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If accountants were like playing cards…

3rd Apr 2014
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Are accountants all the same? ‘Magic’ Mark Lee uses a recreational metaphor to highlight how accountants can distinguish themselves and stand out from the pack. 

Imagine you have a deck of 52 playing cards in front of you. The cards are face down. All you can see are the backs and as with all packs of cards the backs are all the same. As a result you cannot distinguish one card from another. And yet if you turned them over each would be different and distinct. Until you see their faces, all the cards appear to be the same.

How about if I simply described my favourite deck of cards? They are red bicycle-back cards with an air-cushion finish. That probably doesn’t mean much to you.  

How about if I tell you that their size makes them easier to handle and the air cushion finish makes it easier to play card games than is possible with conventional plastic covered cards? You still don’t really care, do you?

These differences may mean something to me but they mean nothing to you, even if you are looking for a new pack of cards.  

These distinctions I am highlighting don’t seem important, as you’ve always considered that one deck of cards is very much like another.  As a result you have no reason to pick any specific pack. You’ll probably go for the cheapest one.

It’s the same when people are thinking about accountants. You may claim to provide your services in some distinct way, but few people will really understand what you’re saying. To most people, all accountants are pretty much the same.

Of course we know that even if you are offering the same services as your competitors, you are a different person. Sadly too many people only see the backs of our accountant cards.

Wouldn’t it be great if people recognised that you are different to the other accountants? Where this happens, it would be much easier for you to stand out, to be remembered and to win work. But only if people recognised that you are not the same as all of the other accountants in the pack.

Sticking with the playing cards metaphor, is there anything we can learn about how to distinguish ourselves and force people to see and remember which particular card or accountant they are talking to?

What do you do?
You are an accountant but you are also much more than that, as I explain in an earlier article, How to answer the question: What do you do?

Most people have their own perception as to what an accountant is and what they do. If you sound like other accountants, then people who have just met you will simply put you in a box with the others they know.

It’s just that same as your reaction to me explaining the different types of playing cards. You might pay more attention if you are thinking of buying a new pack of cards but even then you probably aren’t going to take much notice of my description of the different types. After all, playing cards are all the same aren’t they? The differences are not worth thinking about.  Either you can play cards with them or you can’t.

None of this is specific to accountants. If we meet a solicitor, a financial adviser, an estate agent, web designer or banker we may be interested to a degree in their business and work.

But what makes them and anyone stand-out is what makes them different. Typically this revolves around a specialism they have or their personality, their quirks and their life. If their conversation seems to include reference to people who share the same issues and challenges as us and who have something in common with us, we will pay more attention.  

The reason I know that there are huge differences between different types of playing cards is because I’ve been playing card games and performing card tricks for over 40 years.  Most people don’t appreciate the differences, beyond those that really stand out. This only happens when they look at the faces of the cards or notice that the backs of the cards are really distinct.  And that’s how most people think of accountants too. 

If you want the people you meet to be interested in you and to remember you, you need to stand out from the other accountants they know.  This will also help if you hope that they will recommend you to others or think that you are the sort of accountant they might use. 

Being different

Is one card in the pack better than any other? Yes and no. It depends on what card game you are playing.

It’s the same in life. You may consider yourself better than the competition but anyone you meet has no reference point to judge your claims of superiority. This is especially the case to a non-accountant; when you talk about what you do ‘better’ than other accountants you seem to be simply describing the back of your playing card, ie talking about what people assume all accountants do in much the same way.

But when someone gets to see your face (metaphorically speaking) you get a chance to help them focus on what makes you different - as distinct from your claims of superiority.

Even if you are ‘better’ than your competitors, very few prospective clients will be able to judge this, especially before they have engaged you. If you are ‘different’ however, you can stand out, be remembered, recommended and retained.

Poker or Snap?

Until you know what game you are playing, you don’t know which cards to play, which are important and which can help you win the game.

It doesn’t matter that your skills are such that you can play most card games, in the same way you could service most types of client. 

