How to get your first clients

Mark Lee highlights some proven ideas and some preliminary tasks that will ensure those starting up in practice won’t waste time, money and energy.

Is it brave, naive or evidence of a lack of good business sense to set up your own practice before deciding how you will generate your first clients?  I must admit I’m surprised by the number of times that this appears to be the case when I’m scanning questions in the Any Answers section of AccountingWEB.

Plenty of good advice has been shared here over the years. However well intentioned, some of the suggestions imply that winning your first new clients is easier than is typically the case.

First things first

Are you looking for bookkeeping work, accounting work, tax returns for private clients, traders, companies or to give advice to businesses and to help them reduce their tax bills?  And do you want to be someone’s first accountant or do you want to encourage people to switch from their existing accountant to deal with you in future?

To win your first clients you need to be able to articulate what you can do, who you can do it for and how they will benefit from using you.

Are you going to be “just another accountant”? Or will you be more interesting and attractive than others, perhaps due to a specialist focus or because you will make it more convenient for clients to deal with you rather than their current accountant?

And, most importantly, you need to be clear in your own mind how you are going to price each of your services. What level of fees are you hoping to generate from your first clients? Will you take on just anyone and seek to undercut their current accountant? (NB: This is a short-term approach that leads to all sorts of problems down the line).

A warning

Until you can articulate the issues set out above you will struggle to win new clients, regardless of the methods and routes you pursue.

Those “new to practice” accountants who start out without tackling these issues typically waste money on promotional materials (including website design) that don’t work. They also waste time networking and visiting prospects and referrers to no avail.

Promotional marketing materials and activities will always be more worthwhile when you are able to clearly express what you do, who you do it for, what makes you different and how clients benefit as a result. Your focus should be more on them than on you.

Wayne Morris expressed a similar point last year in his article, Two mistakes that keep accountants poor. He suggested that “the biggest mistake accountants make” is to market themselves as “an accountant”.  He explained that “people generally don’t want an accountant, what they want is what an accountant can do”. 

Social media

Regular readers will know I’m an avid user of various forms of social media. However I remain doubtful that any social media sites are a fast route for new accountants to generate profitable client bases.

Social media is NOT a broadcast medium. It takes time to build relationships and an audience. I would suggest that the new clients you may be most easily able to generate through this medium are themselves new start-up businesses. That’s great if they are your target, but beware some will never become sufficiently profitable to pay decent annual fees. 

Three years ago I authored a piece here entitled: HOPE is not a strategy. The key message I shared was that simply “hoping” that everything will work out ok is foolhardy. You need to put strategies in place that go beyond simply hope.

What have you found works when setting up your practice and looking for your first clients?

Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWeb and writes the BookMarkLee blog to help accountants have more fun and build more successful practices. He is also Chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax specialists.

 

Continued...

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Comments
The Doctor's picture

Great article    3 thanks

The Doctor | | Permalink

Great article as always Mark, but I would say in my limited experience, not to get too hung up on the point about using being cheaper as a selling point (at least to begin with). Ultimately, if it means the difference between earning a crust and having to go back to working for someone else just do it and regret it later - just don't make it a long term habit!

Also, I would add that again in my experience, not only is the ROI better with telemarketing than most other marketing activities, you can also target who you want, and you will be in front of better quality clients.

Sell the interview    3 thanks

davidross | | Permalink

The first rule of selling - get in front of the potential customer. I have found it a mistake to get into any specifics such as costs in advance of the first meeting. I used to land 100% of prospects so concluded I was too cheap - now I get about 90% signed up. I work on a fixed fee basis so like to find out what they have already been paying and often wait a few days to name my price.

The first interview is always "free and with no obligation".

Even if you have never sold before and foul up a few times you are learning what works for you - and a good manner and personality at this stage are what wins people over. After all they are unlikely to actually have an idea of how good you are until you have worked for them - if clients leave then it will be for good reason.

Am I saying that smooth talkers get ahead? - well of course! But in our business I reckon that professional ability will be evident in the first interview.

28 years ago I started with an ad in the Personal Messages column of our local paper, and have not looked back.

bookmarklee's picture

Sell the initial meeting - good advice    1 thanks

bookmarklee | | Permalink

I agree with @DavidRoss that your promo materials and activities should be focused NOT on getting a new client. Instead they should be focused on getting a meeting with a prospective new client. It's at the meeting that you get the chance to win them over and to determine your fees by reference to what they want.

[This is much the same as the purpose of a CV when you're job-hunting. Your CV should not be focused on trying to get the job. The CV should be created to get you the interview. It's at the interview that you get a chance to persuade them you should get the job.]

