What makes your practice different?

Back in 2007 I wrote a chapter for a book (BusinesWise) to help Entrepreneurs on ‘Finding, Choosing and Using an accountant’. I tried to ensure that this was more practical and real-world advice than that which appears on a variety of business and accountancy websites. I explained some of the ways that entrepreneurs could distinguish between different accountants and the sort of things that are worth finding about before appointing anyone.

From the professional accountant’s perspective what can you do to highlight the real benefits to a prospective client of engaging with you rather than anyone else? I cover some of the related issues during my talks to groups of accountants on How to make more profits from your smaller clients.

Firstly – many of, what we might think should be, the key issues are taken as read by prospective clients. In particular, whilst we all know the value of qualifications and membership of professional bodies, the public are less interested. Specifically they are unaware that anyone can call themselves an accountant.

It matters not if you think they SHOULD take more notice of such differentiators. In practice they are often far more interested in personal recommendations and testimonials from happy clients. If you’re going to rely on your qualifications etc you’d probably get more value from these if you also explain why and how this benefits the client. Bear in mind that unqualified accountants win plenty of work by highlighting the benefits that their status provides.

Many ambitious professionals will claim that their personality is a key differentiator. But this misses the point. You as a person and how likeable you are will often only become a factor after the prospect has agreed to speak with you or to meet you. Until then your personality doesn’t help.

So here’s my top tip: Highlight what makes you different in a positive vein rather than simply repeating all the standard stuff that most prospects will probably take for granted. Remember they’re not experts. When comparing one accountant’s website with another they will read into each profile certain material that they think is probably true of all accountants – even if it isn’t. The prospect doesn’t know. So they assume – unless told to the contrary. It’s well worthwhile clearly stating what makes you different and being sure that this is real.

To my mind it’s better to say: Unlike other accountants we ……
rather than
Unlike other accountants we really mean it when we say we……

although even that is better than much of what many accountants tend to assert in their marketing materials and websites.

Feel free to add comments to this blog and to share what makes your practice really different.

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What do your clients want?

There is an apocryphal story about a group of newly recruited executives at Black & Decker in the days when they only sold one basic product. They were asked what it was that their customers wanted from them.

The standard answer was ‘drills’.

“No” they were told. “Our customers want HOLES.”

In a similar vein the great Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to tell his students, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

How do you feel about this concept and the idea of focusing on the hole in the wall that your prospective clients want?

The longer I’ve been away from conventional practice as a tax adviser, the more I realise that although some professionals seem to be aware of this concept, the vast majority pitch for new work without an awareness that what our clients want are results and solutions to problems. They are often indifferent as to how we help get them. They will rarely care much about our internal processes and systems. I’ve also noticed that there seems to be far more emphasis on the client’s ‘pain’ in sales training these days than I ever saw in my past life. And it’s often the toughest part of networking too.

What do you try to find out when you meet with a prospective client or when you’re networking and hoping that you will gain new advocates for your work? Do you take a moment to find out what result they are seeking or what problem they have? And do you focus your comments more on whether their desired result can be achieved or their problem solved than on how you and your firm operate?

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No one refers work to a business card

How often do you attend networking events where someone shoves their business card in your hand without waiting to be asked for one?

I learned long ago never to be a card shover. There’s no point. I always wait to be asked if I have a card AFTER we’ve spoken for a while.

I would stress that I’m referring here to networking events. It’s quite different when you attend a business meeting and everyone exchanges business cards. That’s normally to ensure that all those present know who else is there and which company they are from.

What is the point in shoving your business card into the hand of someone who hasn’t expressed any interest in it?

At best the card will be added to a database of contacts and the person in question may be able to claim to have met their quota of new people that week or month.

At worst you’ll get added to their mailing list (and start receiving emails and/or post that you may or may not want). There is also a good chance that the impression you give is a bad one; that you struggle to build personal relationships and are simply yet another boring accountant.

There is next to NO CHANCE that the person who gets your card will refer work to you, act as your advocate or decide to engage with you. Why? Because no one refers work to a business card.

Edit: I posted a follow-up to this blog post at the end of 2012 after sorting through and throwing out hundreds and hundreds of business cards collected over a six or seven year period.

