Accountants CAN overcome a lack of inner confidence…..

All too often I encounter another accountant who is lacking in confidence. And this invariably holds them back from achieving the success they seek.

Just last week an accountant emailed me back after receiving a message I’d sent out on a totally different topic. Included in her reply was the following:

I know I lack a degree of confidence. I’m on my own, no mentor, no senior. This is daunting.

I’m not very good at small talk and sales patter.

I’m lacking confidence.

I have bags of ambition and drive.

I have a fantastic team of 3 ladies who I have personally trained and I have a huge office with potential for 10 desks.

I struggle to get new clients. I want to get things as right as I can from the outset and have not wished to take on loads more low value clients.

After thanking her for getting in touch I replied:

Stop putting yourself down and reinforcing the negative voices in your head.  You are NOT lacking in confidence.

You’ve started your own practice. You have taken office space sufficient for 10 desks. All of that takes a HUGE amount of belief (which is simply another word for confidence).  Well done!

And, as you say, you also have a huge amount of ambition and drive. I think perhaps you’re embarrassed by your confidence and you may be concerned it might come across as arrogance if you really let it out. I get that. And it’s good to avoid over doing the confidence.

I also wanted to direct her to some related advice I have shared previously. I was pretty certain I had addressed the issue of accountants and confidence before on this blog. But when I checked back most such posts related more to the problems of being over confident! So here is my further advice that should be of wider application and value.

It’s quite common

In conversation with accountants I am mentoring and with those who belong to The Inner Circle it is often obvious to me that a lack of confidence is causing them issues. Sometimes it prevents them making decisions that are then continually deferred, it makes them nervous about contacting certain clients and scared of quoting fully commercial fees.

One of the great pleasures of my work is that with a degree of understanding and encouragement from me, these same accountants grow in confidence. They tell me about how they are now able to quote fees they only dreamt about some months earlier and that clients are happy to pay them. They are proud to have refused to take on new clients who don’t want any advice; and they are excited by the future as they now know they can attract the sort of referrals and recommendations they always wanted.

There’s no magic involved(!) Building your confidence starts by accepting that you are better than you think when someone who knows you and knows enough other accountants (like me) tells you honestly that you’re at least as good as average – possibly better.

But you can also boost your confidence alone.

How to become more confident

Here’s a few tips I have encouraged accountants to adopt – and which I have been told have worked for them:

One popular technique is to get a character, toy or figurine to keep on your desk. Imagine them as your Positive Reinforcer (PR).  When that negative voice in your head saps your confidence, imagine your PR guy/gal encouraging you onwards.

Keep a note of every success. Each day, note down these Positive Reinforcements (PR) to remind you of when you make things go well,  so that you can focus on these – and NOT on the times when things don’t go so well.  Review your PR notes – especially before your next interaction with a client where your lack of confidence has previously weakened you.

Celebrate your achievements so that you spend less time dwelling on the other occasions which didn’t go so well, but which contained valuable lessons. Note them down as Positive Reinforcement (PR) of lessons learned.

Accept praise and compliments. You do deserve them. Do not dismiss them. The ‘imposter syndrome’ is very common in all walks of life. You do deserve the success you enjoy.

If all else fails, fake it. Even if you don’t feel particularly confident, act as if you do. You may be pleasantly surprised at how positively this can affect people’s reactions to you.  There’s also another good reason to practice faking confidence. I have also heard it said that the more you practice acting in a confident manner, the more it will increase your inner confidence.  Just ensure you don’t come across as arrogant. And also be careful you don’t give definitive advice when you are not really confident it is 100% correct.

Confidence is self-perpetuating. Once you have it, you can use it to push yourself to succeed, which will build your confidence even further.

Want some help?

My confidence in my own ability to help sole practitioners to become more successful has fluctuated over the years.

Back in 2006 I had a wider focus and initially listened to those of my friends and colleagues who told me that I was bound to be successful as a mentor and speaker. They boosted my ego by referencing my reputation, credibility and high profile in the profession. I was prepared to listen. But then it soon became clear that few people were beating a path to my door. My confidence plummeted.

Over the last few years I have had plenty of successes and I am now confident of the value I deliver to sole practitioner accountants. This is one of the reasons why I offer a very low cost entry level facility to experience my style and advice. But equally I offer premium level 1-2-1 mentoring support and advice. Part of the value accountants get from me, where appropriate, is help, support and encouragement to become more self confident in their interactions with prospects and clients.

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Lessons for accountants from….. a childrens’ party entertainer

As a teenager, before I started studying to become an accountant, I was a children’s party entertainer – and I continued doing this for about 25 years. When I look back I realise that I quickly learned 2 lessons that now, many years later, inform my thinking and advice to accountants.

Specialisation

I was only available to perform at the weekends and I wanted to enjoy myself. That meant focusing my attention on the children most likely to enjoy my magic shows and to respond positively to my tricks, jokes and games etc. I had come to the conclusion that 2 and 3 year olds were too young to really appreciate the magic. To them, so I felt, life itself is magic. And once the children were over 7 I felt they were too bright and more likely to challenge my presentations.

So, after a few years of learning the ropes I made clear on my business cards and yellow pages adverts(!) that ‘Marks Magic’ offered “Specialised Childrens’ Party Entertainment for 4-7 year olds”. I remember that, soon after the first such advert appeared, the number of enquiries I received each week INCREASED and I was fully booked almost every weekend.

Looking back I realise this was because parents liked the idea of engaging a specialist, someone focused on entertaining children of a certain age and someone who didn’t attempt to be all things to all people/children. By definition I wasn’t doing babyish magic or anything too sophisticated.

This lesson translates across to accountants. If you are seeking more clients you will often find it easier to attract them if prospects see you as a specialist in helping people like them, rather than ‘just another accountant’ who attempts to help anyone with everything.

