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Where is your accountancy practice heading amidst the turmoil and change?

 

Practices that will be flourishing in 2030 will have built a referral system that brings a steady stream of the “right type of clients”, meaning that their owners are working smart not hard.

There’s no one single silver bullet but here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

Introduction

In the good old days when you took the leap of faith to set up in practice you found suitable premises, affixed a shiny brass plate to the front door and waited for clients to trickle through. Over time your practice built up by a mix of locals knocking on your door and referrals from satisfied clients

There was no need for an advertising or marketing budget and certainly no thought was given to attending marketing seminars or reading up on how to grow your practice.

That was then, and this is the 21st century. You are still a professional but it may feel like you are a desperate businessman or even worse, a salesman, wrestling with competition from every angle in order to retain clients, let alone find new ones. It’s not what you signed up to, but you’re not ready to lie back and roll over because you know you are a good accountant and have a lot to offer.

The practice of 2030 won’t resemble that of today, so the choice is simple but stark:

Either learn the noble art of practice growth or shut shop.

The approach that you need to take is that of learning a new discipline that is well within the grasp of a professional such as yourself - from generating leads all the way through to converting these prospects to new clients.

Value added – the foundation of winning and retaining clients

A good salesman doesn’t sell a product or a service. They identify the customer’s problem and provide a solution. The problem your potential clients will face is either that they are not getting a decent service or they want to pay less.

Competing on price is dangerous ground as there will always be somebody cheaper, unless you want to get involved in a downwards fee spiral simply to retain clients. Winning new clients with the promise of lower fees may be achievable if they are being ripped off, but to retain an existing client with a gripe about fees means that you have to explain to them that you add value to their business.

In fact it could be an opportunity to upsell other services so overall they feel they are getting their money’s worth. A client who complains to you that they don’t get business advice from you can be told that as he only wishes to pay a low fee what does he expect? For an increased fee you can offer enhanced business advice, perhaps popping down to their factory every 6 to 8 weeks to look things over and have a chat with them that about taxation and finance.

Winning disgruntled clients from other firms is much easier. They want to leave their existing accountant due to unhappiness and you need to ask them what it is that they are not happy about. Have a frank discussion with them and make note about what their needs are. Now you have a list to work from and the prospect can see that you are taking them seriously and are able to promise them a solution. You may need to explain that your comprehensive service is not the cheapest but it is good. It is value for money.

What services are you offering to clients? Traditionally clients saw the accountant as their compliance manager, preparing accounts because they required them for Companies House, HMRC or the bank. The client rarely looked at them because they knew if they were making money or not. This holds true today but increasingly the accountant needs to be a business manager and financial controller. Clients expect more and want you to help them squeeze more out of their business and maximise their use of tax incentives and allowances.

Do you have something new to offer OR a different take on an existing theme? Perhaps you are a specialist in taxation or retirement planning and can advertise this to attract new clients. Whatever you do the hardest part is explaining how they will benefit – changing their mindset. Leverage the relationship and everybody will benefit. Remember, your input will make them happy and that is the best form of advertising.

You’re now Thinking and Acting like a Business – read on and develop the train of thought…..

Developing a brand

You should be engaged in building a brand for your firm and through this process creating trust and goodwill. Once clients perceive you as reliable and delivering a trusted service with tangible benefits they will act as your advocates and recommend you to their network of friends and business colleagues. Referrals are the best and cheapest way of bringing in new business.

By showing genuine interest in their business and private lives you will become closer to them by being a part of their lives. Remember that many people spend more of their waking hours at business than at home so succeeding at work is critical to their feeling of wellbeing. If you become part of the support that maintains this it is much harder for them to leave you and if your positive input is truly appreciated they will become walking advertisements for your practice.

Typical areas where an ordinary high street accountant doesn’t venture include: -

  • Tax planning
  • Estate planning
  • Payroll bureau
  • Business consultancy
  • Investment advice
  • Pension schemes
  • Succession planning
  • Business valuations
  • Expert witness reports
  • Cost Reduction

It doesn’t matter that you do not have the necessary expertise; you can build a relationship with other professionals who can visit your premises or run seminars in partnership with your firm. This is a component of networking. You may have a rudimentary knowledge in a specialist field that makes it worth going on a course to learn more or perhaps try your hand at a new discipline.

Have you got a USP?

Do you have a “unique selling point”? Is there something you have to offer that makes you stand out from the crowd or allows you to offer something different or extra?

