Do people see you as successful or struggling?

Some accountants I know are proud of how efficiently they look after their own business affairs. Others though are embarrassed at their inefficiencies. And there are some who do not appear to give any thought as to how they are perceived.

If clients or business associates become aware that you are not running your practice very well, they may come to question the business advice you offer. And clients may choose not to accept your offer to provide business advice on a regular basis (for a fee). That would be a shame as it is a key ambition for many sole practitioners who want to grow their fees.

This is much worse than the old story of the cobbler who did fine work for his customers but allowed his children to run around in shoes that fell apart. The cobbler’s customers could judge the quality of his work as they could see and feel it. Clients cannot do that with the advice you provide. All they can do is ‘look’ at how well they perceive you to be doing.

Do you give the impression of success or of struggling? Are you practicing what you preach?  The people you meet in business and when networking associates may know and like you. They may also trust you in a general sort of way. But do they trust you to be competent to give good business advice to the people they might be able to introduce as clients?

Is there a risk that you don’t really understand or believe in the advice you are sharing? Do you talk about your problems and challenges with clients? Does the way you ask for referrals smack of desperation? Do they think of you as professional or pathetic?

When you offer business advisory services to your clients they will only agree to pay you if they believe the advice will be of value. Once they are sold on this they could choose to take advice from someone else. Someone successful. Or, at least someone who seems successful. How do your business clients and contacts see you? That will often depend on how you see yourself and the impression you give.

If you’re not getting the referrals or business you would like, do consider whether this might be due to the perception you give as regards how you run your own business.

 

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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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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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How much personality should sole practitioners put into their practice?

I was asked two related questions during a recent interview. This post is drawn from the notes I made before giving my answers on air.

1. With so many businesses competing with each other online, has it become more important to put more personality into your practice?

The smaller your practice the more important it is to allow people to know that it is you who runs it. I am assuming here that you want more clients and that you’re not simply looking to take on those people who want the cheapest possible job.

Your clients know who you are, don’t they? Why hide this from prospects? That’s what you do when you fail to include your name, a photo and something about you (as a person) on your website. It’s really easy to STAND OUT positively from all of your competitors who fail to do this. Let them be the ones who hide behind a business name and brand – with a website that only allows people to contact an unnamed info@ email address.

I’d encourage you to adopt the same logic when you are crafting or updating your Linkedin Profile. (See my free Linkedin Profile Tips here>>>)

And finally on this point, if you’re going to use twitter then ensure you use it in your own name with a photo of YOU. This will be far more effective than tweeting in your firm’s name. Personal twitter accounts always have more engagement and followers than those that operate in the name of small accountancy firms.

The more of your professional personality you show the more you will STAND OUT positively from your competitors who fail to do so.

2. Is there such a thing as too much personality?

I’m sure we’ve all seen people who confuse the idea of evidencing their personality with shouting about their achievements and activities online celebrex cost. This sort of behaviour is a turn-off and rarely helps build a positive reputation or new business leads.

What do you want people to say about you when you’re not there? You want to leave a positive impression whether online or face to face. If you have a larger than life personality that’s fine. It’s not for everyone, but if that’s your style then don’t hold back. Just try to ensure you are aware that some people may find you overpowering and so struggle to build rapport with you. Then  again, maybe you want to attract the sort of people who can relate to and enjoy the company of a larger than life accountant with a big personality. You can’t please all the people all of the time.

Be yourself – be authentic – be consistent. And let people take you for who you are.

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10 commandments of client service for sole practitioners

Ok, maybe not real ‘commandments’ and maybe they are relevant to a wider audience than sole practitioners. Either way I hope you’ll nod as you look through the list. I suggest you aim to pick out one or two where you know you could do better. And then focus on what you could do to improve your client service in this regard over the next few days, weeks and months.
Could I also encourage you please to complete a quick survey (just 2 questions) re the key issues facing sole practitioners? See here>>>
1. Ask good questions: You need to identify and anticipate your client’s needs. Some clients may just tell you everything they think you want to know. But some need to be encouraged and many clients won’t know what’s important and relevant until you ask them to take about specific issues. You are the expert so you should know what additional information you need to give valuable advice. Do you get to the nub of the issue to find your client’s underlying issues, concerns and worries?
 
