Over the years I have worked with hundreds of accountants. I have also judged hundreds of entires for multiple accountancy awards. Having completed the judging process for a recent competition I reflected on what it takes to win and to be successful generally. Let me be clear here. I am talking about smaller firms and sole practitioners. The larger firms may do the same things but it’s a long time since I worked with or judged entries from larger firms.
When compiling this list I realised that many of my clients aspire to close the gap on one or more of these activities and attitudes. Some know they need to do so even before they first approach me. Other times it becomes apparent during mentoring sessions.
Let’s start then with what I and others have noted are ten key traits shared by the most successful accounting practices:
1. Business strategy
They are clear as to their business strategy and what this requires them to do
Whenever I judge entries for accountancy awards I look to see if the entrants have articulated a strategy or if they have only listed out their hopes and dreams. The winners are invariably among the minority of firms who have been able to clearly articulate a proper strategy.
2. Ideal clients and work
They have identified their ideal clients AND the type of work they most want to be engaged to do for those clients.
In some cases they limit themselves to such work and such ideal clients. But not always. Often they will have a range of clients only some of whom are ‘ideal’ though, over time, as they lose the less than ideal clients, they are replaced worth better ones.
3. Consistent marketing
Their marketing messages, websites and profiles are all focused on attracting their ideal clients and the type of work they most want to be engaged to do.
The most successful firms are able to articulate a clear focus – even when this is not exclusive. They may run a general practice but their marketing messages etc are invariably distinct and evidence them as being more than just another accountancy firm. They are also very clear as to the work they most want to do. This normally means distinguishing themselves from those firms simply offering basic bookkeeping, accounts and tax returns for anyone and everyone.
It is rare to find a truly successful firm that has a generic website. Most are proud to identify the leaders/partners in the firm rather than pretend to be larger than they are and fail to identify the key individuals.
4. Efficient processes and systems
They have efficient processes and systems across the firm.
This includes systems for:
- deciding when and how to pitch for new clients (and which NOT to pitch for)
- issuing fee quotes
- issuing engagement letters
- welcoming new clients
- adding them to workflow plans
- doing the work
- getting the clients’ approval and, crucially
- when to stop working for the odd client who runs out of money. As well as for
- keeping in touch with clients
- helping relevant clients to engage more advisory focused services and so on.
5. Decent fees
They charge decent fair fees for the work they do, refuse to compete on price and have clear pricing strategies and payment terms that they apply across the board.
When I used to address this in my talks, it was quite telling when I asked audiences to indicate if they had a minimum fee for new clients. Many evidently had no clear strategy here. And when different people in the same office had different minimum fees for the same type of work I knew they had problems. This is also the case if they routinely allow new clients to negotiate the fees they will pay.
6. Review time
They make time to review and update their systems, processes and pricing strategies on a regular basis (but not too often) and to keep the firm aligned with their strategy.
They accept that it’s more important to move forwards than to be continually distracted in an effort to achieve perfection.
7. Taking responsibility
They accept responsibility for making changes to enable them to pursue their strategy and for adapting to suit changed circumstances.
They don’t blame others or give up when things fail to go their way. They focus on what they can learn and do better next time.
8. Learning from others
They accelerate their progress by learning from others rather than only from their own mistakes.
They talk, share ideas and learn from other successful accountants, trusted Mentors as well as from books, blogs and business skills courses.
9. Work and life balance
They have a life and interests away from work. They achieve a good balance between their work and the rest of their life.
Whether this is family, sporting, hobby, community or charity focused, most of the more successful accountants are able to switch off and regularly focus on non-work related activities. This seems to allow them to approach work with a constantly fresh and enthusiastic outlook. It also makes it easier for them to cope with any challenges they encounter in the office.
It is also clear that this has long been their approach, rather than something they cultivated after achieving a degree of success. It seems to be the case that their success can be, at least partly, attributed to having outside interests as well as to their commitment to building their practice.
10. Interested in their clients
They keep up to speed with their clients’ business, plans and needs and take a genuine interest in them.
They know this gives their clients added confidence and helps ensure they remain loyal.
What does all this mean to you?
In the sporting world (about which I know very little) I am aware that all the top athletes and players have a coach to help them get to and stay at the top of their game.
In our world a different mentality seems to apply – although I am unclear why. If things are going really well you may feel happy trying and learning alone. Fine. Good luck to you – but do check out number 8 on the list above ;-)
My clients don’t generally expect me to push them to be the best and to beat the competition. They are all different . But typically they come to me for one or more of the following:
- to improve their lead generation and referral strategies
- to overcome a lack of self confidence
- to get a sounding board and second opinions. And
- to help them avoid wasting time and money on programmes, apps and software that will not be a magic bullet to secure the success they seek.
Most of the accountants I have worked with over the years have shared similar challenges. These normally include some or all of the following:
- They want someone to help them to feel good when they take key decisions
- They are working too many hours
- Too many clients are not paying decent fees
- Too few clients want anything beyond the basics
- They have a poorly performing website
- Their practice is insufficiently profitable
- They have frustrating suppliers who over-promise
- They don’t have enough time to work on the practice
- They are finding it hard to recruit good enough staff
- They are stuck with unreliable contractors
- They are not enjoying running their practice
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