An example could be a fluency in a foreign language that allows you to target for example French businesses requiring advice on trading in the UK. Or you may have gained valuable experience from having a cluster of clients in a particular industry that could make it worthwhile focusing on bringing in more.

You may be willing to make visits to clients at unsociable hours. It doesn’t mean you cannot charge extra for it, but it does give you edge of many others.

Collaboration is key

A practice newsletter is an ideal way of keeping your name in front of your clients. These can be purchased with the option for you to add some content of your own. It doesn’t matter if the client sends it for recycling within 60 seconds of opening it, they’ve seen you and will bear in mind that you are a proactive accountant who communicates. These newsletters can also be distributed beyond your existing client base, either directly to prospects or left in waiting rooms, perhaps on a reciprocal basis with professionals from other disciplines.

Websites for accountancy firms are an interesting creature, as you don’t have anything to sell on them unless you are a specialist who can produce guidebooks for businesses. They tend to be more of a “must have” item which is part of the publicity armoury. Some firms have websites that are specifically used for clients to communicate and submit documents but they are not designed to bring in new business on their own, unless perhaps you have something to offer free of charge in return for contact details of a potential client, meaning that any follow up is no longer a cold call.

Part of the advice that clients may wish to hear is how to improve their business efficiency or learn about other services that may benefit them. In 2020 there is a lot of interest from wealth management companies to team up with accountancy firms that have clients requiring their services, it’s just that these clients aren’t quite aware of it yet. Legal services are also a growing opportunity.

By networking with other professionals you can be in a position to promote these services and have confidence in promoting them.

 

Is it for me?

I recall being told by a senior staff member when I was a trainee, that there are only so many hours in a day and only so many days in a week and only so many weeks in a year. There is also so only so much you can charge in an hour so if you do the maths and you’ll realise that if you are ambitious you have to expand by taking on staff or modify how you charge in order to make a lot of money, remembering of course that you have a private life to fit into these precious hours too.

Not everybody is cut out to run their own practice let alone put in the effort to build it up. You will need the ability to work on own initiative, often under pressure, without the security of knowing that your wages will arrive in your bank account at the end of the month.

With advent of Covid 19 and the fear of a recurrence of a future pandemic or other as yet unknown catastrophe, everybody (literally) is reviewing the work/life balance, so now is the ideal time to look at ideas and ways to make homeworking or a virtual practice an efficient business model for your firm.

Networking

Networking is probably the single most important area for practice growth but it is also something that is often misunderstood. Ask most people what it means and the most popular answer is probably that it is about attending “networking events”. This is not untrue but it is certainly not the be all and end all of networking. It includes attending specific networking events but it has a meaning far beyond this.

Getting known is not done by one simple method; it is a range of actions that together will bring in business. A holistic approach works after a period of time during which you find out which works best.

It includes free business clinics, leaflets, letters, media advertising, A- boards, vehicle signs, building signs, a website, attending seminars, webinars or breakfast events and telemarketing. To make it happen you’ll need professional marketing guidance and will have to work with other disciplines.

You’ll need a good mix of online and offline to make it work properly, along with patience and discipline to use tools like LinkedIn or Facebook properly. Less but more meaningful posts are far better than a continual drip of nebulous irrelevant nonsense.

Once you get to meeting SMEs in your area and share your expertise you will grab unhappy clients from your competitors. It starts with lead generation and culminates in building a local or regional reputation.

Surveys are an excellent way to raise your firm’s profile. Not only do you make yourself known during the survey but when the results are published you can add your own comment and analysis. Results can be posted on your website, blogged or submitted to professional publications as well sent to clients. A well-planned survey with carefully crafted questions is an excellent way to engage with potential and existing clients.

Around 80% of professionals of all disciplines transact business with people they know and the reason for this is because trust is a pivotal factor in people’s decisions and by nature we trust those we know.

Networking involves increasing your circle of acquaintances and gaining their trust. It is not about out and out raw sales pitching because that does not engender trust.

By becoming better known and being part of people’s circle, whether the inner circle or out at the periphery, as they consult with you and you get known better your credibility increases. Eventually people become comfortable to use your or recommend you.

Networking opportunities range from attending a pure networking event to building an online profile in a forum. The skill is choosing which one works best for you, both in terms of your personality and your work schedule. The best way to raise your profile is to speak at an event but unless you know your subject inside out don’t try it.

It takes time and patience but you never know where a meeting or blog comment will lead.

The importance of referrals cannot be overstated. It is not just free advertising but you have somebody acting as your advocate and salesman. It is one of the quickest and shortest routes to closing a sale.

