Why your website isn’t generating the leads you want

Whether you spent a lot or a little on your website I’m sure you hope that it will generate business for you and provide a return on your investment. How might that work in real life I wonder?

Actually we know how it’s supposed to work, don’t we?

Someone searches online for an accountant locally to them (as that’s what they tend to do). You hope that your website appears high in the search results and that the prospect follows the link to your site.

Then you have to hope that your website enables the prospect to quickly see that you can help them with their problem. And that they can see who you are and how to contact you.

If your website isn’t generating the type of leads you want, it’s probably because prospects cannot quickly find that they want on it and decide that you’re right for them. One easy to fix mistake is on your ‘about us’ and ‘contact us’ pages. However much (or little) business you are getting through your website, you will get more when you reveal your name and who you are (maybe even with a decent photo too). Most people want to know who they are contacting – not just the name of a firm.

What about when your website isn’t top of the search results?

Experience tells us that not all prospects search online for an accountant. Instead they search for ‘tax advice’ or for some other problem they have and for which they want an answer – or someone to help them.

This is one of the reasons why the new-look Tax Advice Network website now operates as a lead generation site for accountants like you.

If you search online for ‘tax advice’ you will see that the Tax Advice Network website is already highly ranked. As a result they have long received 3,000+ enquiries a month. But many of their visitors really need a local accountant rather than a specialist tax adviser. They just don’t think to search for ‘accountant’!

The Network’s new website, the first for 9 years, went live at the start of 2017. It’s already proven to be easier to use and is securing even more traffic than before. This is because the site has so much relevant history, inbound links, SEO links and content. And it’s all natural. They have never invested money in trying to trick the search engines. Instead they played the long game and  tax accountant subscribers are now reaping the benefits of the site’s genuinely high rankings and longevity.

The traffic the site attracts includes many visitors who are much happier to follow links directly to accountants (like you). These leads tend to be people who need the help of a tax accountant rather than a real tax specialist. And as they have searched for tax advice they probably don’t have an accountant (yet). So you also have the opportunity to encourage them to become regular clients.

Over the last 9 years the site has generated many hundreds of thousands of pounds of business for tax advisers. But far more tax enquiries weren’t suitable for a specialist tax adviser. That’s why the Network is now listing accountants on the website too.

It’s hard to imagine you not securing a really positive return on the low investment required. And there’s nothing extra to pay. So you pay nothing per lead.

If you would like to know more about this opportunity, take a look at the website now >>>

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Confessions of a tax avoidance scheme promoter

At last week’s annual Taxation Awards event I found myself chatting with someone who used to promote tax avoidance schemes. What he had to say was well worth sharing with readers of my blog.

First though let me offer some background. I want to provide enough details to justify why what Mr X had to say is so important. But I am respecting his preference not to be identified here especially as I made no notes at the time so I do not want to specifically attribute his comments.

I have known Mr X for 15 years or so. When I was in practice I attended many meetings with him and was always struck by his honesty and integrity. Although I was never a fan of tax schemes, when Mr X promoted a tax scheme I knew HE had always researched it thoroughly himself and understood exactly how it worked. He was in favour of making full disclosure on tax returns and was very choosy about the schemes he promoted – even before the DOTAS regime was introduced ten years ago.

Mr X has been a top private client lawyer and tax adviser for years. He belongs to a number of professional bodies; his expertise and independence are highly regarded and he frequently writes cogent and hard hitting articles for the professional press.

Our conversation started by referencing the latest media reports about the icebreaker tax scheme and Gary Barlow and Take That. See: Why weren’t all accountants promoting those tax schemes? This is a post I wrote when the same story first became news almost 2 years ago in 2012:  (It has since become apparent that the scheme dates back to 2004 – rather than only to 2010 as I suggested in that post)

When we talked I learned that Mr X has found that the market for tax schemes has dried up in recent years.

In his experienced and credible view NO professional accountant in their right mind spends time promoting tax schemes to clients any more. There is NO point in accountants spending time trying to get their heads around new schemes, as an independent conclusion will always be that the scheme will not survive attack by HMRC.

Mr X told me that in his view the only people still actively promoting tax schemes to clients are the naive and those whose independent view has been compromised by their need to earn a living. Oh, and the liars who know that their assurances are unreliable.

There will always be greedy people who will want to believe that they can reduce or remove a large tax bill by doing what they think the rich and famous do. And there will always be slick salespeople who can exploit that desire for a profit.

Mr X still advises on tax but confessed that he no longer promotes ANY tax schemes. He does however get involved in helping extricate people from schemes that have been found not to work or where this is now anticipated to be the likely outcome.

