Debunked: The one thing you must do….

A popular approach to getting your attention (and often your money) is to instruct you that there is ‘one thing’ you must do.

What do they say?

Many journalists, consultants and sales people assert that there is just ‘one thing’ you must do to remain in practice, to generate new clients, to increase your fees or to achieve your heart’s desire.

Is it ever true? Rarely in my experience. This means that I inevitably then start to question the credibility of those who make such statements. If they can make such nonsense claims up front, why should I believe what else they recommend – whether it’s their own product/services or other actions I should take?

My view

I first started to learn about and apply marketing and sale techniques in the mid 1990s. Then in 2006 I became an independent speaker, mentor and consultant – since when I have learned more than ever before. I’ve read hundreds of websites, white papers and books, watched many dozens of videos and attended goodness knows how many training courses and conference sessions. I continue to research and discuss related topics with experts and speakers every month (if not every week!) And all this time I’ve been working with accountants helping them to be more successful in practice.

So I can fairly confidently say that, in my experience, there is no ‘one best way’ to win clients or to become successful, that you MUST use.
There are no magic solutions that work for every accountant, no matter what some so-called experts say.

Examples

I have seen and worked with enough successful accountants over the years, and especially recently, to be able to say with absolute confidence that they achieved that success without worrying about doing any one or more of the following to achieve their objectives:

  • Create facebook ads to send prospects to an automated webinar and a sales, ahem, strategy call to win clients;
  • A fancy elevator pitch that somehow compels clients to hire the accountant the instant they hear it;
  • An expensive flashy website;
  • A personalised or custom built app;
  • A distinct digital marketing strategy (It’s just part of the marketing mix);
  • Blog regularly or pay someone else to do this for them;
  • Enter local business or sector awards;
  • Send out regular emails filled with manufactured controversy to try to create the impression the accountant has a distinct personality;
  • Badger people with Linkedin messages ‘adding value’ they didn’t ask for or pestering them to get on a call with the accountant or join the group set up to market to them with;
  • Become active on social media to show that the accountant is modern and regardless of who they are really trying to influence;
  • Become a recognised expert and hope that somehow clients will flock to the accountant’s door to benefit from their expertise.

I’m exaggerating for effect of course. All of these things work for some accountants. Typically only AFTER they have undertaken significant preparatory work as to their target market place.

The key point

The key point is that you don’t NEED to do all or any of these things.

There is no ‘one best way’ you must pursue. Only what works for you. That may be the same as works for other practices similar to yours, or it may be quite different because YOU are different, your practice is different, your style and approach to business is different and your target clients are different.

In my experience the only real commonalities across all accountants in practice are the outputs of your service ie: the accounts and the tax returns.

Why do people talk about the ‘one way’?

I think there are 5 reasons why so many people tell you there is ‘one best way’ to achieve your objectives:

  1. They have seen other people they admire adopt this approach. “If it works for them, it will help you generate business too” – This ignores the fact that your practice, prospects and approach to business might be quite different;
  2. It is often self-interest. The ‘one best way’ is what they want to sell to you;
  3. They assume that you have done some crucial background research, specific to your practice, that might warrant such a course of action;
  4. It could be evidencing their limited experience. That ‘one way’ is simply something that worked for them; or
  5. It is the only way they were taught on a course and they are unaware of other options and alternative approaches.

Most of the accountants I speak with are almost as cynical of such assertions as am I. All of us with a degree of real life experience know that there’s always more than one way to do things.

And when it comes to being more a more successful accountant, the key is to find a way that works for you and matches your skills and preferences. It needs to be appropriate for your approach to business, your target clients and your objectives.

What you MUST do 😉

Of course, there are some things you MUST do if you want to speed up the process of achieving more success in your practice:

  • You must figure out what you’re great at and that clients value;
  • You must find a way to connect with those clients that allow you to add value to them;
  • You must show up on a regular basis in their lives to add more value, build credibility and establish trust; and
  • You must recognise that YOU need to be able to ‘close’ the deal to bring in new clients, regardless of which marketing and promotion activities you adopt.

There are lots of different ways you can do each of these things.

All of the ‘one best way’ methods work for someone. The trick is to find what works best for you and that you’ll actually do.

