Mentor and Speaker for accountants BookMarkLee
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What ‘excellence’ means to accountants

8th Dec 2011
Mentor and Speaker for accountants BookMarkLee
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Mark Lee reviews Steve Pipe’s latest book, ‘The UK’s Best Accountancy Practices’, which features case studies from more than 40 UK accountancy firms - including the small firm Practice Excellence Awards winner.

I have long been an admirer of Steve Pipe’s extraordinary enthusiasm and commitment to the accountancy profession.

He has many fans – with good reason. Equally, I am well aware that his style does not resonate with everyone. Mine doesn’t either. And I also disagree with some of his advice about “advanced tax planning”. But that apart, I am very happy to endorse all of Pipe’s advice and observations in this book. Indeed, it would be hard to find anyone else with such an evident desire to help UK accountants increase their earnings and provide more valued services to their clients. 

The book contains no pipe-dreams or theory. Just loads and loads of specific case-studies of activities, processes and ‘practices’ undertaken by successful accountants all around the UK - including Woods Squared, the small firm Practice Excellence Award-winner. 

You may not want to follow all of the ideas presented. Indeed, you may be unable to do so. But you will learn a great deal more from this book about what others do to achieve success than you will ever glean from the Any Answers pages of AccountingWEB, or even from my regular articles here.

We could argue, as some have done on this thread for example, about Steve’s criteria for determining “the UK’s best accountancy practices”. But to do that would be to miss the point and to miss out on all of the real-life examples in this book.

The featured practices

More than half of the firms featured have just one principal/owner. However many such firms in the book have at least one member of staff. Most have more. There are also three start-ups. The other practices range from two to 16 partners.  

The most successful practices tend to be bigger than one-man (or woman) bands. This is self-evident; if you want a better work-life balance you need to have someone else who can do the work when you’re not there. And the key way to raise profits without increasing your fees is to have someone else generating additional turnover greater than their employment costs.

Fifteen key themes

Pipe does not provide a running commentary throughout the book, but instead he suggests 15 key themes that emerge from the case studies. It would be easy to criticise the list as being too closely linked to the approach long advocated by AVN. But equally it would be surprising if it didn’t do this. 

Many specific AVN products and services are mentioned by contributors. However the appendix includes an even longer list of products and services from other suppliers that are also mentioned throughout the book - Pipe should be applauded for highlighting that accountants can achieve success and excellence without joining AVN.

Advanced tax planning

As mentioned earlier, I noted earlier that I have disagreed with Pipe’s views on this topic. In particular I dispute any suggestion that accountants have an obligation to notify all clients of every leading-edge tax scheme they hear about.

A number of the firms featured in the book have boosted their by offering “advanced tax planning” advice. Some of this is evidently uncontroversial and a good thing in my view. But I would counsel caution for anyone seeking to emulate those firms’ “success” through introductions to tax boutiques that promote what even Graham Aaronson’s GAAR report describes as “abusive” tax schemes.

I am also a tad nervous that some of the case studies cite tax savings achieved for clients “in the last 12 months”. As I have noted many times before, such assertions are often premature given the inherent delays in our ‘process now – check later’ self assessment tax system.

The case studies

This book contains an astonishing array of true-life stories from a range of accountants at all stages of their career. The stories they share include examples of:

  • What gives them their competitive advantage
  • How they have secured an improved work-life balance
  • Where they found the confidence to charge higher than average fees
  • How they secured improvements to their cash-flow
  • What they do to convert more leads into clients
  • Why they set pre-conditions that new clients must satisfy
  • How they get buy-in and commitment from staff
  • Why they feel more satisfied at work
  • All the extra holiday time they have compared to most accountants.

and so on. 


Reviewing the book on Amazon, Robert Craven wrote, “This book is not for the old school accountant; they will be terrified by the customer-focused, service-obsessed case studies/research that Steve has assembled for the book.”

I’m not sure that’s correct. I would prefer to think they will be inspired.  I was. I were still in practice, I would be looking to emulate those changes advocated by the firms I can most relate to the book.

