Don’t invest more time on social media until you have read this

Regular readers will know that I am both very active on social media and highly ranked for my online influence.* Equally you will also know that I do not routinely encourage accountants to use social media for promotional and marketing purposes. And I challenge the evidence and arguments of those who do advocate this – when they do so without plenty of caveats.

For every one accountant I hear about who claims to secure good business through social media there are dozens who tell a different story. Typically they say that social media, for them, is a waste of time. This is no surprise to me as I understand the limitations of social media as well as the opportunities.

My research also shows that most accountants who ARE securing good business from their online activities are actually more reliant on the online business networking site, Linkedin, rather than on one or more ’social media’ platforms.

Let’s clear up a couple of other misconceptions.

Firstly, accountants rarely conclude that any promotional or marketing activity is worthwhile unless it has been well planned and executed. This means, as I have said before, starting by being clear as to your objectives. WHY are you doing any promotion?

There are many possible reasons. But let’s assume that you want more clients.  As I have explained previously, you then need to consider who is your Market, then what is your Message and finally which Media is best to get your Message to your Market? Your choice of media (social or otherwise) should be the last thing you consider, not the starting point.

If you simply post promotional messages on twitter or Facebook, for example, there is no guarantee that these will be seen by your target market.

Secondly, do not be fooled by statistics quoted by so-called experts who tell us how many billions of people use social media. If your target market isn’t using it and won’t see your messages, the general stats are not relevant.

Let’s assume you want to secure a profitable new business client. Are the owners (or FDs or other decision makers) of such clients active on social media? Maybe. Maybe not. They may be active on one platform but not on others. Or they may have delegated their company’s use of social media to a junior person in their marketing team.  Such a person is unlikely to be influential or able to help you to contact or influence the decision maker you hope to meet.

Having debunked some of the misconceptions, let me now offer a more positive slant. Because there are times and ways in which it can be worth accountants trying to use social media for promotion and marketing purposes. It will often be much easier to reach such decision makers via Linkedin for example.

Typically you will find the time and effort you spend on social media is all more worthwhile if you are focused on connecting and engaging with other users who share your interest in a specific sector, community or niche. For example, the owners of start-up businesses, those who operate from the same local area as you or those who share your interest in, say, martial arts.

Let’s now assume that you have done your research and concluded that there are people you wish to target and influence who are actively using a specific social media platform. How might you hope to use that platform productively?  Here are 6 key tips that could make all the difference:

  1. Use the search facility on the platform to find people, groups or discussions that are of interest.
  2. Join relevant groups and join in conversations. Be generous with your knowledge and focus on helping people. Counterintuitively, the less promotional your contributions, the more interest you are likely to attract.
  3. Join in conversations about topics you find interesting and which may help you connect or engage with the people you are targeting.
  4. Identify relevant hashtags and use them in your contributions. Do not overuse them. And never use them until you are confident and comfortable that you know how to do so without undermining your credibility.
  5. When you initiate posts make sure that enough of them are focused on relevant topics, by reference both to your objectives and to the people with whom you hope to engage. But ensure too that you are not so focused you omit to reveal the real you on each ‘social’ media platform.
  6. Identify, follow, engage and/or connect with relevant individuals, personalities, suppliers, customers, and influencers. They may not all be prospective clients (assuming that’s your overall objective) but they will know such people. As such they may be useful introducers and referrers.
*Most recently Sage identified me as one of their top 100 global small business online influencers.
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Where do you want your promotional messages to be seen?

I have referenced what I call the 3Ms of marketing an accountancy practice before. This blog post is related to the third M. That is, which Media should you use to get your chosen Messages to your chosen Market?

The answer to the question depends on where you will find your chosen Market and target audience. When many accountants are asked about this, they have no clear answer. The implicit belief is: “Anywhere and Everywhere”.

If you think this is true for your practice then it doesn’t matter greatly where you promote the practice. Unfocused social media and Linkedin may help (but probably not much). Essentially you’ll try ‘Anything and Everything’. Accountants who adopt this approach are typically the first to say that marketing is a waste of money. Where that’s true is often because it’s unfocused and hasn’t been planned by reference to specific objectives, clear target audiences and distinct messages that resonate with that market.

