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 or learning ‘on the job’ , through experience.

Another 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 and long established sole practitioners didn’t have such training. Anyone who needs training or support in ‘soft’ skills is not worthy of progression – of running a successful practice or 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 more and more, you won’t automatically 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. And I have certainly met many sole practitioner accountants who haven’t achieved the success they deserve. Typically this seems to be because they have adopted the ‘practice makes perfect’ philosophy. 

If you’re not naturally brilliant at something you need to be able to do well, do you give up or take more lessons?

Are you as successful as you deserve to be? Could anything be better in your practice? Will things change by themselves or do YOU need to do something different to bring about that change? And can you do it all by yourself? If so, why haven’t you done it already? Not enough time? Or is it not a sufficient priority? Or maybe you would benefit from some outside stimulus to support your endeavours. 


Lessons for accountants from…..personal trainers

When someone decides they want to get fit they could choose the DIY route at a gym or they can engage a personal trainer.

The trainer will ask if the client has has had a trainer before. If so, what did the client like about the exercises, the fitness regime, the advice they received and the way they were treated? The trainer will also listen to what the client wishes to achieve.

The trainer, who is a expert, will indicate what’s realistic and what is not. They will set out the pre-requisites of success and may refuse to take on the client if they have unrealistic ambitions. If the trainer feels they can work with the client there may be occasions when they push the client beyond their comfort point in pursuit of the goal. And clients are willing to pay for this because they know that they will be fitter and healthier as a result.

I wonder if there are any lessons here for accountants and their clients? How about finding out what they liked and didn’t like about their previous accountant? What does the client want to achieve through the appointment of the new accountant? What are they like in producing all of the information necessary to complete accounts and tax returns?

I rarely hear of accountants pushing their clients to provide the necessary information in good time. Actually that’s not strictly true. The accountants tell me that they do chase up. They send emails, letters and maybe phone. But they only REALLY insist when the relevant deadlines are looming. Until then they leave the client in control. They let the client stay flabby, slow and unfit – as regards their financial/tax situation.

Not everyone wants a tough personal trainer. And I’ve no doubt that some trainers crack the whip, so to speak, less than others. But if you’re paying for a personal trainer you want them to help you get fit and healthy. It’s no good turning up at the gym a week before christmas and expecting the trainer to sort you out in time for the big party or whatever.

Anyone see an analogy here? What could accountants do to be more like personal trainers? Or do you think this analogy has been over stretched already?


Have you ever written to a client and said ‘Thank you’?

Read this on a business networking forum and thought I should share it here:

This morning I received a letter from my accountants telling me that I had been voted by their staff as one of their clients that it has been most enjoyable working with over the past year; and then thanking me for my part in making their company a ‘great place to work’.

Wow. I felt great this morning! How often does that happen?

I feel this was genuinely meant as well. But the cynic in me did think – that’s very clever marketing for customer retention purposes… but if it is, it worked – so I am still happy and will still pay their fees this year!

For all you other accountants and service providers out there – you may want to try this…

Have you ever written to a client and said ‘thank you’?  What feedback can you share as to the effect it has had?


7 steps to resolving client complaints

Towards the end  of my talk last night on How to Handle Difficult Clients, I summarised a seven step process that I have not previously shared on this blog:

1 Listen to the client They won’t listen to you until you have listened to them.

When their mouths are open, their ears are closed.

2 Offer EMPATHY first.

Do not start with

“It wasn’t my fault”

Make clear that you appreciate their position.

Eg: “I can understand why you must be upset by that.”

Repeat if necessary.

[You are empathising, not sympathising and not agreeing that you, or anyone else, has done something wrong]

3 Ask questions

Upset people tend to start in the middle

Ask questions so that you can get the whole story and are able to understand their problem.
4 Pause Make clear that you’re not offering some ‘pat’ prepared response.  What follows needs to evidence that you have been listening to what they’ve said.
5 Explain what YOU can do for them Outline what YOU can do.

