Lessons for accountants from ……a sales training expert

During a recent dinner with my old friend, Andy Preston, I got to thinking about how some of the principles he mentioned are more widely applicable.

Andy is a sales training and cold calling expert. He speaks at conferences and training courses for very large companies all over the world. Our dinner took place in Cape Town, South Africa. I was on holiday. Andy was in the middle of a hectic series of talks.

I was impressed that he kept referencing the benefits of STANDING OUT and assumed he was referencing my work in this area. I was amused later to realise that Andy is the creator of the STAND OUT selling system. Its purpose is to help sales people stand out from the competition, close more deals, and win the business – even when selling at a higher price!  This clearly dovetails nicely with my own work on how Accountants can STAND OUT from the pack.

When it comes to applying the experience of sales people to accountants, I must admit I have always known two conflicting ‘facts’.

On the one hand, accountants generally do not like to operate as or to be considered to be in ‘sales’. On the other hand, it’s hard to build a service based business, like accountancy, if you don’t do any selling!

One of Andy’s firm beliefs is that, these days, it is no longer appropriate for sales people to base their presentations on the ‘features’ and ‘benefits’ of the products they want to sell. This is a traditional approach that no longer works (if it ever did).

These days most purchasers do their homework online before they start shortlisting vendors. The purchaser typically already knows which products suit their needs and uses online comparison sites which invariably focus on the features and benefits, as well as the costs etc. Sales people who do not build rapport with prospects are unlikely to survive in the 21st century. (And it’s one of the reasons Andy is so busy). Who’d be a professional sales person?

The lesson for accountants, I would suggest, is that it is now more important than ever to STAND OUT in ways that prospective clients understand will benefit them.

You’re an accountant so they know you can do the work (or at last they assume you can). In what way will engaging YOU, rather than any other accountant, ensure that the client gets what they want and need (and more)?

As Andy suggests, a great deal hinges on the extent to which you are able to build rapport, to engage the prospect and to get them to know, like and trust you. This does not mean talking about yourself though. It requires effective questioning techniques, evidence that you’ve been listening to them and convincing responses to their questions about how you operate (if they ask).

A failure to execute these key ‘sales’ skills, will mean you don’t win the client, just as it means the salesperson fails to make the sale.

[If you think it would be good to improve your skills in this area, take a look at something I produced recently for accountants. Perhaps it could help you too? Full details here>>>]

10 shocking mistakes that frustrate your clients

During my annual networking ski trip I asked a number of my fellow entrepreneurs and business owners to talk to me about their accountants. I have since written 3 articles for AccountingWeb by reference to the notes of those conversations.The first article has been published and has already stimulated much online discussion.

By way of summary and especially if you don’t have time to read the whole thing I have summarised below the 10 mistakes which were identified as frustrating by my interviewees:

  1. Working too close to deadlines – regardless of when clients supply their information;
  2. Charging differing (time based) fees each year even when the work done is substantially the same;
  3. Failing to offer business focused advice to business clients;
  4. Taking an unreasonable amount of time to respond to client enquiries and to follow up after meetings with them;
  5. Refusing to provide regular advice sought by clients;
  6. Omitting to provide the most basic piece of advice sought by clients as it’s not embedded in the accountant’s standard procedures;
  7. Delegating work to junior staff who cannot communicate effectively with clients;
  8. Failing to make the client feel that their views and desires are important;
  9. Taking on a client even though it will become obvious the accountant has no relevant experience of that business sector and is unwilling to close the gap;
  10. An absence of processes such that client feels the accountant is disorganised and making it all up as they go along.

When these sort of issues come up during mentoring conversations I stress that what matters is the client’s perception, as their perception is their reality.

The skill comes in learning how to help clients to recognise that you are doing your best to help them, that you’re on their side, and that you understand and want to help them succeed in their business.

The language you use in conversations, emails and forms/checklists all contribute to your clients’ perceptions. How confident are you that your clients aren’t harbouring unspoken frustrations that could mean they are ready to move to a new adviser any day now?

7 reasons you don’t get enough referrals and recommendations

We would all like to secure more referrals and recommendations to provide our services to new and ideal clients. Most advice, articles and blog posts on this topic focus on what you need to do in this regard. Below I have referenced 7 examples that could help explain why you don’t get as many referrals and recommendations as you would like.

