TIme management in a busy accountant’s office

At this week’s meeting of The Inner Circle for Accountants our headline discussion topic was: “Time management in a busy accountant’s practice and prioritising what needs to be done by you.”

Members had identified this as a key issue they shared. It was also one of the most common concerns expressed in  a recent survey I ran of accountants who want to feel more successful.

At the start of our meeting I shared some background thoughts and questions to stimulate the discussion and ideas around the table. My questions included:

  • Why is time management an issue for you?
  • What gets in the way of you doing as you have planned? and
  • What do you put off doing and why?

Inevitably some of the responses and subsequent realisations might seem obvious – certainly with the benefit of hindsight.

For example, accountants rarely need to make time for billable client work. Indeed the opportunity to serve clients (and get paid for doing so) is typically what gets in the way of office admin, marketing and planning to work ON the practice itself.

After we considered the Four Time Management Quadrants, one member noted he could now see that he was never making time for important activities unless or until they became urgent. And planning to upgrade his website rarely reached that stage. Even though he wanted to get this done, he never felt any need to prioritise the related work and to allocate time to the project.

Another realisation was that members focus on client work as it invariably has an ‘end point’. Strategic work to build and develop the practice seems to be an ongoing activity. If you start it when will you know you’ve done enough?

Among the specific techniques we discussed to overcome these and other challenges were:

  • Breaking big tasks down and identifying what specifically needs to be done first;
  • Diverting your calls or setting up a phone answering service to take calls during fixed parts of the day when you don’t want to be disturbed;
  • Discussing issues that are dragging on during our monthly calls – two members related stories of how they had been putting off doing things they thought they wanted to do. When we talked through what they wanted and how they could move the actions forwards they were able to unblock their reluctance to take action;
  • Committing to a third party (eg: partner,  friend, service provider, coach or mentor) actions you will take so that they can hold you to account;
  • The use of meeting and call scheduling apps.

All members will receive a one page summary of the key learning points they identified at the end of the meeting, together with links to related reading topics, support services and apps.* This will include a link to a list on this blog of 15 top tips to avoid procrastination.

*The growing library of post meeting notes are also available to new members when they join The Inner Circle. Take a look and if you think it might help you, feel free to schedule a call with me here>>>






Are you sufficently comfortable with your practice?

The ICAEW recently published some research showing that almost 40% of small businesses have no desire to grow bigger. Less than a quarter it seems want to grow more than a little. This comes as no surprise to me and accords with the view I have long had that the vast majority of accountants themselves feel quite comfortable. As a result they are unwilling to invest much time or money in trying to grow their practice.

If this describes your attitude, it makes sense to me entirely.

You have built up a pretty good portfolio of clients, most of whom need your services and possibly even your advice year after year. You are making a good enough living and you feel no great need to seek out new clients. You see little need to do much in the way of active marketing or networking. You win the odd new client and this pretty much makes up for the odd client that you lose each year.

There have been numerous occasions over the years when it looked like comfortable accountants might get caught out. By this I mean that forecast external factors made it seem to many commentators that even ‘comfortable’ accountancy practices would soon suffer the loss of a significant number of clients.
It didn’t happen when self-assessment was introduced; it didn’t happen when online filing became an option for taxpayers and it didn’t happen during the recession. Yes, of course, there was some client attrition but few ‘comfortable’ accountants lost loads of clients.

The question I want to ask in this blog post though is whether you are sufficiently comfortable?

Although new technology, new online facilities and new service models continue to arrive thick and fast, I do not believe that anything is going to lead to a miss migration of clients away from their existing trusted advisers. At least not overnight. As ever you will have plenty of time to adapt as the impact of changes becomes apparent.

In my experience, most accountants do not react well to being told, yet again, that some forthcoming change is going to have a major impact on their firm. In the past all has been well as accountants have simply adapted to new developments. This has been the way the majority of firms have evolved over the last 2 or 3 decades at least.

As I said earlier there is no need, in my view, to have big ambitions for your firm. Once it has reached a size that enables you to derive a good enough living, to work the hours you want, and to only look after the clients you like, there is no need to seek out new clients all the time.  On the other hand there is also nothing wrong with ambition, with wanting to build up a better quality client base, to secure bigger and more regular fees, to focus on the work you really enjoy and to evolve your practice faster than might happen if you leave it to chance.