The ‘one thing’ I can promise you is that if you take no action and continue doing what you’ve always done, simply wishing things were different will not change anything.

If you’d like to discuss how I might be able to help you, please get in touch and let’s have a chat>>>

With credit and thanks to Ian Brodie whose recent email inspired this blog post.

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How can accountants use Linkedin for marketing purposes?

This was the headline to a question I was asked recently. I have summarised the question below and expanded on my reply and advice as this may help other accountants too.

Question
How can accountants use LinkedIn for marketing purpose?

I have a company page, I have a profile, I am in some groups but they are largely inactive.

I understand that you need to connect with people; and when they accept my connection request I send them an message just introducing myself and asking them about their business. Something general, nothing really about bookkeeping or accounting. We carry on a small conversation for 2-5 messages and then it just ends.

So how do you leverage these connections? And how do you get noticed on Linkedin by the right people?

My reply
This is a great question and you’re doing many of the ‘right’ things already.

I always recommend recognising that Linkedin is simply a starting point to finding and engaging with real prospective clients/influencers offline.

It’s also key to be clear exactly who you are looking to connect with. Eg: owners of  businesses of a certain size and in a certain industry within 10 miles of your location. Yes, other people ‘might’ be prospects too but it’s best to start with a clear target.

I note you referenced your company page. This ‘might’ have some value if you don’t have a website but otherwise I doubt there is much value in a sole practitioner accountant having a company page on LinkedIn. Better to encourage people to go to your website if you have one. And yes, sadly, groups do seem to be very quiet these days. that may change, but until then they are simply a way of showing your interests and finding others with shared interests (which might be related to a common sector, expertise, locality or other topic).

Yes, your profile then needs to STAND OUT and encourage them to connect with you.  I would be happy to send you my Linkedin profile tips if you want to check that yours is as good as it could be.  You can get the tips here >>>>

Once you’re confident that your profile works for you, rather than against you,  I suggest using the advanced search facilities on Linkedin to seek out specific prospects yourself. Don’t wait for them to look for someone like you. And then, as always it’s about building relationships with them. In time you can filter out those that are wedded to their current accountant from those who are less impressed and may be interested in moving to someone better able to provide valuable advice and who shows they care more than the incumbent seems to care about the client in question.

Only a small proportion of the people you connect with on Linkedin, as anywhere, will be currently looking for a new accountant. So you need to play a long-game. Keep in touch, offer or ask to meet up and then keep in touch better than other accountants.  And help them appreciate, over time, that you’d be better for them than their current accountant.

You can only do this though when you know sufficient about what’s important to them.

One of the biggest misconceptions about LinkedIn is that any old profile, lots of connections and engagement will enable accountants to secure more of the clients they want.  That all may help, but hope is not a strategy.  There is no magic solution. You have to take action and apply the same prospecting techniques that work offline. Linkedin can be a shortcut. It’s not a standalone solution.

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Has your practice plateaued?

My conversations with sole practitioner accountants over the years suggest that many are happy enough once their business has plateaued.

‘Happy enough’ is hardly an enthusiastic summation of how things are going. It suggests a degree of reluctant acceptance. The underlying message perhaps is that things could be better but the accountant is used to things as they are. It’s not so bad that it’s worth reviewing what could be different as there is a concern that this will highlight issues best left hidden. Or that any change will involve more hassle and fuss than seems worth the effort.

I have encountered this view many times over the years.  It becomes a particular challenge when retirement looms – and when the accountant realises that no one will pay a sufficient sum for the practice as things stand.  In recent times it is becoming the norm for higher prices to be paid only for those firms with well established systems and processes. IT takes more than few months to transition an old style practice into a new one pre-sale.

In 2006, when I first started this blog, I said it was for Ambitious Accountants as I thought it was a good title. I thought it would help to distinguish those who wanted to move their practices on from those who were happy with the status quo.  I dropped that title though when I learned that many, many smaller firms of accountants are not ambitious – nor do they need to be, if the owner is  generating a good enough living, without working crazy hours, and is only doing work they enjoy, for clients who appreciate it, and who pay decent fees without a fuss.

