Secrets of superior accounting firms

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Martin Bissett lets us into a few top tips and sweet secrets of what gives some accountancy firms the exacting edge

Let's start this article with the end in mind. In general terms, Accountancy is about recording history. Advisory is about creating futures. If we want to be a firm of interest to our existing and potential clients alike, let’s articulate the higher ideal in order to win the higher fees. In times gone by, choosing an accountant was simple. We either asked a business owner we trusted to tell us who they used or we looked in the various directories to choose a firm based on the criteria of:

  1. How much they cost
  2. How close their office was to ours
  3. Whether we liked the look of them when they arrived for their first meeting with us

So much has changed

The acceleration of remote working and digital marketing had brought a profound change in the way that SMEs run their organisations and the requirements they have of their accounting firm. Increasing this rate of change is the way that some accounting software companies have chosen to market their solutions directly to business owners, thereby not only cutting out the accountant as the reseller distribution channel, but also creating bias in the SME market towards which online accounting package the accountant needs to be able to support. So to continually build a firm our clients want to work with is to be continually aware of what ‘tips the scales’ in your favour, in the eyes of the clients.

Most firms try to achieve this by being different. To be ‘different’ is good, to be ‘better’ is the platinum standard but how is this achieved? Are you yet another ‘different’ accounting firm? Many accounting firms, if not most, try to be ‘different’. This happens for two reasons:

  1. The average client is uneducated on what differentiates one accounting firm
    from another.
  2. The accounting profession, has never been trained on how to educate them to tell the difference.

These two conditions lead to these real-life attempts at differentiation from a variety of accounting firms:

‘Big enough to cope, small enough to care’
‘Do More’
‘We’re in the business of helping yours’
‘Never miss an opportunity’
‘Type Atypical’
‘Depend on our people, count on our advice’

And so on. Will you remember any of those? Did they compel you to get in touch with the firms they represented? No, and neither do the SMEs that you’re trying to attract and retain. So let’s go one step beyond that and take a deep dive into what your clients actually want and actually change on the basis of.

A-Head in the Cloud?

We like our buzzwords but they are so often redundant. ‘Client-Focused’ - who would say they aren’t? ‘Customer-centric’ - as opposed to what, ‘customer allergic’? ‘Real-Time’ - who would say anything else like ‘when we get round to it’?

But this last term actually has some meaning to the client. Real time accounting has now become a reality thanks to another buzzword ‘the cloud’. A business owner’s ability to check their cash-flow, pay bills, invoice and even produce a P&L on the move attracts another much overused buzzword – Game-Changer!

The consequence of this technological advancement is that many tasks which once required a human’s involvement, now do not. This means that some major parts of compliance work are becoming commoditised. A commodity becomes a product. A purchasing decision on a product becomes price sensitive and behold, the race to ‘free compliance’ is on.

Now if the above paragraph is accurate (and it is) then must our firm be ‘in the cloud’? yes, and furthermore it must be able to support more than one solution so it’s all very well being set up to support Quick Books Online, but what if the client is a die-hard Xero user?

It gets worse, what on earth will attract clients at fee levels that excite us, if compliance is free or at least, highly price sensitive? The answer is ‘outcomes’

Becoming a ‘Superior’ Accounting Firm

At this point in the article, you should now be asking yourself: ‘How do leading independent accounting firms focus on articulating their superiority rather than their differentiation?’ The answer is ‘They are doing it by leveraging their client success stories as marketing collateral.’

What does that mean?

It means that if you want to build your firm to be one that your clients want to work with in the future, you should ask yourself the following 3 questions.

  1. ’What are the greatest outcomes that I’ve achieved for my clients?’
  2. ’What have my clients used the money I’ve saved them for?’
  3. ’At the end of my career, what do I want to be remembered for?’

Somewhat grandiose questions I know, but the answers when you capture them as case studies, video testimonials, online recommendations etc. will give you stories FAR more powerful than your competition because your competition didn’t download and then make time to read this guide!

You’ll discover that you and your firm are a job savers, a business rescuers, house deposit funders, marriage savers, long term financial security providers and much more.

This makes you an advisor not an accountant. You always were, you just never got round to telling people about it. Maybe you were just too modest to. That now needs to change.

So let’s put all of these component parts together for you.

Delivery Basics – How to make it a no-brainer to work with you by finding your TOMs.

Congratulations you’ve reached the ‘putting it all together’ section where we give the top ten takeaways for readers to become THE Go-To firm in their area for Today’s Owner Managers (TOMs).

So to build the firm that your clients want to work with you need to:

  • Make sure that your infrastructure allows you to deliver real-time services to your clients on the cloud supporting the
  • main three software packages (currently Sage, Xero and Quick Books).
    Make sure that you capture your real-life stories of the outcomes you’ve created for your clients from increased efficiencies, to money saved to life changing aspirations fulfilled.
  • Make sure that your motives and ethos are things that your people and clients can buy into.

So whether you are hiring now or growing now, make sure there’s something that your people and clients can emotionally invest in. In other words, be someone that someone would want to be.

Make sure that you never ‘Sell Services’ again. Features are things like how your great tax department is, the fact that you have car parking on site and clichés like ‘big enough to cope but small enough to care’. None of these things have any relevance to the client. Focus instead on them, their aspirations, their desired outcomes, not what you think makes you look good.

Make sure that you always give your team members and your clients something to look forward to. So is there a clear career path for your people if they rise to the challenge. Is there lots of ways that you can help your clients as they develop? Yes? Great! NEVER fail to remind them of those facts.

The secret starts with you

The secret of a superior accounting firm starts with you. Your truest differentiation is staring at you in the mirror. What I mean by that is that we’ve long known that people buy benefits and the people by people, especially in professional services; so what are you doing to develop your relationship building skills internally and externally?

There’s always talk of being a ‘firm of the future’. Never mind being a firm of the future, go be the ‘NOW’ firm instead, because that’s what every business owner needs.

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N.B., This article first featured in the Autumn/Winter edition of CPAA Member magazine, the Practising Accountant.