If it’s not what they want, explain your reasons without BLAMING them.

Take responsibility for the follow up action

6 Keep your promise Do whatever you said you would do and ensure that anyone else involves does so too  (as far as you can anyway).

Don’t simply delegate or dump it.

7 Go one step further This makes the difference between quite good service and excellent service.

Contact the client afterwards and ask if they are happy with the solution.

If they pause before saying ‘yes’ – they aren’t really happy. Go through the loop again.


How loyal will your clients be?

Telemarketing companies who focus on securing new clients for accountancy businesses tell me that they have never been busier. And there do seem to be a number of such specialist firms – in addition to the more general telemarketing companies that simply work for accountants as and when engaged to do so.

Some telemarketers are more effective than others. But effective or otherwise they are all calling the same corporate clients – probably including some of yours.  They source targets from local trade lists, Companies House data, Commercial list brokers and anywhere else they can trace key information.

The telemarketers generally offer the people they call tax reviews, to reduce tax bills and to provide a more hands on service. The better ones will find out what the client isn’t currently getting from their accountant and then introduce someone who promises to provide such a service.

Now, to be fair, many accountants who use telemarketing companies complain that the target client was only interested in reducing the fees they pay for accountancy services. And, as such, the introduction secured by the telemarketer was a waste of time.  Leaving such situations aside, on other occasions it often isn’t hard for a newcomer to promise a client more than they are currently getting – more attention, more advice, more reasonable fees and so on.

The question then is: How loyal will your better clients be when they are approached? And it is ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.

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Where smaller firms of accountants are going wrong

Accountancy Age has published a profile piece on Peter Hargreaves (Chartered Accountant and founder of Hargreaves Lansdown).  In it he is quite scathing about certain elements of the profession. None more so than the smaller practitioner:

“They’re not doing a good enough job for clients, hence they can’t charge much for the work. A self-defeating spiral, where pressure on fees is rife from client and competitors.‘The problem is they can’t command the fees to do the job properly. The profession has failed singularly to create the right aura for the charging of fees. They’re different to lawyers, who tend to make good businessmen.”

“The problem is the mindset of accountants. They tend to be ‘mean’ with money, which makes them fear charging. ‘Because there are a few doing it for nearly nothing, the others feel they have to compete, but they’ll give you a bad service. A false economy.”

“Those who want accountants don’t know who’s good, and they try and pay very little.”

“Adding value is the key for practices, instead of just preparing accounts from a ‘bunch of invoices’, because ‘if that’s the service they’re offering they don’t service much for it – and if that’s what the client wants they don’t deserve a good accountant”.

“They should say to clients “we want to be in your offices every three months finding out what’s going on, where you make money, to help financially plan your business. If you make a big profit, should you do something before then, perhaps a marketing promotion and spend it this year while we’re profitable” etc. but of course lots of business don’t even know if they’ve made a profit until the accountants produce the accounts.”

Do you find that insulting or does any of what Peter says strike a chord? It’s pretty much the same sort of message as is offered (a little more gently perhaps) by organisations such as AVN, the 2020 group and Probiz. Please tell me what you think by way of comments on this blog.

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Why bigger isn’t always best

It’s worth sharing  stories I hear about  dissatisfied clients of accountants as there are always lessons that can learned.  Let me be clear this story refers to a friend of mine who has recently gone back to his old accountant.

Why did ‘Harold’ change accountants last year?  He told me:

Believe it or not it really was just a belief that we needed to have an accountant that lived nearby. Our old accountant was good and I guess we also thought the grass might be greener at a big firm because they say all these impressive sounding things like they were going to assign two partners to our account and have quarterly updates which never happened.

So what did happen?

