Sometimes a post on Linkedin can start a conversation that runs and runs. This was the case just after the Budget when I posed the question “Is it really worth everyone producing a ‘me-too’ morning-after Budget summary?” I suggested these were typically simply a re-hash of information already in the public domain and thus of limited use/value.
It led to a conversation that questioned whether accountants are genuinely doing their best at a busy time or simply doing the bare minimum with a rather weak attempt at adding client value.
The post attracted over 50 comments and I was particularly intrigued by the comments from Philippa Haynes of Insight101, a brand and marketing consultancy. So we had a chat and here you can read a transcript of that conversation. I am sure you will find it stimulating and thought provoking.
ML: Philippa, I think we both agreed last week that accountants have an opportunity to truly add value to their clients at such an important time of year, but some, if we are honest, didn’t take the opportunity to do so. Given my accounting background, I’m probably allowed to say that but I’m often cynical when non-accountants criticise the marketing efforts that accountants make.
PH: You’re right Mark, it’s easy for me to say isn’t it? I know accountants have had a rough 12 months struggling to serve the endless requests from clients as a result of Covid19, but I do think that there are moments in the calendar, even during lock-down, when they can truly prove their value by bringing greater insights to the table. There are examples out there of accountants who do.
ML: That’s very true. In my follow up post on Linkedin I gave some suggestions as to how accountants can stand out from the crowd here. And, in so doing, provide their clients with more valuable guidance and advice. What would YOU have them do differently?
PH: In other areas of their life, clients will receive marketing messages in their thousands every day and they’ll also experience constantly improving experiences. Whether they’re interacting with a sports brand, a supermarket or their accountant, clients don’t expect the level of experience and service to be any different.
ML: I wholly agree Philippa and have made a similar point in some of my talks and previous blogs. The competition is not just other accountants or even just local accountants – it’s also the style and approach that we are all becoming used to when we engage with any service provider.
PH: We’ve seen over the past few months that things change. And at times very quickly. We’ve gone from low tech to high tech with the majority of businesses now using Zoom like it was second nature. The importance of digital is suddenly massive.
Competition has gone from local to national. Prospective clients can look beyond the accountant on their high street and pick whoever they fancy from what they see on offer.
ML: I agree with that in theory. In practice most people still seem to seek out a local accountant. It’s pretty rare for someone in Bolton to give any thought to appointing an accountant in Cardiff. People have been suggesting this will change for years and I’m not convinced – even though more and more people are engaging with their accountants online.
PH: Ok, so we’re talking about communicating with current and loyal clients here, but how many will start to think differently and want more as the dynamics of the market shift? If accountants want to be ahead of the curve, then they need to think a little bit differently. Deciding to take on some marketing support to help with this evolution is a great start. This resource can look at a firm’s practices a little differently and help ensure they really do have an edge.
ML: Ah yes, the ‘M’ word. When I started presenting talks to accountants about how to become more successful, I never used the M word – ‘Marketing’. Even now, 15 years later it’s not always welcome within the accounting sector.
I think this is largely because so many accountants claim to get most of their new clients through referrals. And because so many have invested in flashy websites and marketing campaigns that haven’t met their expectations. What do you say to them?
PH: If you look at the larger firms, you’ll see that the majority have a marketing presence and even a Marketing Department. They are the big guns in the profession admittedly, but some of the most dynamic and disruptive firms also have significant Marketing spend.
Take Mazuma Accountants for instance. According to FibreCRM, who have published ‘The Top 100 Digital Marketing Performance List’, Mazuma spent the most on digital marketing over the year.
We may not all want to be Mazuma Accountants, with their high volume, low-cost model, but firms do need to understand that embracing change is more important than ever.
This change includes embracing new ways of marketing. Firms need to have ambitions, to want to grow, improve and invest in digital marketing (social media in particular) if they are to survive.
ML: I think you are right to recognise that not all accountants want or need to operate in the same way as the ‘big boys’. And, as I frequently point out to marketing consultants, many accountants don’t want to grow. They are comfortable and simply want to be able to replace those clients who leave, retire, sell up or die.
These accountants have a great list of happy clients who haven’t moved for many years and are trusted and loyal. They get new clients through word of mouth recommendations too and that works for them just fine. Aren’t you just scratching an itch that they don’t have?
PH: I personally don’t think so. It is never a good idea to stand still. If you aren’t thinking about the future and working hard and purposefully to bring in new business that is the ideal for your firm, you’re missing a trick. And an expensive trick at that.
The dynamics of the profession are changing, and the choice and competition is greater than it ever was. Being a digital world now, relying on word of mouth is limiting – after all, having an effective digital presence means that you are still working and communicating even if the lights in your firm’s offices are off.
