While marketing events have become an increasingly popular tactic for Practice Excellence firms, client training is emerging as a niche market in its own right. More than a fifth of entrants from last year included client training in their service portfolio, up from 7% the previous year.
When it comes to opening up a new niche service, trainng has the advantage of being cross-disciplinary. Aside from the ability to be a good trainer, it does not require any specialist skills. Anyone can do it.
Practice Excellence data shows firms embracing training as a way of empowering clients. Milsted Langdon, for instance, trains clients to interpret their numbers and do "self service" analysis.
However, there are other more timely reasons why firms are blending client training into their marketing events.
MTD client communication
One of the big issues when practitioners discussed Making Tax Digital was how to communicate the tax digitalisation changes to their clients.
There were two schools of thought: those who waited for more information before alerting clients and those who kept clients abreast of the changes every step of the way.
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Paul Miller, the managing director at Cornish Accounting Solutions, embraced cloud accounting in a big way, so he naturally advocated the latter option.
In order to move clients into the cloud, Miller had to make the software easy for them to use. With MTD on the horizon, Miller couldn’t chance leaving clients to their own devices. “[It] obviously has a knock on effect for us when we come to prepare accounts, produce management accounts because the data is more accurate,” he said.
To prepare clients, the firm launched monthly Xero training sessions, alternating each month between basic and intermediary training. Bringing his clients together in a training environment paid off in a variety of ways: “What I think it’s doing is creating a lot of goodwill, a lot of publicity, and the idea is that it will save us time and will strengthen those relationships,” he said.
“People won't move on because they've realised that we are investing something back into helping them.”
The software training sessions attract a smattering of prospective clients and the marketing behind the educational events features as part of the new client onboarding.
But training events have not just seen an uptick due to MTD. Apart from the fee-earning or promotional possibilities, training has a double pay-off.
Linda Frier of Coalesco Certified Accountants explains that by demonstrably improving their business in one of the most cost-effective ways there is, training reinforces the value you can provide to the client. “We've always been about training our clients and ensuring that they know what they need to know rather than being a firm that says, just ask us a question and we will give you the answer. Because sometimes people don't know the question that they're meant to be asking,” she said.
Having an educated client prevents those end of year surprises, Frier says, where clients are claiming for something that shouldn’t have been treated as a deductible expense.
Not only does training reduce time-consuming tasks later down the road, equipping the client to be a better business turns them into a better client who is easier to service and who appreciates what you do for them.
“If people were to talk to a different accountant and hear that they weren't running events like that, clients would realise would realise the extra value that they are getting and therefore would stay,” Frier explained.
Increases soft skills
But it’s not only the client that benefits from these training sessions; Miller explained that the events build team members' confidence and soft skills. “The other thing that is going to happen with MTD is that, as accountants, it's taken as read that we can do the technical stuff, but the soft skills are going to come more into play.”
Team members who wouldn’t normally talk in front an audience have taken charge of a few sessions. Explaining what a product or software program does increases the trainers understanding, so they’re prepared for any curveball questions. “Clients don't want you to say I need to go away and think about it. They want you to say, this is the way to do it,” Miller said.
Make the sessions engaging
Frier and Miller’s training experiences match that of Geni Whitehouse. The US lecturer’s marketing consists solely of training classes. “If you understand concepts, you can teach a class,” she said. But Whitehouse warns accountants tempted to go down this path not to teach boring classes; instead, make them fun and interesting.
Echoing this approach, Frier said: “If I go to an event and give up my time I want to feel that I am getting worth from that event. So I conscious when I do these [training events] that we are not doing them for sake of doing them, and that the right clients come in the first instance for that event.”
Rather than take one topic, Frier varies her training sessions. Under the business booster banner, she informs her clients about a number of subjects such as auto enrolment, a company car update, and she brought in an IT security expert. Frier also produces client handouts, mingles with the attendees after the event and offers a follow-up call if clients had any additional questions.
Meanwhile, Miller tailors the sessions to a specific audience or sector. “What we've also found is by creating a community amongst your peers, business people who are training, you can learn from the others,” he said.
Creating a community breaks barriers between the client and accountant: “Clients are more willing to talk to us because they've met us in an informal environment,” Miller said “They see that we're real people.”
Passion for the subject
The delay of Making Tax Digital has not put the brakes on Miller’s training sessions. If anything, Miller is more resolute in continuing with them. “You drive the car by having your foot on the accelerator. As soon as you take your foot off the accelerator, you stop.”
If there’s a single theme that encapsulates how these practitioners have made their marketing training a success it’s passion.
While not wanting to play too heavily on the Dead Poets Society cliche, the comparison is almost unavoidable and rings true: the best teachers are those who are passionate and knowledgeable about their subject.
From how Miller describes his approach, it's easy to see why he's gravitated towards this trend: “The first sell you need to make is to yourself. You need to believe it. You need to understand it. You need to be passionate about it. By being passionate about it, I can explain it better to you and you will get some of my passion. You will understand that it is a right thing to do.”
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About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's practice correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.