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How to become a 'business advisor': Part one

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24th Nov 2009
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In the first of a two part series, Finola McManus explains how value added business advisory services can keep clients happy and add to your own bank balance.

The words 'business advice' seem to frighten many accountants who are trained to be technically competent yet feel uncomfortable with the concept of 'selling' business advice. Whether you’re a sole practitioner or a partner in a larger firm, every accountant and advisor faces the challenge of keeping clients happy while providing advice to help their often struggling businesses. Clients welcome all the support they can get, but of course getting paid for that advice can prove difficult if you don't go about it in the right way. As well as this, every practitioner has to keep their eye on the clock and somehow find the time to provide this level of support to clients when they already have a heavy workload to deal with themselves. This is increasingly relevant as we approach the dreaded tax return deadline season and suffer a shortfall in resources at the peak flu season.

Grade your clients
Firstly, how well do you know your clients? Grade and sort your client list into A, B and C list clients. Focus initially on the A and B list clients, as these will be the ones most in need of support and advice and are more likely to be receptive and want to pay for that additional support.

There are many simple but effective tools and checklists available to help you grade clients. A good grading system will take no more than five minutes per client to complete and will cover qualitative issues as well as the size of the client or what fee they pay annually. For those with staff members, the grading process can be done by your team and they can feedback summary results for you to look over - this will save you time and get others involved in what you are doing show them why.

Grading clients in itself is a sensible exercise as it will make you focus on what clients you actually have, what you would ideally like to have, and put a plan in place to move clients up a grade where possible. This plan in itself will undoubtedly increase your revenue and profitability whilst ensuring you improve contact and service levels with clients. Supporting your clients’ business always starts with having more regular contact with them in the first place.

Sort out your services menu
Once your clients are graded, prepare a simple 'menu of services' detailing all the things you can do as a firm. You will be surprised to see how many 'business advice' services you are already able to offer and indeed already talk to clients about, albeit in a random and informal way.

Set up a spreadsheet or something similar, with clients down the side and each service you can provide along the top. Tick the boxes where you know clients are already buying these services from you. What you are interested in here is to look at where the blank boxes are - these are where your opportunities lie.

What you have done here is to set up and identify your 'windows of opportunity' for the firm. Based on personal experience, this exercise will generate on average a minimum of 10% increase in your GRF when you consistently use it and follow up the results.

Chase those leads
Now call each client to say 'I have been thinking of you, I see you use us for x services but did you know that we also can help you with x,y,z, etc. Shall we have a brief meeting to see how we can help your business further? I am happy to give you an hour of my time for free just to make sure we are giving you all the support you need'.

Clients will always be delighted to have a free meeting with you. In reality this is good 'marketing' time for you and gives you the opportunity to listen to their needs and offer your additional services to support them.

Some accountancy firms get invaluable feedback from clients during this process. It may be the case that a client did actually know what you can do but doesn't trust you to do it and uses someone else. Again, this is a fantastic opportunity to address the negative feedback and solve the serivce problem. It costs nothing to apologise and acknowledge poor service in the past. Most clients will be impressed by the fact you care and are trying to do something about it.

At best, you know have the opportunity to try again as most clients will be prepared to give you a second chance. At worst, you have dealt with feedback and a service issue which means you are more likely to keep that client for a few more years to come. The clients that are at risk of going elsewhere are the ones that feel they don't have enough contact with you and you don't ask whether they are happy with what you do.

Setting up an advisory framework

Clients themselves may be uneducated as to what support and business advice they actually need. I recall one new client many years ago saying 'I know I need help and support but because I don't know what exactly it is I need I therefore don't know the right questions to ask'.

This is a common problem. What you can offer here is a free meeting with a client at the end of which you will ask the client whether they found it valuable and if it is something they would like to repeat on a regular basis. You then ask then what their budget is for such ongoing meetings and agree an extra fee. Assure the client they can cancel the arrangement at any time and they only pay (preferably by standing order) after each advisory meeting and when they are happy that they have received value for money.

Package up your 'boardroom' style advisory meetings to include a written agenda. Take notes at the meeting and agree an action plan and e-mail it to them the day after each meeting. This provides focus and structure and a clear 'how to' plan for the client to follow up on and see results from your advice between each meeting.

If you’re looking for items to put on an agenda you can ask the client to list the top three challenges they are currently facing. You then have your focus on what to suggest and discuss. The is the type of business advice you have been giving all alone but you have now made it more tangible, transparent and is something which the client will perceive as having real value.

It’s amazing to think that an informal chat with your client where you talk about all these things at the annual accounts meeting, for example, seems to go unnoticed, yet when you 'parcel' it up as a separate service the client seems more interested and is even happy to pay extra for this support! I have tried and tested this approach many times over during my time in practice and with my current accountancy firm clients and believe me, it works.

In her next article, Finola will explain how partners can delegate business advice work among team members and discusses effective techniques for marketing these services to clients.

Finola McManus is a chartered accountant and former senior partner, who now runs her own consultancy service, Practice Perfect.

 

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By David Winch
24th Nov 2009 12:28

Getting Paid For Business Advice

My thoughts on what ends up as a very useful article.

 

I always feel that ‘value added’ is something of an oxymoron in that it implies you are telling the client how valuable you will be for them. As value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder this is clearly nonsensical.

 

“Every practitioner has to keep their eye on the clock” might have implied that the practitioner will be charging for their time, one of the worst ways of pricing your services. However, as you are meaning it in the sense of managing your time rather than charging for it, if the work is highly profitable you will undoubtedly find time to do it! And why even consider giving the advice if it wasn’t highly profitable to do so?

 

You go on to talk about a “menu of services” and using gap analysis to stimulate “chasing those leads.” Trying to a/. sell a list and b/. force your services down the clients’ throats is likely to be a less than optimal strategy. No one will buy anything unless they need it, and even that is not enough. They will actually only buy it if they want it.

 

In order to know if they want it, they have to understand that it is a remedy for a pain they suffer and understand the full value of living without the pain. They can then compare this value against your proposed fee and judge whether to accept the RoI it offers. And to understand the full value of the solution often requires a conversation that neither side should ever dream is anything other than free.

 

And then you get it all spot on. Almost invariably Clients don’t know exactly what they need to remove their ‘pains’, even if they understand what underlying ‘disease’ is causing them, and at this point your value is more in your knowledge of the questions than in your knowledge of the answers. Your questioning skill will make things clearer in their heads, so they can understand and explain things to themselves, and thus to you. This is the way you get first to value, then to fee, via RoI, checking simply that it is profitable for you to do so.

 

I look forward to the next article.

 

David

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