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Become a rainmaker for your practice

The term ‘rainmaker’ means different things to different people. In professional service firms it tends to be used to refer to a partner who brings in lots of fees. In some firms the rainmaker has no other repsonsibilities. This is increasingly unusual however.

In my role as the Accountants’ Business Coach I have often used the description ‘finder’ rather than ‘rainmaker’. I have distinguished 12 key business skills as falling under the headings of:

  • Finders – who go out and find the new work
  • Minders – who look after the relationship with the clients
  • Binders – who keep the team working well together
  • Grinders – who do the work [this requires technical skills rather than business skills as such]

The point being that to be a good ‘finder’ you need at least 4 of the 12 key business skills.

Finding

  • Networking – meeting new people and generating work through those you meet;
  • Speaking in public – being confident and clear whether talking to small or large gatherings;
  • Pitching – asking for work or responding to invitations to tender;
  • Closing – gaining new work on acceptable terms;

Of course there are plenty of good rainmakers who never have to make a formal presentation to large groups of people. With that exception any good rainmaker will be confident across all four of those key skills.

To complete a piece of research I have been undertaking recently I’m asking readers of this blog:

  • Is it important that someone in your practice is a good rainmaker?
  • Do you relate to that concept better than that of being a ‘finder’? and
  • Are there any other skills or talents that you feel a good rainmaker needs to possess?

Please post your comments below. If you would like to see how you fare against the full checklist of a dozen key business skills, please let me know and I’ll gladly send you a copy.

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Should you put your fee rates on your website?

I came across this question recently on a general business forum and offered my view which I have adapted below for ambitious professionals.  I’d be interested in what conclusions others have reached. In my experience very few firms have even considered the point.

I can only recall one occasion when I have seen specific reference to the fee levels of a professional adviser on a website. It  was a menu of prices for completing basic tax returns and the extras for each supplementary page (together with a caveat that additional fees would be quoted and charged if the client’s records were a mess – or words to that effect).

My view on the other forum was to suggest that the service provider indicated an entry level price – to keep out the time wasters.

Beyond that a service business has a choice:
– Commoditise each service and quote typical prices so that those that take longer than average are balanced by those that take less time than average (this is the menu approach outlined above);
– Give indicative prices or price bands but make clear that each case depends on exactly what is required in order to provide the desired outcome in individual cases (this is a variation on the menu approach outlined above).
– Not to mention any specific prices – which is by far the most common approach adopted by providers of professional services.

The advantage of the first route is you avoid spending time negotiating fees. The corollary is that you could spend additional time and effort before the work is agreed but you have no facility to reflect this hassle factor in your fee. It also denies you the facility to highlight the value side of your proposition.  Everything is just down to price.  It’s not an approach that would be adopted by many ambitious professionals I don’t think.

The second approach enables you to maximise your fees and to take account of all surrounding factors including the amount of time and effort it has taken to win the piece of work in question.

The last approach is, in some ways, akin to the expensive clothes shops that have garments in the window but do not put price tags on them. If you go into the shop you know it’s going to be expensive. Is that the impression you want to give?

In practice the first approach is generally preferable for low value work. The middle approach is better for high value work.

Some might say that the final approach is used by those who are unsure and don’t mind confusing their audience. However in the context of professional service firms it is the predominant approach so there’s not much chance of confusion.  But just imagine if you became the first to break the mould and to give some indication of your fees for recurring ‘compliance’ services on your website. Do you think that would increase or reduce the number of enquiries you receive and the number of good new clients you create?

There’s an obvious question that visitors to my BookMarkLee website might like to ask me in the light of my observations above.  I look forward to hearing from you!

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Client testimonials: A key mistake to avoid (part five)

I introduced this topic in four previous postings on this blog. Parts one and two introduced the subject and in part three I explained one simple way for ambitious professionals to obtain testimonials. In part four I explained how to choose which testimonials to use.

In this final posting in this series I want to highlight a classic mistake that people make when using testimonials and how you can destroy your credibility if you do the same thing.