If you want to continue doing what you have always done then by all means do so and accept that you will continue to get what you have always got. If however you have any ambition to grow your practice or to increase your profits, this book will give you living proof of how other firms have done just that.

Mark Lee is Consultant Practice Editor of AccountingWeb and Chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax specialists. His personal website and blog are at:

Copies of Steve Pipe’s book can be obtained from Amazon but it costs less if you order it through and by so doing you will also be helping Steve’s favoured African charity due to his commitment to the Buy1Give1 charity.

Replies (13)

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By Bob Harper
10th Dec 2011 04:52

Old School

@Mark - Old School accountants will be not be terrified because a) they will not read the book b) they will justify their own world view and c) they are too old to care as they can probably get out by selling before they need to change.

Firms who plan on being around in 10 to 20 plus years really need to start changing as they will not get what they have always got by doing what they have always done; they will get a less.

I am unsure about Advance Tax Planning (ATP) and my guess is that Steve would prefer more firms add value buy helping business owners increase profit/capital value and pay more tax, rather than less. For me ATP is like bankers' bonuses; it brings out the worst in people, most "normal" people have a gut feel they don't like it and even though it is legal, cleaver and probably something accountants should offer (because their clients should decide for themselves) it doesn't make it right.

Bob Harper

Crunchers Accounting Franchise

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Steve pipe
By Steve Pipe
11th Dec 2011 10:59

 Clarifying tax planning and charity - by the book's author


Two points to clarify...


1   TAX PLANNING - Bob is right, I would indeed prefer accountants to create growth for their clients. But tax planning is a key part of what clients expect from their accountant, and we knew that when they signed up to join the club. So surely the only way we can get away without doing it is if we explicitly exclude it via our engagement letters, which is an honorable and laudable thing to do. Sadly, however, recent research suggests that most engagement letters stay confusingly and ambiguously silent on many key aspects of  tax planning, which is not at all helpful.


2  CHARITY – B1G1 is not a charity in itself, but rather a vehicle through which businesses can automate the process of giving to the charities of their choice. Therefore by working with B1G1, for every copy of any of my book that is sold through a child in Africa automatically gets access to clean water for life at my expense but on behalf of the book buyer. So if you too would like to like to automatically link your  business to a good cause of your choice I strongly urge you to look at


And finally, I want to thank you Mark for such a kind and even-handed review.



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By Bob Harper
11th Dec 2011 11:24

No hiding

Steve - I think you and I agree that a compliance based services cannot be the basis of a profitable and sustainable strategy for a firm unless the firm goes for volume like SJD.

However, new players such as Crunch and Brookson who are rolling technology into their service make this difficult to compete. By the way, what a great idea - MORE firms should be doing that - who saw that coming?

My take is that Advanced Tax Planning is on its last legs so soon there will be no place for firms to hide; they will be forced to accept lower fees or add value with profit improvement and growth services.

It has taken me many years to acquire sales and marketing knowledge. I have probably done it the hard way. However, knowledge is lifetime asset and just like AVN, it is one of the key elements of the Crunchers franchise; accountants can literally withdraw knowledge (Intellectual Capital) and create profit (Intellectual Income).

Firms need to start adding to their knowledge and joining networks like AVN is a great way to do that. And, they need to do it before they need to do it.

Bob Harper

Crunchers Accounting Franchise


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Steve pipe
By Steve Pipe
12th Dec 2011 15:01

The 15 things the best do to be better


Thought you might find it useful if I summarised the 15 key themes that arose from the research. Based on that research, it is clear that the UK’s best accountancy practices generate better results for themselves and their clients because they are better in the following 15 key areas:


Better intent – They don’t make excuses or moan about what the world is doing to them. Instead they take control of their own destiny. Their success is planned and not accidental. They decide what they want, make whatever changes are necessary to ensure that they get it, and persevere when the going gets tough.


Better decision making – They make conscious, rational decisions, driven by their goals, and informed by facts rather than guesswork or pre-judgement. They do not run away from the need to invest time and money in creating success for them and their clients.


Better measurement systems – They don’t just rely on traditional accounting measures. Instead they work out what really matters – i.e. what drives their success – both financial and non financial. They find ways of measuring all those success drivers, set targets, use the results to inform decision making and make people transparently accountable for performance and results.