Let’s move on then to consider 4 other generic answers to the question, Where will you find your chosen Market and target audience?

Immediate vicinity

This is the case, for example, when you have a high street presence and want more passers by to pop in or to remember your details to pass on when they hear someone asking about accountants in the immediate vicinity.

The 3 main options here are: A pavement sign encouraging passers by to pop in, to use the office windows to communicate with them or to have a leaflet stand by the door.

Your local area

I make this point frequently to sole practitioners – and the point is relevant to many 2 or 3 partner firms too. Unless you have some special expertise or sector focus, the vast majority of your new clients will come from the local and surrounding area.  Even if you have clients all over the country, few people who are hundreds of miles away will ever choose you as their accountant over someone more local to them.

Assuming that you want to promote your firm in the local area there are plenty of options available to you including:

Adverts in the local press and magazines, local sponsorship, local networking groups, local radio, local business events and shows and online groups (eg: on facebook and Linkedin) that focus on the local area. Also your Linkedin profile should include your local area in the headline to make sure it stands out when anyone uses Linkedin to look up local accountants.

Nationally

If you really want to promote your firm nationally you might look to focus your promotional activity on National radio, TV,  conferences, facebook, twitter, Linkedin and any other UK online forums and general social media platforms.  Generic blogging on your website may also reach a National audience if it doesn’t obviously have a local or other relevant focus.

Internationally

International and overseas conferences, overseas based groups, international magazines, facebook, twitter, Linkedin and any other international online forums and general social media platforms.

Specific groups, communities or sectors

In case it’s not clear I would say that this  is most likely to be successful for a local accountancy firm. Especially for those who do not have the opportunity or desire to seek publicity in their immediate vicinity.

By way of examples, you might be focused on lawyers, young entrepreneurs or local property investors.

The key point here is that your focus on a specific group, community or sector enables you to STAND OUT more from the competition.  As a result your publicity is more likely to succeed here than if you adopt an approach that is better suited to larger firms and brands that truly have a National or International focus.

Your publicity should evidence your connection, interest and expertise as appropriate in the specific group, community or sector you have chosen.

The opportunities to secure publicity here are extensive – and much more focused than any of the other options listed above. They include: relevant community or sector focused magazines, news websites, blogs and papers. Also specific focused facebook groups, Linkedin groups, speaking opportunities at events that attract your target audience, sponsorship, relevant networking and business focused events. Also social media and online forums where the use of hashtags or tags enable you to reach your target audience more directly than if you just ‘go random’ (which tends to happen when you seek National and international publicity).

I must offer one important caveat to finish. Overt adverts and promotional messages may appeal to some audiences. In the main however, effective publicity for local accountants can be counter-intuitive, especially when it involves your own blog, social media and articles – effectively anything other than obvious adverts. Everywhere else you typically need to hold back on the overt promotional messages. Instead you are likely to have more success if you focus on offering help and support, sharing useful knowledge and information, tips and tricks.

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When you CAN use social media effectively for promotional purposes

The longer you spend on social media the more you realise that overt sales and marketing messages do not typically have much positive impact. Posting adverts on social media is a different topic and not the subject of this blog post.

Before I explain how you CAN use social media effectively for promotional purposes, I should clarify a related point. I have long maintained that it’s rarely worthwhile spending time on social media in the hope of finding new clients. I’m never surprised that only a minority of the accountants I speak with talk about having found new clients through social media. For some years I was of the view that many of these clients were relatively new start-up businesses who were attracted to similarly new accountancy firms. If that is what you want then by all means copy what you see other SSMAs (Successful Social Media Accountants) doing.

Times are changing but it remains true that before you try to copy what someone else does you need to decide whether you would be happy with the same results that they secure. And it’s not enough to replicate someone’s style and approach – you might also need to replicate their profile and website messages too. I’m not suggesting you copy these, but do bear in mind that when social media works as a promotional tool it is due to a combination of factors.

