How much free advice do you give to prospective clients?

As we’re providing professional (personal) services many of us tend to think we have to give some of our time away for nothing to strangers (whom we describe as ‘prospective clients’).  This is quite a standard approach for accountants who are offering recurring annual services including accounts and tax work.

But when it comes to specialist advice that is to be provided as a one-off to a ‘new’ client, how much time is it worth giving away?

Well, if the advice in question is likely to result only in a low fee, the answer should be – Not a lot. Equally, the longer we spend with someone who has yet to agree to pay us, the more we are likely to be ‘giving away’ such that they then ‘go away’ having found out enough to do it themselves.

There are techniques that some successful advisers use to limit the time they have to give away and to prequalify callers earlier in the process. Even those of us who are aware of (and teach) these techniques sometimes forget. One key tip is to note down your preferred sequence of questions. You have to be comfortable that the sequence and the questions suit your style and approach of course.

Related post: How to avoid giving free advice to prospects

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Unsolicited testimonial for an unknown accountant

I saw this on a private business network forum yesterday:

“Our accountant charged us £150 per month for the first 12 months of the business, including payroll, quarterly VAT returns and annual accounts. We pay extra for our own tax returns but he does those too. After a year, he said he needed to put his price up to us – having given us a special start up, first year rate. I gulped and prepared myself: he asked for £250 per month, including migrating us to Sage et all. Very good value I think.”

Hats off to the unknown accountant concerned. The business concerned has only a handful of staff and turns over less than £100,000.  First year’s fee £1800 plus additional for the directors’ tax returns (husband and wife).  Next year’s fee will be £3000.  AND THE CLIENT IS CLEARLY VERY HAPPY!!!

Why do you think that is and what lessons can you draw from this story?  Please add your comments to this thread.

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Websites for accountants

I regularly find myself sharing my views on this topic so I thought it would be helpful to include in one place all of my previous posts on related issues:

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Four essential elements to service excellence

When I first started this  blog in 2006 I focused on topics drawn from or which were due to appear in my talks, mentoring and coaching programmes.

More recently I have been focusing more attention on the development of my Tax Advice Network.  It contains its own blog containing tax commentaries, ideas, insights and news. In recent months I have noted that the posts on this blog for ambitious accountants have covered a wider range of subjects. The focus is still on helping you to achieve success – in your practice, career and business endevaours. It’s just that now I allow a wider range of issues and experiences to inspire my posts.

This one came about after I was asked if I was the same Mark Lee who asserted that there were four essential elements to service excellence: consistency, attentiveness, recoverability and continuous evaluation.  Now this may confuse the search engines but that Mark Lee is a past President of Singapore Airlines. He is reported to have conducted an exhaustive study in the early 90s to determine the factors that determine success in the airline world.

It was he who concluded that there were four essential elements to service excellence in that world: consistency, attentiveness, recoverability and continuous evaluation.

Before I share my views as to what might constitute service excellence in our world of accountancy and tax, let me ask for your suggestions.  Remember, as I have stressed in previous posts on this blog – what counts are what clients perceive in terms of the services we provide.

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Accountants in Action

On Sunday I enjoyed another fabulous day out at the delightful Art in Action event at Waterperry Gardens (near Oxford).  It’s an annual event and my wife and I tend to go most years.

Art in Action was created out of a simple observation: people are fascinated when artists and craftsmen openly demonstrate their skills and discuss their work.

Accountants of course can’t do the same thing – although I can imagine a comedy sketch where different marquees contain a selection of different professional people all showing visitors how they craft their skill:

  • Accountants in one tent showing how to apply deep brush strokes to create a great set of accounts from a simple trial balance;
  • Bookkeepers in another showing how a bag of rubbish can be made to look like an analysed cashbook;
  • Tax advisers in a third showing how graceful can be the transference of information from accounts to tax returns and how much can be lost on the way; and finally
  • Auditors in a fourth tent, showing how to find gaps and mistakes through a detailed review of a set of accounts and books.