Pricing

When I quoted a fee for my first booking at a childrens party in the 1970s(!) I asked for 25p per hour, before I realised that the party would only be 3 hours long. I quickly realised that the mother of the child wasn’t interested in my time as such. She was only interested in having her needs met: For the duration of the party the children should be occupied, entertained, happy and safe.  She offered me a simple fixed fee of £1 for the afternoon.

Thereafter I always quoted a simple fixed fee for each party – with every element of my service fully covered by the fee.  My ‘specialisation’ helped here as did my confidence. At some point I also learned to ask the person who called (typically the mother) what she wanted from an entertainer.  The answers were all pretty similar, but the fact I asked, rather than assumed, helped me stand out. I empathised and reflected back my understanding of the mother’s objectives. Where appropriate I referenced other parties where the parents had thanked me for doing much the same as this mother was requesting. And I won almost every booking enquiry I received.

Again, this lesson translates across to accountants who charge fees for the time they spend on a client’s affairs. Few clients care how long it takes you to do their work. They are not interested in your time as such. What they want is the output that they get – the accounts, tax returns, estimates of tax payable, the peace of mind you provide as well as the confidence and trust you encourage that your advice pays for itself and that they will get what they want.

Quoting and negotiating fees with prospects is a perennial issue for accountants and one that I often address during mentoring sessions, The Inner Circle and the Sole Practitioners’ Breakthrough Programme.

 

 

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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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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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A quick five point plan to secure more referrals for your accountancy practice

So many accountants tell me that most of their new clients come from word of mouth and client referrals. In most cases however this seems to be a function of luck rather than planned in any way.
Have you ever thought about how you could make it easier for your contacts to know who would make a good referral for you? And to encourage such referrals rather than simply waiting and hoping they will make such referrals?
Here is a quick 5 point plan that could help you in this regard:
  1. Identify just ten people (your Target Ten) who might know people who could be ideal referrals for you.  Your Target Ten might include some good clients, lawyers, bankers or other professionals with whom you have worked and established a mutually trusting relationship.
  2. Clarify what you would want your Target Ten to say when they are making referrals to you.  You may intend to make different requests of each of your Target Ten. In each case, think about ONE person (or type of person) not a shopping list of possibilities.  You will invariably get more specific and valuable referrals if you are specific.
  3. Craft a couple of stories about similar clients you have helped and how they felt about your service etc. Your Target Ten will find it easier to recall your request if they can link this to a story. Use the RUBIK acronym to check whether your story/request is likely to help generate referrals.
  4. Talk with your Target Ten to find out what you could do to help them. Yes, that’s right. BEFORE you ask for referrals, ask what you can do to help and then do it! Many of the people you offer to help will then ask you what they could do to help you. That’s when you share the information you noted down at steps 2 and 3.
  5. Keep the promises you make to help your Target Ten. After all, if you don’t keep your promises you can hardly expect others to do so either.

I should add what may be surprising news for you. No one really cares what you do as an accountant. What they care about is what you can do for them or for the people they know. Most of us find it easier to remember stories rather than bare facts. Telling stories about our clients (whilst retaining their confidence of course) can make it a lot easier to secure more of the referrals you would like.

The alternative is that you continue to secure only the same old random referrals – some of which are time wasters and some of which are wholly unsuitable for the practice you are seeking to build.

Do let me know how you get on with your Target Ten and how many ideal referrals follow from you following this process.
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Why do accountants need to be enthusiastic?

Everyone who knows me recognises my enthusiastic nature. When I was younger I may even have been a touch too enthusiastic. I now recognise that it can unnerve those around you if you are evidently more enthusiastic than everyone else. That was an important lesson for me some years back. So now, older and wiser, I try to keep my enthusiasm in check. And I balance it with a healthy degree of cynicism!

In recent years I have been focusing on helping accountants to have greater impact – both online and face to face. The idea being to enable them stand out from their competitors and to make it easier for people to remember them, to refer work to them and to recommend them.

I have long been taken by a statement in a 2003 report by the ICAEW, titled: “The Profitable and Sustainable Practice”.

There’s one pre-requisite, one ingredient that sells…and that’s enthusiasm. If you really enjoy your work; that shines through, and you will be successful – clients will want to be with you, and will hire you. It can’t be faked – at least not for very long.

This probably explains why there is a reference to ‘enthusiasm’ in many of the 7 steps in my STAND OUT framework. BUT, let’s be clear, enthusiasm alone will rarely be sufficient. And, as I noted earlier, you need to avoid being too enthusiastic. But if the people you meet face to face and online do not perceive you as being enthusiastic for what you do to help clients, you will not stand out in a positive way. And that will generally work against you.

So here’s a question for you: How and where do you show your enthusiasm for your professional activities?

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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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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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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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4 things to change if you don’t get good value leads from your website

I have lost track of the number of accountants who tell me that they don’t get good quality leads from their website.

They generally either say that their website is a waste of space or that the people who come via their website are just looking for a low price. This then leads the same accountants to claim that most of their better new clients come through recommendations and referrals.

Let’s examine these observations briefly:

  • If your website seems to be a waste of space this could either be because it doesn’t attract the right people or because it doesn’t engage them and encourage them to get in touch.
  • If the only people who come to you via your website are just looking for a low fee quote, then perhaps your website needs to be clearer as to the sort of new clients you want.
  • It would be a mistake to think that having a website is a waste of space simply because you don’t get the sort of business you want through it. Indeed a badly out of date and non mobile friendly website can be problematic as it may also be working against you. As well as not attracting the new clients you want it could be putting off just the people who you DO want as new clients. Would you even know how often clients have recommended you to someone who then checks out your website and chooses NOT to get in touch as they don’t like what they see?

The reason you get good recommendations and referrals is because of the service you provide, because of your style and approach and because clients believe you are doing a good enough (maybe even a brilliant) job for them.  They talk about you. Not your practice. You. They talk about YOU.

Does your website seek to give the same impression as clients provide when they recommend you? Does it say enough about YOU and what clients think about you?

