Chairman of the Tax Advice Network and BookMarkLee
Share this content

How to get your first clients

13th Feb 2012
Chairman of the Tax Advice Network and BookMarkLee
Share this content

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).

Enough about you. What about your target clients? Who are they? Where will you encounter them? What are their problems and issues? How will they benefit from using you as their accountant? It’s not enough to offer personal attention, quality service and home visits. Everyone (almost) highlights these “benefits”.

Can you identify what is genuinely different about working with you and how clients will benefit from this distinction? It’s not easy, I know. But the more effectively you do this the easier you will find it becomes to win those first clients.

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. 

If new business start-ups are your target audience, do explore Twitter and Facebook in particular. You should also join in with selected online business forums where you can contribute to the discussions and offer advice and help – especially to such businesses.

Linkedin is a very different resource and more about building professional and business connections. As a new practice you need to ensure that your online profile is credible and you need to actively pursue specific prospects. Again, it’s not a quick route to new clients for a new practice. Ignore the hype from marketing people who try to convince you otherwise.

What CAN work for the new practice?

The following top ten list is not exhaustive, but it’s a start. Some options are more costly than others. But one common element is that almost NONE of them will be a worthwhile investment of time, energy and resources until you have addressed the issues referenced above.

1.   Telemarketing – interview providers before deciding who you will engage to make calls on your behalf and to identify businesses that you can visit. You then need to be able to close them as new clients – itself a skill you may need to learn.

2.   Online directories – get yourself listed on as many worthy directories as you can so that prospects can find you when they are looking for a new accountant online.

3.   Your website – ensure that any prospects who look you up online are persuaded to call or email you. Make it easy for them. Include your name on the site – people buy people.

4.   Google AdWords – ensure that your online adverts point to specific landing pages on your website that address the issues that prompted the prospects to click on the adverts.

5.   Local papers and newsagents’ windows – try to ensure that your adverts stand out from other accountants advertising in the same places.

6.   Direct mail – make sure this is personally addressed to specific targets and either indicates that you will be following up with a call or encourages a compelling ‘call to action’.

7.   Leaflet drops – like letters, leaflets need a compelling “call to action” such as encouraging a visit to your website to obtain a “free item of value” – and to provide their contact details.

8.   Buying a block of fees – remember to do sufficient due diligence to avoid overpaying for these.

9.   Regular networking groups – these are more likely to be worthwhile than simply attending ad hoc events where everyone else is doing the same as you – trying to promote their business. No one is there to find a new accountant!

10. Follow up meetings with new contacts – a necessary supplementary activity to make networking worthwhile. You could also try popping into local businesses to introduce yourself. But make sure you have a story that will interest them first.

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.

Replies (39)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

By The Doctor
13th Feb 2012 20:05

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.

Thanks (3)
Replying to mabzden:
By BMary83
04th Mar 2012 20:05


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 (1)
David Ross
By davidross
14th Feb 2012 11:41

Sell the interview

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.

Thanks (4)
Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
14th Feb 2012 12:23

Sell the initial meeting - good advice

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.]



Thanks (1)
By acountancy.lindsayandco.n
14th Feb 2012 13:06

New clients

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

Thanks (4)
By N.Draper
15th Feb 2012 11:47

Buying fees

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. 

Thanks (1)
By johnjenkins
15th Feb 2012 12:00

Good article Mark

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.

Thanks (3)
By weaversmiths
15th Feb 2012 17:25

A Mix of Everything

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.


Thanks (5)
15th Feb 2012 17:30

How to get your first clients

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


Thanks (2)
By Fred Smith
15th Feb 2012 23:27

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!!


Thanks (1)
By Bob Harper
16th Feb 2012 10:57

Mindsets and methodology


@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 meThe competition are my biggest assetGrowing my business is my number one responsibility, I can pay people to do the workI want to do my own telemarketing at the beginning because I want to get the feedbackSelling is a valuable skillMy 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


Thanks (3)
By AnnaKournikovasKnickers
16th Feb 2012 17:07

How to get new clients

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.

Thanks (4)
By Patata4g
16th Feb 2012 19:21

What an excellent article. 

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









Thanks (1)
By Bob Harper
17th Feb 2012 12:52


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

Thanks (1)
By missymaverick
18th Feb 2012 10:53

Great Article

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

Thanks (1)
By Fred Smith
18th Feb 2012 15:13

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

Thanks (0)
By dbowleracca
19th Feb 2012 07:20

You can buy the data in.
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.

Thanks (1)
Replying to johngroganjga:
By Sarah Nyakazingo
14th May 2014 14:53

Selectabase has not been great for me!!!!

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.

Thanks (0)
Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
19th Feb 2012 11:29

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

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.



Thanks (0)
By dbowleracca
19th Feb 2012 12:49

It's taken from business phone number registrations
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.

