The single critical point to take away from reading this blog is to recognise your strengths and weaknesses so that you can motivate yourself to build on them and take your accountancy practice to the next level and beyond.
I’ve laid out a list of points in an A to Z format, different readers will “take home” different points and of course it is not exhaustive nor exclusive but I hope it’ll focus your find or get the cogs turning when you next consider strategy or tactics.
Like any business you need to review every aspect of your accountancy practice as an integral part of drawing up a plan of action. You cannot act upon things you haven’t identified or quantified - without a plan of action you’ll rapidly find that you’re still crouched on the starting block.. Your action plan will highlight the areas to focus on allowing you to concentrate on what needs fixing most urgently or bringing to your attention the areas that need developed first in order to allow other benefits to flow. Remember, you cannot do everything at once and you’ll need to structure a timetable for working through the list.
As part of becoming a “Client Champion” you need to position yourself as a trusted adviser. The mainstay of an accountancy practice is the business clients and many of them are simply not achieving their potential or are running an inefficient operation because there is nobody who is showing them where they are going wrong, how they can prosper by making changes or simply being there for them as a sounding board for new ideas. This is the void into which you must step in order for your practice to flourish. So don’t wait for clients to tell you there is a problem or that they are frustrated with lack of growth – reach out and shout form the rooftops about how you can help them grow their businesses.
Too many of the wrong type of client can often make or break a practice’s future. The wrong type of client is typically paying you a low fee, very demanding and takes up a disproportionate amount of nonchargeable time. If you recognise these type of clients it is imperative to swap them for better quality clients. When you have too many of these types you have a serious problem that will only get worse. You’ll need to subtly educate your existing clients that things are changing for their benefit and it is going to cost them more, but not too quickly or you could be left out in the cold. Needless to say, new clients will be onboarded into the new regime from the outset.
Ideally you want to position yourself as a dashboard for client businesses. This means that you are an integral part of implementing and reviewing their systems and procedures as part of ensuring that your clients understand what is going on, even in real time when required. Too often an SME owner will remain focused on details and miss the wider picture or vice versa. Diagnosing potential problems and implementing performance reporting is an untapped area of value added service for many accountants. More and more firms are positioning themselves as virtual financial directors /CFOs for their larger clients who are on the journey to requiring full time in-house staff to fulfil the role or for those that need the role filled but on a part-time basis.
Everything to everyone
This is something that many small accountancy firms strive to be and usually it is a hindrance to the firm’s development. Unless you have dedicated staff and departments dealing with different client types it is not achievable, especially in today’s complex world of system-driven and online business which is subject to ever more complex tax rules. You cannot be all things to all people – you need to choose the type of client you want and the services you deliver and focus on these. Some accountants will make a great living out of only completing tax returns perhaps with a national footprint whereas others may prosper by only taking on clients from a particular industry. You should consider outsourcing or subcontracting some services that clients require, especially within the field of taxation where you may not even be aware of what reliefs they could be getting.
Avoid pitching on fees alone as there will always be somebody who can undercut you on the race to the bottom. Fees are not the “be all and end all” in accountancy, and not many firms grow on a fee proposition alone. The “pile it high and sell it cheap” firms survive because they are highly efficient and their owners are experts in wringing out costs. Professional firms in most disciplines typically make no mention of fees on their websites for a tried and tested reason. The fees you charge represent the value added you bring to your clients and if you want to grow together with your clients the relationship counts for more than the fees- it is about what makes your firm different.
A guarantee shows clients and potential clients that you believe in your abilities and the quality of your work. Whether it is a time or a cost pledge make sure it is something you can honour. It’s a higher risk but it sends a strong message that you are aligning your interests very closely with those of your clients and that you are committed and not just another beancounter helping with compliance.
There are few things more frustrating for clients than promising to “call back in a few minutes” and not doing so until the next morning. It sends a message to the client that they are not important enough to warrant your attention. If something crops up in the interim send them a message that you haven’t forgotten. Small gestures go a long way, just like in a personal relationship.
The image you project is important. If you want the world to see that you offer a superior service then a recent model of executive car parked outside your office is just the ticket as it exudes success and people like to associate with success. Likewise, if you are pitching to high value clients you’ll need office décor and a wardrobe to suit. These things are of course subjective but the main point is that the image you want to give should match what the clients will expect from you or what you are trying to sell to prospective clients. People buy from people.