In practice many sole practitioners settle for much less than this. They work long hours, do too much work they don’t enjoy, hang onto legacy clients who won’t pay decent fees and feel under constant pressure to get everything done. There’s no time to review how they run the practice or to take steps to change things. “What will be, will be. I’ll cope, just as I have always done.”

I hear about these frustrations in running a small accountancy practice all the time and it’s not getting any easier. There are a number of new factors that will have an impact in the near future – even though none of them will have an overnight effect:

– new and more aggressive competition;

– recent and prospective changes in the tax regime that will impact the way that accountants work;

– the increasing interest in cloud accounting solutions and the extent to which these will change the accountants’ role;

– the introduction of MTD; and

– other developments and pressures that will change clients’ perceptions and needs.

Sole practitioners have long heard and ignored the predictions of change that will adversely affect their practices. I have long maintained that these predictions forecast a future that will  reveal itself over an extended period. There hasn’t and won’t be an overnight revolution. Many of the forthcoming changes will hit larger firms before the smaller firms are affected. Smaller firms can adapt faster as and will do so only when it becomes necessary to do so.

Having said that, many accountants in smaller firms do want to increase profits, reduce the time and hassle of running their practice and, the older ones, also want to ensure they are well set up for their retirement.

How about you? Has your practice plateaued? Do you want to take control, or just let events take their course? One starting point could be the Successful Practice Programme – a low cost series of weekly emails designed to help you move things along so that you are comfortable you are running a successful practice. Full details here >>>

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Cloud accounting – Do you lead your clients or let them lead you?

This is the first of what I anticipate will become a series of cloud accounting related blog posts.

Back in 2009 I disagreed with those commentators who were warning accountants about an urgent need to embrace cloud accounting technology. The alternative, warned these merchants of doom, was that accountants who failed to embrace the cloud would go out of business.

I felt that such warnings were premature in 2009 and continued to think so until very recently. I believe however that we are, at last, reaching a tipping point.

More and more accountants are embracing cloud accounting solutions and an increasing number of clients are aware of the concept.  Plenty of accountants are being led by their clients and I often encounter firms who are happy to promote their ability to work with a range of cloud accounting solutions. This is often apparent from the inclusion, on the firm’s website, of a dizzying array of software badges and logos.

Other firms, including some pretty successful ones, do not take on new clients unless they are prepared to use the firm’s favoured bookkeeping solution.

I understand the arguments put forward by both sides.  In summary:

  • Anything for anyone: “We can help you, regardless of how you prefer to do your bookkeeping”
  • One size fits all: “We encourage our clients to all use [specific solution] as they find it easy to use and know that they will receive full support from us as we can focus rather than try to keep up with changes to a number of different online bookkeeping systems”

Advocates of the ‘anything for anyone’ approach don’t want to dictate to clients how they should do their bookkeeping. This is understandable especially if those clients have made an informed choice and/or have been using their solution for some time.  Some accountants have also concluded that different solutions are better suited to different types of clients eg: small businesses, contractors/freelancers and larger businesses. From what I have seen recently I’m not sure that distinction is sustainable as some suppliers offer different packages for each of those groups.

Advocates of the ‘one size fits all’ approach evidence a degree of confidence and are able to standardise their systems and processes. And this allows them to become more efficient whilst still providing a personalised service to clients. And then there are the range of add-ons and apps that accountants need to review and advise clients about. Which ones are worth their attention? If you don’t know what’s out there how can you provide pro-active advice in this regard?

There are plenty of reasons put forward by sole practitioners who resist specialising in a specific bookkeeping solution. These include:

  • A mistaken view that the ‘client is always right’. This is evidently not true as they pay their accountants for advice, not just agreement.
  • The challenge of having many clients using different solutions.
  • A reluctance to specialise in a specific bookkeeping solution as it might limit the number of new clients who would appoint you. This is the same concern as is raised in any conversation about specialisation. In practice the benefits typically outweigh the disadvantages.

What about you? When it comes to cloud accounting and bookkeeping solutions, do you lead your clients or do you let them lead you?

This blog post was not sponsored, but was inspired by what I saw, heard, and conversations I had at QB Connect 2017 about QuickBooks Online.

