How do you allow clients to communicate with you?

In the days before email there were only 3 ways that clients could communicate with their accountants. In person, by phone and by letter. Now the list of options is much longer. Do you encourage, tolerate or refuse to accept communications by less conventional methods? How does this impact your client base?

Email is perhaps the most common form of communication these days but some accountants talk about how they are being approached by prospects and by clients using skype, facebook, twitter, whatsapp, text messages and Linkedin.

I’ve been asked whether it’s acceptable to engage with clients and prospects using these platforms.  My answer is simple. ‘Yes’. The key question is whether you come across as professional and appropriate in your communications.  There is also the question as to why have facebook and twitter links on your website if you do not want to encourage communications via these platforms? There’s little point trying to look modern and uptodate if you can’t cope when people choose these facilities to communicate with you.

Ground rules

Moving on, you need to decide whether to allow clients to do whatever they want or if you want to set some ground rules. And you need to decide how to record or keep track of communications across multiple platforms.

My advice depends on how often you get enquiries and questions via less conventional methods. 

You could welcome and embrace such approaches. “I’m flexible and modern and let clients engage with me however they choose. But we do encourage email for substantive conversations and when we provide ‘written’ advice”

Or

You could adopt a different stance and reply to initial enquiries, along the lines: “Many thanks for getting in touch here. I’d love be to discuss your issues on the phone or face to face. 

Please note that we are happy for clients to contact us use by whatever media they choose. However as a professionally qualified accountant I cannot engage with non-clients on platforms like this.”

Social media

If clients want to ‘meet’ via Skype – you need to agree or accept that they may choose to go elsewhere. Skype offers the advantage of face to face communication (over the web) but avoids anyone having to travel to a meeting. This is the same reason that I run monthly webinar meetings for sole practitioner accountants who do not want to travel into London to meet with me regularly.

Like many people I tend to think of facebook as a non-business communication platform – principally for friends, family and fun. However I also know that some accountants have popular business pages on facebook and that prospects and clients may communicate with them on facebook or via messenger.  This is most likely to be the case if your clients are themselves very active on facebook.  Whether you want to encourage or discourage communications via facebook, make this clear on on your facebook page. 

Again, you may have some clients who see you are active on twitter and send you messages there. Or they may have a preference for whatsap or texting. It’s up to you whether to reply in detail (not easy – even via direct messages) or to copy their message then reply to it via email. If you copy their message into your email reply it will be easier for you to keep an audit trail of your communications. Just bear in mind that some clients may check their twitter accounts and texting apps more often than they check their emails. So I’d advise that you always send an acknowledgement back by the same method that the client approached you eg: “Thanks for that. I’m replying in detail by email. Will aim to get you something within in the next few hours, or do you need advice more urgently?”

I would suggest that your emails always reference the platform on which the original query arose (facebook, twitter, Linkedin, whatsapp or elsewhere!)  I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it very frustrating to glance at a new message notification and then to later forget which app I need to review to find it again,

Clients first?

Unless you can afford to alienate the odd client, I think it’s important to allow clients to communicate with you however they choose. So don’t deny them the facility. But you can take control of how you respond. To keep track of the shorter messages, that you don’t confirm by email, you could take screen shots from text, facebook and twitter apps. Then save those photos to relevant client directories or files in the cloud – direct from your phone.

As the number of clients engaging with you in less conventional ways increases, so it’s important to identify the processes and systems you want to have in place to keep track and to retain an audit trail re advice you give clients. This becomes even more important if your advice reflects questions, facts or assumptions you noted via ‘social media’. And you need to ensure that any staff or contractors whom clients communicate with also follow your ground rules.

A more traditional approach would be to tell clients that you only accept instructions and communications by email, letter, phone or in person. I tend to think that approach will not help you to win or to retain clients. But it’s your choice. It’s up to you how you allow clients to communicate with you. If you want more clients of the type who are active users of social media, the more important it is for you to appear flexible and capable of engaging via your clients’ preferred means of communication.

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The 3 key steps to effective promotion of your practice

I have lost track of the number of accountants I see trying (and failing) to use social media to build their brand and to attract new clients.

It’s tempting to try things out and to experiment on social media, as we think of it as being ‘free’. Except that it’s not. It takes time to make it worthwhile. And our time isn’t free. There’s always something else we could be doing. And that other activity could well have more value to us.

Paying someone else to ‘do social media’ for you is equally a waste of money if you haven’t first followed the 3 key steps I summarise below. Wherever, whenever and however you choose to promote your practice, your choice of the media to use is the last of the 3 key steps. You will waste time and money if you focus on the media before clarifying the first two steps.

