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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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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