Harold wrote to the big firm as follows:

I am writing to let you know that we wish to return to our old accountants.  We have not been satisfied with the service received by [Your Big Firm].  I appreciate you have always been responsive when we have had queries and you were helpful during our meeting last year.  However, we (and I in particular) need more support and hand-holding than I have received from you.  I’m sure you would like to have some specific examples:

  • We thought we were going to have quarterly meetings to discuss the direction of the businesses
  • We have never had a courtesy call or email from you in over a year, asking how things are or on specific matters
  • The receptionist didn’t know who we were and couldn’t find our contact details when I phoned
  • We missed the tax return date for one of my companies  and we now owe a penalty (our old accountants used to remind us and keep on top of everything)
  • When I called to discuss the VAT registration, you sent me an email even though I wanted to chat through it with someone

I know some of those things may seem trivial to you but they are important to us.  We would feel more comfortable going back to our previous accountants who dealt with us for over five years.  It’s a small firm and we get a more personal service from them.

I am sorry to have to send you this news in the first week of the new year.  I have asked our old accountant to get in touch with you to request the files back.

The reply Harold received was short and sweet:

Your points are noted and I will pass the information to your accountant when I hear from him.

Best wishes for the future.

Lessons?  Was Harold’s experience typical of a larger firm? Were his expectations unrealistic? Had he been spoiled by his old accountant or was it that old level of service that created unrealistic expectations. I know what I think. What about you?


The ABCDE of client service for accountants

Anyone who has heard me speak at seminars or enjoyed my mentoring programme will have heard me refer to the ABCDE of client service.

I was surprised recently to note that in the last 2 and half years I haven’t already blogged about this. But a quick search reveals that to be the case.

I first used it when training staff in practice almost 20 years ago. It’s evolved a little bit in that time but hasn’t required much change.

When I was in practice I explained to my staff that the ABCDE of client service summarised the five things that clients most wanted from their accountant. I encouraged my staff to keep it in mind whenever writing, phoning or meeting with clients. I also used this as a tool to help convince prospective clients that I knew how to look after them.

So here it is:

A = Advice – More than anything clients want Tax Advice.  A is NOT for Answers  – See previous post.

B = Barrier – Clients want us to act as a Barrier between them and HMRC.

C = Compliance – We deal with all of the Compliance paperwork and processes.

D = Dates – We make sure that clients know when they need to do things and when we’ll do things, when tax needs to be paid and when refunds can be expected.

E = Estimates – We provide estimates of the tax payable and repayable and update these as and when the information changes.

I remember playing around some years back and adding further definitions for additional letters (F, G, H etc).  But none stuck and five is about the right number anyway.


Do you just give clients Answers or do you give them Advice?

When you see a Consultant in Harley Street (or the equivalent in Hospitals up and down the country) they will often give you options.  For example: You could try this new drug or you could have this operation.  How do you decide?

My wife’s approach is to turn the conversation around and to ask the Consultant what would they do if they were the patient or if their child/mother was the patient?  In other words she asks for Advice.

The letters that  accountants write to clients often contain a lot of technical information (often far too much in fact).  And if the client has asked questions the letter will contain information intended to answer the questions.  It’s very common for such answers to be in the style of ‘on the one hand, this, and on the other hand, that.’

I used to encourage my staff to check that their letters contained Advice when this was appropriate.  I used to stress that clients don’t just want Answers, they want Advice. So if there were two (or more) possible options, I suggested that our letters should always advice which route to go, which option to take.  This was of course subject to knowing that certain clients would prefer us not to do that. In my experience however most clients wanted Advice and generally did as we advised.

Is being an accountant that different from being a Consultant on Harley Street (when it comes to giving advice on technical matters)?

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Use it or lose it – Your clients’ trust

Accountants are expected and trusted to be good business advisers. This puts them in a good position to advice clients during the current troubled financial times.

I addressed this point recently in a post entitled: Accountants need to show they really are business advisers as we move into recession.

I have now seen reports of another survey that only serves to emphasise this point.

It was carried out by the Forum of Private Business (FPB)  together with commercial credit agency Graydon UK, and questioned 400 small businesses on their individual experiences of seeking financial advice.