My advice to accountants who are keen to secure valuable promotional and marketing benefit from social media is to adopt a local, community or sector specific focus.  Rather than tweeting, posting and engaging with anyone and everyone, be more selective.

There is rarely much point in local accountants building up a follower base spread around the UK or the world, unless such people are genuinely part of your target market for business or influence.  This is not the case for most local accountancy firms. So why seek to boost your follower numbers without giving any consideration to where they are or who they are?  In most cases ‘quality’ should be far more important to you than ‘quantity’. And what will determine who are ‘quality’ followers and connections? It is likely to be because they are involved, connected or interested in the same locality, community or groups as you.

If you want to use social media effectively for promotional purposes you will still need to follow conventional wisdom and avoid too many overtly promotional posts. But, that said, you will invariably be more successful if you adopt a local, community or sector specific focus by:

  • joining relevant facebook (and also Linkedin) groups
  • tweeting, posting and commenting on local, comunity or sector specific topics
  • using popular hashtags that are already being used by others in your area/community/sector
  • including your social media account names on local marketing and promotional materials
  • following, connecting, helping, suppporting and engaging with key individuals, influencers, suppliers, customers and personalities.

Feel free to add any further suggestions or questions you have in the comments box below this post.

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Why do you want to promote your firm?

A recent conversation with an accountant I’ve not worked with before started as follows:

Accountant:  Do I need to promote my firm better?

Mark: Probably, but it depends on what you want to achieve.

Accountant: What do you mean?

Mark: Marketing and promotional activities work best for accountants when you have first identified clear objectives. Otherwise you’re likely to waste time and money on exercises that may or may not be worthwhile.

Accountant: I was thinking of promotion to help me win more clients.

Mark: That’s fine. There are still some other factors to consider before you do anything by way of promotion. Anything you do in this regard will be more successful if you start by first clarifying exactly who you want to influence to become clients of yours, what sort of people are they and what sort of messages will resonate with them. Only then can we consider where you likely to find them (be that face to face or online) to influence them with your promotional messages – which may be overt or, often, more subtle in order to be effective.

This accountant’s objective was not unusual of course. Those with whom I have worked quickly come to see the benefits of thinking through their objectives before they start investing time or money in promotional activities. This includes whatever they might do on social media, how they project themselves online, on their website and when attending networking events.

In case you were wondering, here is my list of reasons why accountants might want to promote their firm:

  • To attract and secure more clients
  • To generate PR coverage
  • To aid your recruitment efforts
  • To increase the referrals you receive
  • To encourage more clients to ask for additional services
  • To evidence your ability to provide a wider range of services

Maybe your objectives overlap. That’s fine too. But the clearer you are about the end point you seek, the more effective you can ensure your promotional activity will be.

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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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How to attract and retain high end clients

There is a wonderful restaurant in Temple Fortune (a suburb in NW London). It doesn’t look like a high class place. Indeed it looks quite ordinary and seems to be under the same ownership as the bookshop next door.

Unexpectedly the quality and presentation of the dishes they serve at Cafe Also are outstanding and yet the prices are quite reasonable.

Indeed you could be served comparable dishes in a top rated London restaurant. But, if you were, you would be charged two or three times the menu prices at Cafe Also.

Why is that? It’s probably because an ordinary looking restaurant in Temple Fortune cannot attract enough of the customers who would pay top London prices. But this doesn’t dent the chef’s ambition or commitment.

The comparison with accountants isn’t perfect but I hope you get the idea. Your appearance conveys your status and often impacts the fees you can charge. First impressions count.

If you’re based in a dingy room above a high street shop, if you have an old fashioned website, a cheap business card, a hotmail email address, a photo of your home appears in the google search results and you don’t otherwise give the impression of being successful…. Well, quite simply, you will probably struggle to attract and retain high fee paying clients. The fact that you make an effort to provide a high quality service often will not be enough.

I provided a longer list of the ‘wrong’ reasons for Standing Out in this earlier blog post >>>>

The bottom line is clear. If you are looking to secure premium clients paying premium fees you will find it easier if you give an appropriately positive first impression. If you want to keep those clients you will need to follow through and show that the value you deliver warrants higher than average fees.