Supplemental point

When I was at Accountex last week I noted that two well known membership groups for accountants are encouraging their members to use the services of their preferred tax scheme promoters.  I tend to think there is a combination of naivety and greed involved in such arrangements.

Having said that, maybe this is the right approach for that handful of clients who want to know what their options are. Especially as they will only want to pay a fee if someone is going to help them pay less tax.

I must admit though that I wonder how often well advised clients actually choose to go ahead with tax avoidance schemes these days. I have noted previously that barely one in ten clients proceed once they understand what is really involved.

As Mr X confirmed when we spoke, the outcome of any remaining tax avoidance schemes must be in some doubt. Because of the inevitable prevarication and argument the final outcome will typically only become clear over the next 5-10 years.

Much better, in my view, to simply seek the advice of a suitable experienced tax expert to help ensure that a client’s transactions etc are being arranged in the most tax efficient and non-controversial manner.  Mr X does this. And the Tax Advice Network provides a simple way to secure such input from independent tax experts around the country.

Related post: Why weren’t all accountants promoting those tax schemes?

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Do you take your own advice?

I don’t recall ever seeing a cobbler’s children running around without shoes. But I understand the old adage. Their father was typically too busy fixing his customer’s shoes such that his children had to go barefoot.

Perhaps it is for similar reasons that many accountants leave their own annual accounts and tax returns to the last minute. I applaud those who get such things out of the way earlier in the year, but I believe they are in a minority.

I wonder if there is any correlation between those accountants who leave their own tax affairs to the last minute and those who are still doing loads of clients’ tax returns in January? I wonder if those accountants who sort out their own affairs early are also better placed to encourage clients to do so too?

I know I’m not in practice any more but I despair at how many otherwise professional, competent and experienced accountants still suffer each January. They blame their clients who apparently ignore their accountant’s advice and encouragement to provide all necessary information earlier in the year. Maybe there some clients who will always be like this – regardless of the penalties their accountants impose and unmoved by the incentives to be better organised. But why do so many accountants still have so many problematic clients?

I’m curious. Do you take your own advice? Are your own tax filings sorted yet for the last tax year? And, if so, do you still have loads of clients who tax affairs need sorting? Or not?

 

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Perception is reality – Do you work for your clients or for HMRC?

I have heard it suggested many times that some clients think that their accountants are not working in their best interests. The clients perceive that their accountants are working on behalf of the Revenue.

I suspect that this is more an issue of those accountants giving the wrong impression to their clients. But, as I have long maintained, ‘perception is reality’.

Yet again this comes down to a question of how well the accountant communicates with their client. Sadly not all accountants are good communicators. The same is true of course of many other professionals.

Let’s consider three key facts:

  1. The local office structure within HMRC has all but disappeared.
    Whereas years ago local accountants might be on first name terms with local Inspectors of Taxes, this is rarely possible today. It also means that accountants need not be concerned that if they fight hard for one client that the local Inspector will get his/her own back. It is rarely going to be possible for one Revenue officer or Inspector to make life difficult for the accountant’s other clients. Whether this used to happen or not, it’s no longer feasible. If an accountant needs to speak to an Inspector about a client’s tax affairs he/she will generally only be able to speak to a call centre where an operator will call up the client’s information on a computer screen.
  2. Accountants have to focus on their clients
    A recurring theme within my blogs is the need for accountants to focus on their clients’ needs otherwise they will vote with their feet. Anyone who really thinks their accountant is more interested in what HMRC thinks than in fighting unfair attacks etc will look to find a ‘better’ accountant. That is one who they perceive is more focused on giving good client service. The switch often takes longer to arrange than would be ideal, but it does happen.
  3. The customer is always right
    Except when he/she wants to break the law. Professional accountants know the difference between what’s acceptable and legal and what’s unacceptable or illegal. A good accountant will ensure that clients appreciate the distinction and the consequences of choosing to do anything illegal.

I am reminded of a key point I used to stress with junior staff when I was in practice. Typically this would happen when the staff member was writing to the client after reviewing the client’s records or profit and loss account analyses.

When the staff wanted to write something like “I have disallowed [the £260 you spent at the XXX Restaurant]” I would encourage them to change the wording. “It is not for us, as the accountants, to disallow anything,” I would say. “The Revenue ‘disallows’ claims. We don’t and we mustn’t give clients the wrong impression. The precise words we use can have a big impact.” The offending line would then be amended to read something like “Sadly the Revenue will not allow you to claim tax relief for [the £260 you spent at the XXX Restaurant] so I have made the necessary adjustment.” Ideally we would also then identify another item, the tax treatment of which was not black and white, and seek the client’s confirmation that tax relief should be claimed, thus reducing their tax bill by £X.