The results reveal that 70 per cent of those questioned choose to consult their accountants for this type of advice, compared to only 47 per cent who look to their bank managers as trusted advisers.

The FPB comments on the results stress the declining confidence in banks as sources of financial advice.  My take on this is that the 70% figure above is LOWER than I would have expected. It might be a reflection of the respondents – perhaps only 70% had an accountant.

I make no apologies for restating a point I have been making for some months now.

Your clients trust you as a source of business and financial advice.  Now is the time to prove that such confidence is not misplaced. If you do not help clients through the recession you will lose them – either because they will cease to be in business or because they will move to a pro-active commercial accountant who can help them more than you have tried to do.

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How far do you go?

This was another of the thoughts I had during the workshop that followed an E-business for accountants seminar that I attended. (I’ve already commented on the seminar here and here).

One of the workshop leaders was suggesting that accountants should be more prepared to ‘upskill’ their clients as regards their e-business strategy. I asked whether he meant:

  • To be better able to talk to clients knowledgeably about e-business related subjects and to be able to introduce specialists to help the client with their issues; or
  • To be able to provide billable advice as regards e-business related issues (as distinct from the conventional services that accountants provide).

The point being that accountants want to be provide value to their clients and to be paid for the provision of valuable advice. Some might alternatively say they want to be paid for the time they spend providing valuable advice.

I’m not sure that the speaker had considered the distinction before I explained it. The seminar had been promoted as “a chance to acquire new skills that enable you to advise your clients on their e-business strategy.”

In replying to my question however the speaker made clear that he was referring to the first of those options. That made sense to me – although it was a big step down from the alleged objective for the seminar.

The speaker’s worthy aim was refined as encouraging accountants to assist their clients with e-business related issues and introduce relevant reputable specialists. This makes more sense to me than trying to ensure that accountants are able to provide valuable advice on such matters themselves.

I tend to think that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This is just as relevant in the fast evolving world of e-business as it is in the world of tax which I know so well. (And I recently explained the reasons why I gave up giving tax advice).

I’ve learned a fair amount about many aspects of e-business over the last couple of years – from web marketing to search engine optimisation to the differences between effective website design and website development. And so much more. I’ve put much of this knowledge to good effect in my Tax Advice Network but I know my limitations and take advice from experts – not amateurs.

Still, accountants are often revered for their all round business knowledge. Revered and respected. That puts them in a powerful position and it’s one of the reasons why plenty of those e-business experts want to work with accountants. They believe that you are well placed to make trusted introductions to your clients.

On the tax front it was for similar reasons that I chose accountants as the main target audience for my Tax Advice Network. I know that good accountants know what they don’t know. They are aware of the dangers of going beyond their levels of competence when advising clients on unusual or complex tax issues. And they want to involve trusted, vetted, recommended, commercial and often local tax experts. That’s what we’re all about of course.

Going back to that distinction I drew at the start of this posting. How far do you go?

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How to develop good listening skills

These are so important as ambitious professionals need to be good listeners. We have to listen to our clients, our colleagues, our staff, our partners, our suppliers, our prospects and our prospective clients.

So here are a number of tips that, if practiced, will ensure that you are seen to be a good listener:

  • Stop talking – you cannot listen if you are talking.
  • Put the client at ease – help the speaker to feel they are free to talk.
  • Show the client you want to listen – sound interested.
  • Remove distractions – don’t doodle, tap or shuffle papers. Can you reduce the surrounding noise?
  • Empathise with the client – try to put yourself in the client’s place so that you can see their point of view. First try to understand then try to be understood.
  • Be patient – allow plenty of time. Do not interrupt.
  • Control emotions and temper – an angry person gets the wrong meaning from words. Avoid jumping to the wrong conclusions.
  • Go easy on argument and criticism – this puts the client on the defensive. They may ‘clam up’ or get angry. Do not argue: even if you win, you lose. “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”
  • Ask questions – this encourages the client and shows you are listening. It helps to develop points further.
    Concentrate on what the client is saying – follow the main ideas; sometimes we hear only the examples, stories and statistics. Don’t allow your reactions to distract you from the key concepts.

