How to grow your private client base

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The first article in this series of articles argued that there is a market for accountants to take on more private individuals as clients, but understanding and catering for their needs can pose a challenge for practitioners. John Stokdyk explores how to approach such prospects.

Perhaps the first question for a practitioner looking to dip into the inviting pool of personal clients is where are they going to come from? In case it has slipped your notice while tending to the needs of your business clients, the demographic of accountancy clients is changing rapidly, and so are their expectations.

According to Pew Research the so-called millennial generation (born 1980-95) is likely to overtake the number of Baby Boomers (born 1945-65) as the UK’s biggest population subgroup this year. Millennials have grown up within the knowledge economy and do not do things the way previous generations did.

Millennials live their lives on their smartphones and want instant answers and information, often delivered to them on the move via apps and personal information dashboards. According to financial services trainer Bryce Sanders and other value pricing proponents such as Ron Baker and Mark Wickersham, they also expect accountability - which puts onus on the practitioner to articulate the value of what they provide.

In many cases, the millennial private client will be confident, wealthy and headstrong, and may need to learn the value of professional advice. As Sanders puts it, they are much more likely to ask their adviser, “What have you done for me lately?”

The person providing that advice has got to be ready to answer such questions, or even pre-empt such thoughts by bringing tangible value into their conversations.

We will return to that theme in the third article in the series, but to serve private clients, you’ve got to win them first. For much of the advice that follows, AccountingWEB turned to entrants to the 2015 Practice Excellence Awards for their tips and advice.

Build a strong identity and clients will follow

There is a lot more public domain information to help profile business prospects, and more obvious forums to meet them. Finding and wooing private clients can be more of a challenge. Even more than with business clients, you have to offer them a distinctive personal relationship.

Every accountancy firm promises personal service, but in the words of Savior Faire’s Caroline Cole, who specialises in serving French ex-pats on the UK’s south coast, “An awful lot of accountants just do the core services, but there’s an awful lot that don’t seem to do anything special. They’re much of a muchness. You can’t pick any of them out for being distinctive.”

Rather than just looking to serve private clients, your positioning and marketing should focus on ideal types of client - for example in professions such as medicine, law or IT, or in Savoir Faire’s case, specific nationalities.

Cole built her firm up with little more than a website including sections in French, followed by networking activity in France and the UK. Having put in the footwork, Cole reached a position where, “If there’s a French person in the room I get introduced to them. I feel I’ve got credibility and can do things other accountants can’t.”

Talk about issues that matter to them

Specialist seminars, PR and online networking and blogging can all widen your net by making your expertise visible to the kinds of clients you want to attract. As discussed in the first article in this series, the government’s recent pension reforms have focused attention on retirement planning. This will be an area that any firm serving private clients needs to cover, and even if expertise is thin in-house, financial advisors and solicitors working in this area are likely to be enthusiastic partners for joint events looking at specific opportunities and issues.

Presland Accountants has built a successful email communication strategy around targeting different client segments with tailored emails, so rather than wading through lots of irrelevant detail designed for business clients, individuals receive updates on topics closer to home, such as wealth planning.

Referral strategies

Developing such niches will ultimately bring you better quality referrals, as the kinds of client you serve will attract similar ones to your firm.

“Word of mouth is huge,” says Sanders. “When you have a problem, you want to be referred to someone who has solved the same problem satisfactorily for someone you know.”

The traditional model when you solve a problem for someone is to ask them if they know anyone else with the same problem. Experienced referral managers view this as a relatively low-grade mechanism, as the implication existing clients could draw is that they’re not as valuable to you as their friends - and this may affect the quality of those they do suggest.

In her guide on marketing to private clients, Heather Towsend highlights the significant role introducers can play in attracting clients. Jessica Pillow at Pillow May puts this advice into practice by working closely with the IFAs, solicitors and brokers who also serve her private clients.

