In his 200th article for AccountingWEB, Mark Lee offers advice to accountants who are committed to building a more successful practice.
After writing my last piece for AccountingWeb, I reflected on the views I have often heard from accountants talking about all manner of practice focused training sessions and conferences.
There is a problem here. We often attend these courses and pick up random new ideas, despite not having a specific desire to change the way we do things. Our ambitions are more generic.
At one level most accountants face the same challenges and ambitions. That is, the desire for more clients, better quality clients, more time, higher fees, more money, less hassle, greater efficiency, more support, better trained support, more profits and so on.
This is all very different from the technical side of life. You choose general or specific technical updates depending on the focus of your practice and your client base.
You may or may not put that technical knowledge to immediate use. But, as and when a client needs advice, you will at least recall that something has changed. If need be you will either check it out and get up to speed, or you will recognise you need specialist support.
But practice management and other non-technical courses are something quite different. Pure practice management focused sessions have long attracted audiences that are only a fraction of the size that attend technical courses. The concept is perceived as ‘nice to have’, whereas technical updates are a ‘must have’. I get it. There is also a degree of cynicism. “I have built my practice. I don’t need anyone else telling what I must do to become more successful.” I get that too, and it’s why I rarely offer such definitive advice.
Inevitably some of the stories shared by speakers at practice focused conferences are met with envy and, quite often, disbelief. It’s not that the speakers of award-winning practices are disbelieved, but some audience members doubt their own ability to achieve similar outcomes. Or they don’t want to do what it takes to achieve the same as the speakers.
This is odd because the more successful practices frequently tell the same stories. There will often be overlaps and some repetition of content. This should emphasise the value of their advice.
But still there are audience members saying: “There’s no time. There’s too much work to do. Too many clients to see. I’m already working too many hours each day and week. I can’t make time to work ‘on the business’ every week.” At least these accountants are in the room. Far more choose not to attend in the first place – and that’s fine as long as they feel they are as successful as they want to be. And they have no concerns about the impact of changes happening around us and how that will impact the way clients choose accountants in the future. Or maybe they are taking some other actions to effect changes in the way they run their practice.
What is typically the real draw that gets accountants to attend a practice focused conference? I’m sure it’s not simply to claim CPD points. I suspect the real draw is the technical updates that are usually on offer too.
It still feels worthwhile to attend a technical update even if you conclude that you heard nothing new. As long as the speaker was up to scratch it can still be good news. “It was worth coming just to confirm that I’m not missing anything.” “I can continue to advise and service my clients.” “I’m safe from the risks that follow when advising by reference to guesses, naivety or ignorance.” “I can relax. It was worth coming just to get that sense of relief.”
It’s never the same with practice management conferences. It’s human nature to want to hear something new. Something different you can easily start doing that will enable you to do things better, to raise fees, improve profits, relieve the pressure or whatever.
I suggest that there are only three possible outcomes at the end of such sessions:
- You’ve not heard anything new. Just the same old, same old. You had hoped this speaker might have had a new take on things. That they could tell you how to wave a magic wand. Or that all the practice focused advice you have heard previously was wrong and that you were right to ignore it.
- You heard some new ideas (or maybe they were old ideas explained differently). You were interested this time as you sort of think you should be doing things differently. You are not as successful as you want to be. You want to accelerate the growth and profitability of your practice. The only problem is that these ‘new’ ideas aren’t a practical solution for you. They won’t work for you and your practice.
- You have been inspired to make some changes, You want to do what some of those speakers have recommended. You’ve heard from other practitioners who have become more successful by doing things differently. You are now serious about making changes and, if necessary, doing what some of them did and investing in additional support, coaching or mentoring.
Your reactions to the first two outcomes are probably a mix of disappointment and frustration, or even annoyance that you’ve wasted your time. Though, if truth be told, you may have had unrealistic expectations.
If your reaction was closer to number three then, despite your initial enthusiasm at the end of the conference, within a week you will often be back working in your practice, doing things pretty much the way you have always done them. It’s human nature. You still hope to make time to start thinking about how to make some more detailed changes. One day.
Deep down you want things to be different. You know that unless you take charge and change things, everything will stay the same. Can you do it alone? Maybe. Has that approach worked for you before? Will you be able to do it fast enough without making yourself accountable to someone else? Will the need to get a return on your investment in external support make the difference? It does for some people.
Not everyone needs to engage a mentor or coach to help them move on from where they are to reach where they want to go. Some people manage this simply by talking things through with a ‘spouse’, who then holds them accountable. Others make commitments to staff or colleagues. And some people manage to do it all by themselves.
What about you? How tempted are you to attend practice focused conferences? And how do you ensure you will get full benefit from being there?
Mark Lee FCA is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB and helps individual accountants who want to be more successful in their practice or career.