Better action – They recognise that one of the timeless keys to success is to do what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it. So they have systems to ensure that action plans are created, recorded, prioritised and implemented. And they do not accept lip service, excuses or weasel words.


Better measurement solutions for clients – They also recognise that profits are a consequence of doing the right things for the right people in the right way. So they start by making sure that their clients also get all the information they need about the numbers that really matter within their businesses, including their success drivers and benchmarking comparisons.


Better improvement solutions for clients – As well as helping clients to measure the things that matter, they also help them create and implement improvement action plans in those areas. In particular, they help clients create and implement improvement action plans for their profit, cashflow, tax exposure, business value and personal wealth.


Better alliances – They recognise that it is impossible for any independent accountancy firm to be able to do every specialist piece of work to the incredibly high standard that clients deserve. So they enter into strategic alliances with other specialists who will do the specialist technical work where necessary. Generally, the specialist takes all the engagement risk, and shares the fees generated with the practice in the form of a ‘payaway’.


Better client meetings – They recognise that meetings are the equivalent of a penalty shoot out in a football tournament – i.e. the interaction that makes a profound difference to the outcome and how you are judged. So they make them more professional and dynamic by following carefully planned meeting systems, and using high impact tools, such as tax planning software, “live” at meetings to illustrate key ideas and quantify potential benefits.


Better proactivity – For them “proactivity” is not an empty promise on their website and in their brochure. They have developed systems to ensure that genuine proactivity, of the kind clients really value, is part of the culture and habits of the firm. They have also discovered that the more proactive they are, the more additional services their clients want to buy from them.


Better service – They understand what excellent service means to the type of clients they want to attract, and have focused their energy and designed their systems in order to deliver that. They focus on both the substance of service excellence (e.g. speed, accuracy, impact etc) and on the experiential aspect (e.g. showing genuine interest, using Plain English, ‘wow factors’ etc).


Better clients – They understand that their time is a precious commodity, so they ration it wisely. Rather than try to please every conceivable type of client, they decide the types of clients they really want to work with, and build the practice around them. That way, they attract more of the right kind of clients, and can afford to get rid of the ‘wrong’ kind of clients. Typically, this results in them earning more money, doing more enjoyable work, and having a better life-work balance by working with a smaller number of clients, paying higher average fees.


Better pricing and cash management – They recognise that the only sustainable way to provide a premium service is to charge a premium fee. They understand that clients hate surprise bills, and so rarely use timesheets for billing purposes. They also understand that, to clients, every bill is a value bill, since the client will not be happy unless it represents good value. So, wherever possible they use value pricing to make it crystal clear that the value far exceeds the fee. And where value pricing is not possible, they use pricing software to generate fixed prices that are acceptable to the client, and fixed price agreements to formalise the arrangement. They also use Extra Work Orders to ensure that extra work is translated into extra fees. And they collect most of their fees by direct debit, often by instalments and usually in advance of completing the work.


Better team work – They understand that the partners cannot and should not try to do everything. They recognise that leverageable success comes by fully involving the team at every stage. Listening to them properly, and valuing their input. Sharing all the key numbers with them. Trusting them. Delegating most of the work to them, after first giving them the tools, training, systems and support they need to do a proper job. And treating and rewarding them well.


Better systems – They do not leave things to chance, and they do not rely on their people remembering what to do. Instead, they create systems to ensure that everything can be done to the same high standard, every single time.


Better marketing – They do not leave referrals to chance. Instead, they use referral systems that leverage their time. They don’t just look to clients and bank managers for referrals, they actively cultivate a much wider network of referral sources. And they understand that in order to get people telling others about them, they have to create a game the client wants to play, and give them a compelling story to tell. They also test a wide variety of other marketing strategies to find the ones that work best for them. For example, many of them have found that the right kind of seminars, are one of the best ways to win new clients.



Steve Pipe FCA


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Steve pipe
By Steve Pipe
12th Dec 2011 15:15

This will have a far bigger impact


Actually, while I am really proud of this book, I think that the new “Blueprint for a better accountancy practice” published the other day by The Accountants Club (and co written by me, Mark Wickersham and Susan Clegg) is likely to have a far bigger impact.