And there is also good reason to consider whether your practice could be more successful, whether you could make the same money with less effort, reduce your cost base or increase your profits by embracing change and opportunity. But any change is risky so you don’t want to do it alone. I understand.

This is one reason why some accountants seek my input as a mentor – as part of their investment in the future. To avoid rushing off too fast and to ensure that they get best use out of new software and systems. I hold them to account and encourage them to get the best return on their investment.

Whether you do it alone, with me or with anyone else, you can, if you wish to, become even more comfortable.

The A-G framework that will ensure you STAND OUT from the competition

Having been talking and writing about this framework for some time, it’s about time I recorded it on my own blog.

The A-G framework addresses seven factors that will influence the people you meet and impact how they remember you. You may be looking to win work from them or simply to be recommended and referred by them.

These factors, which can be recalled as starting with the letters A-G, are most relevant as follows:

  • Your Appearance – what impression did you give when people meet you face to face? And is this confirmed if they check you out online?
  • Your Business branding and messaging – was this sufficiently clear, relevant and memorable (on line and in face to face conversations)?
  • Your Conversational impact – Are you a good listener? Do you look for ways in which you can tell only relevant stories about clients, like the person you are with or who they know, and how those clients felt after you did what you do to resolve their issues?
  • Your Dependability and trust – How congruent are your online profiles and website references to the conversations you have and to your business messaging? And do you do anything to encourage people to trust you soon after they meet you?
  • Your Experience and Expertise – Are you tailoring your communications here so that what you say resonates with the people you meet – and are your claims consistent both online and face to face?
  • The extent to which you Follow up - Are you good at doing this promptly and effectively? Or do you wait for people to get back in touch with you? Or are you so pushy you put people off?
  • Your attitude to Giving and sharing – Even if you normally struggle to adopt such an approach you could still create free tips sheets and other items that others will consider to be of value. What can you do to help others without waiting to be asked? For example you can provide recommendations and testimonials without being asked.

In each case there are dozens of elements from which you might choose how you want to STAND OUT by reference to this framework. Doing so in ways that suit you will boost your credibility and the influence you have as compared with others like you who are unfamiliar with the framework.

I’ll address some of the underlying elements in future blog posts. So if you have yet to register to be notified of these, please do so using the form on the right hand side of this page.

What 6 things is everyone saying we should do?

At the ICAEW’s ‘Growing your practice’ conference yesterday, speaker after speaker shared similar ideas – allbeit from very different perspectives, with different emphasis and in different contexts.

I was first up and talked about the 7 step framework you need to follow to STAND OUT from the competition. There are a host of detailed factors behind each stage so I only focused on a handful. After me came Robert Craven, Paul Shrimpling, Matin Clapson, Paul Harrison, Cameron John and Karen Reyburn.

We all had our own take on things and offered distinct advice, insights and ideas. But during the day a number of messages seemed to be repeated by speaker after speaker. Those repeated most-often seemed to me to be as follows:

  1. “It’s good to talk” – The more conversations you have with clients, prospects and introducers, the more your practice will grow. The right type of conversations can ensure you stand out, generate more referrals, identify new work opportunities and make more profits.
  2. “Consistency is crucial” – What you say about your practice and clients needs to be congruent with what your website says, what your Linkedin profile says and what your marketing materials and activities say on and offilne.  Inconsistency damages credibility and trust which are key to generating more fees and growing the practice.
  3. “Update your Linkedin profile” – When someone looks you up online they will invariably find your Linkedin profile before they find your website. If your profile doesn’t engage them (and STAND OUT from the crowd) they may not bother moving on to look at your website – which must also engage them effectively.
  4. “Social Media activity needs to be strategic” – It’s easy to waste a lot of time and effort on twitter, facebook, and many other social media sites – even Linkedin. If you seriously want to grow your practice you need to consider where you will get ‘most bang for your buck’, monitor and measure what you do and take expert advice to avoid wasting time and effort.
  5. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get” – Many surveys referenced during the day suggest that most growth will come through client referrals. Yet few practices seem to encourage or help clients to deliver the referrals that would be so valuable. There are some pretty simple ways to address this.
  6. “If you want something to change, you have to do something different” – If you carry on doing what you’ve always done, you will NOT carry on getting what you’ve always got; the world around us is changing. You need to do things differently, to take action, to change your interactions with others, your online activity, your website, your online profile, your focus on financial details and on the other key indicators that drive your business and will enable you to grow.