Back to reality however, can accountants ever show prospective clients what they can expect? Would it help if they could?

I’ve commented before about how some accountants are able to evidence and promote REAL distinctive differences that could help prospective clients to choose them as opposed to another accountant who seems no different to all the others.

Would it be possible (or helpful) to go beyond those sort of marketing messages and to SHOW prospective clients how different you are? Here are some ideas to start you off. Please add your own as comments on this post:

  • Copies of your regular newsletter (that’s the obvious one of course);
  • Printed copies of your email newsletter;
  • A sample copy of an agenda for a tax return review meeting or an accounts review meeting – showing that it includes some tax planning topics too;
  • A sample set of accounts together with explanatory notes and helpful tips – ie something useful, commercial and constructive. Make clear that your clients have told you that they didn’t get this level of service from their previous accountants. Although it’s second nature to you, it seems that not everyone else does it;
  • Your year end tax planning tips – especially if they are tailored to different client sectors and so appear to be more relevant and specialist than a generic list;

What else can you think of that might make a difference and that would get close to showing ‘Accountants in Action’?!

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“It’s more important to be different than it is to be better”

I was speaking at the CIMA members in practice annual conference last week about ‘Making more money from your tax work – without fancy tax schemes‘.

Also speaking at the conference was my old friend Chris Frederiksen of the 2020 group. Elements of my presentations have been inspired by Chris over the years – indeed ever since I first heard him speak some 15 plus years ago.

One of the many key points that Chris shared last week was a quote he attributed to Jeremy Harbinson:

“It’s more important to be different than it is to be better”

It struck me that this reinforces a similar point I have been making in various posts on this blog recently.

Even if you are ‘better’ than your competitors, very few prospective clients will be able to judge this – especially before they have engaged you. If you are ‘different’ however, you can stand out, be remembered, recommended and retained.

When Chris asked the audience few of them were able to express REAL differences in ways that would be understood by and appeal to prospective clients. What about you?

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Networking groups are a waste of time – or are they?

I’ve heard plenty of accountants express such views. Equally I’ve heard plenty of accountants extol the virtues and benefits of the networking groups to which they belong. Is it a question of luck, who else is there or is the reason for the differing views more a question of the accountant’s attitude and approach?

A friend of mine, Andy Lopata, who is a networking strategy consultant, recently shared the following story:

I have seen people turn up to networking events without any focus, they’ve had no idea as to why they are there. As a result, they’ve achieve nothing. I’ve even seen an accountant stand up at a BRE meeting for his 60 second presentation, only to say ‘I’ve got nothing to say this week’!!! That’s what a lack of strategy, a lack of planning, a lack of focus will bring you.

Now I know that there are plenty of accountants who attend regular breakfast meetings of networking groups like BNI, BRE (now BRX), BoB and the like. If you’ve tried one and considered it was a waste of time, have you thought through why you felt that?

Did you have realistic expectations or did you expect people to immediately ask you to take over their accounting and tax affairs? Did you expect them to take your card, know who you could best help, why you were special and different to the other accountants they already know and then to refer their family and friends to you?

In my own case, I know that BNI meetings are not for me. I do enjoy NRG meetings however – they are mid day events, include a useful seminar and a lunch with other professional people. They are right for me and I have realistic expectations as to what benefits I can hope to achieve by attending them.

What about you?

PS: I have written a 10,000+ word book specifically for accountants who want to Network more effectively. Click here for full details>>>

If you would like to book me to speak on the subject at your in-house conference or training session, do get in touch. There’s an outline of my talk on ‘How to ensure your networking activity is successful’ here>>>  

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Sky+ adverts provide great example of my advice

Have you seen or heard the current advertising campaign by BSkyB to promote the Sky+ personal video recorder? It includes TV ads that feature celebrities including Michael Parkinson, David Gower, Felicity Kendal, Ross Kemp and Mariella Frostrup talking about the benefits of Sky+. I have also seen poster adverts that include simple quotes from the same celebrities highlighting how beneficial they find the Sky+ facility.

