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How Google has disrupted the traditional client relationship

26th Jul 2017
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As Google becomes the first port of call for some clients when they need answers to tax queries, Richard Hattersley explores how accountants can remain relevant.

The issue of clients seeking advice from “a friend down the pub” has been a perennial thorn in the side of practitioners. When the AccountingWEB community charted their most annoying client queries in 2015, the infamous pub dweller led the pack.  

But the "friend down the pub" is being replaced. Digitalisation is reshaping how and where clients collect their information. Giving an overview of the digital landscape, Joel Oliver, CEO of MyFirmsApp said in the 'connect accountant' guide: “Technology is disrupting the traditional relationship between firm and client by enabling non-accountants to become the first port of call for queries on accounts, finance and tax.”

Like how patients check their symptoms online before even consulting a doctor, Oliver says, "Clients and prospects already use Google to find answers to questions they would once have asked you". To understand why, author and coach Heather Townsend says accountants should put the boot on the other foot: “Let's think about what you do when you have a question, you go to Google. It's not going to be different for your clients.” 

This problem prompts a number of questions: How can accountants compete with the ubiquity of Google and smart phones? And can accountants soothe this client headache before their clients even check the search engine?

Google creates different results

When this digital disruption was put to the AccountingWEB community, a comment from AccountingWEB regular Stepurhan suggested that Google influences clients in a different kind of way. While Google may produce more accurate information than the nonsense from the "friend down the pub", it does create another issue: Clients thinking they understand what they’ve found when they don’t.

“The most common error seems to be them picking up information that is irrelevant to them (e.g. employee expense rules when they are a sole trader),” Stepurhan said. “The main difference is that, unlike the out of thin air man down the pub queries, you usually don't have to search out something proving them wrong.” As Stepurhan explains, the clients often link to their latest presumed tax-saving discovery. 

Practitioners like Stepurhan have used clients’ online searching to assert their knowledge and expertise. This chimes with a study reported in The Telegraph which researched the positive impact “Dr Google” can have on the patient-doctor relationship. The Belgium study found that two-thirds of patients who searched Google before their GP consultation sought their doctor’s reassurance afterwards– showing the confidence they have in a professional. 

However, the steady swell of clients turning to “Google ACA” present a worrying trend, especially for the accountant advising at arms-length.  

The perils of long distance advising

And that’s where consulting Google becomes a trust issue. Trust goes beyond brandishing a professional bodies’ badge on a website. It's about the value that accountants offer.

That's why Heather Townsend says accountants need to position themselves in the mind of their client as the first person to call to avoid clients relying primarily on Google. To do this, Townsend advises accountants to shift their mindset, “If you are offering a more traditional accounting service when you only get in touch with them at year-end, to talk about their year-end accounts and potentially some tax stuff and just asking them information to do personal tax returns, then, of course, your clients are going to be looking at Google because they are not hearing from you,” said Townsend.  

Show your value

But the problem Google presents digs deeper than just client relationship. Google not only gives clients the key to unlocking tax information but the opportunity to shop around if they feel like they’re not getting the service that they expect. According to James Ashford, business consultant and AccountingWEB contributor, if you can't present the value of your services clearly and sign up clients or prospects on the spot, you're in trouble. “If you let them walk out of the door, you're handing them over to Google and their mate down the pub, who will undermine everything you've just done," Ashford said. 

Ultimately, though, Google is a part of modern life. Essentially, the annoying "friend down the pub" query may have evolved but in doing so it creates opportunity. Ashford believes that if your client is going to make the comparison with other firms, technology or service levels, then you should save them the effort of clicking around Google and make the comparisons for them.

“Show them the pros and cons of each option,” says Ashford. “After all, you aim to save your clients time right? So save them the time of researching different solutions. Do the research for them."


How does Google measure up to the man down the pub queries? How do you deal with them? Are they becoming more prevalent? 

Replies (4)

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By Vaughan Blake1
27th Jul 2017 16:54

Over the years it has been the man in the pub/golf club/lodge syndrome, then the Thursday query, following a Money Mail article on Wednesday. Then came these 'Tax Tips' publications that seemed somehow to end up on the FD's desk. Google is the next logical step.

As I point out to folks who use the tax helplines, you only get the right answer if you ask the right question.

Google also won't ask if you have considered looking at the problem from an entirely different viewpoint.

My favourite example of these was the youngish client who put the entire share capital of his extremely profitable company into a discretionary trust for his minor children after reading about IHT saving schemes in the Daily Mail.

To counteract clients going off piste with ideas, the trick is to speak to them more than once a year and pre-empt the thought process. Have a chat/courtesy call more frequently and you can discover what they are up to. Mention IHT planning, exit/succession/expansion strategy, you will be amazed how often a client will say that they had been worrying about this for some time!

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By hiu612
28th Jul 2017 10:20

"As I point out to folks who use the tax helplines, you only get the right answer if you ask the right question."

This is so true. I'm always telling trainees not to just answer the question in front of them, but to stand back and think about what the right question should have been, and then to answer that.

You can't stop clients asking Google, but you can still help them when they do something ill advised as a result.

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By Mark Lee
28th Jul 2017 16:26

before Google clients might just see Q&As in the finance pages of their daily/weekend papers. They only reached out to their accountant if they really needed help with something urgent.

Now they can raise queries about all manner of trivial issues and these can develop into more extensive questions - all answered for free via Google. Whether than answers are right or uptodate of course is something else.

It's important to recognise that when you ask a Q on Google, the answers are prioritised by ref to their algorithm. Typically this will favour the more popular and well visited websites. Invariably this also means that OLD and out of date information often gets shown ahead of newer pages that have yet to build up comparable traffic.

One other, related, change I have noted as a result of Google, is that many, many people who need an accountant search instead for 'tax advice'.

I know this as a large proportion of the traffic to the Tax Advice Network website is from people who do not need a specialist tax adviser. Just a local accountant. It's why we refocused the website at the start of 2017. And why dozens of accountants are now opting to be listed on the site.

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By SteveHa
31st Jul 2017 09:00

Personally, I have found for the (admittedly very small number) of clients that appear to go to Google (the man down the pub tends not to be an issue, it's probably my boss, who will refer them to me), it is generally a simple matter to highlight and prove that they have learned only a small part of the subject, and that they haven't come upon the exclusions and pitfalls yet.

This tends to add confidence, and they then start coming to me first again.

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