The 3 steps, in order, are: Market, Message, Media.

Expanding on this:

First identify your Market – who do you want to influence when you promote your practice and your services etc? Who is your intended audience? The more specific you can be the more effective will be your messages and the more influence you are likely to have. This in turn is likely to lead to more clients – of the type you want. Counter-intuitively perhaps, but you’ll invariably do better if you clarify and target a specific market rather than try to promote your wares to anyone and everyone.

When you know WHO you want to influence, then you can clarify your Message. You want to ensure that what your promotions say will resonate with your desired Market/audience.

Then, when you are clear as to your Market and your Message, you can choose the right Media to reach your Market with your Message. This means choosing HOW you are going to get your Message to your target Market. Again, this is much easier if you have clarity as to your Market and it’s not ‘anyone and everyone’.

I see so many accountants experimenting with twitter and then giving up after a few weeks or months. I suspect the majority just jumped on the bandwagon and hoped it would help them to build their brand and identify prospective clients. Such aspirations are rarely fulfilled in practice. Who is your market? Are the local business owners you want to target actually active on twitter? And, if they are, why should they follow you? Is your Message attractive and enticing or simply promotional, occasional and lost in the fast flowing twitter river?

Most of the accountants I work with are more likely to benefit from being active on Linkedin – but even then, only after first clarifying their Market and their Message 😉

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Should I focus on my logo or my face?

Few of us have such a clever brand that we can rely on this or even a logo to secure business.

A brand takes time to establish. A logo may attract interest. But ultimately it is you who will need to engage prospects and win the business for your accountancy practice.

Your photo, personality and personal style are key here.

Most people choose to engage you, or choose not to engage you, as a person, almost regardless of your firm’s branding.

This is why I think it is so important to show who you are on your website and on your social media profiles.

Does your website include:

  • your name,
  • an appropriate, up to date and recognisable photo of you, and
  • talk a little about you?

Does it help visitors to think – yes, I’d like to talk with this person?  Or do you make that most common of mistakes among small accountancy firms: Having an ‘About us’ page that tells people nothing about YOU at all?

A related point is to then make it easy for prospects to get in touch with you. Do you do this or do you just have a generic info@ or admin@ email address on your website?

Why hide who you are? Are your ideal prospects more likely to get in touch and call a generic office number or to try to make contact with a specific person (you)?

Some accountants, typically sole practitioners, start out using their website to imply that their business is more than just them. If you don’t work alone you can include reference to the team on your website. But if it is just you, then referencing a non-existent ‘team’ and pretending to be bigger than you are could damage your credibility. This happens when people find out there’s no substance to your implied assertions that your business is bigger than is actually the case. If you’ve lied about that, can your advice be trusted?

Big brands secure business through the reputation and longevity implied by their well known logos. This isn’t the case for small firms of accountants. And there isn’t enough real upside of building up name awareness of your brand and logo. Much better to show who you are and to ensure you are recognisable when you attend a meeting or event.

Similar points apply to your Linkedin and twitter profiles. Make sure again that there is a recognisable and appropriate photo of you on your profile page rather than just your business logo. On Linkedin and Facebook you can set up separate business pages. Your personal profiles can link to them.

Also, as I always say, Linkedin is an online business network. It’s all about connecting business people, so your logo is not a good substitute for a headshot.

You could have a separate twitter account for your practice – but that would be a waste of time and energy. Instead I strongly urge you to again use your photo and your name rather than your firm’s name or brand. If you already tweet using your business name do at least include your name on your twitter account. This makes it much easier for users to engage with you and more likely that you will attract relevant followers and ‘conversations’. It’s much harder to do this with a ‘corporate’ account than with a personal one. And you can’t expect everyone to check out your ‘business’ twitter profile so they may never notice your name is there.

Back to the question in the title of this blog post. I trust the answer is now obvious?

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The 5 key social media risks to your practice

This post adopts a different approach to usual. In it I share 5 key social media risks and offer pragmatic advice to help you manage the inherent risks.

1 – Posts on behalf of the firm 

The biggest risk here is of boring your intended audience! Social media encourages interaction. This happens less frequently when the posts are not attributable to a specific person.

If you or a social media manager post in the name of the firm, you just want to ensure they don’t give, share or repeat dubious advice. You should give them clear guidance by reference to your firm’s strategy – and this will probably vary across different platforms. I’ve addressed this on previous blog posts.

I would also discourage you from saying “I” in any messages posted in the firm’s name. Will anyone know who “I” is?

2 – What you post yourself

Keep it professional and only give advice in direct personal messages to clients. You probably don’t owe a duty of care to strangers who might see and act on your advice posted on social media. But you want to avoid having to defend any allegations they might make that your advice was wrong.