ML: Ok, so let’s talk about tangibles to put this into perspective. Let’s go back to the original question around the Budget.
I won’t repeat in detail my views as to why it is probably a waste of time and effort to write and publish a ‘me too’ morning-after Budget summary. That post secured over 50 comments, as did the follow up post including plenty of examples of how accountants could instead do something of value.
What would you suggest that accountants do here?
PH: So I won’t talk about the ‘M’ word or the ‘B’ (Brand) word here. My suggestion is this. All accountants know when the key deadlines fall each year. All accountants have an equal amount of time to prepare. Some choose to wait and see what happens and then pump out the key messages but others decide to think about it in advance. I’d encourage this. Think about how you can bring a personal touch, how you can avoid panicked phone calls.
I’d suggest thinking about your own practice and your portfolio of clients. How do you like to do things? What are you comfortable with? If it isn’t video then don’t start to do something which doesn’t feel authentic to you. Maybe you just put in place a meeting a day or so after the Budget for example. It’s key not to be a “me too” but to deliver something that is wholeheartedly a reflection of your firm.
Regarding your portfolio of clients. Who are they? Is there something that ties them together – size, experience, time with your firm? Or is there something which has worked really well across the board before? Think back and try to make it fit with who you serve.
Many accountants say to me “but we have a whole range of different clients in different sectors” so we can’t do this. This is the key point. If you can decide who is your ideal client – sector, attitude, mindset – then you can start to work on bringing more like-minded clients into the fold. This means that there will be more overlap. it means you can slowly build a base of like-minded ‘fans’. This will enable you to develop an approach which is unique to the firm and sits beautifully with client expectation.
Unfortunately, this does require a conversation around ‘Brand’ and ‘Marketing’. Sorry, I’ve said it. But working on this, means that you have guardrails for future reference. How you should behave, what you should be doing and most importantly HOW you should be doing it
ML: Do you have any examples where this sort of thinking can start to move the dial? After all, in your business, stories sell.
PH: I was talking to a good contact of mine the other day, he’s been an accountant for many years but now works as a coach in the accounting space. He told me that one of the firms he works with revealed some startling statistics.
44% of this firm’s fee income came from just 19 key clients and, at the other end of the spectrum, 85 clients accounted for just 8% of fees.
Losing any of their key clients would have a pretty significant on the bottom line. Imagine that one of your key clients was talking to a contact who had had a great experience with their own accountant. They talked about how they’ve been served over the Budget period and suddenly the quick email with a heads up from their own accountant didn’t seem quite so good. From being a loyalist, they are suddenly questioning their thinking. And that is the start of a crack that can lead them to choosing to switch accountants.
ML: If you were talking directly to an accountant who is reading this interview, what would you say?
PH: Having a marketing presence doesn’t need to cost the earth. It doesn’t need to sap time and resource either. If a firm has a junior marketing person, they can be mentored so that they have a more experienced eye to oversee them.
If they don’t, we’d always encourage a firm to start small and work up. Trust in your marketing supplier needs to be earned so jumping into marketing when you’re not familiar with it isn’t the best way to go. It takes a degree of planning and strategic thought. It’s a relationship that needs to be built over time.
ML: I love that advice Philippa. I have seen way too many accountants investing a fortune in marketing activities that are doomed to fail. I’m sure you would agree that good marketing always starts by clarifying who you want to influence – clarifying your ideal prospective clients etc.
PH: This is absolutely the case. Our ethos is to be strategic in our approach. To absolutely nail these fundamental questions before we do anything. I actually said “no” to a prospect who wanted us to dabble with social media but didn’t want the up front planning process. This was doomed to failure and works against my strongly held beliefs. Marketing has a bad reputation. There are endless stories of people being burned. This upsets me greatly. Marketing should be the glue that brings together your team, your senior management and your dialogue with your clients and prospects. When it is approached seriously and with the right amount of thinking it can be very powerful. There are endless examples out there in the market where it has worked well.
ML: I love that approach Philippa. What final comments do you have for accountants reading this interview?
PH: If we go back to the original question, I’d suggest having a think about your own actions during this Budget period. What could you have done better? Maybe even ask a few of your trusted clients to get their perspective.
Marketing can seem like a burden. One more thing to worry about. But it doesn’t need to be that way.
ML: Many thanks Philippa.
Philippa Haynes is the founder of Insight101, a brand and marketing consultancy. She has spent nearly 30 years working with some of the most powerful global brands and has a deep understanding of the consumer. It is her mission to bring this expertise into the accounting sector which is already exploding with new ideas and technology solutions. The world is changing and she believes that the accounting world needs to change too to remain competitive and sustainable.
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