“What do you do?” – How to avoid giving a boring reply

Mar 5, 2024 | Business development

Do you ever struggle to make a lasting impression beyond the generic label of being ‘just another accountant’?

We’ve all been there. We’ve seen people’s eyes glaze over when they hear us admit to being ‘an accountant’.

Instead of settling for any mundane response, we need to seize the opportunity to captivate the other person’s interest and leave a memorable impression.

I often explain this as the need to be better remembered, referred and recommended. (The 3 Rs)

ARE ACCOUNTANTS BORING?

One misconception to resolve immediately is the ‘boring’ stereotype.

Non-accountants may see bookkeeping, accounts, finance and tax returns as boring activities. This leads some of them to assume that anyone who deals with such matters for a living must be ‘boring’. We should avoid anything that reinforces this nonsense.

ARE ACCOUNTANTS ALL THE SAME?

We also need to overcome any idea that all accountants are the same. What rot!

The tax returns and accounts that are produced may be much the same but EVERY accountant has a distinct style and approach borne of their past experiences, clients, fees, preferences and everything else that makes them a distinct human being.

Sadly loads of accountants’ websites are all but interchangeable – that doesn’t help either of course.

Many people have a whole load of preconceptions about accountants. If you meet someone who already knows other accountants there is little to be gained by introducing yourself simply as ‘an accountant’. If you do that you will struggle to stand out and to be remembered.

Until they learn otherwise, most people will assume you are just the same as the other accountants they know.

You may be the most recent accountant they have met but that will only mean something until they meet another one. What can you say about what you do beyond the fact that you’re an accountant?

This is especially challenging if you are new into practice or have built your firm without any specific focus on a sector, niche or type of client.

And yet if you fail to make an effort to stand out you will take longer to generate clients from your online networking and face-to-face marketing efforts.

WHAT DO YOU DO?

My favourite ever response by an accountant to this question dates back a good few years.

He told me that, at networking events, he used to stand up and say, “I collect brown envelopes. I’m an accountant and my clients know that I want them to add to my collection. That means they remember to give me all the brown envelopes they get from HMRC.”

Another favourite response to the question is the accountant who introduces himself by stating that he helps his clients to pay MORE tax. “I’m an accountant and obviously I look after my clients’ accounting, tax and filing obligations. But my real focus and the reason clients choose me is that they know I want to help them to make more profits. That means they will pay more tax. Building their profits is more important to both of us than spending too much time looking only at the tax they pay”.

As these two examples show, the key is to get your message across in a way that will really capture the imagination of prospective clients and of potential referrers of work. You want them to understand that you do not fit the old stereotypical preconception they might otherwise assume applied to you.

I do not suggest you copy either of the examples I just shared. Instead I would encourage you to prepare your own response to the question. It should be honest, reflect your style and could use one of the following four approaches.

Any of them would help you to explain what you do in a way that makes you more memorable, in a positive way, rather than simply stating that you’re an accountant.

1. Talk about your clients
Are they start-ups, consultants, traders, local businesses, property investors or do they have something else in common?

Are they all based in the same locality?

Are they typically of a similar age or background?

Are you the first accountant they have appointed or have they moved to you from someone else? If they have switched to you then tell people why your clients have chosen to do so. Hopefully it’s NOT because you’re cheap!

The more precise you can be the easier it is for the person you are talking with to recognise an overlap or similarity with themselves or with someone they know.

It is natural to fear that talking about specific client types could be limiting.

Perhaps you are concerned that if you only talk about one or two client types that people with a different interest will assume you can’t help them or anyone they know.

In real life though most of us find it much easier to remember one or two specific examples rather than a long generic list that has no real distinguishing features.

I would suggest you do not emphasise the fact that any clients chose you simply because you were cheaper than their previous accountant or offered the cheapest quote. Even if this has happened it will do you no favours if you tell anyone – unless you are happy offering a low cost service to people who switch accountants to whomever they find is the cheapest. In time you will then risk losing those exact same clients when they find someone (even) cheaper than you!