Judging your clients
Nobody should feel comfortable about making judgments on the personality of others but if you want an efficient operation that minimises headaches there can come a time when some clients or members of staff may have to be gently jettisoned. These can be tough decisions with ramifications for your reputation or with legal consequences in the case of staff but if your judgment is telling you that there’s bad apples in the barrel you need to act on it. Sometimes you can’t quite pinpoint the problem and it may manifest itself in an obvious manner but you just know that these people are somehow holding back your progress.
Know your strengths and leverage them
Many accountants have gained expertise in a particular trade sector such as engineering or technical field such as taxation. You need to recognise this and use it to your advantage. This could mean pitching to a sector so that you become the destination for all relevant local or national traders in that type of business or it could entail going out to educate that particular trade about specific matters affecting them. It’s a tried and tested way to attract new clients but it needs to be of true value to them and you’ll need to plan and prepare properly – you won’t be able to pull the wool over their eyes with a superficial offering.
Aim to be “a recognised player” in your area. It’s the natural place to start. Most small firms don’t market themselves properly and their existing and prospective clients could be easy and rich pickings for you with a sustained and focused publicity campaign backed up by a compelling story.
If you thought that marketing was for retailers or large corporate professionals think again. Marketing is a necessary foundation for growth and there’s no single piece of advice that covers each firm. A holistic approach that entails trial and error is required.You don’t need deep pockets to market your firm successfully but you do need to appreciate that it is an investment and that you will probably benefit with help from people who understand the type ofmarketing that is needed to move your firm forward.
Networking is basically the art of putting your name and skills in front of people in a discreet manner that is not overt selling. It could take the form of a breakfast club for local businesses or it may be online through a medium such as Twitter or LinkedIn. Whatever you choose make sure you are comfortable with it and keep at it consistently. Once you lose interest it is difficult to regain momentum and all your previous efforts will have been wasted.
Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of working too hard for too little return. Many small practice owners work hard instead of working smart. Usually the culprit is the wrong type of client or underinvestment in support staff and technology. If you’re stuck in the rut an urgent practice review is essential.
The term “prospect” refers to potential clients. Once you change your mindset into a sales and marketing mode you’ll appreciate the importance of how to manage a prospect and the pathway to converting them into clients. Whilst some may “sign up” at the first meeting there are more out there that need to be coaxed gently through a sales process that culminates in a proposal and a request to become a client.
The best way to understand a client’s business is to ask questions about it. The more you show interest the stronger your bond will be and the more you can offer your client to strengthen their business.
This the cheapest and best form of advertising. Don’t be shy – ask satisfied clients for names of people they think would benefit from using you. This is even stronger when a prospect turns you down, you can let them “off the hook” by asking for a referral or two, or for clients that owe you money and agree a deal in return for bringing you new business.
Choosing, nurturing and retaining staff should not be overlooked. They are your means of production, your support system or both. Think of them as assets and look after them at least as well as you would care for an expensive machine. Above all treat them as people and show genuine interest in their lives.
To accomplish your goals you’ll need to collaborate with others be they inside your practice or external. Many sole practitioners have difficulty in trusting others to get on with critical tasks and report back to them. Without working with 3rd parties in some form it is virtually impossible to grow a practice.
This refers to persuading your clients to engage on a level beyond simple compliance and accounts preparation. It includes bringing in external advisers and services such as pension management, business insurance or legal support and introducing them to areas that have a direct impact on their business,such as quarterly management accounts or a merchanting facility that is significantly cheaper than their current provider.
Value added is about giving something to the clients that makes them appreciate your services over and above the next firm and underpins the development of your practice.
Working with others
Given the growing complexity of client relationships caused by the fast changing pace of technology, to achieve your growth aims you’ll have to work with outsiders. The art of delegation is about only keeping the jobs for yourself that nobody else can do. Where possible use a third party and concentrate on what you do best, hopefully meeting and greeting clients as you drive your practice forward.
The traditional year end Xmas card may be something that people shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes at, but whatever cultural / religious observance or private celebration your clients are enjoying, it pays to drop a handwritten card ( perhaps non-denominational) to remind them you are there and have taken the time to think about them. Clients are human and this is one small element of ensuring that it is harder for them to leave you.
Yes to everything
When I first started out in business I always said “yes” to client requests and then figured out a way of accommodating them. Sometimes I had to go back to them and explain it couldn’t be done quite as they wanted but I always had another solution. This approach may not be for everybody but it is a positive message and can take your practice to new heights as you search for the means of delivering what you promised.
Without this you’ll not reach your target. At times it is tough to keep up your initial enthusiasm but recognise this and don’t let it ruin your plans. If you’re running out of steam, stand back, pause and regain that early drive, either on your own or more likely with your growth partner and mentor.