On my way home the other evening after travelling to Cornwall to present a full afternoon talk about How to make more profits from your smaller clients I saw one of the ads and realised that they reinforce one of the points I highlight towards the end of the talk. It’s also a subject about which I have posted extensively on this blog in the past. The power and importance of Testimonials.

Rather than repeat myself let me simply refer you back to these 5 earlier posts from last year:

The value of testimonials (part one)

Client testimonials: Why they are important (part two)

Client testimonials: How to get them (part three)

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

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

To my mind the adverts for Sky+ are very effective. And vastly more so than would be anything written by BSkyB or a conventional advert.  The key point is that most advertising contains mere assertions by the provider/supplier and mere assertions are rarely compelling.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will have seen previous cross references to my Tax Advice Network website. Let’s assume you have yet to go and have a look. Here’s a couple of genuine testimonials copied from our promotional leaflet:

“I will certainly be using Tax Advice Network again – it’s just what small practitioners have been waiting for!” – Geoff Booth, Tax Savers Direct 

“Many thanks for your brilliant emails. This is now the only newsletter I read regularly and I pass it to my staff” – Ray Baxter, Baxter Associates

And they are probably far more compelling than anything I could write myself.

Don’t you agree?

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Is the way you describe yourself helping you to generate enough business?

Last week I posed the question ‘What makes your practice different?’ Earlier in the year I posted a related item:What’s special about your firm – really?

As a follow up from those posts I thought I would share some the differences I have noted as being highlighted by a number of the sole practitioners and smaller firms of accountants I have worked with in recent months. These are ways that they distinguish themselves and stand out from the competition:

– Fixed fee guarantees. No additional charges unless agreed in advance
– Charging (a good) monthly fee for bookkeeping and doing annual tax returns and accounts for free
– Satisfaction guarantees (money back if not satisfied)
– Review of last year’s accounts and tax return (if done by taxpayer) and if no tax savings identified, then no fee in first year
– Tax planning advice to maximise clients’ entitlement to child and working tax credits (worth upto £12k pa)
– An overt focus on saving tax and this permeates promo materials, website and correspondence
– Provide clients with free easy to use bookkeeping software so that they don’t have to pay the accountant or anyone else to do it and so that accountant can quickly and easily check things and produce the client’s accounts
– Out of hours service, visiting clients at home in the evenings (ie: at their convenience rather than the accountants)
– A refusal to take on a new client unless he/she is recommended by an existing client.
– Free tax saving guides available as downloads from website
– Specialists in advising specific professions or business types (motor trade, coaches/therapists, charities, hospital consultants)

The list goes on. Now some of the above are not unique but they do come across as different. Mostly they are highlighted on marketing materials and websites. They are backed up by explanations as to how these concepts benefit the prospect/client.

Probably the last one is the most valuable. To be known as the accountant who specialises in a particular type of client (not exclusively necessarily) is a powerful message and makes you far more memorable. It distinguishes you from all the other accountants that your contact knows. It provides a reason and a justification for them to mention your name to anyone in that field.

NB: This is quite different to the idea of claiming to specialise in a list of professions and business types that just happens to cover all of your client base. Indeed lists like that which I have seen on dozens of accountants’ websites are not ‘specialisms’ at all. Nor are they different or memorable. I’m not even sure that they are meaningful.

It works for other businesses too. My Tax Advice Network, for example, specialises in providing tax support FOR ACCOUNTANTS. Far more of my business contacts are happy to pass on details of the Network to their accountants than would be the case if we did not have that focus. Indeed, if we were simply a tax consultancy there would be no justification in asking contacts to pass on our details to their accountants and, more importantly, my contacts would have no confidence in doing so due to the lack of specialisation.

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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.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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