Also remember that your clients may not know how you compute your fees but they know what they are paying. And often they will tell people. This means that many of the referrals who get in touch already have some idea as to what you charge. If they thought your fees are high (and they find this a turn-off) they probably don’t even get in touch.

Put all this together and what can we see? Well, in brief, my conclusions are:

  1. If your website is disappointing you in terms of new business, you need to review and update the site.
  2. Your website should make clear the sort of new clients you hope to attract and those you’re not able to help too. If it’s only very generic (just like all the others) it’s no wonder you get low value enquiries.
  3. You can discourage prospects who are looking for the cheapest accountant they can find, by referencing your minimum fees (eg: “We are not the cheapest accountants around. Our clients typically pay between £800 and £5,800 per year. Some pay a lot more than this. As of 2017 our minimum fee for new business clients is now £500”)
  4. Your website should profile you as a person – just as clients do when they recommend you.

The fees I have used in the above example are based on those discussed at a meeting of The Inner Circle which comprises London based accountants. Your figures may be lower than this. The key point is that you will want to make clear the sort of fees you look to earn – which should be higher than your minimum. You may include more clarification elsewhere on your website but do not focus too much on fees there unless you really are going for those people who are looking for the cheapest accountant around.

Please don’t assume that everyone looks for the cheapest accountant. They don’t – any more than everyone looks for the cheapest car or smartphone. If that was true then higher priced models wouldn’t sell. But they do. And plenty of accountants who have learned to promote themselves more effectively secure higher than average fees. If you are keen to do this, pick one of these ways to learn more >>>

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How NOT to tell people that your business grows through referrals

Most of the accountants I meet claim that most of their best new clients come through referrals.  When I dig deeper I find this is typically for one of the following reasons:

  • They remember that their most recent new clients were initially generated by referrals;
  • They don’t get many new clients and also don’t ask for referrals, but they think that one or two definitely came via referrals;
  • They don’t get much contact via their website, don’t advertise or market the practice and are not active on social media, so they assume that new clients must be coming through referrals;  Or
  • They actively encourage referrals – either indirectly or directly. But this is rare 😉

Many accountants don’t feel comfortable actively asking for referrals. That’s a shame but I understand. It can feel pushy and make you feel like a grubby salesperson. You don’t need to feel like that. It all gets easier when you learn:

  • how to ask for referrals (in a way that works); and
  • when is the right time to ask.

Part of the challenge is that we don’t always ask in an appropriate manner; or we say the ‘right’ things but at the wrong time. When we then get rebuffed we are discouraged.

The indirect approach

This is how some accountants try to encourage referrals via their website and, more commonly via their email message footer. I saw the following phrase on an email I received from an accountant recently. I’ve seen variations on it before and, having now checked, I note that the same phrase is also used on lots of accountants’ websites.

“My Business grows through referrals.
If any of your friends or colleagues are concerned about any areas of their accountancy or taxation, please feel free to pass on my details.”

It was this referrals request that promoted the title for this blog.  No doubt it works – to a degree. But before you copy it, let me suggest that you adapt it to suit your practice.

The more specific you are the more successful you’ll be

Who do you really want as new clients? ANY ‘friends or colleagues’ with ANY ‘concerns about ANY areas of their accountancy or taxation”. Wow. You must have plenty of time on your hands. And that would make you very different to most of the accountants with whom I speak. The reason I suggest this approach requires you to have plenty of time is that it suggests that you are keen to be referred to any of the following:

  • A retiree with a small pension and no other income
  • A student wanting to claim a refund of PAYE from their part-time job
  • A self employed trader simply looking to pay less than the £200 they currently pay each year for their accounts and tax return!
  • Someone needing help with their self assessment tax returns every year but who is unlikely to ever need much more than a basic compliance service.
  • Someone who matches the profile of your best client and who will value your services sufficient to pay you £1,000, £2,000, £5,000 or more each year

Please understand that I am not suggesting there is anything wrong in having clients who need very little help and who can only afford to pay low fees. If you are happy to encourage more of these, that’s fine.

My point is simply that without any clarification you are at risk of wasting time meeting with people who you don’t really want to take on as clients. And your lack of clarity actually reduces the number of referrals you will receive. If you make your referrals request more specific you will make it easier for people to refer exactly the right type of prospective new clients. And, typically, such referrals happen more frequently too 😉

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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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Be proud and positive about your profession

This week’s blog post is derived from the response I received from a recent attendee at one of my talks. She had been very enthusiastic so I asked her what she had learned specifically. This is her reply:

Things I took away from yesterday:

  • That it’s OK to be on the quiet side at networking events – I am surrounded by [male] ‘chest-beaters’ all justifying their own existence and who talk at people rather than to them!
  • To be specific about what I am looking for in a referral – something that I need to work on …. It’s not all about [a type of target she mentioned during the course] … and that this may vary depending on my audience.
  • And to stop apologising for being an accountant, which I often do and a close friend tells me off regularly for it. This must come across in my ‘first impression’ but won’t be a good impression to make on someone. I can stand out from my peers by being me and being proud and positive about my profession! I definitely need to work on the impression that I leave people with ….

She added: “Your presentation yesterday was very engaging and entertaining.”

Just to amplify her 3 key main points:

1 – I had explained that introverts are often more effective networkers than extroverts. The latter tend to talk too much whereas introverts are better at listening to what other people are saying. If you listen more effectively you can ask better questions and learn more about them. The more you learn the better you can focus the stories you tell so that they resonate. This will help you and your stories to be more memorable.

2 – It’s too easy to sound like ‘just another accountant’ when you talk with people such as bankers, lawyers and fellow attendees at networking events. This means they are unlikely to remember you or to refer business to you. You can ensure such conversations are more worthwhile if you can be more specific about the referrals you seek. This means talking about the type of people you want to meet in terms that are memorable and distinct.

