How to stay competitive as an accounting practice
Building rapport is crucial. It is the proverbial glue that keeps clients and service providers engaged. An accounting practice deals with a business’s most intimate financial affairs, so trust is key. When we had the opportunity to sit down with an experienced accountant from a London based firm, rapport is what they started with.
“A business’s accounts are its personal journals. You wouldn't be comfortable handing over your journal to just anybody that walked through the door, right?
“Businesses are the same. I have only ever gotten hired when the decision makers had developed this bond of trust with me and my team.” - Umar, a senior accountant at Base Practice Support, speaks about the importance of building rapport with potential clients.
And while vendor client relationships that are built on trust and communication do perform exceedingly well, this is certainly not the only thing that keeps an accounting practice competitive. Your competition already knows this. And we want to make sure you do as well.
The best way to figure out how competitive you are is to understand who you are up against. Start by asking yourself these questions.
Am I aware of the accounting firms competing for business around me?
What exactly are they doing to onboard more clients?
Now, whether or not you can confidently answer these questions is immaterial. What’s important is knowing how quickly you can learn from the industry, how comprehensively you understand what you learn, and how effectively you can implement it in your accounting firm.
We scoured through various publications and some SWOT analyses to develop a roadmap your accounting firm can use to stay competitive. Let’s take a look.
Start by niching it down
When you want to buy your mum flowers for mother’s day and if you have the cash to splurge, wouldn't you want to go to a florist? We don’t expect there to be many florists specialising in flowers for mothers day exclusively, but you can certainly expect a better variety of bouquets, and certainly more expertise than your local Asda or Sainsbury's.
Almost every other accounting firm wants to be a florist for your potential clients. By niching it down and choosing a field, or several fields to specialise in, you are setting up your practice to get easily found. Let us explain this by going over how your potential customers may find you online.
Can you recall your last Google search? It must have been something very specific. People no longer search for terms that have a low chance of producing relevant results. Sure, some people do conduct searches using terms like ‘accountants near me’ or ‘accountants in East Ham’ but there’s a problem here. Well established and significantly better funded firms can expend more resources towards getting found for these search terms. But if you were to specialise in, say retirement planning, you would have a much better shot.
“Specialising used to be something we kept on the ‘plans ledger’ in the mid 2000s. It’s something we built over time. But clients ask you about this the minute you get past saying hello. They want to know that you know their industry.
“Some clients are so strict with this that they will simply refuse to consider a firm if they can't find a client of theirs that they cannot relate with.” - Umar
Clients want to know how well you know their business. They don’t want to hand over their affairs to just any firm on the high street. They want specialists. Some firms go so far as adjusting their entire brand identities around a niche they specialise in. This ensures that when potential clients that belong to the industry you are targeting walk through your doors, they feel right at home.
Become available so you are found
Building on what we just discussed earlier, a results-oriented online strategy is crucial to staying competitive. You have to make your practice available online. We don't even need to search for data to support the argument that the majority of all buying decisions begin by searching on the internet. You probably got here through a Google search as well. Why shouldn't your accounting practice be the first result that shows up when someone searches for accountants in their area?
There are hundreds of accounting firms in London. Among those, 50% might specialise in accounting services for small businesses. Among these, 20% might specialise in working with startups. Now, if you started specialising in working with startups from a specific niche, like Fintech, you would have a very high chance of getting found if the CEO of one of these startups wrote in their search bar something along the lines of ‘accountants for fintech startups’.
If you aren't getting found on the internet, you are handing over prime digital real estate to your competitors without a fight.
Build rapport when onboarding clients
This is what Umar started with when we sat down with him. But it fits here because rapport is that factor which will determine whether it is your firm that gets hired or your competitors’. Most of us get bombarded with spammy emails, ads after every four organic posts on social media, and even those pesky video ads that come up before a video loads on YouTube. Your potential clients experience this daily, and by our estimate, they're not persuaded even a tiny bit.
Instead, if you happen to get the attention of a potential client in a networking event, through a personalised message on LinkedIn, or as a reference of one of your clients, start building rapport. It will do much more than present your accounting practice as a suitable candidate. It will help you get the answers you need to present solutions. If you already know that they are thinking of switching from another firm, good rapport will get them to spill the beans on exactly why they want to switch. There is no better way of getting hired than to successfully convince a potential client that you have the most relevant and cost effective solution to their problem.
If a potential client has gotten so motivated that they want to sit down with you and talk about their business, there is a high chance that they will enable rapport building themselves. They will most likely talk about their problems right from the start. And if your answers match their expectations, well, all we can say is that getting consistently hired goes a long way towards keeping your accounting practice competitive.