Summary

If a client wants tips from their accountant on how to ‘cheat’ the taxman illegally, they will be disappointed.

If, having resisted any involvement in illegal activity, an accountant leaves their client thinking that they are working for the taxman, their communication skills are letting them down.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads of valuable insights, short-cuts, tips and advice for accountants who want to stand out and speed up their success. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

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What the High Court really said accountants must do

No sooner had The Times reported on the High Court case of Mehjoo v Harben Barker than variations on their headline were being repeated as fact: “Judge says accountants must help clients avoid tax”. The truth, as ever, is somewhat more nuanced.

I have written a detailed piece for AccountingWeb analysing the decision from the perspective of general practice accountants. In my 1,500 word article I also explain the rationale for my conclusions which I have copied below for readers of this blog

The law has not changed. There is no new obligation on accountants to advise on fancy tax schemes. Nor is there any requirement for them to understand complex tax schemes. Thus there is no need to protect accountants from such a dubious obligation (as one commentator has demanded).

  • The judge did NOT criticise the accountants for failing to advise on a complex tax scheme.
  • They were also NOT held liable for failing to advise on such scheme.
  • There was NO suggestion that all accountants need to be tax experts.
  • And there was NO suggestion that the accountants should have been aware of fancy tax planning schemes. On the contrary.

The key issue is that in 2004/05 any reasonably competent accountant would have given a non-dom client the same advice. The accountants in question failed to do this and, crucially, they failed to refer their client to someone who had the necessary expertise to provide, what was, ‘standard’ advice at that time.

For most conventional clients the position would have been far less clear cut. The question would always have been – what would a reasonably competent accountant have advised? And was there a generally agreed ‘solution’ that anyone who really understood the situation would have advised be undertaken? Very few tax avoidance schemes would satisfy these tests.

In recent years very few reasonably competent accountants would give clients positive advice to get involved in a fancy tax avoidance scheme. Thus, as I have long argued, there is no serious prospect of anyone being successfully sued for failing to do this.

In the High Court the judge explicitly confirmed the advice in para 2.5 of the Guide to Professional Conduct for those working in tax. This forms part of the members’ handbook of most, if not all, of the major accountancy and tax bodies in the UK

The Judge  stated that the defendants were “reasonably competent generalist accountants” and that they therefore “had a contractual duty or concurrent tortious duty to advise the Claimant….that he should take tax advice from [specialist tax advisers].”

This is a long established and uncontroversial conclusion.

This case is however a topical reminder of the dangers of trying to go it alone. And of course allows me to remind readers that I established the Tax Advice Network in 2007 specifically to help general practice accountants.

You can choose any of the members of this independent Network to obtain specialist tax advice. And, as the Mahjoo case shows, you should seriously consider doing this whenever your clients have tax issues, challenges or situations that may require tax expertise beyond your day to day experience.

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Lifetime achievement award for Robert Maas

I was thrilled to be seated with Robert when he was announced as the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Taxation Awards ceremony last night. I am proud to count him as a friend and as one of my tax mentors.

In the light of last night’s award I think it appropriate to share my own thanks and admiration for Robert. Here is a man who really stands out in my eyes.

Whilst I no longer give tax advice I did initially start my career in tax shortly after qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1982. Robert was already well known and respected in the tax world even then. I believe he started in tax in 1965, the year that Corporation Tax and CGT were first introduced. It is also almost 50 years ago!

Some years later I think I met Robert at a conference. I assume I must have already started writing on tax matters as Robert recognised my name. He encouraged me to join the London Society of Chartered Accountants Tax Committee. Robert was the Chairman at the time. I was so proud and thrilled to be invited. In time I became Vice-Chairman of the Committee. Robert also then encouraged me to join the ICAEW Tax Faculty Committee, which in turn then led to me being invited to stand for election as Vice Chairman and then Deputy Chairman of the Faculty.

I benefitted from working with Robert on various Institute committees over the years including the ICAEW Tax Technical Committee, the Personal Tax and Finance Committee and the main Faculty Committee. I think I also provided a little support when he initiated the Faculty’s Younger members’ Tax Club and also the Faculty’s Tax Investigations Committee. Over the years Robert has kindly invited me to speak to various groups of which he is the prime mover. It is also due to this chain of events that he started which led to me recently being appointed Chairman of the ICAEW Ethics Advisory Committee.