3 – Absolutely accountants should be proud and positive about being an accountant. If you’re not giving a positive impression why should anyone believe that you are the right accountant for them or for anyone they know?

All of these points are also addressed in my Successful Practice Programme, come up in my other work with sole practitioner accountants and in my talks at conferences and seminars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Connect, know, like, trust, need – what do you do to make this work for you?

I frequently hear networking gurus stress a mantra that originated in the book ‘Endless Referrals, written by Bob Burg:
“All things being equal, people do business with, and refer business to people they know, like and trust.”

I understand this is also the mantra shared at certain networking groups. The focus then is on encouraging you to make an effort to ensure you are easy to get to know, like and trust. But I think it is too simplistic.

There are two further elements I believe that demand your attention. One at the start and one that can float around at either end of the chain:

Connect – Know – Like – Trust – Need


Connect:
– People may connect with you face to face (eg: at a networking event) or online (eg: via social media, Linkedin or by engaging with you initially though commenting on your blog post or getting in touch after reading an article you have written or after hearing a talk you have presented).

Know
: People can only get to know you after you have connected with each other (face to face or online). Typically they will want to know more than just your name and profession. They are more likely to engage you or to refer you if they have more to go on than this. How easy do you make it for people to get to know you? Your background? Your interests on a professional and personal level? Which organisations do you belong to? What makes you you – as distinct from just another accountant?

Like
: People rarely engage or refer work to people they don’t like. There are exceptions to this principle. We tend to refer people to surgeons if we rate them even if they have no bedside manner. And some legal work is best done on our behalf by really tough negotiators. But in the main, likability is key. People like people who are helpful, kind, and not pushy.

Trust:
 People tend to choose accountants they can trust in two ways. to know your stuff (do you have sufficient expertise?) and to be a decent person?

Need:
No one ever engages an accountant unless they need one. Equally they rarely go around promoting their accountant until they hear that someone they know needs one. If no one you connect with needs an accountant or knows anyone who needs one, you won’t get much work!

So

Where do advertising and other forms of marketing fit into this analysis? At the beginning of course.  It is simply a way to encourage people who need an accountant to connect with you. Once they have done this you need to help them get to know you, then to like and trust you. This is why I suggest that ‘Need’ can float around either end of the chain. If someone realises they need an accountant but doesn’t know anyone suitable they may respond to your advert or your other marketing promotions and connect with you.
When you recognise that there are 5 links in this chain you may be able to see why your networking, marketing and online activities are not generating the business or referrals you seek. Are you meeting, engaging or connecting with enough people who need your services? Are you going to the right places? Are you active online in the right places? Are you encouraging the right referrals? Are you then helping your new connections to get to know, like and trust you – both generally and specifically to do the work and give the advice they need?
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, feel free to connect with me 😉  I’d love to do something to help you. Let’s have a chat and see what I can do >>>>
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What is the really simple idea at the heart of what you do?

We have all been asked, many times, “What do you do?” Does your reply help ensure that you will be remembered positively for any length of time?

Simple straightforward factual replies allow the other person to put us in a ‘box’. This is what happens when we simply state our profession (eg: “I’m an accountant” or “I’m an employment lawyer”). This has the positive effect of ensuring the other person knows how to categorise us. But it doesn’t make us memorable.

An alternative approach, advocated by some networking advisers, is to offer an intriguing answer that prompts a request for clarification (eg: “I collect brown envelopes” – those that HMRC sends to my clients, so that I can help keep their taxes to a legal minimum”).  Done well this approach can be very effective at making you memorable and helping you to STAND OUT. More often though these intriguing answers are confusing and counter-productive. The lasting impression can be a negative one – that you are a slick smarty pants who enjoys playing this game at the expense of the people you meet. This is not the impression you want to give!

The sad truth is that most people you meet don’t care what you do. They don’t care about your profession and they don’t care about your clever ‘elevator statement’. What might make them care is if your reply to their question evidences the value of what you do; and especially if you express this in a way that is relevant to them in some way,

This is a key reason why I am not a fan of having one standard stock answer to the question: “What do you do?” I always want my answer to resonate with the person I’m with. I pretend that the question they asked was actually:

What do you do and why should I be interested and remember your reply?

My friend, Lee Warren, suggests a variation on this approach and I have been using it to good effect myself in recent months. He suggests you formulate a reply that conveys the value you provide quickly and simply. And to do this you should think in terms of a reply that starts with the words:

At the heart of what I do is a very simple idea….

If you want to stand out from others who do what you do, you really do need to be able to sum up what you do in a way that is memorable, relevant and distinct. It is rarely quick or easy to learn to do this well. Can you do it?

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This is the problem for medium sized firms of accountants

This blog post was prompted by a tweet. It was posted by a top 30 firm of accountants:

“Are you aware of the range of services we provide? We do more than just a set of books at year end. Take a look”

There was then a link to a page on their website which described all the services the firm offers. It was pretty generic and almost identical to the list you’d find on almost all medium sized firms’ websites.

And that’s part of the problem for firms like this.

They have to allow for the variations in style, approach and service provided by so many people within the firm. As result the overall service promises are bland and interchangeable. Of course they are.

Each medium sized firm’s name and branding only takes them so far.

Their ideal clients will shortlist a number of firms as advisers. I’ve done it myself in recent years when seeking new accountants for a charity and for a members’ club. The first time I did this from the client side I realised how much it’s down to the individual partners to impress at pitch meetings. They need to evidence their teamwork – beyond bland assertions. And they need to distinguish their service offerings from their competitors. And yet – how different can they really be?

What makes the difference when it comes to choosing one firm over another? The people are often interchangeable. This is evident from the way so many people move between firms. There is even more movement and poaching of partners from firm to firm now than there was when I was in practice.

So is it the firms that are really different or just their branding and marketing? Most often it is only the latter. Is that enough? I think not.