Provide exemplary services
It’s incredibly important to sign more clients regularly. What's equally important is keeping the clients you sign. You can be certain that a significant portion of your new clients are moving to you from another accounting practice. To stay competitive, you cannot become a practice that clients think of leaving all the time.
You have to be the firm that clients of other firms think about moving to. A large part of this comes from the age old, tried and tested method of word of mouth marketing. Your happy clients will bring in more business than any other marketing strategy if you compare costs. Why? Because being attentive, providing exemplary services, and going the extra mile often doesn't cost anything. It should come as a standard offering. But there are lots of firms that lose track of their customer service quality, especially if they suddenly experience an influx of new clients.
We have listed below a number of things you can do beyond your standard service offerings to gain a competitive advantage in the quality of customer service.
- Track your interactions – both in quantity and quality.
- Send a personal note – because who doesn’t like individual attention?
- Share helpful resources – analytical but easy to assimilate.
- Pick up the phone – have a conversation instead of a hundred follow up emails.
- Schedule a fun meeting – put the ‘fun’ back in fundamentals.
- Ask for honest feedback – and make sure you hear it.
Staying competitive means staying tech oriented
There is an age old saying when it comes to innovation. It goes like, if there is a new tool or service that improves any aspect of your work and you aren't using it, chances are that your competition is. This would be the moment to ask yourself, ‘Am I handing over my competitive edge to my competition willingly?’
We sure hope not. But the reality is that your clients have moved well ahead of the quote we just mentioned. Clients today expect their service providers to come equipped with the latest and greatest technology available.
“Clients have gotten so used to seeing fancy dashboards, automatically generated reports, and graphs and pie charts they can play with, that they almost always expect us to offer them this.
“Sure, they want to be pampered. But it's also about functionality. The latest accountancy tech allows us to provide our clients with exactly what they expect.” - Umar, senior accountant at Base Practice Support.
We’re in the 21st year of the 21st century, and cloud technology has never been more relevant. The 2018 IFAC Global SMP Survey’s findings corroborate this when they state that 38% of SMPs surveyed viewed embracing technology as the most significant challenge to their growth, while 78% anticipated that moving over from conventional methods of accounting to newer, more technologically focused ones would become an even bigger challenge moving forward. It suffices to say that technology is the driving force of the new world and you need to catch up to fight with the giants. But what do these numbers tell us? They tell us that a large percentage of your competition finds tech based software a little intimidating. Their loss can certainly be your gain.
Instead of letting cumbersome file keeping and paperwork processing take up your time, make use of the numerous cloud services at your disposal and create value both for your company and the client. Not only does the shift to cloud technology help take care of record keeping, but it also comes with the benefit of providing your clients access to their numbers in their palms.
Automating repetitive and menial tasks reduces time and touches. This time can then be much better utilised in what the clients are paying you for – your expertise in advisory services.
This brings us an action plan: do invest in improving the digitisation skills of your employees but more than that, lead by example and foster a digitisation mindset in the organisation – set the tone from the top.
Developing the right team
Hiring the right people at the right time for the right jobs is a no nonsense recipe for success. The partners cannot solely take up everything, nor should they. Allocate tasks on priority, and as per the individual skillsets of your employees. Invest time in understanding the idiosyncratic abilities of each manager and assign them departments accordingly. This tone, if set rightly at the top, trickles down to intradepartmental levels and does wonders. When everyone is performing at their peak potential, there is no question as to what your company as a whole is producing, both profit and reputation wise.
It is said, by Winston Churchill no less, that “The price of greatness is responsibility”. While that might be true, the price of optimisation is delegation. Learn to let go of your inner formalist and trust in your employees and their abilities. The advantage this provides is twofold. Firstly, much of your time will be freed to spend on more critical decision making and action planning. Secondly, this fosters an environment of trust and morale which exponentially increases productivity and dedication.
Hire with a purpose. For better technological integration, hire software specialists and statistical analysts. For better client services, hire relationship managers. For better analytics, hire finance professionals. Everyone should know their part in the play and be eager to perform it with excellence.
Staying competitive is an ongoing process that requires constant attention
No one could have predicted in the summer of 2019 what the summer a year later would look like. That’s how fast the world can change. Industries change a lot faster sometimes. And you have to be at the top of your game when it comes to staying up to date with the accounting industry.
Want to gain a competitive edge? At Fluidly, our Intelligent Cashflow software provides forecasting, planning, funding and debtor management support in one easy-to-use product, so you can support more clients and grow your practice.
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