You also want to avoid getting into public arguments over the advice or views you have shared on social media. Beware of the potential impact on your reputation. Keep it positive if you can.

Over the years I have become used to receiving feedback in respect of advice I share online. I tend to be very careful to avoid giving definitive advice as so much depends on context. This also means that I can generally diffuse any challenges I receive by accepting that another view may be valid in certain circumstances. What I never do is get into public arguments. If someone seems determined to pursue an argument I will allow them to have the last word. I prefer to allow my professional approach to speak for my reputation than my desire to have the last word and, in so doing, to encourage trolls.

You will also want to avoid breaching client confidences, sharing details of client meetings (that identify the client) of the advice you have given them. Remember that some social media platforms tag your messages with your location. So avoid posting anything from a client’s premises (or anywhere nearby) if you don’t want them to be identified.

3 – What staff and colleagues post

The same principles apply here as for your own posts of course. You will want to encourage professional behaviour, for everyone to accept responsibility and to be accountable for what they post online.

I also encourage accountants to consider whether they want everyone in the firm to be consistent in their descriptions and references to the firm, services and the nature of their roles on their social media profiles (especially Linkedin).

4 – What third parties post

More and more people use social media to complain about poor service. Would you want to know if someone is trashing your firm’s reputation?

Fortunately it is less likely to happen if you aren’t a big well known brand. But anyone (including ex-members of staff) could post a message of dissatisfaction about you or your firm. There’s rarely anything you can do to stop this. But you can reduce the impact by considering whether or not to reply in real time. This means reviewing any such references.

You can set up automated alerts to notify you when your firm’s name is referenced online (e.g.: google alerts). You can also set up a standard search on twitter to check every day or so.

If anyone has posted something negative you can then decide if it’s best ignored or if a comment/reply would be appropriate.

5 – Absence of social media policies

The more people there are in your firm the more likely you will want to establish social media policies for staff and partners.

Absence of policies and guidelines make it more difficult to take action if someone does something stupid. The normal employment rules apply as regards the actions you can and cannot take by reference to staff use of social media.

There is little point in just imposing social media policies without discussion. You need everyone to accept that the policies make sense and are practical. If they are onerous, impractical or unreasonable your policies could cause more problems than they solve.

Social media policies should address acceptable and unacceptable behaviour on social media generally. And then specifically: recruitment, bullying, defamation, data protection and privacy.

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How much personality should sole practitioners put into their practice?

I was asked two related questions during a recent interview. This post is drawn from the notes I made before giving my answers on air.

1. With so many businesses competing with each other online, has it become more important to put more personality into your practice?

The smaller your practice the more important it is to allow people to know that it is you who runs it. I am assuming here that you want more clients and that you’re not simply looking to take on those people who want the cheapest possible job.

Your clients know who you are, don’t they? Why hide this from prospects? That’s what you do when you fail to include your name, a photo and something about you (as a person) on your website. It’s really easy to STAND OUT positively from all of your competitors who fail to do this. Let them be the ones who hide behind a business name and brand – with a website that only allows people to contact an unnamed info@ email address.

I’d encourage you to adopt the same logic when you are crafting or updating your Linkedin Profile. (See my free Linkedin Profile Tips here>>>)

And finally on this point, if you’re going to use twitter then ensure you use it in your own name with a photo of YOU. This will be far more effective than tweeting in your firm’s name. Personal twitter accounts always have more engagement and followers than those that operate in the name of small accountancy firms.

The more of your professional personality you show the more you will STAND OUT positively from your competitors who fail to do so.

2. Is there such a thing as too much personality?

I’m sure we’ve all seen people who confuse the idea of evidencing their personality with shouting about their achievements and activities online celebrex cost. This sort of behaviour is a turn-off and rarely helps build a positive reputation or new business leads.

What do you want people to say about you when you’re not there? You want to leave a positive impression whether online or face to face. If you have a larger than life personality that’s fine. It’s not for everyone, but if that’s your style then don’t hold back. Just try to ensure you are aware that some people may find you overpowering and so struggle to build rapport with you. Then  again, maybe you want to attract the sort of people who can relate to and enjoy the company of a larger than life accountant with a big personality. You can’t please all the people all of the time.

Be yourself – be authentic – be consistent. And let people take you for who you are.

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How much of your business comes from social media ?

A research student asked me this question and, after drafting a short reply, I have now expanded my response as it may be of wider interest:

“As regards how much of my business comes from social media, forgive me but the question is too simplistic. Social media is never a source of business for me. BUT it does help people to find me, helps them to start engaging with me and may help them to realise I can do something for them of which they weren’t previously aware. But NO ONE gets in touch to book me or engage me solely because of what they see on social media (at least not yet).

