A lot is written about making clients feel valued and loved but could this friendliness hinder practice growth? Or can nice accountants win in the end?
Accountant Nicola Donnelly was told that her firm wasn’t scalable. It’s not because she didn’t know her clients or didn’t research what service her ideal clients need – far from it. The reason given was that she was “too nice”.
Donnelly was hit with this unsupportive advice at a coaching event organised by her university. She hoped to come away armed with a better understanding of the business world and a confidence boost. After running her firm for a couple of years she decided to take the jump and leave her day job, but the advice she received was not what she expected.
The professor leading the session said her business wasn't scalable, according to Donnelly, and being nice wasn't going to get her anywhere.
“I think it's because I am quite timid. He just seemed to want to ridicule me,” Donnelly told AccountingWEB. “Apparently, the reason I get clients is not that I'm good at what I do, he said it's because I'm cheap.”
Despite explaining how she researched her prices and knew her clients, the course leader said she’ll never be able to grow her business because she’ll get “stamped all over”.
When Donnelly posted about the incident on Linkedin her connections from across the profession rallied round her. Supportive comments from the likes of Elaine Clark and Mark Lee helped regain some confidence.
Obviously, the biggest concern here is the unacceptable way the course leader spoke to Donnelly. But the incident references on the old trope: nice guys finish last.
Nice guys finish last
“Nice guys finish last” was coined in the 1950s by the famously contentious baseball manager Leo Durocher. It has since been adopted in other areas of popular culture and dating. Since niceness attracts negative connotations in those scenarios, can the same be applied to the accountancy profession?
There is something to the theory that nice accountants finish last, but not for the same reasons the course leader raised.
When starting a practice, the practitioner is usually at the centre of every aspect. They are the one building client relationships. But the small firm’s personal service strength could actually restrict growth and become a weakness, as the time an accountant has to provide personal care becomes scarce.
Writing on AccountingWEB, accounting coach Heather Townsend said: “As your firm grows it is always a delicate balancing act between how much time you will spend in the business and how much needs to be done by others.
“If you don’t get the hang of delegating and letting your team work on your clients’ stuff, scaling your practice is going to tough.”
Practice Excellence data
Practice Excellence data as far back as 2012-13 illustrates the struggle small firms experience when trying to scale their personal client relationships. Medium firms shortlisted in 2012, for example, out-performed smaller firms because implemented communication systems and client management techniques refined the speed and consistency of their client service.
For small firms to thrive, the Practice Excellence firms over the years have transferred their personal style to other members in the team, sought constant feedback, and utilised new technologies to attract clients and refine existing levels of service.
Be nice, but be strong
As accountants have such a bad press for being boring, intimidating or confusing, Practice Excellence client service award winner Sharon Pocock told AccountingWEB that it’s a good thing to be “nice” or friendly.
“If you're approachable and considerate it is a refreshing change. So clients warm to us and trust us. It also leads to recommendations from clients who really get us and appreciate our approach,” Pocock said.
But, she’s learned along the way that “being soft can cause problems”, such as quoting too low, taking on clients who aren't a good fit, and saying yes to client requests without considering the team’s commitments.
“The repercussions were low fees, stress for myself and the team, dealing with clients who didn't respect or appreciate us. And ending up working with clients who won't fit with your way of working (We're just shedding the last of these!).”
“So in short: be nice but be strong.
What do you want out of your practice?
Although initially upset, Donnelly isn't interested in becoming more cutthroat. “When I got home because I was very upset I actually said to my daughter: I think I should just jack it all in and go back to work. And my daughter said: ‘I'm surprised you ever need anyone to tell you that you're good. Look what you've achieved’.
“If anything, when I look back it's spurred me on to prove him wrong,” she added. “I get it – I am not going to be PwC. People have to make a choice, do they want to be a corner shop, or do they want to be Tesco. I don't want to be either of them – I want to be what I envision.”
With her business now four times bigger than it was last year, Donnelly is happy to embrace her niceness. “My USP is me. If I get bigger and bigger, I would probably lose my USP unless I had someone else like me. A lot of people just want to go to work, get paid and go home. That's why I started my business because I wasn't prepared to just go to work, get paid and go home.
"What he was saying wasn't relevant to me – I want to give a personal service."
What do you think: do nice guys finish last in accounting?
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.