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How to answer the question: What do you do?

11th Feb 2014
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Mark Lee suggests how start-up firms can describe what they do without simply saying "I'm an accountant".

Many people have a whole load of preconceptions about accountants. If you meet someone who already knows other accountants there is little to be gained my introducing yourself simply as 'an accountant'. If you do that you will struggle to stand out and to be remembered. See How to be remembered, recommended and referred.

Until they learn otherwise, most people will assume you are just the same as the other accountants they know. You may be the most recent accountant they have met but that will only mean something until they meet another one. What can you say about what you do beyond the fact that you're an accountant?

The challenge of course is that as a start-up practice you may not yet feel able to be more specific. And yet if you fail to do this you will take longer to generate clients from your networking and face-to-face marketing efforts. I would also suggest that you might want to avoid stressing the fact that you have only recently started your practice. Doing so is likely to highlight your relative inexperience. And that can only be a disadvantage. How often do we choose to engage novices compared to experienced practitioners or service providers?

It would be good to see some real-life examples added as comments below this article. For now, here are some suggestions that may help you to answer the age-old question: "So, what do you do then?”

The key is to get your message across in a way that will really capture the imagination of prospective clients and of potential referrers of work. You want them to understand that you do not fit the old stereotypical preconception they might otherwise assume applied to you.

Here are four elements that can help you to explain what you do in a way that makes you more memorable, in a positive way, than simply stating that you're an accountant.

1. Talk about your clients
Are they start-ups, consultants, traders, local businesses, property investors or do they have anything else in common? Are they all based in the same locality? Are they typically of a similar age or background? Are you the first accountant they have appointed or have they moved to you from someone else?

The more precise you can be the easier it is for the person you are talking with to recognise an overlap or similarity with themselves or with someone they know. 

It is natural to fear that talking about specific client types could be limiting. See: Ten decisions to make when starting in practice. Perhaps you are concerned that if you only talk about one or two client types that people will assume you can’t help them or anyone they know.

In real life though most of us find it much easier to remember one or two specific examples rather than a long generic list that has no real distinguishing features.

2. Talk about the problems you solve
Why do your clients want your services as an accountant? See: What do your clients really want?

Do they want someone to 'do' their bookkeeping, prepare their accounts or complete their tax returns? Do they want your advice on bookkeeping, accounting, tax or business planning? Do they just want to pay less tax or do they need your help to get HMRC off their back or to bring their tax affairs and Companies House filings up to date?

What was it that caused them to choose you as their accountant?

I would suggest you do not emphasise the fact that any clients chose you simply because you were cheaper than their previous accountant or offered the cheapest quote. Even if this has happened it will do you no favours if you tell anyone - unless you are happy offering a low cost service to people who switch accountants to whomever they find is the cheapest. You will certainly lose them in due course to someone who is even cheaper than you. 

3. Talk about what matters
Few people will be interested in how you do what you do. Why should non-accountants care about your choice of bookkeeping system or tax software? They also may have little interest in your background, qualifications of experience. At least, not at first. 

These things all matter to you and should give you the confidence to talk to prospective clients and business associates. But they should rarely be part of any initial conversation when you are simply being asked "What do you do?"

In real life almost everyone who asks you this question will fall into one of the following categories:

a) They don't really care. They just want you to get your reply over with so that you will ask them the same question. All they want is to tell you what they do. They won't make any effort to remember you but they want you to remember them
b) They want to know what you could do to help them or the people they care about
c) Implicit in their question is a follow up question: "...and why should I remember you?"

Again, simply saying you are an accountant (or even a chartered accountant) is hardly ever going to be sufficient. What matters most are whether you can help solve problems and who has the sort of issues or needs that you, as an accountant, can resolve.

4. Tell real-life stories about the outcomes you produce

Your objective is to reference the kind of results or outcome that clients can expect if they appoint you as their accountant.  

This sort of thing is much easier to evidence if you can talk about specific clients in a case study style of story. 

Telling true stories about how you helped clients should be easy as you were there so you don’t need to refer to notes. Keep the stories, honest, simple, vivid and emotional. This makes them more memorable which is, of course, part of the objective.

Here is an imaginary example: 

"One of my clients, I'll call her Chantal, came to me in a near panic recently as she had received a really nasty letter from HMRC. They were asking all sorts of questions about her last tax return that she had completed herself and filed online. The taxman was also asking for around £2,000 of additional tax which Chantal could not easily afford to pay.

Chantal hadn't saved a copy of the return and couldn't remember exactly what she had put on it. I was able to get a copy and to reply to HMRC's questions.

When I checked things I was able to suggest a number of amendments to her tax return and these were accepted by HMRC. Chantal was delighted as they agreed to repay £800 of tax and this was significantly more than my fee. Just as importantly Chantal was left feeling much more relaxed and confident that HMRC had gone away happy so she no longer needs to worry about her tax affairs. She has also asked me to help her in future years."

It is worth practicing how you share case study stories like this. Focus on the ‘before and after’. The ‘before’ means what did your client feel at the outset about their problem? What did they want or need?  This sort of imagery is key to story-telling as it builds up curiosity on the part of the listener.

The ‘after’ image needs to form a stark contrast – this is what you want the listener to relate to. The story is not all about you although your role is key of course. The story needs to be about someone like the listener – or someone they know or could relate to.

I hope that all helps. Now do share your own stories and experiences of replying to the question: “So what do you do then?”

Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB and writes the BookMarkLee blog and ebooks on business development and related issues for accountants who want to save time and be more successful. He is also a public speaker on similar topics and chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax specialists.

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By Paul Scholes
14th Feb 2014 18:45


Get in first, ask them what they do, then sit back and drink your can tell it's Friday

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