If you start talking about yourself or your practice before you know what game is being played, you may alienate the people you’re with. In some situations it is sufficient to ask questions and to listen to what is being said. If you think you can play their game, go ahead.  

In other situations you are either competing for a place at the table or you want to be remembered whenever people need someone to make up a game.  

There may be advantages in being seen as someone who can join in any old game, but most serious card players would prefer to play with others who are experts at their game, rather than with someone who plays lots of different card games.

Better to be seen as someone who has built up some specific skill in one game than to be thought of as a master of none, especially when there are other expert card players around. For example, poker players will be more interested in talking to other poker players than to bridge buffs. And poker players will appreciate that the difference between poker sizes cards and bridge sized cards. Which is best for rummy, I don’t know.

It’s the same with accountants - you will be remembered more frequently and more positively if you are thought to have a distinct skill or area of specialisation than if you claim to be able to do anything for anyone. That’s not special or memorable.  

It doesn’t matter that your existing clients each play different card games with you. You’re not telling clients that your main area of focus is poker or bridge or whatever. As long as your clients can still have a good game with you they don’t really care what you say to help other people to remember you.

If you want more sophisticated clients who are willing to pay more for your services you probably need to focus on more sophisticated services. Just as you would need to be seen to be a serious poker player before you would get invited to play in poker tournaments.

And it’s always possible that your expertise in a particular game might be infectious such that those people who have always been comfortable playing snap recognise that the time is right to start learning to play bridge and with you as their teacher.


Years ago we all wore suits. These days, suits may be much less common, in some offices at least. But perhaps the four suits in a deck of cards can allow us to extend the metaphor. When you are networking for example:

  • Spades - Firstly dig around with your metaphorical spade asking questions to find out more about the person you’re with
  • Clubs - Now you hone in to find overlapping interests, especially from a business perspective - ie, are you in the same ‘club’?
  • Hearts - You might also want to look for an emotional (or heartfelt) connection - do you have any similar likes and dislikes?
  • Diamonds - The really valuable stuff. What can you promise to do by way of a follow up?  What would the other person value? It doesn’t need to be a diamond ring.

Any accountant who adopts what I call ‘The Four Suits’ approach will standout and enhance their chances of bring remembered, recommended and referred, ie How to be remembered, recommended and referred.

The 14 of diamonds

I have a huge number of packs of cards and some are quite special. One contains a very distinct card, the 14 of diamonds, which stands out from all the others. However, it has no purpose beyond standing out and its distinctive qualities are no use to anyone who wants to play cards.  

I have long maintained that if you accept the idea that it’s good to stand out, you need to ensure that what anyone remembers about you has to be positive and relevant. Going back to the analogy, if you are an accountant who stands out as being so different that no one can imagine ever playing cards with you, you will need to be very patient. 


So there we have it. If accountants were playing cards and you were able to help people remember which specific card they had chosen, you would probably increase your chances of winning new clients and work.

But to do that, you want to ensure you are facing people and that you don’t turn your back on them. If all they remember is that you are the same as all other accountants in the pack, you will lose more ‘find the accountant’ card games than you win.

I look forward to your comments to both extend the metaphor and to challenge it.

Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB. Beyond this he facilitates The Inner Circle group for accountants, is a regular speaker on professional business development related issues and is chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax specialists.

Replies (13)

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By stepurhan
03rd Apr 2014 12:56

Sharp (accounting) practice?

Mark Lee wrote:
Most people don't appreciate the differences, beyond those that really stand out. This only happens when they look at the faces of the cards or notice that the backs of the cards are really distinct.
At which point they realise they are playing against a card sharp who is using a marked deck. :-)

An interesting metaphor. If it felt a little forced in places, it definitely provides plenty of food for thought.

Does Happy Families have Mr Sum the Accountant in it these days?