Mark

 

New clients    2 thanks

acountancy.lind... | | Permalink

Great article, Mark.

 

Like many other people I was forced into self employment following redundancy and having reached the great age of 41, the employment agencies sneered.

Within a limited budget, I tried a lot of the suggestions. Advertising I generally found a waste of time. A business group generated no new clients. A Website has brought me nothing. I only really got going when I bought a block of fees. Obviously over the years I lost clients but also gained new clients. I have now had many clients for over 20 years. The best advert is word of mouth and that is where nearly all my new business comes from.

I think you have to offer a personal service. As a new business you are going in at the lower end and you cannot think in terms of big bucks. Potential clients are liable to be fairly short of money and so you need to evaluate any new client and effectively work to a fixed fee.

Good luck

Buying fees    1 thanks

N.Draper | | Permalink

If you have no track record of running your own business then buying fees can be a problem.  A vendor will see selling to you as being very risky and may prefer to sell to someone who has a successful track record of running their own business.  If you have to borrow money to fund the acquisition this too can be a problem as a lender will want you to have proof that you can run your own business and without that will be less likely to lend you money. However, it can work for some.  It depends on the fees for sale and the attitude of the vendor.  If a vendor has the time to work a hand over period then bedding in new clients with an enthusiastic new owner can work very well. 

johnjenkins's picture

Good article Mark    3 thanks

johnjenkins | | Permalink

I would add three things.

Anyone starting on their own these days should have one years income behind them. That is so they can concentrate soley on building the business without having to worry about paying the bills.

Second, the first interview is make or break. If you don't come across it doesn't matter if you're the best in the world you won't get business.

Going from PAYE to starting your own business is a culture shock. Allow time and space to adjust.

weaversmiths's picture

A Mix of Everything    4 thanks

weaversmiths | | Permalink

When I was starting I think I did a mix of everything to get business, except fee buying.  My message was "Why waste time with paperwork when you could be making money doing what you do best?" or words to that effect.  When I took on an employee (a needy relative) one of the best things we did was to buy a laminator plus shaped coffee coasters to enable us to put our Services and name on one side and a small calendar on the other and the same in A4 and send these out to everyone we could think of and hand them out at meetings etc.  People thought we were a huge firm as we were hung on walls/placed on tables all over the town.  We kept to our colour scheme so that there was no doubt who we were, it certainly got us noticed and business rolled in and it cost us very little, I networked and got nothing but it was not lost time as years later I picked up work from that previous networking. It is no good sitting at a desk waiting for work to come in - you have to get out amongst it. I think the local business club was about £3 a monthly meeting - now it has morphed into something Official and its about £300 per year. I have never described myself as an Accountant - I run a Small Business Bureau and would do anything that will bring the money in (legally). Secretarial/Bookkeeping/Tax Returns/CIS etc, all that gets you started - I even designed and ran a website for a client.  Needs must when the devil drives. I am winding down now so quietly jog along with clients I have had, in the main, since I first started back in 1996.

TheAncientOne

How to get your first clients    2 thanks

rboggon.yahoo.co.uk | | Permalink

I have found advertising in parish magazines esp in high population areas to be very worthwhile.

 

I found regular attendance at

Fred Smith | | Permalink

I found regular attendance at business clubs generated leads.  I also had a telemarketing agency and put ads in news agents.  Not everyone took up my offer but there is no substitute for getting in front of real prospects.  Biggest mistake was being too cheap to start with and the second biggest mistake was to stop marketing once I had some clients!!

 

Bob Harper's picture

Mindsets and methodology    3 thanks

Bob Harper | | Permalink

 

@Mark - I totally agree, strategy needs to be sorted before any tactical marketing takes place but before strategy I'd suggest people starting up consider some mindset shifts.

When these are in place there is an attitude adjustment and statements like these make sense:

  • There is loads of business for me
  • The competition are my biggest asset
  • Growing my business is my number one responsibility, I can pay people to do the work
  • I want to do my own telemarketing at the beginning because I want to get the feedback
  • Selling is a valuable skill
  • My price is a fraction of the clients value

I'd also recommend a shift of marketing methodology towards Content Marketing. Give away valuable knowledge and solve people's problems before they even become a client.

Bob Harper

Crunchers Accounting Franchise

 

AnnaKournikovasKnickers's picture

How to get new clients    4 thanks

AnnaKournikovas... | | Permalink

Do what most accountants do. Use social meja. Book yourself into free networking events ( such as Chamber of Commerce, Business Link etc) where businessmen congregate, and then sit in a corner on your own fiddling with your Blackberry until it's time to leave. Oh, and remember to take no business cards in case anyone approaches you.