First though let’s just remind ourselves why we want to use testimonials in our marketing materials. It is to add credibility to our sales messages and to evidence the promises we have made. Essentially we are acting as a conduit for a third party who is telling our prospective client how good we are.

So what is the key mistake that we need to avoid?Well, let me ask you a question. If you were thinking of engaging me to mentor you which of these two (fictional) testimonials would have most impact?

I have overcome the issues that were halting my progress in the firm and, thanks to Mark I am now a confident networker and more effective in my new partnership role.
-Joe Soap, KPMG

I have overcome the issues that were halting my progress in the firm and, thanks to Mark I am now a confident networker and more effective in my new partnership role.
– Joe Soap, Wander, Cloak and Co (6 partner firm, Hertfordshire).

The only difference is the name of the firm. The first one is recognisable. The second is not.Which is the best one to use?

It can be a big mistake to assume that the quote from someone at a large firm or big name company is automatically the best to use. Why? Well, the starting point is, as always in marketing, to go back to think about who is your audience? Am I trying to influence people in other large firms or in smaller practices? Will my prospective clients relate better to someone in a Big 4 firm or a smaller practice? Will they be more interested in the impact I can have on someone in a Big 4 firm or in a smaller practice?

These are key issues to consider. Whilst it might be nice to have testimonials from recognised names and from partners in the largest firms and high street companies, this can work against you. It can alienate your target audience who may well conclude: If he works well with people in companies like that he’s probably not right for us.

Of course if you have a range of testimonials and the ‘big name’ is just one of many, it may add some further credibility but don’t make it the first one in the list just in case it works against you.

As I’ve already said, the key thing is always to focus on your audience. The primary audience for your testimonials is likely to be prospective clients that need further evidence that you are a credible adviser and right for them.

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Client testimonials: Which ones to use? (part four)

I’ve addressed this topic in three previous postings on this blog. Parts one and two introduced the subject and in part three I explained one simple way for ambitious professionals to obtain testimonials.In practice such testimonials will not always be immediately suitable to incorporate in your marketing literature.

In this fourth part of the series I will explain HOW to choose and use the testimonials that you receive. The final posting in this series will highlight a classic mistake that people make when using testimonials and how it can destroy your credibility.

Most importantly, you want testimonials that are not just positive but also that explain specifically what you did and how the client benefited from your service. Select testimonials that are brief and focused. Each one should be about a specific and measurable result, as much as possible.

So if you receive a particularly positive testimonial but it’s too generalised, thank the person concerned. Indicate how touched you are by their kind words and ask ‘a small favour’. Explain the style of testimonial you’re really after and ask if they could adapt theirs to fit that style.

When it comes to my talks I ask for and regularly receive written testimonials on the course feedback forms. I tend to choose those that say something more specific than “Great speaker” or “Liked his style”.It’s great to be able to choose from a large number of testimonials. If you are in a similar situation you might want to follow these guidelines when choosing which testimonials to use:

1. What are the key benefits of engaging you or your firm, and do you have short testimonials that support or prove those top benefits?

2. Do you have testimonials that tell about specific and measurable results you helped the client to achieve?

3. Are any of the testimonials from recognised names in your profession or from businesses that prospective clients will recognise.

And how can you USE your testimonials? Include them as appropriate in your marketing materials, on your website, in your proposals, award entries, publicity material. Just keep in mind who is your audience in each case and ensure that the testimonial speaks to that audience in an appropriate way.

I must admit I don’t use all the testimonials that I have received to best effect. At the moment there is a collection on the testimonials page of my website and also plenty on of recommendations (which are akin to testimonials) on my Linkedin profile.

In the final part of this series I will highlight a classic mistake that it’s all too easy to make when you get a really good testimonial. It’s a mistake that can really work against you and negate all of your efforts to satisfy a prospective client that you’re the right adviser for them.

Like this post? You can now obtain my 10,000 word ebook containing loads more marketing insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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Carry on bumping?

Do you recognise the following quote?

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

It’s from the opening lines of “Winnie-The-Pooh” (by A.A. Milne).

Can you think of anything that you continue to do the same way you have always done it even though a casual observer might have good cause to question that approach and to suggest there might be a better way?