Thanks (1)
Mark Lee headshot 2023
By Mark Lee
03rd Apr 2014 15:36

Many thanks Stephen

I wrote this during a recent holiday and have already adapted it for inclusion in my talks about How to Stand out and be more than just another accountant. I agree the first version above is a tad forced in places. But my aim was to create a metaphor that would be useful and easily remembered. 

I like your additional ideas too!


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By stepurhan
03rd Apr 2014 15:54

Liked the suits

The suits analogy is a really good one. If you think about those four approaches, using the suits as an aide-memoire, then you should be able to interest people in what you have to offer. I should say, as a one-time bridge-player, the correct order of suits is clubs-diamonds-hearts-spades. Rather mucks up the order of approach for networking though. :-)

Can you post a picture of the 14 of diamonds? Presumably a magic trick card, but I'm intrigued as to how the pips are laid out.

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
03rd Apr 2014 17:02



I enjoyed that, it struck several chords in the approaches I make to marketing my small practice.

Agree its a little forced but it works well as a whole. 

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John Stokdyk, AccountingWEB head of insight
By John Stokdyk
03rd Apr 2014 17:13

Nice deployment of your ancilary skills

Knowing of your extra curricular activities as a magician, Mark, I really enjoyed the way your expertise came through in this article.

It made for a very persuasive and entertaining read precisely because I could imagine you delivering it while standing on a stage with a pack of cards (and the 14 of Diamonds) in your hand.

As a fellow speaker at Accountex 2014 I'm really looking forward to seeing/hearing how you deliver the ideas live... though with some trepidation in case you go over too well and overshadow my "Zen and the art of practice development" talk.

Break a leg, dahling!

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Mark Lee headshot 2023
By Mark Lee
03rd Apr 2014 18:27

Cheers Guys

Thanks especially John. Your feedback means a lot.

It's the first time I've had the courage to forge a link and the talk I gave today - which built on the ideas in this article - was the first run through of the talk I am giving at Accountex.

Not sure about breaking a leg. A magic wand maybe ;-)


ps: here's the 14 of diamonds Stephen

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By carnmores
04th Apr 2014 19:25

recreational metaphor
Whose the joker

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By plummy1
06th Apr 2014 11:27

Use two decks?


I enjoyed reading the post. One way that accountants can differentiate themselves is by working with third parties to bring in complimentary services I.e have a few cards up their sleeve which other accountants do not have. I do appreciate that they have to be the right companies though who share the same values as the accountant.


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Replying to lionofludesch:
By User deleted
07th Apr 2014 10:43


plummy1 wrote:

One way that accountants can differentiate themselves is by working with third parties to bring in complimentary services I.e have a few cards up their sleeve which other accountants do not have. 

I think that's cheating isn't it?! 

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Mark Lee headshot 2023
By Mark Lee
06th Apr 2014 12:19

Many thanks John

I'll work on incorporating that extension of the metaphor into a related talk for non-accountants.

Nice one!


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By johnjenkins
07th Apr 2014 09:54

You're getting

better Mark. A lot more comments than your previous efforts, and yes I did enjoy the article.

Although Carnmores mentioned the Joker, having a sense of humour with clients can actually work.

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By carnmores
07th Apr 2014 10:33

Mark , take a card

what were those cards the ones beloved of magicians called , showboats? are you too young to remember Harry Stanley & Alan Alan


PS used to love the Gen

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By raybackler
08th Apr 2014 13:48

"Suitable" account classifications

Diamonds are Income (every one a winner!)

Clubs are Expenses

Hearts are Liabilities (especially if broken)

Spades are Assets

Red suits normally have credit balances

Black suits normally have debit balances

Diamonds and Clubs make up the Profit and Loss Account

Hearts and Spades make up the Balance Sheet

Every double entry bookkeeping transaction must have a black suit (debit) and a red suit (credit) for each half of the transaction. 

If accounting systems put little symbols in front of the account name then we would all know which account classification was being used.  Much easier to explain to untrained administrators using accounting systems.

Patent applied for!!


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