Clearly each speaker’s advice ranged into other areas and had a distinct focus. It would be inappropriate for me to summarise everyone’s talks here. But I thought you might be interested in that overlap across those six points.

The other thing that struck me was that only a few truly new or novel points were being made. Many, including some of my own, could be dismissed as common sense and ‘obvious’. Yet the same points were being made in different ways by multiple speakers. And listening to what delegates were saying during the breaks it was clear that few were dismissive of the repeated messages, Indeed the repetition was barely noticed.

I surmise that accountants, serious about growing their practices, value being told stuff that may be obvious, as long as it is presented in a stimulating and memorable way.  I think we all managed that.

More doubt spread re ‘approved’ tax schemes

If this blog was a redtop newspaper the headline might have read: “Tax Barrister blows the lid off Tax Schemes scam”. I admit I was tempted!

Regular readers will know that only very occasionally do I use this blog to reference tax related topics. When I do so my observations are still focused around helping accountants in practice.

I have long been dismissive of those promoters and commentators who have sought to encourage accountants that they MUST advise clients about tax schemes. By which I mean those schemes that HMRC regard as abusive or aggressive.

My cynicism about such schemes contributed to me choosing to leave the world of tax advice in 2006. Since then my stance has been justified many times over – see links below.

Jolyon Maugham, a tax barrister at Devereux Chambers, has now ‘blown the lid  off’ what some of us have long suspected.

In a well written blog post Jolyon effectively accuses a small group of tax barristers of knowingly giving positive opinions of tax schemes that are unlikely to succeed.

The opening paragraph of his blog (which has been republished in Taxation magazine) gives you a flavour of his views:

I have on my desk an Opinion – a piece of formal tax advice – from a prominent QC at the Tax Bar. In it, he expresses a view on the law that is so far removed from legal reality that I do not believe he can genuinely hold the view he says he has. At best he is incompetent. But at worst, he is criminally fraudulent: he is obtaining his fee by deception. And this is not the first such Opinion I have seen. Such pass my desk All The Time.

Later he notes:

The [promoters] will then go out and sell that idea to taxpayers. In the case of individual taxpayers, they will sell it, typically, through IFAs to whom they will pay a sales commission.That sales commission, too, can be very substantial, running in some cases into hundreds of thousands of pounds for a single client. So the IFA can be strongly incentivised to persuade their clients that the idea works and – should the taxpayer client care about such things – that it is not aggressive tax planning.

What happens next?

The taxpayer will make their tax return, HMRC will disallow the beneficial tax treatment, and the taxpayer will challenge that disallowance in the tax tribunal (causing years of uncertainty and substantial professional fees). Should that challenge fail, the taxpayer will lose whatever money he put into the idea, face an unexpected tax charge and, very often, be publicly pilloried into the bargain.

Suffice it to say that Jolyon’s expose further supports my view that accountants can safely ignore all those promoters encouraging them to introduce clients to their tax schemes. Even those apparently ‘supported by Leading Tax Counsel’. Sad to say, these opinions may be costly to obtain but also potentially worthless. As we have seen so many times in recent years, ‘abusive’ schemes are being successfully challenged all the time – despite the assertions of their well paid promoters when clients were being encouraged to ‘invest’.

If you have clients being encouraged to invest in a scheme that seems ‘iffy’ to you, Jolyon’s blog will give you added confidence to provide independent constructive advice about the risks.

Related blog posts:

What do your clients really want?

There is an apocryphal story about a group of newly recruited executives at Black & Decker in the days when they only sold one basic product. They were asked what it was that their customers wanted from them.

The standard answer was ‘drills’.

“No” they were told. “Our customers want HOLES.”

In a similar vein the great Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to tell his students, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

How do you feel about this concept and the idea of focusing on the equivalent of a hole in the wall that your prospective clients want?

In recent years it has become very clear to me how few professionals seem to be aware of this concept. The vast majority talk about what they do and pitch for new work without an awareness that what clients generally want results and solutions to problems.

Clients are typically completely indifferent as to how we help get those results and solutions – assuming it doesn’t involve breaking the law etc. So clients will rarely care much about our internal processes and systems.