For the accountant, this means she has all the financial information she needs to advise her clients. But by improving the quality of service and making the process more efficient for their joint clients, Pillow is also strengthening her bond with introducers who can send similar people her way.

Asking clients outright for names of their friends may be viewed as a lower quality route, but Bryce Sanders encourages accountants to use another technique to build word-of-mouth: testimonials. When you have completed a project successfully for the client, remind them how well you’ve done, but add that you are bound by confidentiality. Clients are not - so they are free to tell their acquaintances anything they want about what you have done.

There is no secret formula for winning and serving individual clients, but Sanders encourages accountants to emulate Savoir Faire’s Caroline Cole and play to their own strengths: “It’s not like Harry Potter where you can say the magic spell and it will work. You’ve got to have a script that will fit your style.”

To find out more about what private clients need and techniques to deliver those services, download Moneyhub's Five-point plan to kick-start your private client portfolio

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What have you done

for Aweb lately, John? If this article is the best you can come up with then "come back Mark, all is forgiven".

There is no difference in picking up "private individuals" or "business".

This article reminds me of the old fashioned insurance salesman who asked for 2, sometimes 3 names before they would leave your house. OK not as ruthless, just a bit more sleazy.

Don't all Accountants work closely with IFA's etc?

Yes Caroline Cole can do something most English Accountants can't do well and that is.....................................wait for it................................SPEAK FRENCH. Maybe that's why she gets introduced to French people.

I'm now going to do a tax return then start a script that fits my style (any offers?).

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Sorry you're not satisfied, John

I got a bit of stick from Carnmores for the first installment of this series, but as I replied to him, the feedback I got from several practitioners was that there are differences between strictly personal and business clients.

For some reason, my efforts to differentiate those client groups and their needs is touching a sore nerve among some readers. That's probably one of the points that I'm trying to get across - even if you see yourself as a general practitioner, there are so many options in the market that you will do best by focusing your attention on the clients who will benefit most from your services.

That's the message that came from entrants to the Practice Excellence Awards and they focused overwhelmingly on helping ambitious owner-managers to grow their businesses (while also supporting their personal financial needs).

These people are a very profitable client base and are courted by all manner of firms. So the series is designed to offer a few suggestions about prospecting among another potentially valuable client group - individuals who don't come wrapped up in a business package.

I understand that you're busy and apologise if I have wasted your time this January. But when things have calmed down, I'll repeat the same suggestion I made to Carnmores. If I have misrepresented what is involved in serving private clients, or have overlooked important aspects of doing that, I would be very keen to hear what you have to say.

Because of the time of year, I didn't talk to as many accountants as I might have wished. I'm sorry if that means the article has not lived up to our usual AccountingWEB standard. But as is always the case - it can always be improved by insights and new ideas from other members.

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@John

The reason why opinion polls didn't forecast the Tory win was said to be because not enough Tories were consulted. Research has the same effect. Look at food research etc. all conflicting. What the Pew research misses is the number of people who have and continue to change with the times. There seems to be a misconception that "young and computer wise" is best. This "sales gimmick" of identifying needs etc. is not the greatest thing since sliced bread that is made out.

So, John, I'm not satisfied because I think the article demeans what the sole practicioner is trying to achieve.

Everybody's expectations are changing as the world changes. However if you want to ditch traditional standards then you have to replace them with something that will work for all. Public transport v. cars or banks trying to sell are just two that have failed miserably.

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Thanks!

It is always best to consult someone more experienced than me. Many thanks for this post. Very useful information!

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@Anabelle

You're quite right and I also bow to my peers. However you have to add a bit of common sense into the equation. The point of the article was that there is a difference between picking up private clients and picking up business clients. Not true, there is no difference. It's like saying there's a difference between a baker and a farmer. Of course there are differences you adjust to when preparing accounts and talking to the client - that's where your training through the ranks comes in. Maybe this article is for those that haven't done their "apprenticeship" and think that just by a bit of bullshit (read sales gimmicky stuff) baffling brains will bring them a hoard load of clients.

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