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.

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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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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What do clients say about you? (2)

Recently someone asked for a referral to an accountant on one of the business forums to which I contribute.

Last week I shared what I was told when I asked what made one respondent comment that their accountant was ‘great’. Someone else recommended their new accountant having said “I’m really impressed”. Here’s what they said when I asked them what had so impressed them:

A lot of is differences between the old and the new accountant.

Here’s a quick list:

– Came to our home at a time that suited me, late in the evening as it happened, this prevented me from losing consulting hours during the day
– He is a prolific networker, member of BNI in Birmingham and understands the concept of networking, regularly links his clients to other clients or BNI members and that really attracted me because it was a value-add compared to the old accountant who “just did the books”.
– Hasn’t charged us to do a recent profit estimation for a mortgate application. In contrast, the last accountant sent me a snotty note when he had to pay £1 excess because my wife had miscalculated the postage charge on a wad of documents we sent him, I thought that was immensely petty and ultimately led to us dropping him.
– Peter (new accountant) explained that he has a strong background in also mentoring and advising startups through the early phases of business growth and also providing general business advice which I saw as a strong plus, last accountant did not have that background and whenever I asked for basic advice he refused to be drawn which smacked of inexperience
– New accountant is more pragmatic and understanding, for example we’ve done a couple of things that in hindsight were a bit dumb simply through sheer ignorance of the relevant tax laws, new accountant just laughed and said it was a common mistake and he will rectify it, old accountant literally put his hands on his ears, didn’t offer any real advice and left us feeling like idiots
– Offers great email and phone support whenever we need it, we can contact him any time and he provides a prompt and clear response. I would say my biggest problem to date with all the accountants I’ve had was communication. I am hopeless at accounting and book keeping and whenever I or my wife posed a question, the answer would come back far more complicated than our original issue, a good accountant should understand the level of their clients knowledge and post responses accordingly.

I think that sums it up really. The new guy is more expensive but for me the fact that he is a good networker, excellent communicator, pragmatic and offers advice and value without charging means so much. The price doesn’t really come into it, I would have paid several hundred pounds more a year for the new guy because he pushed all the right buttons in that initial session

Would your newest clients be similarly enthusiastic about the way you have looked after them?  Do you know what really matters to them and what they’re prepared to pay for? In a recent posting on this blog I posed the question: What do your clients want?

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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What do clients say about you? (1)

Recently someone asked for a referral to an accountant on one of the business forums to which I contribute.

When I saw a respondent comment that their accountant was ‘great’, I asked them what made them say that?

Here’s the reply:

He keeps things very straight forward 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 practise, 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 wink

Would you want your clients to say you’re ‘great’ and to recommend people to you? Do you think they would do so? Last year I posted an item on this blog in which I asked readers what they thought their clients thought of them: Good, Bad or Indifferent? What would your clients say about you?

Next week I’ll post another reply I received when I asked why someone else recommended their new accountant and said “I’m really impressed”.

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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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?

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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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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