I’ve also noticed that there seems to be far more emphasis on the client’s ‘pain’ in sales training these days than I ever saw in my past life. And it’s often the toughest part of networking too.

What do you try to find out when you meet with a prospective client or when you’re networking and hoping that you will gain new advocates for your work? Do you take a moment to find out what result they are seeking or what problem they have? And do you focus your comments more on whether their desired result can be achieved or their problem solved rather than on how you and your firm operate?

Like this post? You can now obtain my 10,000 word ebook containing loads more marketing insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

STAND OUT career advice for young professionals

Around 25 years ago I wrote a series of articles for a now defunct magazine called ‘Career Accountant’. I had cause to reflect back on these recently when adapting my keynote talk on the importance of STANDING OUT from the crowd.

I was speaking to a group of young professionals and my presentation was on the topic of: How to STAND OUT and build a more successful  career.

Whilst there have been many changes in the professions over the last quarter of a century(!) some fundamentals of career development haven’t changed. What is different is how much easier it now is to build your profile and to STAND OUT as compared with in the 1980s.

Here is an outline of ten of the tips I shared during my recent talk:

  • There are many positive ways in which you can STAND OUT without being loud, brash or opinionated;
  • Your objective is to do sufficient to ensure that you are remembered, recommended and recruited for the roles you seek; what experiences, training, skills and qualifications will help you to STAND OUT for good reasons in this regard?
  • Career building relies just as much on building trust and confidence as does generating new clients or forming new ‘romantic’ relationships;
  • If you are evidently happy being seen as just another [lawyer] you may only be considered suitable for similar roles that slow your career progression;
  • Consider your answers to the question “What do you do?” and decide whether you want to come across as positive and motivated even if you are looking to move on. Who would want to promote or recruit a misery guts?
  • Be realistic and ignore the nonsense advice that suggests you need a USP;
  • Remember that technical skills will rarely be enough. Ambitious professionals get recruited as much because of their perceived business and personal skills; An absence of key qualifications will hold you back as you will STAND OUT as under qualified.
  • How positively can you talk about your work? You’ll STAND OUT positively if you focus on referencing your clients or colleagues, the problems you solve for them and the outcomes you secure – as distinct from the processes or day to day tasks you undertake;
  • Ensure that your Linkedin profile works for you and that you are well connected on that platform; endorse your connections for skills you know they have and they may do the same for you. Stick to those skills you want to highlight and endeavour to build up your endorsements so that you STAND OUT from others like you who have yet to do this;
  • It’s never too soon to start trying to STAND OUT online and in face to face interactions. You may be too late if you wait until you need a new job;

I also mentioned a free tips sheet I have prepared to help CPAs to set up and enhance their Linkedin profile. The principles are widely applicable and you can get it via this link>>>

Reviewing 6 months of The Inner Circle for accountants

When I started The Inner Circle 6 months ago I could only speculate that members would benefit and find it of value. That was confirmed again this week after our 6th meeting.

Members explained why they had joined. There seem to be five explicit reasons which keep them coming back month after month:

  • To learn from others what they are doing better than me;
  • To avoid reinventing the wheel;
  • To focus on building the practice rather than just servicing clients;
  • To gain a greater commitment to achieving my goals; and
  • To learn new ideas I can adapt and implement to suit me, my practice and my clients.

When I started The Inner Circle I had other objectives in mind – and these are set out on the introductory page of my website>>>>>

Over the last 6 months we have addressed many issues of practical and commercial importance to this select group of smaller practitioners.

  • Distinguishing our practice from the competition
  • Business growth strategies and tactics
  • Effective use of technology and reviewing new ideas/trends
  • Making efficient use of social media
  • Attracting the right type of clients
  • Obtaining high quality clients through effective marketing
  • Attracting talented staff
  • Adding value (and fees) to our existing client base
  • Getting clients to give us what we need faster

The key learning points and follow up notes from each meeting are building up into a valuable pack that will also be available to new members – to reduce the temptation to ‘reinvest the wheel’ ourselves. And most members are keen for me to hold them to account when we have our monthly 1-2-1 conversations between meetings of The Inner Circle.

At this week’s meeting members agreed that I should set out the agenda for the next 6 months – which I will do after first running a short survey to ascertain the most popular topics from those members have said they want to address. We often sidetrack a little but my role, in part, is to ensure that we keep (relatively) focused and avoid repeating previous conversations.