What also struck me about the services on the web page referenced by the tweet was that the list started with a reference to ‘auditing’. Given that most companies with a turnover below £10million no longer need an audit it seemed an odd service to highlight to visitors from the firm’s twitter account. I doubt many CFOs or major shareholders of substantial corporates are following the account. So talking about auditing will have been irrelevant (and thus a turn off) for the majority of those who might see the webpage.

Ok. Maybe that simply highlights an overly ambitious social media manager. It’s all too common to see accountancy firms tweeting to a non-existent audience. I’ve addressed this topic before on my blog so won’t say more today.

My final observation by reference to the tweet concerns the language used on the webpage. It’s really jargon heavy. I don’t consider myself a marketing or copywriting guru. But I do recognise when language isn’t appropriate for the target audience. That page is written for accountants rather than in language that will resonate with clients. Again, this is a common mistake made by accountancy firms – of all sizes.

If I’m generous perhaps the tweet and the webpage are actually intended to support the firm’s recruitment effort. In which case well done to those involved. But this doesn’t change the main point I am making here.

The problem for medium sized firms is that they rarely offer a compelling reason for smaller growing businesses to engage them. Unless the individual partners have built solid reputations and followings. And cost conscious business clients are increasingly aware that larger firms charge higher fees than smaller firms. Yet the medium sized firm offer pretty much the same service as smaller firms. So why go to a larger (medium sized) firm and pay higher fees?

The standard reply to that question is that ‘our firm offers a wider range of services. All available under one roof.’ Ok. But how does that benefit me as the client? Especially if I have to pay higher fees for the basic services I need every year?

I first referenced this challenge in a blog post in July 2010: No long-term future for ‘halfway house firms of accountants’. This was a term I used to reference the same medium sized firms that I am referencing in this blog post. In 2010 I said:

“They are constantly fighting to become more efficient so as to reduce costs and maintain, let alone, improve profit per partner.”

“The only mid tier firms that will survive and thrive are those with clearly defined niches. By this I mean those that are known for having an area of expertise that makes them really stand out from the pack. They recruit staff and partners specifically to bolster this expertise and they don’t waste time and money trying to be all things to all people. And these firms will only survive as regards those specialist areas. The more generic areas of their practices will shrink as partners retire or leave to go to smaller firms with lower overheads and potentially higher profits per partner. The smaller firms will often be less pressurised environments too – especially if they stick to clearly defined, promoted and valued niche”.

“Those mid-tier firms that have no such recognised niche expertise will face increased pressure from the egg-timer squeeze of both the largest firms and of the smaller more focused and cost-effective firms. The larger ones are perceived as having more credibility for the provision of a wider range of services – when these are needed and valued. The smaller ones are able to provide compliance, advisory and special services more cost effectively.”

Since writing that blog post we have seen a further merging of medium sized firms. This will continue to happen, I suggest, at a faster pace over the next ten years.

There aren’t enough larger clients to go round. Medium sized firms of accountants have many smaller clients too. Clients who don’t need access to a wider range of services and who would typically be more profitable if their accountancy fees were lower each year.

The problem for medium sized firms is that they have to charge higher fees than smaller practices. And plenty of consultants are encouraging them to charge ever-higher fees too. I believe that a sizeable majority of clients of the medium sized firms do not secure enough additional benefits to justify paying higher fees than are charged by sole practitioners.

Over time the smaller clients drift away from the larger (medium sized) firms. This is evident from the number of established businesses that move to my clients – savvy sole practitioner accountants. They are able to provide more advice and to spend time with clients without being pressured to increase their billable time or to leave clients in the hands of managers.

The survival strategy for larger firms invariably involves merger and hope. And yet this only defers the inevitable.

A future in which there are fewer medium sized firms and more small firms and sole practitioners providing more cost effective and genuinely personal services to the majority of small businesses in the UK.

This all helps explain why I specialise in advising sole practitioner accountants.

I’ll happily speak at conferences and events run by larger firms. When I do that though my focus is generally on the individual partners and senior staff. I don’t advise firms on what they can or should be doing (other than re social media strategy where I do have a bit of a reputation in this regard). Many more medium sized firms will merge or break-up over the next ten years in my view.

So I address the individuals in the firms as ultimately it is them, their reputations and their expertise that clients need to buy. Backed up by the firms’ branding.

This is the real challenge for medium sized firms – they need to invest (even) more in making sure their people stand out from their peers and competitors. And yet, as partners build their reputation, credibility and following, so they become better placed to leave the firm and to take ‘their’ clients with them. And the more attractive becomes this prospect when coupled with the prospect of lower overheads, less firm politics and increased rewards. And fewer generic tweets about the generic services available from another medium sized firm.

 

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Could you adapt this unique way of standing out from the crowd?

I still remember meeting Christopher Higenbottam at a networking event some years ago. I asked what he did and he told me he is an architect. (Indeed it transpired that he was the MD of Tempietto Architects). We talked for a while about his work.  After a few minutes I think I asked him whether there was anything specific that distinguished his practice from that of other architects I might know.  I’ve long asked variations of this question when first meeting fellow professionals.  And it’s an important one to be able to answer convincingly.

Most professionals, in my experience, fall back onto the hackneyed stand bys. They often talk about offering a ‘personal service’ (sometimes they even seem to believe that this is special, just like ALL of the other accountants, lawyers, surveyors who say the same thing).  Other common  replies, that also fail to make you memorable or distinctive, focus on other intangible service elements.

If I ask you this question it’s because I want to know what to listen out for when talking to people who might need your services. If I’m not a potential consumer of the  services myself I want to know why I should remember and recommend you rather than any of the other accountants, lawyers, surveyors I have met.  Knowing that a solicitor, for example, specialises in employment law is not enough.  I know dozens of employment lawyers.

Equally, when you meet people at networking events you need to appreciate that they have probably met loads of other people who do what you do. I have addressed this need to STAND OUT and to be memorable many times on this blog.