Patata4g's picture

What an excellent article.     1 thanks

Patata4g | | Permalink

What an excellent article.  There's so little marketing advice available for start-up firms.

Firstly, I should declare an interest as I run an accountancy telemarketing company.  @davidross is right: you can't attract new clients without meeting them.  We have found that the key to a high meetings to clients conversion rate, is "qualifying" the prospect before you meet.  

I came across the advice below in an email from one of the UK's largest sales training companies:

"When calling for an appointment-just sell the appointment-just sell the meeting. They are happy, so what? You are not asking them to drop their supplier and give you the business. All you are looking for is a meeting".   

From my experience this will only lead to frustration and disapointment. At the very least the prospect should say yes to the question: "If you like what we have to offer will you seriously consider working with us? 

To help accountants decide if telemarketing is right for them I wrote a short, balanced, guide. Please click on the link to get hold of a copy: Is telemarketing right for my practice

Patrick

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bob Harper's picture

Telemarketing    1 thanks

Bob Harper | | Permalink

There is a good argument for telemarketing to be part of the mix to launch a practice and to remain in place while the firm is developed to refine and improve the quality of the client base.

The quality score of clients in a firm is directly linked to the profitability and enjoyment the owner gets out of a firm.

Bob Harper

Crunchers Accountancy Franchise

Great Article    1 thanks

missymaverick | | Permalink

I read the article with interest as I have just taken the self employment plunge and set up a bookkeeping business.

I am looking to attract clients that have just started up themselves and as yet, do not have a bookkeeping system

Does anyone know how I would find out who has recently set up business in my area? I have made a few enquiries with my local business centre, but data protection seems to be the stumbling block

Any help would be much appreciated

Look in the small ads in

Fred Smith | | Permalink

Look in the small ads in local papers and magazines where these businesses advertise. note that money can be tight in this sector.

dbowleracca's picture

You can buy the data in.    1 thanks

dbowleracca | | Permalink

if you go to selectabase they offer lists of new business startups in your area, which could be a good starting point.

We have had a lot of success with this approach - I think we've taken on £15k of work in 2 1/2 years, cost us about £1,200 for the data but also involved a lot of effort.

bookmarklee's picture

NB: Not all new local start ups will be on a database

bookmarklee | | Permalink

Only those that have registered with Co House, local authority etc.

I doubt such databases include the newly registered sole trader and partnership businesses who are supposed to register with HMRC within 3m of starting up.

It's a good start though - especially if you're aiming at newly incorporated companies.

Mark

 

dbowleracca's picture

It's taken from business phone number registrations    1 thanks

dbowleracca | | Permalink

The data we get is based on businesses that have just registered a new business phone number - so some of them have been trading for a year but it's mainly startups.

A good way to get book-keeping work is to find a local accountant to work with and also advertise in parish magazines and network at local business clubs.

Approaching an accountant

missymaverick | | Permalink

Thanks for all your help so far, I have thought about approaching a local accountant, but not sure the best way to do it? 

I thought about writing a letter of introduction and follow it up with a phone call?

 

dbowleracca's picture

That's a good idea Missy    1 thanks

dbowleracca | | Permalink

@missymaverick that's a good idea - but you need to make sure that the letter is addressed by name to the partner and stands out, otherwise it may not get read.

Try enclosing something bulky to ensure it gets to the top of his pile of post, and the headline is important - something like "get an extra 50 new clients at no cost" might make his ears prick up!

AnnaKournikovasKnickers's picture

Mark Lee's brief

AnnaKournikovas... | | Permalink

This thread seems to have morphed from accountancy to book-keeping. I obviously came in the wrong door today, because I thought this site was called Accounting Web not Book Keeping Web. Mark asks at the top of this page," if one is set on being more interesting and attractive than others". Well, as you can see from my picture, I've got that slam dunk covered! If a potential punter is so sad that he has to resort to looking in Yell or responding to adverts fora professional adviser, then you can have him chum. With my compliments because they probably should be somebodies employee.And it would be kinder to tell them that.

Careful with the coasters!    1 thanks

EOAKS | | Permalink

I have also used a version of the 'coaster' advert. I was approached by an advertising agency but before I paid any money over I contacted other accountants who had previously used this method of advertising. Their response was... if it gets me just two clients the cost will pay for itself. Hundreds of pounds tho.

So I agreed to the advertising. I was a small start up at the time.

Nothing... no leads. Nothing. So I went to the place where I had been told my coasters would be used - the local golf club. The golf clubs logo on one side and mine on the other. The golf club used a number of coasters each week so I was very hopeful. Then I watched the barman. When the drink was pushed across the bar to the purchaser the clubs logo was face up. Then I looked on the tables - all coasters were put out clubs logo up. So no wonder I never got any leads. No -one was seeing my design! So I went to the club chairman and took away every single one that had my logo on it.

