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A rough guide to image for practitioners

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19th Apr 2005
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When you are selling your services it is impossible to underestimate the importance of image. You must be aware of the image that you and your practice are projecting.

Take, for example, your car. Your car makes a statement about you. The client who sees his accountant arrive in a top of the range Mercedes may think, "I am employing a successful accountant", but equally he may think, "I am paying for that expensive car."

Just as you will offend no one by wearing a straightforward business suit, it is probably best to use a car that does not draw attention to itself as a status symbol, but is nonetheless smart and comfortable.

Your offices create a lasting impression on clients. They need to be smart and clean, but again you must be aware of the possibility of a client resenting the thought that he might be paying for the top of the range decor. If in the main clients visit you, then obviously the office needs to be smarter than if you generally call on them.

If your clients usually visit you, an ideal office is relatively low-cost with sufficient parking space. Interior decoration is a matter of personal choice but in the professions it does no harm at all to have plenty of certificates on the wall, and a bookshelf or two crammed with text and reference books. Offices in which people smoke are generally offensive to non-smokers so keep yours a smoke-free zone, even if you do indulge in the habit yourself.

It is perfectly acceptable these days to speak with a regional accent, but do ensure that all your staff who may talk to clients are articulate as well as numerate.

If your business is based on visiting clients you need to be able to bring with you the professional feel of the office. Good quality brochures and newsletters can be brought to leave with the client. It is also a good idea to make sure you have the client's file with you on a lap top computer. These may no longer be a status symbol but they are a sign of professional competence, especially when you can instantly retrieve figures relevant to the client.

Your letterheads, business cards, report folders and brochures are intended to make positive statements about the practice. Employ a professional graphic designer for letterhead design. Remember that letters may carry on to a second sheet and ask your printer to supply continuation sheets in the same paper as the headed version. It looks terrible to have the first page of a letter on embossed art board and the second on a sheet of 80gsm copier paper.

If you wish to be more economical you might consider a single colour ink on a low cost paper for writing to people whom you do not need to impress, such as the Revenue and Customs, and a more colourful laid paper for client communications only. An even more economical method is to insert the firm's address in a header template or macro in your word processor and use plain self heading paper for the government departments.

Business cards are also useful marketing tools. Many lawyers are today using foil-blocked plastic cards because they have found that recipients are less likely to consign an expensive credit card look-alike to the bin than an ordinary card one. Accountants can have the edge here and can hand out small tax tables instead of cards. People are also reluctant to throw these away.

Just as a few years ago people would have been amazed if you did not have a fax machine, today an e-mail address and at least some sort of presence on the Internet are expected. For more and more people the World Wide Web has taken over from Yellow Pages as the place to look for a product or service. Although Yellow Pages will contain every chartered accountant while the Web will only list those who have chosen to take advantage of online marketing, websites can provide a wealth of detail which a potential client can digest before drawing up his own short list.

A website costs much less than a Yellow Pages advertisement and can contain a great deal more information. Although not everyone is yet connected to the Internet, over 10m people are currently online in the UK alone, and that figure is growing daily.

An ideal website would be updated as often as possible, and contain a reasonable amount of interaction and information. Currently most accountancy websites are 'first-generation brochure sites', that is, they merely list the firm's address and telephone number, rather like an online business card. However, larger firms are developing more effective websites, and there is help available for smaller practices to create a good Internet presence.

Perhaps the single most important aspect of image, however, is your personal appearance. Your attire and general looks will always leave an impression on a client. So, should you look like a chartered accountant? It is probably more beneficial for your business if you look more like an accountant than a biker or an out-of-work actor, but if you like flamboyant clothing there is no reason not to wear it to the office, provided it does not take the form of T-shirt and jeans.

You may wish to distance yourself from the office workers with loud ties, silk waistcoats, a bow tie, a fresh flower in the buttonhole every day or a silk handkerchief in the top pocket, but do not overdo it, and certainly you should not sport all of these at once!

It is usually advisable to avoid following fashion too closely. You cannot go wrong with well-cut suits as good quality cloth is recognisable even to the untutored eye.

Finally, when socialising it is always sensible to treat lunchtime drinking with caution. There is no harm in having lunch or a drink with a client if that is how they like to spend midday but beware of meeting people in the afternoon with alcohol on the breath. Many people these days regard any form of alcohol intake during working hours as anathema.

Image is an area too often overlooked in the accounting profession. You may have all the expertise in the world but today, business, like every other aspect of life, is extremely image-conscious. Make sure that you get your firm's image right.

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    About the author
    This AccountingWEB Expert Guide is an extract from the Marketing Director CD-ROM written by Mark Lloydbottom and Michael Platt. Mark Lloydbottom FCA is a founder of Practice Track and managing director of PracticeWEB, a company specialising in helping firms design, launch and maintain websites.
    For more information about the Marketing Director, visit: www.mktgdirector.com or contact Mark via email at [email protected]

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