Nature gave us two ears but only one tongue, which is a gentle hint that we should listen more than we talk. To become better listeners, we must be interested in what others have to say and less preoccupied with ourselves.

Can you think of any more tips to add as comments on this post?

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What do you count as a bad client?

I regularly encourage accountants to ditch their bad clients. There are two primary reasons for this.

– Following the Pareto (80/20) principle, you can be sure that your worst clients (however small the number) cause the bulk of the problems and hassle that you suffer. Conversely, 80% of your profits are probably generated by the top 20% of your clients.  I first commented on this concept last October.

– The complaints from and problems caused by your worst clients are more likely, than your best clients,  to end up as professional negligence claims or reports to your professional body for unprofessional conduct.

What counts as a bad client?

Let’s see if we can create a definitive list.  I’ll start with the examples I share during my talks for accountants.  Readers are encouraged to add their own  suggestions as comments.

On my list would go clients who display 2 or more of the following tendencies:

Before they become clients

  • Evidently expect free advice on the phone;
  • Reluctantly attend a meeting and seek further free advice;
  • Challenge elements of your standard terms and conditions;
  • Resist producing suitable identity verification evidence;
  • Delay signing your engagement letter whilst expecting you to start work;
  • Mentions that they have sued or reported one or more of your predecessors;
  • Resist making any form of up front payment (where this is part of your terms)

After being engaged:

  • Seeks further advice but is unwilling to accept that this will increase your fees;
  • Changes the scope of your work;
  • Resists any increase in your fee to reflect additional work they have requested [nb: I’m assuming that you would notify them of the increase before starting the extra work] ;
  • Appears not to value your time;
  • Insists on ‘gut feel’ advice rather than fully researched advice;
  • Uses buzz words and terms that they evidently don’t really understand;
  • Regularly needs to be chased up to provide information or other responses to your enquiries;
  • Delays production of key documents until the last minute;
  • Does not pay your fees in accordance with your payment terms.

Why you should never simply say: You’re welcome

In my last post I stressed the need to clarify expectations and to avoid over-promising the speed with which you will undertake work for a client.

Let’s take that a stage further. Assume for a moment that you’ve really put yourself out for a client (or indeed for anyone). You’ve pulled out all the stops and the client is really grateful. They tell you how pleased they are and what a great job you’ve done.

What do you say in response?

If you’re like most people you probably say something like: “You’re welcome”, “It’s a pleasure”, “All part of the service”. And in so doing you immediately diminish the VALUE of what you’ve done because you are underplaying the effort involved.  Is that what you want to do?

Next time this happens think about using one of these phrases instead of a simple “you’re welcome”:

  • How kind of you. I really appreciate that because I did work hard on it.
  • That really makes me feel good  as it wasn’t an easy thing to do.
  • That’s great to hear as I did work hard to meet the deadline you set.

In addition to reinforcing the level of service you have provided, responses along these lines also compliment the client (or whoever has thanked you).  So it can really create or enhance a win-win scenario.

What else can you say in such situations?


Why you should never fear asking for feedback

Last month I noted some thoughts about detailed fee quotes and bills for professional work.  The posting was inspired by the service I had received from my garage.  The same is true of today’s blog as the garage owner telephoned me yesterday.  Why?  Just a courtesy call, he said.  I know we did a lot of work on your car last month and I just wanted to check how everything is. 

How do you think that made me feel?  More to the point how would one of your clients feel if you called them just to see how everything is going some time after the completion of a big piece of work?

The worst that can happen is that they’ll say everything is fine. Yup.  That’s the worst that can happen.