I now give them out/send them around as I wish.

But still no leads.

 

Telemarketing    1 thanks

BMary83 | | Permalink

The Doctor wrote:
Great article as always Mark, but I would say in my limited experience, not to get too hung up on the point about using being cheaper as a selling point (at least to begin with). Ultimately, if it means the difference between earning a crust and having to go back to working for someone else just do it and regret it later - just don't make it a long term habit! Also, I would add that again in my experience, not only is the ROI better with telemarketing than most other marketing activities, you can also target who you want, and you will be in front of better quality clients.

 

I'm interested in using telemarketers, could you advise who you use and and esitmate of their costs? 

Thanks

Jason Dormer's picture

Starting up

Jason Dormer | | Permalink

I agree with John Jenkins in that it is vital to have sufficient funding in place.  Not only for the reasons he states but also to avoid the temptation of taking on work which is clearly not suitable due to risk, complexity, clients personality, etc etc.  Lack of cash can cloud judgement when being offered work.

Part of building a successful acccountancy business is not trying to be all things to all people and to concentrate on core business model and not accepting some appointments that don't fit  (even better to have outlets for such work and get recurring income or intro fees).

Jason Dormer

Seahorse (UK) Ltd - For accountants and bookkeepers

 

 

halessteve's picture

3. Your Website - And Google Search

halessteve | | Permalink

Great article - and picking up on '3. Your Website' - or more specifically: the Google Search. The internet is playing a bigger and bigger part in finding an accountant and finding clients.

My local accountant is a practice in a rural village in Cottenham, 6 miles North of Cambridge. Until recently not too much thought had been given to the topic of Google Search - so we did a simple test. We typed in 'Accountants in Cottenham' to see where and how the practice appeared. The firm's website was done in the depths of page 8.

Just by thinking about the relevance of the Google Search to finding clients and making some simple changes to the website, the practice now appears as the number 1 position. There's more about this whole story here

So in summary, get on the front page of results for obvious searches for your practice - like: 'Accountants in [my village]'. 

halessteve's picture

And How Many Clients Might You Be Able to Sign Up?

halessteve | | Permalink

I did some work with my local accountant recently and we were curious how many firms he might be able to sign-up in a week or month.

We were just looking at new firms registering on Companies House. In England and Wales alone about 10,000 new firms register as limited companies every week. 10,000 every week, that is staggering! But so what, how many firms were near him / my local accountant?

It turned out that in a village just North of Cambridge - and in a 6 mile radius around it -  there could easily be 20 or so firms going limited every week. That's a lot of potential business.

There's now a service which shows exactly this information. If you stick in your post code, it will tell you how many firms have started in near you over the last four weeks. It's free to trial (and on an ongoing basis it is £10 per month). More details are here - Recently Formed.

The service does other things too like give names and addresses of the new firms and director details - but if nothing else - it is just a good indicator / curiosity filler to how many firms start-up in different areas around the UK.

 

 

 

What to do?

sam24hameed | | Permalink

Thanks everyone for all this wonderful comments and contribution to this site.  I am new on this site and I think I could find encouraging help for intuiton I have been choked on for few months now.

I am an ACCA part qualified student and a degree holder in professional accounting.  I am in my early 50s, have had over 13 years in working experience in one charity an union organisation.  I am currenty stocked at a job I am unhappy with within the last 4 years, and couldn't just get pass interview stage in many application I have made.

Within the last 5 months, I have been having this intuition to start a small book keeping work while I am still battling with the final examinations in ACCA and working part-time at my current employment.

I have recouped about £15K from savings and PPI, which I have partially invested in couple of low risk return.  But my worry is, can anyone advice me, do I need to get ACCA approval with my part-qualified experience to start up a book keeping business which I intend to link up with other services.

Please help

DThapa's picture

Valuable and useful points.

DThapa | | Permalink

Valuable and useful points.

thank for posting.

 

daniel.moss@expressaccountancy.com's picture

Franchising?

daniel.moss@exp... | | Permalink

You've missed out joining a franchise network?

Why would an accountant get wrapped up in advertising and marketing? Surely servicing your clients is the most important matter?

If its purely leads you're after with little or no effort, then why not consider the option. Its less costly than taking on a current fee bank too.

 

Selectabase has not been great for me!!!!

Sarah Nyakazingo | | Permalink

Unfortunately I found that the data I was given was not new, I found many business which are already established businesses and the error I made was not reading the conditions before paying for my first months data. I hoped that I could pay one month and try it out  but I've just been reminded that I have to pay for he whole year. Massively disappointed.