So what did Christopher Higenbottam tell me that made him stand out? He focused on one element of his services – homes for individuals. I recall he talked about some special homes that he had designed.  Then he did something no one has ever done with me at a networking event before or since. He pulled out his smartphone and showed me a short slide show containing 6 photos of beautiful homes he has designed. And guess what? I REMEMBER him.

This idea is not easily replicable by many other professionals. Few of us produce anything tangible and worth photographing. There’s little point in an accountant showing a few photos of a well bound and balanced set of accounts!  I had a few alternative thoughts when I first shared this story. None of them serious.  Perhaps you can do better?  Do please add your thoughts as comments on this post.

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Don’t make this mistake if you want referrals from your clients

Regardless of which profession you practice, I wonder if you make an all too common mistake. We all hope that clients will want us to provide a range of services to them. And we hope that clients will recommend and refer us to other prospective clients too.

But, as I frequently point out, ‘hope’ is not a strategy. What do you do to ensure that clients become aware of all the services you offer?

It would be a mistake to run through everything you do at a time when you should be focused on your client’s needs. It would equally be a mistake to assume that clients will ever recall all of your service offerings.

I know an accountant, let’s call him, Andrew, who explains to new clients that he can do much more than day to day bookkeeping and accounting. He says he doesn’t just deal with day to day issues. He also has expertise in inheritance tax and at such time as a client starts thinking about their will, Andrew would love to help them.

Andrew tells me that the relationship developed well with one client and he did some great work for them. As a result, he was really quite upset to find out two years later that the same client has taken inheritance tax advice from a tax specialist.

Andrew wanted to know why the client had done this. I knew the answer as I’ve heard similar stories many times over the years.  I suggested that Andrew ask his client why they went to someone other than him for inheritance tax advice.

The client was surprised by the question and even more surprised to learn that Andrew could have provided the advice being sought.

Andrew was shocked. “But I told you I could advice on inheritance tax” he wanted to say.

The problem is that when Andrew mentioned this to his client, they weren’t interested. They might not have heard and they evidently didn’t remember. In my experience, few people remember things that they didn’t hear in the first place (names are another example).

You cannot afford to hope that clients will remember all the things you told them. Once. Twelve months ago.

Can you think of anything that you expect your clients to remember about your service capability, your expertise or your terms? Is it realistic to expect them to remember? Would it be better to do or say something, in passing, to ensure they don’t forget?

The same point is true as regards your service levels. You might have told them what to expect but did they take it in? Do they remember? Managing client expectations means more than just telling them once.

And finally, the same point applies when it comes to securing recommendations and referrals. There is little point in hoping that clients will recommend and refer you for a wider range of services than those they received. Indeed they may be reluctant to ever recommend you for services they haven’t experienced themselves.

Whatever you do, you need to take a more active role if you want more recommendations and referrals. Don’t assume that everyone remembers what you do, who you do it for and who you want to be introduced to. Chances are you’ll be disappointed.

Better to take some action and encourage the recommendations and referrals you seek.

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Use your ‘inner magic’ to stand out from others who do what you do

Are you ‘just another’ accountant, lawyer, surveyor, speaker, trainer or whatever? Really? But you’re you. No one else can be you. The real you.

Richard Jones on BGT

Richard Jones on BGT

The winner of the 2016 TV series of Britian’s Got Talent (BGT) was Richard Jones. A magician. And a soldier.

When interviewed* Richard explains that from the outset he was determined to be who he really is. He is a soldier who does magic. He does both. That’s his story. He says he was always going to involve his personal spin on what he did because that’s who he is. And that’s what he’s always done.

“A lot of magicians do the same kind of things, the same kinds of tricks. But something that people really connect to, when you’re performing magic, is if you come across in a more personal way. If you’re a lawyer and you’re doing magic, tell them you’re a lawyer and doing magic. I think that makes you more approachable. I feel it makes you more interesting because you’re not this guy who does crazy stuff, you are a real person, more on the level of anyone who’s watching”

When I speak about how professionals can STAND OUT from their peers and competitors I make a similar point.  Be you and reveal a little more of who you really are if you want to be seen (and remembered) as more than ‘just another’ person doing what you do.  This is especially easy if you have an unusual hobby or interest. But that’s not a requisite.

When I moved into professional speaking I looked back over my own career. It was clear that I had long stood out from many of my peers and that this was a key reason why I had been promoted, headhunted twice and invited to join and Chair various professional committees.

Of course my experience and expertise within the accounting profession were also important. But what made me stand out from others? I can invariably trace this back to my willingness to stand up and speak in public, to present effectively and to engage with audiences. And these skills are a direct consequence of my interest in magic and the fact that I have used magic to entertain audiences since my early teens.

As an accountant and tax adviser I rarely felt it was appropriate to include magic tricks in my talks and presentations. As a professional speaker now it would be madness to avoid any reference to magic in my talks. And when I do this it helps me to connect with audiences who generally recognise they are seeing the real and authentic BookMarkLee.

I’m a speaker and a magician who originally trained as an accountant. That’s who I am. Sharing it, however briefly, during my talks helps me to STAND OUT in a positive way.   Using magic tricks to emphasise key points adds to the entertainment quality of my talks. It also help make them more memorable and me more referable. This all helps others to think of me as more than ‘just another’ speaker.

Just to be clear, none of this is enough. Audiences and bookers need to gain plenty of value from my talks. Standing Out alone doesn’t lead to repeat bookings and recommendations. Fortunately, I have plenty of these too 😉

It’s the same in any profession. You need to be good at what you do to if you want to win more business and more work. But revealing, and maybe even embracing, who you really are can make all the difference. Richard Jones wasn’t just another magician competing on BGT. He was a soldier who was also a magician. And the first magician to win this annual competition. Even if you don’t have an unusual interest or hobby there will invariably be some distinct facet of your life experiences or background. Don’t hide who you really are.