If you’re tempted to find out more, do have a look at this introduction and let me know if you’d like to have a chat. We’re quite selective though as it’s important the members are comfortable with each other. The key criteria are not onerous but all members do satisfy them. You’ll also need to be able to get into London for our monthly meetings. You can see the basic membership criteria here>>>

STAND OUT advice from Spencer Wright of Dains

During the judging process for the upcoming British Accountancy Awards I spoke with fellow judge, Spencer Wright who is the Managing Partner of award winning accountancy firm, Dains. Later I mentioned my conviction that partners need to create a powerful professional impact so that they STAND OUT from the crowd. I asked Spencer what advice he gives colleagues in the firm  as to how they can progress and develop themselves within the profession. I was delighted to learn that Spencer’s advice accords with my own. Here is the quote he sent for me to use:

Firstly they need to work hard on their relationship pyramid. They need to forget their contacts book which contains 100′s of ‘business card acquaintances’ and concentrate on the 20 or 30 that they can develop into formal and informal friends in business or even better ‘allies’ whether they be clients or professional contacts. This takes work and effort but will pay dividends in a few years. Secondly, I encourage them to really think about what they want to become ‘famous’ for both in Dains and the market. This can be anything but in my opinion everyone has something special that they can develop and exploit. Mine was simply guts and honesty!

With a leadership mindset like that it’s no wonder Dains is doing so well with Spencer at the helm.  This Midlands based accountancy practice was awarded ‘Mid-Tier Firm of the Year’ at the National 2013 British Accountancy Awards. I suspect this is why Spencer was invited to join the judging panel for this year’s awards. I’m inclined to say it’s a huge honour, but as a fellow judge, I would say that wouldn’t I? ;-)

“How we can grow our ‘social authority’ on twitter?”

I was approached recently by the marketing manager of a smallish firm of accountants who asked me: “How can we grow our ‘social authority’ on twitter?”  This followed my recent blog post in which I explained why it was UNsurprising that 10% of the largest firms have no twitter account.

Here is an extract from my reply to the marketing manager:

What are you hoping to achieve through being on twitter? This needs to be more specific than simply to ‘grow the firm’s social authority’. Who with? With what end-game in mind?

Have you achieved any of those objectives to date?
Have you taken any advice from anyone about how to use twitter effectively for the firm (and how credible was the person giving the advice)?
Do you have many clients who use twitter? Are they among your ideal client types?

I notice that while the firm has 2640 followers, you are following almost as many people. Who typically follows who first?

Does your account follow people who then follow you back; or do you simply follow back those who follow your account first? Or is there little overlap between your followers and those you are following? It’s quite easy to build up random followers by following loads of people who then follow you back.

Do you know how many of your followers are among your target audience? ie: the audience you want to influence in some way?

A quick look suggests that your followers include dozens of businesses keen to market TO you or that are simply fellow accountants.

A quick look through the firm’s tweets in recent months suggests you have fallen into the same trap as many other firms: There’s barely any interactions/conversation; they are largely self promotional or tweeting news items.

On the plus side there are a handful of tweets that mention Manchester (where you’re based) which is always a good idea; and I did see one RT.

The firm has a great looking website by the way. Love the branding, look and feel. That’s another big plus as when people click through from your twitter account, if the website doesn’t engage them it’s all been a waste of time.

My quick and simple advice to firms of accountants like yours is to review what you hope to achieve through being on twitter and then to determine how realistic that is.

Often firms start out with wholly unrealistic hopes based on misconceptions as to what is achievable. This is typically due to misleading generic articles and tips about how to use social media generally and twitter specifically. It also follows from some third parties who offer to run accountants’ social media campaigns for them. This makes little sense to me – even for the biggest firms, but certainly for smaller ones.

The question has to be what is the opportunity cost of the time (and of any money) invested in twitter? That comes back to your objectives, whether these are realistic and whether there are more effective ways to secure the desired outcome.

As head of marketing for a smallish firm (the ‘team’ seems to comprise just one director and one associate, per the website), what are your priorities?

I have been active on twitter for over 7 years, I have been advising accountants to understand what are realistic objectives when it comes to twitter for almost as long. Much of my advice from some years back remains just as true today. You can access more of it here>>>>