Thanks (1)
By missymaverick
19th Feb 2012 21:23

Approaching an accountant

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?


Thanks (0)
By dbowleracca
20th Feb 2012 14:22

That's a good idea Missy
@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!

Thanks (1)
By AnnaKournikovasKnickers
20th Feb 2012 19:47

Mark Lee's brief

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.

Thanks (0)
23rd Feb 2012 18:27

Careful with the coasters!

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.


Thanks (1)
By Jason Dormer
04th May 2012 21:52

Starting up

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



Thanks (0)
By halessteve
14th Oct 2012 14:52

3. Your Website - And Google Search

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]'. 

Thanks (0)
By halessteve
19th Mar 2013 08:59

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

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.




Thanks (0)
By sam24hameed
28th May 2013 14:45

What to do?

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

Thanks (0)
By DThapa
19th Jun 2013 21:13

Valuable and useful points.

Valuable and useful points.

thank for posting.


Thanks (0)
By [email protected]
12th May 2014 10:15


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.


Thanks (0)
By Jenia1
03rd Mar 2015 16:24

Accountancy firm

In your opinion is better to email a new business you are offering services too or write them a letter. Please give your opinion. Thank you

Thanks (1)
Chris M
By mr. mischief
15th Oct 2015 22:11


When I started up in 2009 I found Selectabase and Startupsplus useful sources of possible clients.  One thing which I don't think has been covered so far is assessing the local competition.  I identified 6 main general weaknesses in my local competitors, even the 2 National award winning ones have at least 2 of those traits.

My most successful tool was a one pager which ran as follows in the key paragraph:

Would you like to have a qualified accountant who


Gives you a fixed price quote in writing for all of your accounting services?


Reviews your books with you before your year-end to optimise your tax position?


Helps you to manage your expenditure in the most tax-efficient way possible?


Produces clear and accurate reports and charts for you?


Visits your business several times per year to save you time?


Gives free advice when you call without the meter running?


Thinks about the future of your business instead of dealing purely with last year’s results?

Combined with a follow-up phone call, this letter delivered nearly a 10% strike rate in securing a meeting with the prospect, over 50% of whom then signed up as clients.  The above traits are not present in many of my local competitors, the idea here is that when the prospect reads the letter it focuses on positive things, but also zones in on specific areas of weakness and encourages the prospect to think "My accountant does not do this stuff."

Anyway it worked for me.  Almost certainly some of the above traits will apply in your local competition, so a modifided and up to date version of it should still work now.




Thanks (2)
By johnkf
08th Jan 2016 16:00


You don not have to inform ACCA. Your ACCA part - qualification can get you a full membership from AAT of IFA. You can then get practising certificate from them and start you accountancy career.

Thanks (0)
By sir vic
02nd Aug 2017 13:31

This is a great insight, however what do i say to those that question my experience?. iv met a lot of people that require that i show them a trail of long lists of satisfied clients iv served before yet i'm very new to the practice. i'm an independent tax adviser in Zimbabwe.

Thanks (0)
By Lori Dillard
24th Aug 2017 14:56

I have just been hired at a CPA firm about 6 weeks ago as a Sales and Marketing Manager. Typically CPA firms don have this position within the firm. I came from 25 years of TV advertising sales. I have had to change my role from selling to making relationships for the CPAs too sell when they get in from of the potential new clients. My question is, when making the calls to businesses who do you ask for? For example our target clients are restaurants, chiropractors, small doctors offices and many have gate keepers. I belong to 3 chambers and 4 networking groups and thus far not gotten any leads from these. Im just trying to figure out how best to use my skills to get new business into my firm.

Thanks (0)
Replying to Lori Dillard:
By johnjenkins
24th Aug 2017 15:32

Let me get this right. You've been hired as a "Sales and Marketing Manager" and you don't know how to get new business into your firm.
Your real name isn't Bob is it?

Thanks (0)
Replying to johnjenkins:
By Bob Harper
24th Aug 2017 15:54

John - this just popped into my email because I commented on this thread over 5 years ago!

I'm flattered that you're still talking about me - WOW I must have made an impression.

I'm not sure where you are in your business journey but if you have 10+ years left I'd suggest you spend your time looking at Artificial Intelligence and figure out what you're going to do when bookkeepers and accountants have less and less work to compete for.

Thanks (0)
Replying to Bob Harper:
By johnjenkins
25th Aug 2017 09:05

Bob, I'm flattered that you knew who the Bob was.
A.I. will not happen as you think. Genetic modification to humans (making us stronger, think quicker etc.) will come to the fore.
I also predict that in the next 5 -10 years the PAYE scheme will be scrapped (work methods are changing rapidly) and everyone will be needing an Accountant and/or a bookkeeper. So, Bob, you still might be in business.

Thanks (0)
David Ross
By davidross
25th Aug 2017 17:30

Has Lori Dillard crept in from the US version of this site?

Thanks (0)