It is rare for anyone to do what you have done – that is to contact me via twitter to ask permission to send me an email. I commend you for this approach though. It STANDS OUT and made sure I spotted your email when it arrived. Well done.”

I was intending to stop there but have now added a more comprehensive reply below:

I often make the point that it can be misleading to lump all social media sites together. So let me answer you by reference to each of the sites where I am active. (This ties back to my blog post last year about how I manage my time on social media each week)

Business online networks

LinkedIn

I believe Linkedin is quite distinct from the social media sites identified below. My profile here, my extensive connections, the dozens of recommendations of my services and the hundreds of endorsements of my skills, hopefully evidence my credibility. Yes, this does sometimes lead to me being approached to speak at conferences and at in-house events in professional firms.

More often though my Linkedin profile and activity are simply contributory factors that result in me being booked as a speaker at events for professional advisers. Other factors include my website, the ease with which I can be found online and word of mouth referrals and recommendations.

I always try to ascertain what prompted someone to approach me to speak. No one has yet said ‘Linkedin’. But I do not dismiss it – for the reasons noted above. I am confident that it contributes to confirming my credibility and abilities to people who don’t know me. It also reminds those who already know me of what I could do for them.

Social Media

Facebook

Although I have a facebook business page I do not consider it a source of business, any more than my facebook account generally. I still see the site as being largely for fun, family and friends rather than for business generation.

Having said that I am an active and helpful member of a popular facebook group to which many members of the Professional Speaking Association contribute. My activity here is a way of helping my peers and of keeping my profile high within the speaking community. Occasionally others will recommend me for speaking gigs; I suspect this would be less likely if I wasn’t so helpful and high profile.

Google+

It’s never grabbed me and recent developments vindicate my longstanding advice to ignore it. Whilst I note that other users seem to continually add me to circles and to ‘follow’ me on this site, I don’t anticipate it ever being a source of work – even indirectly.

Pinterest and Instagram

I spend no time on either platform. I doubt any of my business prospects are active here or would be likely to engage with me here.

YouTube channel

My YouTube channel BookMarkLee doesn’t yet have enough high quality video to offer much in the way of a positive impact on my business development activities. I continue to win work despite the absence of a speaker showreel type video. I like to think this is due to my longevity, extensive connections and a positive reputation generally. Equally I may be missing out big time and it could transform the impact of YouTube on my speaking business.

Again, no one has referenced seeing my YouTube channel as a catalyst for booking me to speak. Conversely, I do sometimes create promo videos to help attract audiences when I am speaking at open/public events, I hope they are helpful in this regard but have never asked an audience how many saw the video or booked as a result.

Micro-blogging

Twitter

As is evident to anyone who follows me here I enjoy twitter and am very active. I hope my enthusiasm to help and contribute rather than to constantly ‘sell’ is apparent. I feel I must be doing something right as my follower numbers continue to rise and are more than ten times the number of people I follow. In other words I’m not generating followers by following thousands of people and hoping they will follow me back.

Does any of my business come from twitter? I like to think my activity here contributes to my online reputation. It certainly contributes to my klout score (79 out of 100 – about the highest online influence score you can have as a non-celebrity). This in turn leads to me being highly ranked in various charts of top online influencers, eg by ICAEW, economia, suppliers to the financial services profession and speakers’ power list.

I’d like to think that such rankings will, in time, lead to more bookings.

For now twitter is more a source of leads for my online products and related services for sole practitioner accountants.

How much of YOUR business comes from social media?

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My social media journey

After being ranked in the top 3 of online influencers by the ICAEW I was recently interviewed about my social media journey. The following extracts may be of interest.

When and why did you start using social media?

It was 2006 when I first registered on Ecademy.com This business focused online networking site predated Linkedin but ran out of money and is no more. Through Ecademy I was introduced to twitter and Linkedin.

Which platforms do you use, and for what?

Over the years I have written a number of blog posts which show how I manage my time across various social media platforms. The last such blog post was in May 2015>>>

Currently I would summarise my use as follows:

Linkedin.com – online business networking to make new connections, typically with accountants and other professional advisers. I have almost 5,000 direct connections here and run 3 groups for accountants and other professionals. I belong to around 40 groups.

Twitter.com – to source and share knowledge, insights and news on topics of interest. I also add all UK accountants I can find on twitter to one of my two twitter lists, which enables anyone to see how UK accountants use twitter. I also have a similar list of all the magicians I can find on twitter!