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Debunking social media myths for accountants

I forget how long ago I added the word ‘debunker’ to the list of my roles/activities. It’s on my business card, my marketing materials, my online profiles and on the title slide for many of my presentations.

I was first asked what I mean by ‘debunker’ when I was facilitating a workshop for an international association of accountants. We were looking at how different firms within the association used or avoided social media. It’s no coincidence that social media is the subject I most often debunk.

I explained that I aim to challenge, clarify and correct the bunk, bunkum and downright nonsense that is talked about re social media. And there is a lot of it about.

Many self professed experts speak from a limited perspective and talk in generalities that do not provide appropriate advice to accountants. To be fair there are also some real experts around. I don’t claim to be such an expert but I have been routinely highly ranked as an online influencer since 2011. Indeed I have been actively engaged with social media since 2006; and with accountants for much longer. I don’t pretend to know more than I do. And I don’t promote fantasies.

Social media is used effectively by some accountants as part of their overall marketing strategy. Many more are playing around and hoping that, despite a lack of strategy, they will secure some real business benefit from their social media activity. Will the outcomes be worth the effort? Are they monitoring the right metrics or chasing rainbows?

My research and monitoring of what accountants are doing on social media reveals that the majority are wasting time and effort. That’s a shame. When asked I’ll try to set them straight and I will invariably debunk the myths and misconceptions they have been fed by people with a limited understanding of accountants , social media or both.

It’s not all bad news. I am hearing an increasing number of success stories from accountants who are using social media effectively. This has lead a number of marketing and social media experts to seek fees to help other accountants achieve similar outcomes. Many seem unaware of how often accountants only have limited early success, talk about it a lot and then stop bothering with social media as they cannot repeat their early luck.

Whatever anyone might tell you please remember that there are no magic wands that will allow an agency, a junior member of staff or an external consultant to generate shed loads of new leads and clients for you through social media.

Invariably you need to start with a well thought through marketing strategy and then to identify which social media platform or platforms might be appropriate for your target audience. Then you need to set a strategy and business focused objectives for each such platform. This can absolutely prove to be worthwhile – as might other strategies too of course. I wrote about this in more detail recently here >>>

I don’t just debunk the hype around social media generally, I also do the same for specific platforms too. Regular readers will recall plenty of previous comment about the hype surrounding Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and so on. I also offer positive, constructive and commercial advice as to how you can benefit from these platforms if you use them effectively.

Beyond social media I also debunk myths and hype around other new fads, apps, websites and marketing generally that is aimed at accountant. I always do this from an informed and independent stance. I aim to challenge, clarify and correct inaccurate assertions about what works and what doesn’t work. My wider intention is to help accountants avoid wasting time and money – especially before they have clarified what it is they really want to achieve.

Do let me know if you come across promoters hyping ‘new’ ideas and concepts to accountant or insisting that you MUST adopt a similar marketing technique to one used successfully by larger firms or in other professions and circumstances. I’ll be happy to offer an independent view and to debunk the hype if I feel that would be appropriate.

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WHO do you need to stand out from?

One of my talks for accountants, and much of the advice I share generally, concerns WHY it’s important to STAND OUT from your competitors – and HOW easy this is to do when you put your mind to it. A related question I’ve never really addressed in detail is WHO do you need to STAND OUT from?

I’ve long known the answer to this question but a recent conversation has prompted me to address it here as I realise it’s not as obvious as I had thought.

There is a temptation to feel that you need to STAND OUT from ALL other accountants. I think not and yet I see it as a common ambition encouraged by many marketing and personal branding ‘gurus’.  Such an approach implies a similarly flawed strategy as when accountants are unable (or unwilling) to clarify who they would like to have as new clients. Claiming that this could be ‘anyone’ makes it difficult to grow and build a successful practice. It means your marketing isn’t focused and doesn’t connect with the people you really want to have as clients.

STANDING OUT is important if you want to win more clients (and maybe even to retain your existing client base). But you don’t need to STAND OUT from ALL other accountants. Only those other accountants whom your prospective clients might see as your competitors. In most cases this is the other accountants in your locality or who specialise in the same niches as you do.