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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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Key tips for new accountancy practices

I am often approached by accountants who started up a year or so ago or who are planning to start a new practice. So when I was asked recently to provide some tips for an online interview on this topic I decided to repurpose my replies for this blog.

Let’s start with the most common mistake I see. This is when the website for a small firms of accountants tells me nothing about the accountant themselves. When you’re starting out (and often, down the line too) YOU are the firm and you need to reveal who YOU are as a real person and as an accountant. The sooner you can reference positive vibes and feedback from clients the better. Unless you’ll be happy with lots of low fee paying clients, you’ll want to help prospects appreciate why they will be better served by you than by others. Finding your voice at the outset is key.

All too often start-up accountants have invested in a website but made the mistake of thinking that this will magically attract the clients they want. Or maybe they’ve invested in some SEO, content marketing, blogging or social media activity that someone told them would help. Yeh. Right. This all takes time and generally doesn’t work in isolation. This is why so many start-up firms struggle to win as many of the clients they want as quickly as they hoped. There are thousands of small firms who were so desperate at the outset that they took on anyone and everyone as a client. And now they are frustrated by the pressure to service loads of low fee paying clients who don’t want to pay more.

One way to avoid this is to start by building your reputation and the relationships that will generate referrals and introductions. From the outset. And to ensure your online messages (on your website, linkedin and any email marketing) are congruent.

Other tips:

  1. You will need to develop your ‘closing’ skills. Even when your website, referrals, emails and other promotional activities are bringing the right prospects to your door/phone, YOU need to have the skills to reel them in as clients. And then to have efficient client take-on procedures so that the process is smooth and easy for them (and you).
  2. Think about who you want to have as clients. The type of people, the services they will require and why they should come to you rather than another accountant Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re no different to other accountants. You are. I have yet to meet two accountants who provide identical services in the same way. So, if you want to work with clients who need more than the basics and are not looking for the cheapest service, ensure you talk to them and about them. One start up I worked with recently wanted just that. He’d invested in a flashy website that probably alienated the very people he wanted to attract. It said nothing about him and focused on 3 levels of low cost services for local trades people. No wonder he wasn’t attracting the type of clients he wanted.
  3. Think about the advice you would give to a new start-up business. Remember that you too are starting a business (it just happens to be an accountancy firm business). Your plans (rather than simply hopes and dreams) need to be focused on generating profits both in the short and longer term too. Why should your business thrive without a practical business plan that includes reference to how and where you will attract the clients you want?
  4. From the outset put in place standard systems for new client take on procedures and for the delivery of each of your services so that you can scale and grow your practice over time.  You don’t want to be caught out having to constantly reinvent the wheel which also means wasting lots of time.
  5. Take time to plan how you will deliver value to your clients. Value that they will appreciate and be prepared to pay for over and above the basics. If you only focus on delivering tax returns, accounts and VAT returns you will struggle to grow the practice and to generate higher fees.
  6. Resist the temptation to try to appeal to ‘anyone and everyone’. The clearer you can show you have a specific client type in mind, the easier it will be to win those clients. It’s counter-intuitive but also a fact that you will win more clients if you can be more specific and choosy about who you really want to help (serve) – even if you also do all the things expected of a typical local accountant. If you simply talk about those things you will struggle to become sufficiently distinctive and remembered, referred and recommended.
  7. Plan for how you will charge for the services you provide and when you will expect payment.  You may need to adapt your terms in the light of experience but do not start without clarity. You need to be clear and focus on the value you provide, not simply the hours you spend. Unless you are only seeking clients who want to pay the lowest rates around, you can relax and pick your own rates. There is no ‘going rate’ if you recognise that your service style, approach and experience is unique to you. You will also want to learn to quote with confidence and to give clients what they want and need.

The Successful Practice Programme (of weekly emails) addresses all of these points, and much more. You don’t have to do everything alone. Check it out now and see how you could build a more successful practice for just £1 a week >>>>

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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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