What’s your ‘inner magic’? Who are you – beyond your professional role and your business activity? How could you use your ‘inner magic’ to stand out from others who do what you do?

*(The interview in question was published in the November 2016 issue of  The Magic Circular – the magazine for members of The Magic Circle, of which I am proud to be the Treasurer).
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Does your business card contain any of these 11 mistakes?

I routinely encourage audience members to give me their business cards at the end of conference talks. They do so if they would like me to send them copies of slides and other materials I reference during my presentation.

As many of my audiences are accountants this affords me the opportunity to compare and contrast hundreds of their business cards. So much so that I now add the following comment when I invite them to pass me their cards:

If you give me your cards I will send you a copy of the slides etc as long as I can read your email address. I’m astonished at how small or pale this is on some business cards. What is the point in having a key piece of contact information that is hard to read?

If you don’t have a card with you, just jot down your name and email address on a piece of paper.  I ask for your name as I don’t like addressing emails to Dear info, Dear mail, Dear admin or Dear enquiries and if that’s how your email address starts I have no option unless I know your name.  Again, why would you not want people to know your name?

I have written previous blog posts offering tips to help accountants ensure their business cards work well for them. Whilst many accountants have great looking business cards, many still do not. So below I offer a summary of the 11 most common business card mistakes I see accountants making. You may find it helpful to check yours against this list.

Also, of course, if everyone (or enough of those) to whom you give your business card then follows up with you, engages you or refers other people to you, then all is well and you should ignore all that follows!

Plenty of accountants include on their cards something specific about the services they provide, niches on which they focus or a neat tagline that helps them stand out from the rest. All of these, done well, can work for you. I’m no marketing expert so will not attempt to tell you what you MUST do with your card. I simply offer here 11 mistakes that it’s easy to avoid.

Purpose

Before getting onto the common mistakes let’s just remind ourselves as to the reason for a business card. I suggest that it is to provide the person to whom it is given sufficient details for them to get in touch with you – and for them to know why they might want to do this. Also for them to remember you – beyond the next 24 hours or so. Will they remember you in a month or two when they look at your business card for the first time in weeks – especially if, since meeting you, they have met 2 or more other accountants?

1 – info@  admin@  mail@ enquiries@ etc

Email addresses that do not start with a name are generally a turnoff as they lack the personal touch Why not use your name? It’s even worse on websites where there is often no reference at all to who YOU are.

2 – accountant.name@btinternet.com or @yahoo.com or @gmail.com etc

Email addresses that use a generic email service look unprofessional and suggest that you are either new in practice, are not serious about growing your practice or are very much behind the times. None are great signals. You can get you own email address very cheaply even if you do not have or need a website.

3 – Tiny and/or pale font

Either the information on the card is worth including or it isn’t. If it’s too small or faint to read then it might as well not be there. Too many business cards seem to have shrunk the font size to fit in more information such as email addresses, linkedin profile links and a promo message. But if we can’t read it easily you’re wasting your time.

4 – Crossed out email address on card and new handwritten one added

Talk about unprofessional. Think of the impact this has. New contact details means new business cards. There’s little point in finishing off an old batch of cards if the people to whom they are given mark you down as unprofessional.

5 – Multiple office phone numbers. 

You should only need one office number unless you personally operate from multiple offices. Even then you could make it easier for callers by utilising a central phone answering service, installing a switchboard or adding an auto-redirect (when engaged or unanswered) to your mobile number.

6 – Two email addresses on one business card

Why would anyone do that? It’s not like having separate local and city office physical addresses. Make it easy for people to contact you; don’t force them to wonder and to choose.

7 – Flimsy and cheap looking card

Your business card is a memory aid for when you’re not there. Do you want to be remembered as a cheap amateur?

8 – Mixed up personal and business contact information

So many business cards have evolved with little thought apparently given to where newer info should be added. It’s so much easier if the business name, address and switchboard number are evidently separate to your personal name, title, mobile, direct dial and email address.

9 – Glossy or dark coloured card

I’m not the only person in the world who likes to make a note on the back of business cards I collect. We do this so that we can recall where and when we met and what we have promised to do by way of follow up; or  simply something about you that will make it easier to remember you. I know it’s great to feel that your card stands out from the rest, but will people still recall you and where and when you met etc if they cannot note this on the card?

10 – Forgetting to include ‘Accountants’ or any similar style reference

A surprising number of accountants’ business cards have a clever brand name or even just the individual’s name but no indication of the nature of the business service they offer. Of course if you’re ‘tax specialists’ you might put that instead of ‘accountants’.  Remember too that even if you’re a member of the ICAEW and use the authorised logo, not everyone will recognise this so it’s not sufficient.  And whilst a marketing ‘guru’ may have suggested you call yourselves something like ‘business growth specialists’ you still need to use the word ‘accountants’ (or whatever) to help the person who looks at your card, some time after you gave it to them, remember what you do.

11 – Squeezing everything onto one side of the card

All cards have two sides, why not make use of both sides. Larger firms might put personal contact details etc on one side and the firm’s details on the other side. Or you might use one side to highlight specific expertise, interests or services. Don’t just list everything that most people assume all accountants do. That’s a bit of a waste of space.

 

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10 website insights for accountants to generate more sales enquiries

If you are a regular reader you will know I rarely include guest posts on my blog. In this tenth anniversary year though I have decided to stop being so precious. As long as the content is both directly relevant and useful to my audience and I agree with the advice and tips, why not?

In conversation with Peter Swead recently I realised his advice re accountants’ websites reflected views I have long shared. I’ve blogged on the topic before but am happy to share Peter’s ten website insights as they are bang uptodate.

Peter Swead’s top 10 recommendations for an accountant’s website to ensure it is effective at generating sales enquiries are:

1) Ensure your telephone number is on the top right of every website page.

2) Explain clearly and succinctly to potential clients how you can help – rather than the services supplied.