What are the other possibilities?   There are only two variations I think:

  1. We’ve hit a snag, we’ve got a problem, we could do with some more help; or
  2. I’m not happy with what you did. 

The first of those is the one you probably want to hear. It means more paid work. You can provide further help to your client.

The ‘complaining’ type response is nothing like as bad as the ‘everything is fine’ reply.  No. I haven’t gone mad. I mean it.

Once you know there’s a problem you have an opportunity to sort it out, to provide further help and to generate some positive goodwill.  If you hadn’t made the call you would have been unaware of how the client felt. You might have mistakenly assumed  that the client was ‘satisfied’ because they hadn’t complained.  You would be unaware that they might well be bad-mouthing you to all and sundry.  Your call may have arrived just in time to avoid them formulating a complaint.

It’s upto you HOW to deal with the problem once you become aware of it.   Many advisers share storied of how they enhanced their reputation with a client because of the way they resolved a problem.    Please share your views by way of comments on this blog.


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!)


How do you REALLY know if your clients are happy?

How many of us really know what our clients think about us? We might assume that clients like us although often when we say that we’re probably focussing more on our favourite clients and assuming that an absence of complaints evidences that clients like us and value the work we are doing. But is that enough? Indeed is it even a reasonable assumption?

In most professional firms success is based to one degree or another on the level of fees that you can generate. This is one of the reasons why a key part of my mentoring programme focuses on the skills required to be an effective ‘finder’ of work. But finding new clients is not the only way to generate more profits. It is also important to look after the relationship with existing clients – to be an effective ‘minder’. In the context of this article I would just highlight two of the four key elements of ‘minding’ clients:

  • Becoming a trusted adviser – understanding how to manage clients so as to encourage the right sort of referrals; and
  • Developing clients – identifying opportunities to encourage clients to instruct the firm re additional profitable services.

Here are some of the tell-tale signs you might be looking for.   What proportion of your clients:

  • Know that they benefit from regular tax saving advice from you?
  • Receive any form of newsletter or emails from you or your firm that evidences your desire to help them pay less tax or to otherwise simplify their tax affairs?
  • Pay their fees promptly and without complaint about the quality of the service?
  • Accept that the level of your fees is fair – or even great value given the advice and service you provide?
  • Ask you for timely advice on related matters (beyond the recurring compliance work)?
  • Willingly pay a fair fee for that additional advice?
  • Praise you in their emails and letters?
  • Genuinely thank you when you speak to them?
  • Say positive things about you, your service and your fees when talking to their friends and associates?
  • Regularly refer you to their friends and associates?

I created this list quickly for an article I have just written. Can you think of anything else that should be there? Please add a comment to this blog or email me your thoughts: Mark* [replace * with @ – it’s my attempt to prevent automated spam]


Do you suffer from premature evaluation?

I’ve mentioned my friend Richard White before. I’ve just read a piece on his blog that reinforces the advice I give in my talk on How to make more profits from your smaller clients. It also relates very closely to this previous posting of mine along similar lines last August. Below I’ve taken Richard’s analogy and adapted it slightly for ambitious professionals.

Imagine being in pain and going to your doctor for some help. Within moments of your arrival the doctor starts telling you, very enthusiastically, how similar your pain is to the previous patient, what is wrong with you and what medicine you need to take.

How would you feel if that happened? Would you trust the doctor? The doctor could be right but you will be more likely to trust their advice if they spent a little time finding out more about your specific pain rather than just making assumptions and talking, talking, talking!

The same is true for ambitious professionals. You need to give your prospects some credit for intelligence. You need to assume that they can tell if you are listening to them or are just interested in flogging them your services.

People do not like being sold to, but they do like to buy. Successful ambitious professionals look to build trust and a long-term relationship by working with human nature rather than against it.

If a prospect feels that you are more interested in selling your services than solving their problems then you are unlikely to gain their confidence or to encourage them to engage you to do more than the bare minimum (if that). Your relationship with the new client will always be vulnerable no matter how likeable you are.

