Too nice to scale: Do nice accountants finish last?

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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 correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.


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16th Feb 2018 10:59

This is absolute rubbish.If you believe you are giving a good service for a fair fee,then that’s all that matters.Personal recommendation outperforms all the clever marketing strategy every time.The Lecturer had probably not worked for very long at the coal face.

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16th Feb 2018 11:02

What is she doing going to a con man like that anyway?
"Nice Accountants finish last". How can anyone write such drivel, Richard you can do a lot better and should.
I'm one of the nicest Accountants you could ever wish to meet in accountancy. Talk to me about sales and marketing crap within accountancy and you will see a different side and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone.
Believe me Nicola you will do well and you already are successful.

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16th Feb 2018 11:58

My husband has run his own business for years and years. He is approaching retirement - well he should have retired by now. He is a quiet guy. He must give good service as he constantly gets new clients without looking for them. Many are from personnel recommendation. He has the time to listen (not always on accountancy matters as he seems to be like a counsellor sometimes). He often receives comments as to how approachable he is. His business is most successful. That's why he doesn't want to retire and give up a good income.
That lecturer sounds like a real [***]. In fact I have an image of him. Bet your bottom dollar he would not be successful if he was in his own business with an arrogant attitude like that. Reminds me of bank managers who also have no comprehension!!!

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16th Feb 2018 13:43

You can be nice - you don't have to be soft. After all we all want clients to be 'nice' back, recommend other clients and pay our fees on time. I agree wholeheartedly with Michael Davies. Don't be tempted to take on just anything or anyone as that is where practices, especially new ones, can end up with clients they would prefer not to have. And don't be afraid to get rid of the difficult ones who cause far more trouble than they are worth.

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16th Feb 2018 13:47

Sadly there is a misconception that being nice equates to being weak.
And i have never heard of a client recommending their nasty accountant to their friends.

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16th Feb 2018 14:16

those that can do, those that can't teach.

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16th Feb 2018 15:28

Anybody read any good Danielle Steele novels lately ?

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16th Feb 2018 17:10

Should practice growth be one's aim, why?

Unless anyone has evidence otherwise, we get one shot at this living thing and whilst money is important it is not everything.

Quality of life, enjoying the working day, making a difference to clients to me stands miles ahead of scaling up the business, volume of clients etc.

Now maybe this is a perspective from age, as one acquires more assets and gets older money devalues and time soars in value, and enjoying that time becomes more important.

I do not want to scale up my practice, for the first time I have, on paper, two days a week I could be chasing new work ( now three day week in the day job), my clients used to consume my evenings and some weekends, I expect I could add another £20k, £30k, £40k of fees re this extra time I now have, but frankly why would I, quality of life trumps cash any day.

Nicola Donnelly needs to stick to her guns, run the practice as she wants to run it.

The final accounting of her success will be at her eventual funeral, the clients and former clients that will turn out, remember her fondly; frankly far more important that scaling up, churning out accounts, clients as account numbers etc.

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16th Feb 2018 20:51

I have worked with some fairly successful entrepenuer types. Some are absolutely ruthless and would do anything for a deal or do get one over a business rival. They have a knack for making money, however because of the way they are holding on to success for a long period of time is more challenging and many go through boom and boost cycles.

Personally I don't feel this cutthroat approach is appropriate to an accounting business, unless you do Cop9 enquiries or sell tax avoidance schemes.

We are in the relationship business and so clients have to like you if they are stay with longish term. Pushing clients too much with heavy sales pitches and value pricing and trying to convince clients there is more value in basic services then there actually is just creates client churn.

You need to have a back bone to deal with tough issues like fee non payment without the need to be too pushy or salesy.

What is the definition of scale? and why must everyone scale constantly otherwise it is assumed we are going backwards.

When I started I had 3 targets I wanted to achieve, year 1 basic survival and pay bills, year 2 get earnings close to when in employment, year 3 get earnings to a level where they are greater than when employed with less hours worked.

Now there is less pressure on my to gain extra clients, i will take on only the jobs I like, but I do not wish to constantly scale my client bank. I will grow fees this year both from additional fees from existing clients and clients obtained through organic growth.

There is huge amount of people now who feel they can advise us as to what we must do, but ultimately I am not wishing to develop an accounting model I can sell to others as the ultimate accounting blue print, my business model may not be text book but it works for me, really it only has to work for me. Yes I make mistakes but I learn from them.

People like the guy in the article spout this text book knowledge which may sound good at a 30 minute presentation but you don't see many of them who actually run award winning practices.

I would much sooner talk with somebody who is a few years further down the road than me, who wears the well worn t shirt than this guy.

If he told me my practice would not work as I was too nice a person to succeed I suspect he may have found out another side to me that would change his opinion.

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to Glennzy
18th Feb 2018 20:27

Spot on Glenn - I could have written that comment myself!

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17th Feb 2018 11:51

Trust is the key to having a successful business. We do not trust people who do not come across as nice. We have to trust the person we are buying from. I am sure that by now she knows what a numpty her professor was, and hopefully, she will not listen to his "views" again. Building relationships and building the trust factor is the key to the success of a practice

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18th Feb 2018 01:07

Some lovely supportive comments and that is what I have come to expect from the accounting world. Since I left my day job some lovely people on LinkedIn have dropped hints, tips of support and advice which is a support network for a sole practitioner. Joining this extra class at uni was for me a comfort blanket. I didn't need it, but like anything in life, it's nice to have someone looking out for us. I quickly found out I wasn't going to get that there. I was devastated after my presentation, but now I'm just more determined to make my little business a success. As was rightly pointed out above, scaling was never the intention, growing a business to support my family is all I want or need. Being nice has got me this far, and helped my clients refer me to lots of others. In fact, I may even rebrand as a ''nice'' accountant! xx

I had 30 clients in October, I'm nearer to 50 now, I think I'm doing ok xx

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to nicd1981
18th Feb 2018 20:32

Nicola - keep doing what you're doing it obviously works.

Increase in client numbers from 30 in October to 50 now is excellent.

I'm approaching my 7th year as a sole practitioner and I have always tried to be approachable, understanding - a 'nice' guy to deal with.

It has worked, I have built my practice on referrals and recommendations.

My work/life balance is better than it ever was in employment, I enjoy the work more and I now earn far more than I ever did in employment.

Keep going - you're doing a great job.

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to Kent accountant
18th Feb 2018 22:02

Thanks kent accountant,
7 years eh , that's some going .
My work life balance is a bit rubbish but partly as it's a habit for being an employee and working silly hours at home.
I'm looking at office space now so plan on having "office hours" once I move to premises ...
Fingers crossed .
Thanks again to you and everyone else for your responses xx

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