3) Keep text simple and short – no more than 200 words per page. Use simple English suitable for a 12 year old.

4) Break up complex information into bullet points so that it can be easily scanned.

5) Have the courage to be totally authentic – be the real you and set out what makes you special. That means no models or stock photos. Visitors want honesty – rather than beauty from your website. (Unless you’re also graphic designers!)

6) Ensure your website can be read and navigated on a mobile phone – without pinching.

7) Set up a Google My Business account. It’s free! Get a professional photographer to take pictures of the exterior of your premises, interior, staff and a group shot of staff and individuals.

8) Explain each service offered on a single page and then breakdown areas into sub pages – so that the VAT page could have pages on how you help with:

a. VAT returns,

b. VAT investigations,

c. Choosing the best VAT regime,

d. VAT book keeping,

e. VAT software (Xero / Act) supported

9) Be positive and explain how you help rather than what you don’t do.

10) Ensure your website pages load in 2 seconds. Every second of delay reduces the number of sales enquiries received by 7%

Each of the above points will provide an significant improvement to the cost-effectiveness of your website – but the total effect is compounded with each issue addressed.

For more information see http://paramarq.com/our-services/website-evaluations/websites-for-accountants/

I challenged Peter about the look and feel of his website as I felt that it didn’t look as good as many others I have seen. Was it a good enough advert for his business? I expected him to say that he hadn’t had the time to do much to it. Not at all. He keeps it simple and focused as he says he doesn’t want to reveal to his competitors all the techniques he uses to ensure that his clients’ websites are powerful drivers of sales.

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What to put on an accountant’s shopfront?

After I’d presented a talk to a group of accountants recently one of them asked for my advice. Our brief discussion might be of wider interest.

Q: I have a [huge] shopfront window at the front of my high street accountancy practice. 40,000 cars go past each day.

Could we use the window to STANDOUT and if so what should we put on it to help generate business?

A: If we had time I would look to find out much more about you and your practice. As we only have a couple of minutes, let me just ask one Q. What sort of work do you enjoy doing? (“Tax investigations. Though it’s really a typical general practice”)

Ok. So let’s focus on that topic. I’d consider putting “Taxman troubles? Pop in” on the window. As large as possible. It’s clear, alliterative and it doesn’t alienate conventional clients. It highlights a key topic and can be easily read and understood by drivers and passengers in passing cars and buses as I assume your signage generally makes clear that you run an accountancy practice from the shopfront. (“Confirmed”)

Rationale

My thinking here was to look for a combination of just one key service line that prospective passing trade would recognise as being distinct from more traditional and general accountancy services. I’m never sure that simply listing all of those services on your shopfront is very helpful. People (think they) know what accountants do. Far better, in my view, to attempt to STAND OUT by highlighting either a specific service line or a niche and specialist client type.

Follow up

The next morning I received this delightful note from the same accountant:

“Thank you for the advice you gave me yesterday afternoon when I asked you for your thoughts on what I might put on my large shop front window for the 40,000 per day passing traffic to see.

I’m going to have a good look at your website.  I’d like to think you can help me grow  my practice in a meaningful way.”

I hope so too!

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If we don’t trust experts anymore what do you need to do to STAND OUT?

During 2016 politicians in both the UK (Michael Gove) and in the US (Donald Trump) repeatedly asserted that people have “had enough” of experts. Voting patterns seemed to confirm this as expert political and economic views were largely ignored. And yet, we also know it’s patently not true. If you have a health problem do you prefer to take the advice of an amateur or of an expert? What about if you were arrested?

So the real question is why do people trust some experts but reject others? Why do many people on the one hand seek medical experts for medical issues, but distrust climate experts for climate issues, and economic experts for economic issues?

It transpires there is an answer to this question – although it’s in a scientific paper so relies on the views of experts!

In a study published in 2015, psychological scientist Friederike Hendriks and her colleagues at the University of Muenster in Germany coined the term “epistemic trustworthiness”. This refers to our willingness or otherwise to place trust in, and listen to, an expert when we need to solve a problem that is beyond our understanding. The paper focused on our willingness to believe scientific facts but I suggest that the conclusions are more widely applicable.

The authors argue that for an expert to be high on epistemic trustworthiness they need three characteristics: expertise, integrity and benevolence. In other words, knowing stuff isn’t enough. This is key. For us to rate a person as a trustworthy expert they need to know their information, to be honest and to be good-hearted.  There are also echoes here of the work on the power of Influence by Dr Robert Cialdini.

Being an expert is just not enough any more. Experts are more likely to be believed if they are likeable and evidently honest. I have addressed this previously on my blog. One way to evidence your honesty is to admit what you don’t know. In so doing you add credibility to what you do know about. You evidence your expertise partly by accepting its limitations.

The research paper “Measuring Laypeople’s Trust in Experts in a Digital Age: The Muenster Epistemic Trustworthiness Inventory (METI)”  is actually a contradiction in terms. I am quoting it as justification for this blog post. But the very title of the paper works against it. In particular the very idea of something using a fancy term such as “Epistemic Trustworthiness” makes it less likely that many people will accept the premise of the paper.

Many experts make the same mistake. Clients are often alienated when they feel that we are using unfamiliar words and unintelligible acronyms. When we do this we are making the mistake of seemingly pushing our clients to rise to our level of sophistication and knowledge. We are much more likely to be trusted if we use words and phrases that are commonly understood and if we explain any necessary or helpful acronyms.

As experts we need to demonstrate that we are good, honest people who have our clients’ and prospective clients’ best interests at heart. We increase the likelihood that we will stand out from our competitors if we:

  • communicate more clearly and hold back on the jargon;
  • admit what we don’t know; and
  • develop a genuine interest in helping other people.

In a continuing effort to practice what I preach, I would encourage you to look around this website. Access any materials and blog posts that you find of interest and do get in touch if you feel I might be able to help you. If I can’t I’ll admit it and hopefully will know someone who can!

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