Facebook.com – Few of my real life social friends are active on facebook. However I keep in touch with many of my old Ecademy friends here. Also many of my friends in the worlds of magic and of public speaking are active here so I can keep in touch with them too. We share tips, ideas and advice. I also have a facebook business page promoting both my services to accountants and to other professionals.

Youtube.com – I watch videos here – and sometimes post my own, normally about talks I have given or am about to deliver. I sometimes add comments beneath videos, typically those posted by people I know.

AccountingWeb.co.uk – I have written over 200 articles for this site and routinely engage with readers who post comments both on my articles and on those written by others.

ion.icaew.com –  When I get emails prompting me to check out articles here I often read them then ‘vote’ them a thumbs up or down and occasionally add my thoughts by way of comments.

How do you use it on a day to day basis?

I look for opportunities to help my contacts, connections, followers and friends on social media – much as I do in real life. If I can answer a question, contribute positively to a discussion on a topic of interest or offer some insight and advice I’m happy to do so.

I tend to make more use of social media when I’m out and about eg: waiting for trains, buses, taxis rather than when I’m office bound all day. I also use some tools that allow me to automate and schedule some of my posts on twitter and facebook.

How has social media helped you professionally? For instance, making new connections or finding new business.

In this context social media is a form of online networking that allows me to connect with a far wider range and a larger number of people than would be possible face to face. We can then determine whether to meet or speak directly. I find this much more efficient than attending random networking events. Equally however it can be more distracting as so many new connections on social media are not local to me.

Over the years I have established relationships with many people who have, in time, become clients or who have engaged me or recommended me to speak at conferences and other events. Others offer assistance when I seek help or advice. One great example is Tony Margaritelli who runs the ICPA. He frequently engages with me on twitter and has both booked and rebooked me to speak at the ICPA annual conference.

Social media has also helped me to build up my email distribution lists although I am careful to avoid promoting too many things as this would probably mean a drop off in my follower numbers etc. And my high profile across a number of sites with a target demographic helps keep my name in the frame when people want to engage a professional business speaker, a mentor or simply want to commission articles and content on relevant topics.

Finally, the independent online social media influence scoring system, klout.com rates me as having a very high score of 79/100. Only celebrities tend to score above 80. Although klout is not widely recognised in accounting circles my high score does generate interest and has contributed to me securing a number of speaking gigs as a social media ‘expert’.

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Connecting through social media

I was amused by an email I received out of the blue this week and thought you might find it helpful to learn why. The salient part read:

“At [ABC] we understand that social media is becoming more important in running a business than ever before. My name is [XYZ] and I’m reaching out to select bloggers (like you!) to gather your stories about how you connect with customers through social media. Do you answer their questions promptly? Share their feedback? Start a conversation?”

I was amused as I think the questions betray a lack of understanding about social media. Another possibility is that the questions are intended for someone with a very different profile and business to me – and my clients.

You see, I rarely “connect with customers through social media.”  I connect with prospective customers and prospective clients. However I only rarely get questions from them via social media. Most such queries also come by email and email is again the communication method of choice for most of my clients too.

If someone sends me a question via twitter or Linkedin I always try to reply promptly. And yes, I love to share positive feedback – though I only tend to do this via twitter and on my website.
As I have long pointed out, Social Media is NOT important to ALL businesses. And far too many people misunderstand the medium. I have heard a number of people telling me recently that they don’t know how to do it themselves so they have engaged some young person to do it for them. This is largely pointless. Few of us can effectively outsource all of our social media activity. The key piece we invariably have to do ourselves is the connecting with people (whether we already know them or would like to know them).
The clue is in the word ‘social’. You cannot avoid going to parties by sending someone in your place and expecting them to engage with any ideal clients they meet there on your behalf. Either you go yourself or you have to find other ways to connect with these people.
You can use social media to connect with existing clients IF THEY ARE PRESENT AND ENGAGED on the social media sites in question. This is why, for example, I am not active on instagram or pinterest. They may both be very popular social media sites but it wouldn’t be a good use of my time. I just cannot imagine that I would encounter enough prospective clients or customers to warrant the time and effort. Do you know on which social media sites you could find the people you want to engage and contact? Start with one (and if you’re unsure I recommend Linkedin) rather than trying to learn about all of them at once. It will just be a waste of time and money.
Social Media is a great way to short-circuit the face to face networking process. You can use it to connect with prospective clients, influencers and introducers. Having connected you still need to speak or meet to determine whether a business relationship is going to develop.
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The 3 factors that will determine your social media success

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

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

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

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

The 3 factors are:

1 – Effective use

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

2 – Your website

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

3 – Offline follow up

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

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

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