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Arrows hitting target AccountingWEB Does targeting clients target trouble?
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Does targeting clients target trouble?

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Niching down and having a targeted clientele is commonly advised for accountancy practices. However, when does this stray towards discrimination?

22nd Apr 2024
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AccountingWEB member, bmariam89 came to Any Answers to ask whether an accountancy firm could be set up that only deals with women, due to personal and religious reasons. 

“For curiosity, if I were to accept only female clients and have an all-female staff, is that considered discrimination or could I do it as a type of targeted client? Something of a point for female clients who may prefer a female accountant.”

This prompted a discussion on niching, the legality of this targeting and an insight into female-led businesses that target female clients. 

Community thoughts 

The AccountingWEB community had a lot to say and many questions regarding the feasibility of this proposal. Some members looked at how other businesses have adopted strategies like bmariam89’s proposal and wondered why this approach couldn’t be applied in accountancy. Member 356B wrote, “Well, taxi drivers do it, so why not?”

Regular commenter, Ruddles also brought up another example: “I know of at least two female driving instructors who deal exclusively with female learners. I see nothing wrong with that.”

Others agreed that it’s okay to market a firm to female clients, but refusing male clients and employees is a problem. Commenter, paul.benny wrote: “My understanding is that you can pitch yourself as a firm with women staff set up to serve women. But to turn away male clients and reject male employment candidates would be unlawful.”

This was agreed with by regular contributor FactChecker who said: “Marketing a business with a strong focus is not the same as excluding/refusing to provide services outside that focus – the former is fine, the latter is problematic.”

Legal considerations 

Owen Dear, partner at Crossland Employment Solicitors offered his expertise to assess the legality of this proposal. He confirmed: “While it is possible for a business to provide and promote services to one particular group of society – for example, to women only – it can only be done in certain circumstances.”

These circumstances involve demonstrating the necessity and justification for such exclusivity. Otherwise, “the act may be termed as positive discrimination, which is still discrimination and would normally be unlawful”.

“Specifically, the business would need to show that providing a joint service to both sexes and providing the service with employees of both sexes would be somehow less effective. They would then also need to show that the proposal is the appropriate way of overcoming the problems of providing the service to both sexes together.”

With the example from member 365B, Dear explained that the idea stemmed from concerns about women being at risk of harassment and abuse from men. The proposed solution was to create a female-only lift-share service for both users and drivers to remove this threat.

“The difficulty is that the courts and tribunals in England and Wales have traditionally taken quite a narrow view on what might justify services provided exclusively to one group, at the express exclusion of another group based on protected characteristics such as sex,” Dear concluded. 

Female-led practices with targeted clients

AccountingWEB spoke to two accountants who run practices targeted towards other women to gain insight into their reasons and strategies. 

For Niki Couldridge, founder and director of 3 Little Birds Finance, her decision to work predominantly with female-led small businesses was due to being able to establish and build trust with female clients.

She said, “My main reason for doing this is just what I feel comfortable with. It’s important to have a good trust dynamic with your clients and I just didn’t feel like I have that with male clients.”

Emma Lawrence, co-CEO at Starfish Accounting Ltd, was determined to start her practice after her experiences at a firm with three male partners. “They told me when I left that I would never make it working part-time around children. I was also told that they never promoted me because they thought I was going to get pregnant again,” she shared. 

Both women mentioned that while their company welcomes male clients and colleagues, their gender-focused marketing primarily attracts women.

“My marketing puts most male clients off, I just don’t get them inquiring. It’s the same for when I am hiring too,” Couldridge said. 

Lawrence similarly said, “I think women tend to gravitate towards us more and because we are a group of women, we tend to say quite blatantly about it in our marketing. We have that flexibility and as women, we understand the flexibility that other women need. It works both from a recruitment and staffing perspective for us, but also it is the same with clients.”

“We specialise in helping women in business but we do have a mix of female and male clients, I would say 65% female and 35% male. We are clear on our website that we help women and the male clients we work with know that and are happy to fit in with our values,” she added.

When asked what she had learnt from working with other women in business, Couldridge said, “I was surprised to see just how many women think less of themselves and lack the confidence in their business and surrounding finances. That’s why I aim towards working with women, finding ways to empower them and creating services that help them.”

Lawrence agreed, stating that many women she knows struggle with imposter syndrome, motivating her to support them. 

“Stick with it and stick with your beliefs. You will get knocked down by others but there will always be people like that – you just need to know that you can do it and be confident,” she advised. 

Replies (12)

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By JCresswellTax
22nd Apr 2024 14:04

The day you can't set up a business to do whatever you want to do, is the day the UK dies (within reason obviously, drug dealing for example doesnt count ;-)).

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Replying to JCresswellTax:
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By Ian McTernan CTA
23rd Apr 2024 10:39

That day passed by a long time ago....

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By Tom+Cross
22nd Apr 2024 15:48

My view is, and always has been, while ever my name's over the door, I can work, and act for, whoever I choose.
The majority of my clients are women (from early 20's to late 80's), who I have complete respect for, and all of my clients have come from personal recommendation. I think it's a case of having the utmost respect for individuals and pride in your work.
I see no reason why a professional shouldn't specialise, which doesn't necessarily mean 'discriminate' in whatever field they think fit.

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By JustAnotherUser
22nd Apr 2024 16:04

Do what you want, do it professionally and legally with respect for those that you do not want to do it with.... do not state you are an X only because 'I don't trust Y', do not say 'no Y allowed here', focus on your brand and do not make what you do-not-do part of it.

When you start focussing on what you do not do, more than what you actually do, you wont realise it, no one will likely ever convince you, but you are likely doing so out of some discriminative agenda disguised as something positive.

If you are ever not sure just replace Y with X and ask yourself if it still works, still legal and still socially acceptable.