If you run your own practice you may be quite happy with the rate of growth or the lack of it. You may get a raw thrill from going into your office each day and love both what you do and the way your business operates.

Alternatively,  if you are honest with yourself, you may recognise that you are effectively just bumping down the stairs, bump, bump, bump because that is the only way you know to do things.

One mistake I realised I was making recently, thanks to some very valuable feedback, was that I have made it seem that my mentoring programme is only available to people in larger firms. In fact I am happy to mentor sole-practitioners, those running their own smaller practices and also ambitious professionals who work in business or for institutions of one sort or another.  I need to revise my marketing literature to make this clearer. I can’t blame anyone else for my oversight. It was just me, bumping down the stairs. Mind you, my mentoring services are not cheap and I know that some smaller practitioners will not want to invest sufficiently in themselves to engage me.

What about you? Can you think of anything you do that you’re doing the way you’ve always done it even though it may not be the most effective or comfortable ways of doing things? Do you ever take time out, do you ever MAKE time to work ON your business rather than just keep bumping along working IN your business?

If any of this resonates it’s upto you to do something about it.

I’m always happy to have a conversation with ambitious professionals who sense there may be some value in developing a relationship and engaging me as their mentor. Such conversations are always without prejudice and will not always lead onto anything further. We have to like the idea of working with each other, for starters!

Like this post? You can now obtain my 10,000 word ebook containing loads more marketing insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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The value of testimonials (part one)

I don’t remember when I first learned about the power of testimonials in the context of professional services. It was probably about twenty years ago – long before it became common place.

For many years I have encouraged accountants to collect testimonials and to use them for marketing purposes. I explain to the accountants how to obtain testimonials in a professional way and how to overcome common concerns if they need to collate some to start the ball rolling.

In my case I have a page of testimonials on my website. In each case I have included the full name of the person who gave the testimonial.I must admit though that I have not made the most of them as they are all in one place and not given a context. Thus it’s not clear which testimonials refer to which of my services or talks. Proof I’m not perfect (as if further proof were required!).  I am also very proud of the kind recommendations I have been accumulating on my Linkedin profile.

Why are testimonials so valuable in the context of professional services? Quite simply because they are the next best thing to a direct referral. Many professionals claim that they get much of their work through personal recommendations and I can believe that.They often claim that advertising is not really worthwhile.They may be right.

But there is, what I call, a disconnect here. When they advertise (and I include website material as part of the advertising mix) they are communicating with people who don’t know them. Equally these prospects may not know any existing clients.But those prospects could read testimonials from existing clients if these were easily available on the website and in other marketing materials.

Without testimonials the marketing messages are mere assertions.Testimonials can bring these assertions to life. They can act as the next best thing to a personal recommendation or referral. They need to be believable. They need to be relevant and they need to be authentic.

I’ll continue this theme in future blog posts.

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Websites for professional firms (part one)

I recently posted an item here entitled: How to present your firm more effectively. I’ve since noted a related discussion on Dennis Howlett’s AccMan blog concerning the importance or otherwise of your firm’s website.

Dennis seems to be of the view that the quality of a firm’s website is almost irrelevant as what distinguishes one firm from another is the quality of the people. And to an extent I agree with him.

There is another angle here however. How do prospective clients and advocates distinguish one firm from another BEFORE they meet those distinctive individuals? It doesn’t matter how great the people are if no one is meeting or talking with them to ascertain if the relationship and service offering is right for the prospective client. And what is it, these days, that a prospect will do before deciding whether or not to contact a new adviser? They will check the relevant website. This is increasingly the case even if an incredible adviser is highly recommended by a very enthusiastic client.

Does your website contain the right messages for you/your firm targeted at your key audiences? Does it present the adviser or the firm in a good light and really distinguish them from the competition or does it contain the same old ‘sales’ messages as everyone else? Does your website enhance or damage your marketing efforts and the referrals that you get?

Of course there there are probably some firms, with great people, who are getting loads of referrals despite having ordinary, boring and potentially damaging websites. No one knows how many more referrals they could be converting if only their website was more effective. Possibly no one cares. Probably no one has the time, knowledge or inclination to brief the web designers to improve things. I’ll return to this topic in subsequent blog posts.

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