2. Talk about the problems you solve
Why do your clients want your services as an accountant? Do they just want someone to ‘do’ their bookkeeping, prepare their accounts or complete their tax returns?

Do they want your advice on bookkeeping, accounting, tax or business planning?

Do they just want to pay less tax or do they need your help to get HMRC off their back or to bring their tax affairs and Companies House filings up to date?

Are they inspired by your interest in helping them to achieve their ambitions and goals?

What was it that caused them to choose you as their accountant?

3. Talk about what matters
Few people will be interested in how you do what you do. Why should non-accountants care about your choice of bookkeeping system or tax software?

They also may have little interest in your background, qualifications of experience. At least, not at first.

These things all matter to you and should give you the confidence to talk to prospective clients and business associates. But they should rarely be part of any initial conversation when you are simply being asked “What do you do?”

In real life almost everyone who asks you this question will fall into one of the following categories:
a) They don’t really care. They just want you to get your reply over with so that you will ask them the same question. All they want is to tell you what they do. They won’t make any effort to remember you but they want you to remember them

b) They want to know what you could do to help them or the people they care about

c) Implicit in their question is a follow up question: “…and why should I remember you?”

Again, simply saying you are an accountant (or even a chartered accountant) is hardly ever going to be sufficient. What matters most are whether you can help solve problems and who has the sort of issues or needs that you, as an accountant, can resolve.

4. Tell real-life stories about the outcomes you produce
Your objective is to reference the kind of results or outcome that clients can expect if they appoint you as their accountant.
This sort of thing is much easier to evidence if you can talk about specific clients in a case study style of story.

Telling true stories about how you helped clients should be easy as you were there so you don’t need to refer to notes. Keep the stories, honest, simple, vivid and emotional. This makes them more memorable which is, of course, part of the objective.

Here is how I have answered the question when a fellow member of the Professional Speaking Association asked what I do. They *know* I am a speaker but beyond that?

I love providing strategic and business development support to accountants. Do you have one? Do they run their own practice?

I run an online group for sole practitioner accountants who want to learn from each other and I mentor a number of sole practitioners who are feeling isolated, overwhelmed or frustrated.   You may now know whether your accountant feels this way but it’s very common which is why so many accountants seem to feel so much better after we have started to work together. Some treat me a little like an NED for their practice.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE DOING?

Another approach is to imagine that THIS is the question you were asked whenever anyone asks you “What do you do?”

There is little point in answering that question with the non-sequitur “I’m an accountant”. That simply says what you are, not what do you do.

Your reply to the (imagined) question, ‘What do you love doing?” will be far more revealing than simply talking about being an accountant.

What do I love doing? I love my regular calls and meetings with sole practitioner accountants. And I love it when they tell me how my support, guidance and advice has helped them to become more confident, to win more profitable work and to become more successful.

CASE STUDY STORIES
It is worth practicing how you share case study stories.

Focus on the ‘before and after’. The ‘before’ means what did your client feel at the outset about their problem? What did they want or need? This sort of imagery is key to story-telling as it builds up curiosity on the part of the listener.

The ‘after’ image needs to form a stark contrast – this is what you want the listener to relate to. The story is not all about you although your role is key of course. The story needs to be about someone like the listener – or someone they know or could relate to.

MOVING FORWARDS

More so than ever before, standing out in the world of accounting requires more than just identifying as an accountant.

Recognise and celebrate what males YOU distinct and special. Practice painting vivid client stories, showcasing your problem-solving expertise, focusing on what matters, and sharing real-life outcomes. Do that and you can transform how you present yourself and your firm.

Remember, your goal is to captivate your audience, whether they’re prospective clients or potential referrers. By crafting a narrative that resonates with them, you can leave a lasting impression and differentiate yourself from the competition.

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