In 2001 when I left BDO I seriously considered moving out of the tax world. I remember Robert, on hearing me suggest this after the CTA Address that year, taking me for a drink and persuading me to stick with it. He complimented my communication skills and said my departure would be a loss for the Tax World. I always thought he was exaggerating but I took his advice and this also allowed me to then go on to be Chairman of the Tax Faculty from 2003-2005. In the end I stayed active as a tax adviser until 2006 when I finally gave in and concluded that my brain just isn’t big enough.

During one of my talks (at least) I quote Robert. He taught me long ago that there is no shame in admitting you don’t know the answer to a tax question or problem. Despite his general reluctance to accept how highly regarded he is, he did tell me once that he couldn’t understand how any general practitioners could cope without ever engaging tax specialists. “If I have to stop and check with someone else every now and then, how much more likely is it that someone less experienced should need to do the same and more often?”

Robert is a giant in the tax world. But he is also a very unassuming man. Nevertheless I am aware that there are many other tax practitioners who have been influenced by Robert during their careers. Whether by attending one of his lectures, reading one of his books or articles or through his personal encouragement to join a committee. Many more people have been influenced by Robert than probably even he knows.

I recall attending Robert’s 65th birthday party some years ago – I have lost track of how many. I was so touched and proud to be invited. More recently Robert has taken up blogging. He loves tax and although he is still in practice at Blackstone Franks, he continues to write regular articles for the professional press. But if no one wants to publish what he has written he posts it on his blog – ‘Two cheers for the Chancellor’. This now has over 130 insightful and educational pieces on it and is well worth reading. Robert has also taken to LinkedIn but is reluctant to connect with anyone there he doesn’t know.

I don’t imagine Robert will ever retire. For now though his unswerving commitment to the tax profession has been recognised and rightly so. The announcement last night was met with a standing ovation. Robert is well-loved and much respected – with good reason.

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Are accountants the new bogeymen?

Were you as angry as I was at the headlines and media focus on a clearly misguided element of the latest report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC)?

Committee chairman Margaret Hodge said accountants seconded to government represented a “ridiculous conflict of interest” that should be ended. She had clearly made up her mind based on no real evidence and was determined to use her position to grab a few more headlines and to make sure accountants become the new bogeymen (sorry – I cannot find a gender neutral word).

Hodge referenced just ONE (non) example to justify her sweeping criticisms. Despite the paucity of her arguments the media is gleefully repeating Hodge’s criticism of all the Big 4 firms and, implicitly, accountants in general. Re Hodge’s single ‘proof’, what really happened I suspect is this:

The last LABOUR Gov’t wanted to introduce a tax relief to reduce taxes for those who qualify for the patent box regime. To ensure the relief worked as intended they sought outside help (from KPMG). Could have been any of the Big 4.

Once the law was introduced, KPMG (and all the others) then helped promote the concept so that the regime (introduced by LABOUR) would be a success. There were no loopholes to exploit. The advice given to clients was to ensure they could benefit from the new regime – as the Government intended.

I listened to Mrs Hodge being interviewed on the Today programme on Friday and was frustrated by her outrageous slurs on our profession. The Treasury also disagreed with the criticisms saying the PAC’s analysis and conclusions:

“bear almost no resemblance to the reality of what government is doing or what is happening. In particular, as a matter of principle, the suggestion that government shouldn’t work with business, and indeed anyone affected by its policies, is totally absurd.”

Treasury Minister, David Gauke, was also critical of the report, saying:

“The idea that we shouldn’t make use of private sector expertise in developing a tax system that would bring investment and development to the UK is absurd. They’re not going out to advise clients on how to dodge the legislation, they’re going out to advise clients on how to abide by the legislation.”

As the FT noted, also critical of the ill-informed PAC report were ICAEW, CIOT and the trade union that represents senior staff at HMRC (The Association of Revenue and Customs). But of course most of the media have chosen to ignore such criticisms. They seem to like having someone new to criticise even if the facts do not support this. The media have got fed up of criticising MPs and the bankers.  I fear that accountants are to be identified as the new bogeymen. What do you think and what can we do about it?

ps: The other thing that worries me is that I know how biased and inaccurate Hodge and the PAC are on this matter. It makes me very cynical as to the reliability of other reports produced by the PAC and, indeed any Parliamentary committee. If this one can be so far off the mark, it’s likely that others are too. How much reliance should be placed on any of them?

Some of the recent headlines:

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Why don’t all accountants promote tax schemes?

I had to laugh when I saw this headline in the Times on Saturday: “Barrister loses dispute over tax avoidance”.  I checked it out and it’s true. A leading Tax Counsel has failed in his claims that a LEGAL tax avoidance scheme reduced his tax bill. In other words, it was ineffective.