2. Listen attentively:  It’s all too easy to assume that one client’s situation and needs are the same as ‘all the others’ with a similar background. Even if that turns out to be the case, the fact that you listened to them will form a stronger bond, give them more confidence in your advice and increase the prospect they will speak positively about you – leading to more referrals and recommendations. Do you KNOW, as regards each client, what are their 3 most important concerns?
3. Make clients feel special: Smile when you meet with them. Be careful to only make promises you know you can keep. Be sincere. Only ever under-promise and then over-deliver. Give them more than they expect (as long as they will value the extras). Be respectful of clients’ time. Resolve their problems as quickly as possible and keep them informed of your progress (or lack of it). Every client interaction is an opportunity to show you care and to provide outstanding service. Deliver a solution that meets or even exceeds a client’s expectations and you’ll strengthen your relationship with that client.
4. Avoid jargon: Remember that clients don’t generally use the same acronyms and abbreviations as accountants. They may feel daft not understanding what you’re talking about and just nod quietly. Speak to clients using language they understand. Communicate to be understood, not to impress. Are you even aware of how often you use terms and jargon that clients may not follow? Clients hate it. Most people do, which is why I didn’t simply say: DUTMA.
(DUTMA = Don’t Use Too Many Acronyms!)
5. Bill promptly and fairly: With the possible exception of your smallest clients, you and your clients will benefit from regular billings across the year. ‘Prompt’ billings means around the time you provided the service and in line with your terms of business/engagement.  ‘Fairly means, fair to YOU as well as fair to your clients. If your fee is going to be higher than they might have expected, you should DISCUSS this with them before sending out the fee note and chasing payment.
6. Apologise promptly: None of us is perfect. When something goes wrong, be honest about it and apologise. Suggest how you might make amends and seek your client’s feedback as to what they want. Clients rarely swap accountants simply because of a mistake or two. The client service failing comes when your client perceives that you don’t care enough. Make it simple for clients to let you know if they have a problem. Make it clear that you value their complaints. Better they should let you know than tell other people! It also gives you an opportunity to improve. Even if customers are having a bad day, go out of your way to make them feel comfortable The client isn’t always right but they like to feel as though they have won – even when they are wrong.
7. Make it easy to do business with you: You don’t need to be available 24 hours a day. But you do need to be easy to contact. If you’re often out and about, consider a telephone answering service so that a real person takes messages. Consider an online diary scheduling service to allow clients to book meetings with you at mutually convenient times. I use calendly – but there are many other options. These facilities can make your life easier whilst also removing the frustration that follows when a client cannot easily reach you.
8. Focus on solutions vs problems: Clients don’t ‘really’ buy an accountant’s services. What they are really buying are good feelings and solutions to their problems. The more you can talk in terms of providing solutions to their problems, the more they will appreciate what you are doing for them and what you can do for them.
9. Admit what you don’t know: You are rarely doing clients a favour if you pretend to have more knowledge and experience than you do. Clients will rely on you more if they know they can trust you to be honest with them.
10. Seek regular feedback: If you are serious about wanting to provide great client service, you will only know if you seek feedback from your clients. How do you do this? Casually or in an organised way that adds to your credibility? The best method invites constructive criticism,  comments, and suggestions.
If you are a sole practitioner, do please complete this quick survey (just 2 questions) re the key issues you are facing.
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Are your clients indifferent or do you get all the referrals you want?

Some professional advisers, such as accountants, claim that they secure much of their new work through word of mouth referrals. This suggests that clients are making positive comments about them. They may do that if they’re particularly happy but in the same way any unhappy clients will be quick to share their negative views even if they don’t express their disappointment to your face.

I’ve heard a large number of people talking about their accountants in recent years and it’s fair to categorise those views as good, bad, or most often – indifferent. Well at least it’s not ugly!

Let’s explore these different views and the wider lessons we can learn.

Good

Expressing a positive feeling that the accountant is doing a good job should mean that everything is good enough (or great!). Clients imply that their accountant does what they want, when they want it and for a fee that they consider to be good value for money. A good feeling is even more likely if the client indicates that they get pro-active advice and are very happy to recommend their accountant to friends and family.

Bad

Negative perceptions are sadly all to common. These clients feel that they’re putting up with bad service, high fees and/or get little of value. They certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone they know to use the accountant.

Indifferent

This is how I describe those clients who think their adviser is ‘okay’ or ‘good enough’. This might be because the accountant doesn’t wow the clients with great service nor do they feel that the accountant is charging excessive fees.

Sadly it seems to me that a high proportion of people think their accountant is just ‘okay’. The fact that they haven’t complained doesn’t mean we can assume that they think their accountant is ‘good’. It also means that the client is more at risk of moving to a new pro-active client than their current accountant might assume.

‘My accountant is great’

I saw this comment on a business forum a while back. I asked the person concerned what made them say that? Here’s the reply:

“He keeps things very straightforward in his explanations not that I have any particularly complex matters to deal with but he acts quickly, keeps costs to a reasonable amount (not cheap but sufficient value), makes himself available as and when needed and I get comfort from the fact that he has a successful practice, nice small modern offices and polite and helpful staff. When I have required explanations re: overseas investments, capital gains tax, what I can put against tax to minimise it legally, he delivers his knowledge in an easy to assimilate manner”.

I think that’s about it in a nutshell. Of course different clients want different things from their accountants. And different elements of your service and style will appeal to different clients.

Conclusion

If your clients are getting the service and attention  they want from you at a price they’re happy to pay then they MIGHT be expressing a positive view about you to other people. They’ll only do so when asked though. Are you consciously doing anything to ensure that your clients see you as good, rather than bad, or do you risk them being indifferent?

It’s only if your clients think you’re really good that they’ll be saying positive things about you. And if you rely on word of mouth referrals for new clients, you may find that we are moving into an age when you need to adopt a more active approach to encouraging these.

What do you do to actively encourage positive word of mouth referrals?

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Use it or lose it – Your clients’ trust

Accountants are expected and trusted to be good business advisers. This puts them in a good position to advice clients during the current troubled financial times.

I addressed this point recently in a post entitled: Accountants need to show they really are business advisers as we move into recession.

I have now seen reports of another survey that only serves to emphasise this point.

It was carried out by the Forum of Private Business (FPB)  together with commercial credit agency Graydon UK, and questioned 400 small businesses on their individual experiences of seeking financial advice.

The results reveal that 70 per cent of those questioned choose to consult their accountants for this type of advice, compared to only 47 per cent who look to their bank managers as trusted advisers.

The FPB comments on the results stress the declining confidence in banks as sources of financial advice.  My take on this is that the 70% figure above is LOWER than I would have expected. It might be a reflection of the respondents – perhaps only 70% had an accountant.

I make no apologies for restating a point I have been making for some months now.

Your clients trust you as a source of business and financial advice.  Now is the time to prove that such confidence is not misplaced. If you do not help clients through the recession you will lose them – either because they will cease to be in business or because they will move to a pro-active commercial accountant who can help them more than you have tried to do.

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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