There is an old adage that says if your practice fails to grow it will stagnate. Is that true actually? I think, it depends on what one means by ‘grow’.

Grow the client base? Turnover? Profits? Range of services? Efficiency?

I prefer the word ‘evolve’ as I’ll explain below.

Many years ago I was headhunted to join BDO as a partner in London. At the time the firm claimed to be ‘Expert Advisers to Growing Businesses’. And, back then, BDO was the only firm claiming to specialise in advising ‘growing’ businesses. At least it seemed like a specialisation.

I quickly learned it was really just a variation on the still common claim by many firms to specialise in SMEs.  It’s not really a specialism. It can’t be. Over 99% of all UK companies are SMEs. In the same way,  almost any decent business client will be a ‘growing’ business. Indeed, BDO’s thinking at the time was that if a business didn’t want to grow why take them on as a client. Failure to grow would mean a business would stagnate.

Smaller accountancy firms are different. This is due to the extent to which clients come back year after year. Many of the sole practitioners I know have different ambitions – once they have built up to a decent level of recurring fees.

A huge number of sole practitioners are quite comfortable where they are. They have no ambition to grow their client base or turnover. This is true of some of my clients who have already built up a ‘nice-sized practice’ that feels right to them. In more recent years these accountants have won occasional new clients and these pretty much balance out the odd client who sells up, retires or dies.

Rather than seeking more clients (a common measure of growth) they often want different things such as:

  • increased profits
  • improved cashflow
  • better behaved clients
  • moving old legacy clients onto more commercial fees
  • freeing up more time so they can focus on doing what they enjoy, or
  • learning how to run the practice differently and so reduce the stress and pressure involved.

This is why I suggest that ‘evolve’ is a better word to use than ‘growth’. Almost every accountant I have worked with wants to evolve their practice in one way or another.

In conversation with those accountants who do have big growth ambitions I encourage them to move from dreams to plans. It’s fine to have ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goals’, but just hoping and wishing that perfect high fee paying clients will suddenly appear is not a strategy.

Many of the less well known coaches to the accounting profession offer the same standard advice to accountants about attracting new clients and growing the firm. To an extent we all say similar things. And much of what we say is good advice that accountants already instinctively know. It might even be similar to the advice they would give clients.

Some of the accountants I have worked with tell me that their own experience of being mentored/coached has given them the confidence to offer billable strategic business advice to their own clients.

I also know many sole practitioner accountants who have long ignored anyone professing to teach them how to achieve continued ‘growth’.

The reason they feel this way is typically NOT due to doubt over the consultants’ credibility. Many a good tennis coach has NOT won a major tournament. Coaching demands different skills

In my view, past experience and evidence of this being successful is more important when working with accountants, than having grown one’s own business.

Personally though I recognise that many of my niche audience of sole practitioners are not looking to secure huge growth of their practice. Nor do they need to do so. But we all need to evolve our businesses and practices. We need to be well prepared for the future and the changes this will bring. Continuing to do what we’ve always done may not be enough to stay in practice more than a few more years. Does your practice need to grow or to evolve?