The messages you share and the actions you need to take to STAND OUT out will differ depending on who you wish to distinguish yourself from. And WHY you want to be remembered as distinct from others? What’s your reason for wanting to STAND OUT? It’s not always just to win new clients or to retain existing clients. You may want to recruit better staff? To get more media attention (and through that to win more clients)? Or simply, as I often suggest, to be better Remembered, Referred and Recommended (the 3 Rs) by those you meet in real life and online?

Are you really competing with other local accountants on social media? If not then maybe you don’t need to be active here. For example, there’s no point in jumping on the twitter bandwagon and wasting time and money (like so many others) if your clients and prospects are not themselves likely to find you or interact with you on twitter.

Away from the major towns and cities your main competition is likely to be other local accountants. What makes them STAND OUT (if they do)? Or maybe you want to ensure that you also STAND OUT from anyone new who might might move into the vicinity. Local knowledge and involvement in local community activities may be key here.

Do you need to make a point of STANDING OUT from other accountants who are of a DIFFERENT generation, gender or background to you? Or are these factors obvious from a simple photo? If so then you can focus your efforts on STANDING OUT from those who are a SIMILAR generation, gender or background to you.

It’s obviously important to STAND OUT from other accountants who attend the same networking events as you and who know the same people in your town or city.  You can only do this though if you know what, if anything, they say or do to in an effort to STAND OUT themselves.

I’m not a big fan of accountants claiming to have a USP (Unique Selling Proposition). It’s so rare to find one that is truly UNIQUE. In any event, you only need for your specific audience to perceive you as different and distinct from the other accountants they encounter.

Similarly you don’t need to STAND OUT from ALL other accountants all of the time. The clearer you can be as regards exactly who you need to STAND OUT from, the easier it will become to hone your business messages, your marketing, your networking and your social media activity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Do people see you as successful or struggling?

Some accountants I know are proud of how efficiently they look after their own business affairs. Others though are embarrassed at their inefficiencies. And there are some who do not appear to give any thought as to how they are perceived.

If clients or business associates become aware that you are not running your practice very well, they may come to question the business advice you offer. And clients may choose not to accept your offer to provide business advice on a regular basis (for a fee). That would be a shame as it is a key ambition for many sole practitioners who want to grow their fees.

This is much worse than the old story of the cobbler who did fine work for his customers but allowed his children to run around in shoes that fell apart. The cobbler’s customers could judge the quality of his work as they could see and feel it. Clients cannot do that with the advice you provide. All they can do is ‘look’ at how well they perceive you to be doing.

Do you give the impression of success or of struggling? Are you practicing what you preach?  The people you meet in business and when networking associates may know and like you. They may also trust you in a general sort of way. But do they trust you to be competent to give good business advice to the people they might be able to introduce as clients?

Is there a risk that you don’t really understand or believe in the advice you are sharing? Do you talk about your problems and challenges with clients? Does the way you ask for referrals smack of desperation? Do they think of you as professional or pathetic?

When you offer business advisory services to your clients they will only agree to pay you if they believe the advice will be of value. Once they are sold on this they could choose to take advice from someone else. Someone successful. Or, at least someone who seems successful. How do your business clients and contacts see you? That will often depend on how you see yourself and the impression you give.

If you’re not getting the referrals or business you would like, do consider whether this might be due to the perception you give as regards how you run your own business.

 

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“What tools do you recommend to help a sole practitioner stand out?”

This was another question I was asked during a recent interview. This post is drawn from the notes I made before giving my answer on air.

Many accountants and bookkeepers reference their best source of new business as being referrals and recommendations. So let’s deal with this first.

Tools I would recommend here include:

  • Linkedin – you can use this to keep in touch with what clients are doing , to like, share and comment on their updates and news. It helps to have a decent profile here yourself. Check out my free Linkedin profile tips here>>>
  • Your website is key of course. It’s a tool to attract people to your practice rather than to your competitors. I’ve mentioned many times on this blog how important it is to reveal who YOU are rather than hiding behind your firm’s name and brand. You don’t need to invest a fortune in your website. You can STAND OUT positively simply by addressing the basics and making it really easy for prospective clients to find key information before they get in touch.
  • A decent CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system to ensure that you’re keeping in touch regularly and can recall key facts about each client.
  • A practice management system – monitoring time limits and deadlines, so you can avoid doing things at the last minute and provide a timely service to your clients. You only tend to get positive referrals when clients feel that you are on top of things.
  • A referrals strategy – this could be a simple spreadsheet or it could be built into your CRM system.

