setting your fee rates. There is no single going rate for most of the work you do. Your approach and your fees are a function of your KDIs.  Have you checked yours?

 

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Why do you let clients bully you?

Each February I hear tales of woe from accountants who have worked late into the night during the weeks leading up to the tax return filing deadline.

Many are resigned to this and some even seem to enjoy the adrenaline rush. Most though resent the late hours and the pressure they feel as the deadline approaches.When I ask why they work such crazy hours they tell me they have no choice. Their clients routinely ignore requests to submit tax return data earlier in the year.

When I ask why they work such crazy hours accountants tell me they have no choice. Apparently their clients routinely ignore requests to submit tax return data earlier in the year.  And the accountant doesn’t want to let their clients down.  This is admirable but it doesn’t change the facts.  I’m sorry to be the one to reveal this to you. You only have yourself to blame if you have loads of client tax returns to complete and file in the days and weeks leading up to the deadline.

I’m sorry. But it’s true. You have a choice. No one is forcing you to continue acting for dilatory clients. No one is forcing you to work late into the night. And no one is forcing you to keep your fees low.  And yes, your fees are too low if dilatory clients pay no more than the prompt ones despite the extra hassle and problems they cause for you. Accountants tell me that late submitted data causes more stress and strain – and probably lowers the quality of service you can provide.

Have you done all that you can to persuade clients to supply their data on a more timely basis? Really? And yet they are not responding positively? If that’s the case then, it seems to me that they are, effectively, bullying you. And you are letting them do this. Would you accept that bullying is an acceptable form of behaviour in any other aspect of your life?  I hope not.

You can choose whether to continue acting for bullies, for those clients who take advantage of your good nature and of your desire to please. Or you can take control. Be professional and firm. Set down the conditions that apply to your service. What can clients expect from you and what do you expect of them? Your fees are clear and transparent. Equally so are the additional fees paid only by dilatory clients. And these additional fees need to be paid before you will do last minute work for them in December and January.

You don’t have to do this of course. You’ve never had to. It’s always been an option though. The alternative is to look ahead to next year and to know that it will be the same as the last one. Again.  If you want things to be different, YOU need to take action and to communicate effectively what will change.  Stop letting clients bully you!

 

 

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Do you offer a service guarantee? I bet you do.

Let’s be realistic. If you did some work for a client but they weren’t happy because you made a big mess of it, would you insist on charging them extra to correct your mistake?

I hope you wouldn’t even consider trying to charge extra to resolve a mistake of your own making.  To my mind this is the start of a service guarantee. And it’s the sort of thing, which, if promised up front, can help generate confidence from prospective clients.

Over the years I’ve often seen references to service guarantees on an increasing number of professional service provider’s websites. I came across one last week and established that it wasn’t unique to the firm in question; Just put yourself in the shoes of a prospective client and consider how effective is the message below. It’s listed on some accountancy firms’ websites as one of the answers to the question ‘Why us?’

Our 100% Risk Free Guarantee…Use our services to help you pay less tax and increase wealth, completely at our risk. Our services are so outstanding there’s a 100% Risk Free Guarantee.

Here it is…

If at any time you are not completely happy withglobal-unlock-guarantee our work please discuss it with us. If we really can’t sort the issue for you then don’t pay for the part you’re not happy with. Ask for it at any time within 30 days of the work and we won’t expect payment. That means…

No small print;

No quibbles;

No questions asked;

No exceptions;

No strings

I think this is very cleverly worded and does put some (but not a lot) of responsibility on the accountant to achieve absolute clarity as regards the services to be provided up front.

How would you feel if a prospective client asked if you were as confident as this in your work? Or why should they choose you over another accountant that offers such a guarantee?

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What do clients pay you for?

Are you one of those accountants in practice, who still charges fees by reference to the time you spend working on a client’s affairs?

Even if you have moved to fixed pricing, menu pricing or value pricing you may still complete timesheets to show how much of your day has been devoted to each different client.

Thinking back to when I was in practice it was many years before I realised that a timesheet may have uses as a management tool but that it did not ‘prove’ how much time had been spent doing anything. It was a guide, nothing more.

After I left practice in 2006 I continued running training courses (very different to the talks I give now) and I asked accountants what they would bill in a variety of situations. The varied answers proved that the timesheet was simply a guide and that the ‘time costs’ that it reveals are rarely the same as the fees billed (or that could be billed).

A quick search online reveals that many accountants websites still assert that “Accountants sell time”. What nonsense. This is a sad misconception. It’s based on a misunderstanding and it’s misleading. Some accountants may try to determine SOME OF their fees by reference to time. They may try to charge fees by reference to their time records but TIME is not generally what accountants sell. If it were then the corollary would be that TIME is what people who want an accountant set out to buy. And they don’t.

In my view accountants sell (or should focus on selling) Trust, Confidence and Peace of Mind. These are 3 of the key qualities, if not THE 3 key qualities, that clients seek when they want to appoint an accountant. If prospective clients do not quickly trust you, have confidence that you will do the necessary, and gain peace of mind that they can rely on you, you will not keep them as clients; indeed they may not appoint you in the first place.

Yes they may have more specific needs – such as to prepare accounts, complete tax returns or resolve issues with HMRC. They don’t really care how long it takes you to provide your services. They just want things done. What do you think clients pay you for?

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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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