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By FactChecker
22nd Apr 2024 18:32

Deliberately written without having actually read any of the article ... simply reacting to the title (which was intriguingly vague) "Does targeting clients target trouble?" and then (with a sinking heart) to the sub-title wording of "when does this stray towards discrimination?"

Putting aside all my natural, immediate reactions (of which "for gawd's sake, give it a rest" was the most polite), this just looks like an attempt to be contentious and stir things up ... which I thought was exactly the kind of thing for which AA contributors are reprimanded! So what gives, Molly?

I will (probably) re-post *after* I've read the article ... but in what world (theoretical maths, pure logic or simply the real day-to-day one) can anyone detect an automatic correlation between niche (as in focus) and discrimination (in the obviously intended pejorative sense)?
Discrimination is a bias that can be found in every sphere and within every person (to greater or lesser degrees and with or without conscious intent), which requires effort by each person to self-recognise and overcome where humanly possible.

But it is NOT something that can be attributed to (as in being caused by) a business perspective that is not in the first place built on deliberate discrimination.
So the business of renting squalid rooms in the '50s around Notting Hill with the infamous but common piece of paper stuck in the window (no irish, no blacks, no dogs) was not only abhorrent to most people, but obviously discriminatory (before there was legislation to prevent it).

Whereas, at the deliberately opposite extreme, a decision to only offer your accounting services to incorporated companies cannot seriously be considered to be discriminating against sole traders.

So how about subsets of your target market?
I'll declare an interest ... one of my more successful business ventures initially focussed exclusively on FE colleges (with well over 50% of our services being specialist to that sector and of no interest to any other, but of great interest/comfort to our clients who felt they were in a 'club' and not just clients).
But we had no sign in the (virtual) window saying 'colleges only' ... and we picked up some 6th Form colleges and then some HE establishments and eventually larger schools - in time for the emergence of Academies. AND because we became known as the 'problem solvers' (as well as for the quality of our work), we were approached by large corporations in unrelated sectors who just happened to have complex issues ... and were happy to place reliance on our research -> solutions.

The closest I encounter, with any regularity, to deliberate discrimination in the accounting world all relates to technology:
1. HMRC and its insistence on online 'everything digital' - which is incredibly divisive and despite claims to the contrary ensures a poorer service at a higher cost to swathes of the taxpayer population;
2. Adviser/Agent firms that insist on 'their way or the highway' in terms of what technology and software the client must use.

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Replying to FactChecker:
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By FactChecker
22nd Apr 2024 19:49

OK ... I've now read the article - and feel that I've quite literally fallen hook, line & sinker for the bait set out in the title/sub-title!
FWIW it's a good example of why I've complained so often in the past at the lack of correlation between what is suggested by the headlines and what is set out in the article content.

But two salutary quotes stand out to me ...

* "Both women mentioned that while their company welcomes male clients and colleagues, their gender-focused marketing primarily attracts women" is of course fine and indeed sensible (as it would be with regard to making clear your focus and cultural style of any type). More importantly it doesn't preclude or in any way prevent men (or indeed trans people) from using their services - and so is not in itself discriminatory.

* “My marketing puts most male clients off, I just don’t get them inquiring. It’s the same for when I am hiring too,” Couldridge said ... is however a little more troubling. Obviously a lot depends on the details behind WHY her marketing is perceived by 'most males' as a reason not to consider making an enquiry (or for that matter applying for a job).

So, on balance, I think I'll stand by my previous (rather lengthy) conclusion.
For there to be discrimination you need to have removed freedom of choice from a person (or group of people) purely on the basis of one of their characteristics - not merely decided to have an offering that appeals more to one set of people than others and promoting the benefits of that service (rather than any exclusionary aspect of it).

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By CJaneH
22nd Apr 2024 20:06

When I set up a very small practice, I was about 50 and never employed any staff, my entry in Yellow pages :
A Gave my Christian Name - So I was obviously female.
B Did nor say '& Co' - So indicated a small practice.
I think this saved wasted calls from both men and larger business's. I did get calls from females, widows and small businesses who were provided with a service with their only point of contact being me, and no receptionist to get in their way. I did occasionally reject potential clients if I believed that I would not provide the service they needed.
My advertising targeted without saying I would only act for a certain category.
I will say MTD triggered my retirement after 20 years.

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Replying to CJaneH:
Danny Kent
By Viciuno
23rd Apr 2024 11:05

CJaneH wrote:

A Gave my Christian Name - So I was obviously female.
....I think this saved wasted calls from both men and larger business's.

It's sad that this was the case not all that long ago.

I'd like to think that this attitude is now far less prevalent than it was previously.

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7om
By Tom 7000
23rd Apr 2024 10:01

Rather than choose a niche, I choose to exclude certain clients. I wouldn't audit a quoted PLC for example, bit too risky. But I guess then I have a niche of everything except that...

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By towat
23rd Apr 2024 10:46

I know several Asian owned businesses, Accountants and Solicitors that employ exclusively Asian staff, usually the name of the firm makes it apparent that they are Asian owned so they attract clients form the Asian community. I have no problem with any of this although I have often wondered if their recruitment policy could be challenged by say an unsuccessful non-Asian candidate. I obviously recruit solely on merit and have employed staff from all ethnic minorities.

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By Silver Birch Accts
23rd Apr 2024 14:27

Being a Derby fan I simply will not have any Forest supporters working for me, two Man Utd fans is tolerable but absolutely no Forest fans I had a client one who supported them and we spent all our tax meetings 'discussing' the Rams and the Reds, I was glad when he retired. I act for many clients who support other clubs but I will not accept another Forest fan.

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By AndrewV12
24th Apr 2024 09:25

I wish I was in a position to pick and choose clients.

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