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6 ways for accountants to beat the competition

Our recent research for the Practice of Now 2018 report has revealed that 67% of accountants worldwide feel that the profession is more competitive than ever. Over a third (40%) of accountants feel more uncertain about their prospects compared to a year ago.

“It’s a challenging landscape,” says Jennifer Warawa, a former accountant, and now Sage’s Executive Vice President – Partners, Accountants and Alliances.

“It used to be that my accountant was down the street or across town,” she said. “Today, people want an accountant who can really serve their business needs and they’ll go all the way across the country, and in some cases to another country. The playing field has been leveled and competition is everywhere.”

So, what can be done? Well, put simply you need to ensure you stand out amongst the competition. That comes down to focusing intensely on the three key areas that should already be drilled into every manager within an accounting firm:

  • Improve the client experience
  • Advance practice offerings
  • Make better use of technology

Here are suggestions that might spur thought around these areas, or even drive outright changes to help you build a successful accounting practice.

Stay in touch

Bobby Lane, Blick Rothenberg

“The next generation of business leaders are looking for a relationship they can see as an extension to their management team,” said Bobby Lane, speaking to Sage Advice from his office at Blick Rothenberg, where he’s a Partner. “They want to be able to work with a practice that can solve their problems, explain what is going on in their business and support them on their journey.”

And those who have grown their practices from small acorns will have experienced that moment when this kind of personal touch is no longer feasible – or certainly much more difficult. A formal client management system becomes the only sane way forward, perhaps with assigned client managers.

But none of this means the personal touch should disappear. Those working within a growing practice just need to remember to be sincere as much as possible – and to be aware that communications technology has a habit of removing sincerity.

For example, when sending out client communication letters, always ensure they’re signed personally by the client manager or accountant who carried out the work. The same can apply to direct mailings. It might take 30 minutes to hand-sign each of hundreds of maybe even thousands of letters but, in a subtle way that matters, your customers will really appreciate seeing that small snippet of humanity that is your signature.

Signing letters or similar is ordinarily characterized as a marketing trick, but I invite you here to consider marketing as a fringe benefit. What should be driving your actions is a desire for client satisfaction, and a desire to put the client at the heart of your business by providing a consistent and authentic human connection.

Email or phone call? Consider the total amount of work involved. If you’re emailing a client about something like a new compliance requirement, and anticipate having to respond to several follow-up emails, why not set aside ten minutes to call them and explain it in person? Okay, so the client might then go on to explain a new problem they’re having – but that’s only more business for you.

In short, take any opportunity you can to provide a human touch for your clients – and don’t assume this kind of thing is necessarily time-consuming. While it’s certainly not as efficient as some forms of electronic communication, it also won’t eat into your schedule half as much as you think.

Invite clients to be involved

“Practices will have to adapt,” continued Lane. “They must communicate using the same channels, collaborate effectively and cultivate relationships.”

Client relationships are what defines a practice and must drive all decisions.

There is a prevalent urban legend that says car manufacturers deliberately introduce faults into vehicles that require the owner to return the car to the dealership. This gets the customer back into the showroom, the theory continues, and for car manufacturers that showroom is everything. Salespeople loiter. The newest models are there to touch. And free beverages relax the customer to encourage buying decisions.

Urban myth or not (and it almost certainly is!), there’s no reason why accounting firms can’t take a similar approach. No, you shouldn’t deliberately introduce faults into client books. But you can certainly invite clients to visit perhaps for seminars or sessions to explain new regulations or requirements, or even to listen to a keynote speaker (tip: People who’ve written books are often willing to talk for free by way of promotion, as are legislative bodies keen to get out the word about some new initiative).

An approach like this encourages stronger relationships with clients, and ultimately these relationships are one of your most valuable intangible assets. Yes, this kind of thing can also be good for marketing but again the avoid seeing it through that lens. If nothing else seeing it as marketing might engender a somewhat less genuine approach than is required. Here you’re simply attempting to show you care about your clients’ interests.

If there’s no space at your offices it might be worth hiring a room or hall somewhere. If you’re technologically savvy you might even livestream the event on Facebook or YouTube for those who can’t be there or record the event for your YouTube channel.

Make clients the center of innovation

There’s another reason why you might want to invite groups of clients into your business. Rather than give them something, you might ask for their help by creating client advisory committees – sometimes known as Customer Advisory Boards, or CABs. This is where you invite clients to provide feedback on your business and the services you offer, or perhaps even seek opinions on services you intend to offer.

Needless to say, running such a committee requires a degree of forethought. Simply gathering people together and saying, “How are we doing?” will produce chaotic results. Everything from choosing those who you want to invite onto the committee, to deciding on an agenda, should be carefully thought out beforehand. Some experts in this area advise creating a charter, for example, so that both you and the committee members know what you’re trying to achieve.

However, such committees can put your clients right at the heart of your decision making and innovation and can make your practice truly responsive.

Once again, there are ancillary marketing benefits in the fact that it can make clients more evangelical about your business – and therefore more likely to recommend you to others. But once again you should avoid driving this initiative from a marketing perspective. It should be considered an extension of your customer care methodology and as a way to ensure you put clients first.

Of course, requesting this kind of feedback – and using it to drive innovation – doesn’t necessarily require a committee. A personal request in writing or email from a client manager to a client might encourage them also to provide feedback – although this approach is perhaps more likely to get lost because of the sheer volume of messages we all deal with daily.