Other tools that could also help you to STAND OUT positively to people who don’t yet know you include:

  • Twitter and facebook – but only if you believe that your target audience are active on these platforms.  With twitter you’ll stand out more if you tweet in your own name with a decent profile headshot than if you tweet in your firm’s name.
  • Linkedin – once you have a decent profile you can use the advanced search facility to seek out either specific prospects or those who fit your target profile. Then you can ask to connect with them and start to build a business relationship with them – before meeting up if you both feel this could be worthwhile. Don’t move into sales mode until you know what they want and need.
  • Giveaways – I don’t mean you need to create a promotional brochure or  gimmicks. But if you have branded giveaways that people will find of use and value, you can use these to stand out from your competitors. As will focused tip sheets that highlight a specific sector or niche – as distinct from being the same old, same old generic tip sheets everyone else sends out.

If you’re aware of other tools you would recommend for sole practitioners, do please add them as comments on this post.

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3 lessons for accountants from….. personal trainers

I recently heard John Hardy the Founder of FASTER Health and Fitness introduce his business.  He mentioned he throught there were similarities with accountants. I have taken what he said and adapted it to provide some lessons for accountants from the business side of personal training and fitness.

1  Personality

John has noted that a bad trainer with a great personality will keep their clients for longer than those who focus on simply helping someone achieve a short-term goal (eg: weight loss).

Equally there are plenty of bad accountants who hang onto clients even though they’re not doing a very good job. The clients don’t really know what they could expect from a good accountant, so they stay with the bad accountant as long as they seem like a nice person.

Lesson: It’s easier to hang onto clients if they like you as a person. If you think you may be perceived as more of a traditional boring accountant, get out there. Attend  a local networking group on a regular basis and help people get to know and like you. It rarely happens overnight, but practice can help.

2  Context

Successful trainers do more than simply explain to clients how they can get fit. They also reference ‘how unfit you’re not getting’. They encourage and congratulate small successes.

Many accountants will tell clients what books and records they need to keep and leave them to it until the next set of accounts is required. Then the client finds out they haven’t been doing things as they should and that the accountant is having to do more work than planned just to get things straight.

Lesson: Check-in with clients to see how they’re doing – not just with their books and records, but generally. I have often pointed out the benefits of simply calling clients and asking them “How’s business?” and evidencing a genuine sense of interest and desire to help them to do better.

3  The technicalities

Apparently the training that personal trainers receive largely addresses just the medical and physical side of things. This leads to them focusing on all kinds of measurement, numbers and statistics. When they then go self employed they quickly learn that they need to also understand the business side of things. Being a good personal trainer is not enough to build a sustainable income as a personal trainer.

Can you see the analogy here?  Accountants’ training is focused on doing a good job as an accountant – from a technical perspective. There’s rarely any reference to the skills and activities you need to build a successful accountancy practice. As a result lots of well trained accountants struggle to build their own practice.

Lesson: You cannot rely on your technical expertise to build a successful accountancy practice. You need to apply good business planning skills too.

Sole practitioners who want to build a  more successful practice can tap into my guidance and support through the Successful Practice Programme (emails), The Sole Practitioner Breakthrough Programme (webinars), or 1-2-1 mentoring and support.

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The end of accountants is nigh. Or is it?

Let me save you some time. Yes, the accounting profession is going through (another) period of unprecedented change. There will be fewer jobs for accountants in the future. There will be fewer large firms of accountants in the future. But there will continue to be plenty of work for savvy sole practitioner accountants for many years to come.

The remainder of this blog post explains my thinking. I’d love to know whether you agree.

Another period of ‘unprecedented’ change

Many commentators are (again) suggesting that the move to cloud accounting has reached a tipping point and is now creating a period of unprecedented change for accountants. I’ve tracked similar warnings about cloud accounting back to at least 2009 when I dismissed the warnings as being too loud and too soon.  There has been an increasing move into the cloud over the years and accountants have adapted – as they will continue to do.