I say that because some of its research findings – such that accountants themselves say there are mistakes in over 40% of the clients affairs they handle, that engagement letters are fundamentally flawed, and that there are in two very different classes of accountants (“Stars” and “Laggards”) and two very different classes of clients (“Valued” and “Overlooked”), should shake the profession to its very core.

Since it has not yet been featured on Accountingweb, you can read more about it on

Steve Pipe FCA



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12th Dec 2011 16:26

Real Firms

What I particularly liked about Steve's book was that it was based on things that real firms all over the UK are actually doing so it is not just words but actually actions that have been taken.

Not everything will be relevant or applicable to all accountancy firms but I'm sure some of it will and you only need to take action on a few of the things in the book for it to make a real difference - I know that's what we've done anyway!

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By jaybee661
12th Dec 2011 17:00

So proud to be included in Steve's book...

I made some massive changes in my practice, including having to make some very difficult decisions, but it's come out the other end being massively more profitable and delivering a much more proactive service than ever before.

I also totally agree that Steve's methodology is the future of accounting - compliance is of course essential but as far as the benefit to the client is concerned, it's totally lifeless.

I firmly believe that what clients want is a far more proactive accountancy service, and that is now what my practice is - in fact I don't believe it, I KNOW it.

Steve's book is packed to the brim with ideas that can literally transform any practice - since attending his first Proactivity seminar I have to say I have never looked back - in fact it's safe to say he is a total inspiration!

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By Bob Harper
13th Dec 2011 07:45


@Woords squared and Jaybee - for me you are inspirations and proof to the many doubters that an added value strategy works. Crucially, you also provide an alternative choice for small businesses.

My take is that we seem to be living in very interesting times and I am wondering if we as a nation all need to do more. Wouldn't it be interesting if accountants went first? The banks got us into this mess, can accountants get us out?

Offering an alternative choice is what I think is needed.

Bob Harper

Alternative Accountants

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Steve pipe
By Steve Pipe
13th Dec 2011 09:36

One of the firms in the book explains their success on the radio


Peterborough based Greenstones, who were recently named as Employer Of The Year in The  British Accountancy Awards, add a lot more detail to their entry in this radio interview recorded on 11 December 2011 (ie this weekend)…

Simon Chaplin, the firm’s founder, can be heard from 41 min 30 seconds in – and it is incredibly useful listening



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By Bob Harper
13th Dec 2011 10:57

Very interesting

STEVE - very interesting and well done Simon.

Could be semantics but Simon talks a lot about saving time and being efficient. This is different from being effective. It's not so much about saving time and doing the same job faster but changing what the client gets.

Bob Harper

Alternative Accountants

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Replying to Paul Bulpitt:
By Simon Chaplin
20th Dec 2011 09:23

Thank you

Bob Harper wrote:

STEVE - very interesting and well done Simon.

Could be semantics but Simon talks a lot about saving time and being efficient. This is different from being effective. It's not so much about saving time and doing the same job faster but changing what the client gets.

Bob Harper


Thanks Bob.  I think it is too. The interview was all about team issues.  Being efficient allows us to use the "time saved" to be more effective with our customers.

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Steve pipe
By Steve Pipe
13th Dec 2011 19:53


Accweb have now published a piece about the research I mentioned in my 15.15 post 


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Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
28th Jul 2012 17:16

I rest my case

When I reviewed Steve's book last year I expressed concern re the focus on 'advanced tax planning'. I have shared similar views on my blog and on other discussion threads on AccountingWeb over the last few years.

"In particular I dispute any suggestion that accountants have an obligation to notify all clients of every leading-edge tax scheme they hear about."

I think my point is proven by recent developments - especially the statements by the President of CIOT, by the CEO of ICAEW and by the latest publication on the topic by the ICAEW Tax Faculty.

One way or another they are echoing the views I have previously expressed that 'advanced tax planning' is more risky than some would have us believe. And that professional accountants are under absolutely no obligation to notify clients of all leading edge tax schemes.

I rest my case.


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