Ten years ago Rex Bretten QC devised a tax scheme that was within the letter of the law and he sought to take advantage of this. HMRC were not happy and the dispute went to Court. As so often happens many years have passed since the tax planning was put into effect. Times have changed and the tax tribunal has disagreed with Mr Bretten’s analysis. He is not entitled to any tax relief for the £475,000 loss he was claiming would reduce his tax bill for 2002/03 by £190,000.

Shock; Horror. It seems Counsel’s opinion was wrong. Not for the first time. (That’s a comment re Tax Counsel in general). Sometimes their analysis holds up, sometimes it doesn’t. The one thing on which they are generally correct is when they confirm that it is legal to take part in such a scheme – assuming  that the taxpayer and the promoter of the scheme make full disclosure of all salient issues.

Last year I wrote a series of posts to which this latest development is effectively a postscript that endorses my views. In effect, tax avoidance schemes are risky and are rarely worth an accountant’s time and effort. Such schemes MAY be legal but this does not mean that the hoped for tax savings will be secured. And, if the scheme fails then, for most people, the final outcome will be worse than had they not undertaken the tax planning involved in the scheme.

As tax avoidance schemes are often over hyped and do not always work, these days it rarely makes commercial sense for professional accountants to devote time and effort to checking out each new scheme or variation that is promoted to them.

Related stories:

 

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Mourning the death of Tax Facts

There needs to be a special reason to give over this blog to someone else’s words. This is one such occasion. It’s important for accountants to be able to debate the tax news stories of the moment with confidence and conviction – based on the facts. This has become increasingly difficult in recent months, as John Andrews explained in a recent speech.

John is a former CIOT President and founder of the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group. The comments below are taken from his acceptance speech after he became only the third ever recipient of the CIOT Council Award this week. This is a prestigious and very well deserved commendation for John’s tireless work since his ‘retirement’. He remains one of the most highly regarded and respected independently minded members of the tax profession, so his words deserve wide attention.

Towards the end of John’s speech he referenced a recent debate on tax avoidance in Parliament (the Bold emphasis is mine):

This was generally a more mature debate and a realisation that we have an international problem that cannot be solved on our own. However, some parts were filled with heat and very little light. Other parts contained a distinct lack of facts, accompanied by impossible dreams, misunderstandings and many unsupported assertions.

This reminded me of a report in the US press last year [credit here to Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune] which made Facts into a mythical person and then criticised US politicians for killing Facts. The event that caused the demise was when a Florida Republican announced, without any evidence, that at least 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives were communists.

This made me think that some tax debates may have pushed our equivalent of the mythical person, Facts, to an early grave here in the UK.

Facts had a long life and I believe was born in ancient Greece, the child of Aristotle who saw that evidence was essential for his nurture. As Facts grew up people like Edmund Burke observed “Facts are to the mind what food is to the body.”

Facts helped to discover gravity, break the Enigma Code, discover DNA and, perhaps, introduce self-assessment.

In 2012 however, people seemingly unable to understand how tax systems work, began to doubt and ignore Facts. Opinion became the new truth and reprinting of such opinion in the press confirmed this new truth as correct. No feedback from Facts was thought necessary.

Facts had suffered serious injuries at the time of the 10% tax rate debacle in 2008 and through the misplaced assertions in 2010 about millions of errors being produced by the new PAYE system.

His health was improving, when early last year he was laid low by the absence of any sensible discussion about the granny and pasty taxes.

But nothing was to prepare him for the cruel assault which led to his demise in the final month of twenty-twelve. Assertions in the press that you can judge the right amount of tax a multinational should pay by looking at its turnover; followed by the revelation that for certain there was a £69.9 billion tax gap caused by avoidance, caused Facts to have a major stroke.

He was still in intensive care in hospital when the final straw came. His cousin TaxLaw was the one to break the news. TaxLaw had been admitted to the hospital’s isolation unit and had been ignored by all and sundry, including, at times, the Public Accounts Committee. The oxygen was rushed to Facts when he was told that a coffee bean company was now to be the arbiter of the amount of tax that people should pay; but it was too late.

That news coupled with the whisper that a burger chain would set the CPI in future had done its worst.

You will have seen from his obituary that Facts was aged 2,372 and was buried, at his request, in the birthplace of Parliament – the Isle of Man. He is survived by two brothers, Rumour and Dogma and a sister Shout Loudly.

Donations in his memory may be made to HMRC in a brown envelope marked “corporation tax”.

It is to John’s credit that he didn’t name any individual carriers of the virus that killed Facts. He was making serious points, about which he cares greatly, under the guise of an amusing valedictory speech.  Sadly much of the media is unaware or does not care enough that they are helping the spread of a virus.

John Andrews’ acceptance speech can be read in full here.

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