Another big change ‘now’ is the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Again, I suggest that the real impact of AI is somewhat down the line. And no, I do not see how it can replace the role of sole practitioner accountants – any more than the move to quarterly reporting to HMRC (part of the Making Tax Digital initiative) will decimate accountants’ client bases.

Fewer jobs for accountants in future

This prediction follows two key changes. The first is the (now) increasing move to cloud accounting, the influx of apps and automated facilities that reduce the need for so many accounting staff in finance departments and in firms of accountants.  The second change is the rise of AI which, over time, will only add to this trend. But neither of these changes will reduce the need for savvy sole practitioner accountants. Their activities may need to evolve but, as always, nothing will change their client base overnight.

Fewer large firms of accountants in the future

This seems obvious to me as the costs of running large firms continue to increase without any commensurate rise in productivity or quality of service to their smaller clients. Every decade sees more mid-sized firms merging and claiming this will help clients. Typically though the mergers are driven more by a desire to reduce overhead costs and thus maintain profits per partner.

Clients, on the other hand, are increasingly looking for lower fees and want evidence that they are better served by a larger firm with higher staffing costs than smaller firms. Over time this means that more and more smaller clients are moving to smaller firms of accountants. The exceptions are those who perceive that they are better served by a larger firm with higher fees and staffing costs than smaller firms.

It is no longer cost prohibitive for smaller firms to promote themselves aggressively in competition with larger firms, thanks to the internet and low-cost online marketing opportunities.  I have long seen a future where accounting firms are increasingly polarised – a few very large ones and thousands of very small ones. This will better match the demographics of the business world. Although many people glibly talk about SMEs, the official stats reveal that over 99% of  UK businesses are small (not medium-sized). And a very large proportion of them are, in fact, micro businesses. How many of these businesses or individual taxpayers need services that cannot be provided by smaller firms of accountants?

 Sole practitioners

A while ago, I decided to focus my advisory and support services on sole practitioner accountants. Yes, I also have plenty to say that is of value to those in larger firms and this is why I am engaged to speak at conferences for larger firms and for international associations. But I love working with savvy sole practitioner accountants who are keen to become more successful. And so yes, of course, I see there is a future for them. Their roles and activities will continue to evolve, as they always have done, and I will be there to help them.

I have worked with sole practitioners for many, many years. And I have constantly been debunking the ill-informed nonsense they are fed about the short-term impact of major changes.  When the first Accountex conference took place in November 2012 I was invited to write an editorial for the show guide. In it I set out dozens of ‘major’ changes to the accountancy profession that we had witnessed over the preceding twenty years. Most had been predicted (by others) as likely to have a major impact on accountants.  However, in every case accountants adapted. Some retired early but they were replaced by more accountants choosing to start their own practice. Many of these new entrants had been made redundant by the larger firms who were slimming their workforce as a result of mergers (see above). This trend is continuing.

The rise in home working and mobile working is also contributing to a rise in the number of sole practitioners and smaller local firms. For some years the professional training syllabus has been evolving to ensure that newly qualified accountants have better business skills than ever before. This, I suggest, is fuelling a desire to be one’s own boss, to run one’s own practice and to move away from the politics and cost pressures of working for mid-sized firms. An increasing facility to allow staff to work from home and whilst mobile can only increase the desire to cut loose from the mother-ship and go it alone or to create a new smaller and local practice.  As I noted earlier it is much easier and cheaper to market a smaller practice than ever before.

Those sole practitioners who are resistant to change will become increasingly frustrated. More will retire early (as did their predecessors) rather than adapt and develop their skills. Other commentators talk about the need for accountants to develop new skills. In many cases though, it’s simply a case of refining and repackaging services to highlight the benefits to clients and the value delivered.  Guess what?  These are topics I have long addressed through my own service offerings to sole practitioner accountants.

Conclusion

The future for accountants depends on whether you are employed in industry, employed in practice or engaged in practice. And on whether you will be in a large firm, running your own accounting firm or running a niche practice of some sort. I believe there is a strong future for savvy sole practitioners who are willing to adapt and move with the times.

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