When you meet with a prospective new client they need to feel that your focus is 100% on them and that you are going to give them the right advice for their issues. They like the fact that you have experience but they want you to apply that experience to their specific issues rather than just making assumptions.

In my posting last August I took this idea a stage further and recommended that ambitious professionals could get more favourable feedback from their clients by taking a two-step approach rather than getting straight to the answer right away. This is very similar in concept to the idea of avoiding instant diagnosis. We wouldn’t trust a doctor who operated like that so why should we expect clients to appreciate such an approach?

There is a term for the condition where professionals (or indeed anyone trying to sell their services or products) get very excited and enthusiastically sell all over the place without bothering to take an interest in their prospect’s problems – It’s called ‘Premature Evaluation’ and there is a lot of it about!!!

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You can charge more if you have SEX with your clients

I was speaking at the LSCA Small Practitioners’ 36th annual conference in Cambridge yesterday. The subject matter of my talk was ‘How to make more profits from your smaller clients’. I included in the talk a number of items that have appeared in this blog. Others will follow.

Also on the programme was the founder of PracticeTrack and PracticeWEB, Mark Lloydbottom. I was delighted to meet Mark and to hear him speak for the first time. He particularly caught my attention when he announced from the platform “You can charge more if you have SEX with your clients or if you give your clients SEX”.

I’m sure this idea will resonate with all ambitious professionals so, with Mark’s permission I can explain, as he did, that S.E.X is an acronymn for:

Superior skills;



In essence what Mark was saying, and as I have also been advocating for some time, is that our fees should not be set merely by reference to how much time we have spent dealing with the client’s affairs.

In my talks on related topics I have long stressed that clients are buying our solutions to their problems. We provide our knowledge, skills, experience and service so as to gain our clients’ trust and confidence. If we can do this and help clients to like us too, we stand a good chance of charging more than we would otherwise be able to so do.

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What do your clients want?

Further to yesterday’s blog about Professor Richard Susskind I am keen to highlight another observation he made during his talk. It’s actually a point I have been making for at least five years myself when advising accountants and lawyers on business development related issues.

There is an apocryphal story about a group of newly recruited executives at Black & Decker in the days when they only sold one basic product. They were asked what it was that their customers wanted from them.The standard answer was ‘drills’. “No” they were told. “Our customers want HOLES.”

In a similar vein the great Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to tell his students, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Ambitious professionals need to ensure they focus on the hole in the wall that their clients want. Professor Susskind noted that KPMG’s global mission statement identifies its aim “is to turn knowledge into value for the benefit of its clients, its people and the community”.

The key point for all of us here is that what our clients want are results.They are often indifferent as to how we get them. They will rarely care much about our internal processes and systems.

The next time you meet with a prospective client take a moment to find out what result they are seeking and focus your comments more on how this can be achieved than on how you and your firm operate. You may be surprised at the positive impact this can have.

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How evolved are your professional services?

Listening to Professor Richard Susskind speaking after dinner at the APP AGM last week I was struck by the logic of his predictions for the future of professional services.  There are lessons here for all ambitious professionals.

The Professor, who has long been a highly respected guru as regards the future of the legal profession, outlined the five stages of evolution that professional services are moving through.

First stage: The original bespoke or tailored service that seeks to directly match a client’s circumstances.  The professional works like an artist starting with a blank canvas;

Second stage: This involves the standardisation of the substance and process of the services such that advisers can avoid reinventing the wheel;

Third stage: Involves systemisation through the application of technology which allows advisers to automate some processes;

Fourth stage: Packaging. This will allow clients to drive and access information directly and will reduce the costs of delivery;

Fifth stage: Commoditisation. This will allow clients to access commonplace information and services directly online.

Many older professional advisers attempt to provide all clients with a bespoke service. This is fine if it’s what the client wants but it is inevitably more expensive than any of the evolved approaches to the provision of professional services.