If you look upon networking as building a sales pipeline it is difficult to fail as long as it is implemented properly and with focus.

 

Winning clients

Gaining new clients is an ongoing process during which you need to project the correct image and show them you can make a difference to their business. Understand their needs – a good salesman finds out needs or problem and delivers a solution; remember that there is nothing wrong with selling yourself.

Let them see that you are a business adviser and not a beancounter. Over time they will feel the added value of your input and all the time you are building trust and building a brand.

A salesman looks for common ground with his prospects and builds a rapport, always listening and empathising. However, you have to be aware of time wasters and learn how to close the deal. Reading up books on marketing is a good idea. I suggest reading several publications and applying the tips that you could apply in your business.

Efficient machine

That means that your practice needs to be lean and mean, in other words ruthlessly efficient so you can maximise your time doing what you do best, whether it is raw accountancy or winning new business.

Key points to consider are:-

  • Outsourcing for mundane and routine work
  • Flexible working for staff ensures when you need them out of hours they are there for you
  • Capitalise on the employment market to get the best value for money or use subcontractors who have been made redundant and are eager to work
  • For some practices a virtual secretary saves money and can project the image of a larger firm
  • Delegation is crucial for efficiency – don’t do a job that is better some by somebody else
  • Punctuality – avoid wasted time hanging around and let clients know this is how you operate
  • Let the partner with best skills do the selling
  • Collaborate with other disciplines – perhaps use outsourcing for certain aspects of publicity
  • Focus or speciality in something you know and do well will maximise your fees

Feedback

Measuring feedback on your investment is crucial. Inputs requiring measuring are hours expended and money spent. You’ll see how much each £1 spent on advertising or hour of free advice yields and over time you’ll have a finely tuned modus operandi for bringing in the maximum number of clients for the lowest expenditure. It also makes you cognisant of how much time is spent with useless prospects who are simply timewasters after free advice.

Not up to it

If you’re not sure it’s for you don’t waste your time and effort, either sell up if you have an existing practice that isn’t expanding or buy over another practice where the work has been done and you’re starting from an easier position with momentum to build upon.

What image to project

You need to project a professional and knowledgeable image. Professionalism ranges from a tidy and clean office to managing appointments properly and following due process such as following up meetings with a summary and acting in a timely manner.

Knowledge is about knowing your subject but in today’s complex tax framework it is perfectly reasonable to be aware of a law but not know its intricacies. You can reasonably tell somebody that you need to look something up in more detail. Bluffing doesn’t work unless you are a master and the person you are trying to fool is unable to see through it.

Some accountants like to project the traditional image of a blue pinstripe suit and a plain blue tie whereas others prefer a more casual but smart dress code. It depends on the type of clients you are wooing and whether your dress manner makes them feel more at ease. It also has to match your demeanour and décor otherwise you’ll send out a confused message.

First impressions count, and you only need a small outlay to impress clients, whether it is a clean car or polished shoes.

Strapline

A good strapline assists in making your firm memorable. The strapline can be specific to your firm’s expertise or can be more general but it should be short and easy to understand. Go online and do research – it’s a fascinating exercise and one well worth getting right but make sure you it reflects what you offer or stand for.

Fee basis

Traditionally accountants charge by the hour. This works well for many but often there are more lucrative ways of charging. The fixed fee model is attractive as you generally know how long it takes to prepare a set of accounts for a given trade, assuming good basic recordkeeping. Clients like to know that there will be no surprises and it can work out that you will earn double or treble than if you charged by the hour, especially if you have an efficient operation. In some circumstance a percentage of savings made by following your advice can produce big dividends and lets the client know you believe in what you are saying. Always ensure that clients understand that it is about value of your input rather than the size of the bill.

Under promise and over deliver – an old marketing trick but one of the best especially on the fees front.

Testimonials

Ask clients to tell the world in your marketing leaflets how good you are. It’s good for them and even better for you, a win-win situation.

Brainstorm

Discuss new ideas with colleagues. If they are all part of the firm that is best but if not perhaps a former colleague

About the author Norman

I’m Norman Younger BA(Hons) FCCA MCIArb and on this blog I’m going to share over 20 years of professional and business experience at the sharp end of small business in the UK, one of the world’s most enterprising nations. As a professionally qualified accountant I have experience advising start up micro enterprises and multi million pound turnover firms. During this time I have owned several business and gained valuable insight into all aspects of the day to day operations covering everything from staffing to marketing. I established and am currently a working trustee of a charity that helps people find sustainable employment and supports entrepreneurs in getting their feet on the business ladder and climbing higher.

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