Ambitious professionals would be well advised to ensure that they do not automatically provide a bespoke service to all clients.  Unless you only act for wealthy clients you will find that many of them would be happier paying the lower fees they would associate with an off-the-peg approach.  Beware too of charging bespoke level fees when you provide a standardised, systemised, packaged or commoditised service.  Once the client perceives this is what you are doing you will lose credibility and the justification for your fee levels.

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Good, bad or indifferent?

How do you think the majority of your clients would describe you AND how confident are you of that?

When I ask people to describe their relationship with their accountant I generally receive variations on only 3 basic answers. That is that the relationship is judged to be Good, bad or indifferent.  I would anticipate that the same is true across all professions.

What might we decide the different descriptions generally mean to ambitious professionals?

This implies that things couldn’t be better. Your clients believe that you do what they want, when they want it and for a fee that they consider to be excellent value for money. They are aware that they get pro-active advice and are very happy to recommend you to friends and family.

Your clients feel that they’re putting up with bad service, high fees and/or get little of value. They certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone they know to use you. [How often do your clients give you valuable referrals?]

This is how I would describe those clients who think their adviser is ‘okay’. This might be because you don’t wow the clients with great service nor do you charge high fees or upset the clients.

In my experience a very high proportion of people think their accountant is just ‘okay’. I think that’s sad and it’s one of the reasons that I look to help accountants provide better value to their clients.

How confident are you that your clients think that you are anything other than just ‘okay’?  The fact that they haven’t complained probably indicates that they they don’t think you’;re ‘bad’.  But equally you can’t assume that they think you’re good. Going back to the question I asked at the top of this item,  How do you think the majority of your clients would describe you AND how confident are you of that?

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Getting straight to the answer may not be best

Imagine your client collects all their receipts and asks you as their accountant to produce accounts (if required), a tax return and then to advise how much tax is payable. Alternatively the client may collate the information onto a spreadsheet or into a simple accounts package and then ask you the same question.

What approach do you take to get to the answer?

Most accountants’ go through everything and then come up with the answers. In most cases the accountant will have had to make a choice as to whether various expenses can be offset against the client’s income for tax purposes. Again, in most cases the answers will be obvious, especially after years of experience. Where there is room for doubt the accountant may make an informed guess or may just ask the client to clarify the nature of the expense and the reason they spent spent the money.

To some people that approach sounds fine. It’s certainly all too common. The accountant has used his experience, knowledge and skills to best effect and has avoided taking up much of the client’s time.
There are three problems with this approach though and they contribute to the widespread view that some accountants don’t help their clients save tax:

  1. the accountant’s informed guesses will occasionally be wrong; and
  2. the client has no way of knowing how much the tax bill has been reduced by virtue of the decisions made by the accountant.
  3. The client will assume that the accountant hasn’t tried to reduce the tax bill. If the accountant had tried then surely he/she would have told the client how much he/she had saved them.

Two step
An alternative approach would be for the accountant to reach an initial conclusion re the profits and tax and to communicate this to the client AND to make it clear that “we may be able to reduce the tax bill depending on how we treat a number of items.”

Accountants who follow this second approach can be sure their clients will see them as helping to save tax. Now the odd thing is that the final tax bill may not be any different to the tax calculated by an accountant following the first approach.

Many accountants go the automatic route because it’s faster and because their experience is such that they feel confident that they can make the right informed guesses. As this route is faster they can charge their clients less than if they ‘budget’ for a two-step approach. So at first glance this would seem to be the best approach all round.

But put yourself in the shoes of the client who wants to be confident that their accountant has saved them tax. If you go the automatic route HOW WILL THE CLIENT KNOW WHAT YOU’VE DONE FOR THEM? You must tell clients what you’ve done and how much tax you’ve saved them. It’s too easy to forget and, as a consequence, to lose (or never get) the confidence of a client that you do help them to pay less tax.

It may take a little more time in the first year to dance the two-step but the client will be happier and will be more confident you’ve done your best for them.