  1. You don’t look the part. Your image doesn’t match what people expect from someone in your line of work and your personality isn’t sufficiently strong to overcome this negative impression. Perhaps your online persona and profile doesn’t reinforce the real you either.
  2. Your message is muddled. When you talk about what you do, it’s not easy enough for people to understand or to recall when they meet others who could benefit from your services. You sound just like every other person in your field such that no one is inspired to want to know more or to think about engaging you themselves.
  3. You talk too much. Most people will find you more interesting if they perceive you to be interested (in them). When they asked you ‘what do you do?’ they didn’t want your life history, business CV or a list of all the services you provide. You need to be listening more than talking so as to build rapport.
  4. You are indiscreet.  Are you talking about current and past clients and what you have done for them? Would they be happy to know you’re talking freely about such things?
  5. You do not inspire confidence. There can be a fine line between confessing your inexperience and evidencing your relevant expertise if the two don’t match up exactly. You cannot expect people to be impressed by your qualifications unless they understand how these benefit them.
  6. You don’t keep in touch. So what if you gave them your business card? Why should anyone  you meet keep you in mind  during their busy life?
  7. You’re only interested in what you can get. You take advantage of others’ goodwill and offers of help but do nothing in return or to encourage a culture of reciprocity.

Regular readers will recognise that this list is the antithesis of the 7 fundamental principles I normally reference. They form part of an easy to recall framework from which you can pick and choose the principles that you want to adopt. And of course, the more you work on these the more likely you are to be remembered, referred and recommended.

Should accountants outsource their facebook activity?

I recently wrote an article which posed the question: Should accountants be more active on facebook?

I concluded by noting that every survey I have seen about accountants’ use of social media suggests that facebook remains a minority interest. This comes as no surprise to me and I don’t see this changing very much.

Sure, there are some accountants who could secure valuable business benefits from becoming more active on facebook. Those who are best placed to do so are those willing to focus on promoting a specific niche service, to a distinct group of facebook users.

In order to keep the article to an acceptable length I removed the following section. This addresses the issue of whether it is worth paying someone else to set up and/or manage your practice’s facebook activity.

It’s easy to find people to whom you can outsource your facebook related activity. They tend to be enthusiastic as to what you and your practice could achieve through facebook. I remain cynical about this for the vast majority of smaller firms of accountants.

If however you are tempted then, before agreeing to commission such a service I would encourage you to do a little research of your own. Those who offer such a service tend to be excellent sales people. Their blogs and articles talk about all of the potential (theoretical) benefits of being active on facebook.

I would suggest that you first speak with previous clients who outsourced their activity 6 months or more ago. You are interested in those whose objectives and ideal clients are similar to yours.

This is the same approach one should adopt when considering any form of new marketing activity.

I would ask those who have used the service to explain the demonstrable financial benefits they have secured and which can be directly attributed to their outsourced activity on facebook. Do they feel that the fees they have paid and the time devoted to discussions with the consultancy have been warranted?

Almost every time I have asked accountants about this they simply repeat back what their marketing consultants have told them. Few have won much, if any business, through facebook. But they ‘believe’ that having a facebook page helps them to stand out, shows they are modern and that it will, at some stage, prove a worthwhile investment.

If that’s good enough for you, then go ahead.

Back in 2011 I wrote a blog post intended to reference  ‘Examples of good facebook pages for accountants’.  I invited readers to post links to such pages. Despite the many comments on that blog post, which has also become one of the most popular I have written, I am still waiting ;-(

The 5 things clients want from their accountants

I first used this list when training staff in practice almost 25 years ago. It’s evolved a little bit in that time but hasn’t required much change.

I still use the same list occasionally during mentoring sessions when working with accountants who have recently started their own practice.

In my experience, these are the five things that clients typically most want from their accountant. I’d encourage you to keep these five in mind whenever writing, phoning or meeting with clients. You can also reference them when speaking with prospective clients to help show that you are focused on their priorities – in general terms at least.

As you will see there is an easy way to recall this list:

A = Advice – More than anything clients want Tax Advice.  It’s the primary reason most clients go to an accountant. A is NOT for Accounts and it’s not for Answers  – See: Do you just give clients Answers or do you give them Advice?

B = Barrier – Clients want their accountant to act as a Barrier between them and HMRC, to protect them from hassle, from challenges and from problems.

C = Compliance – Accountants need to deal with all of the Compliance paperwork and processes so that clients can relax and be Confident that everything is being dealt with properly.

D = Dates – Accountants need tp make sure that clients know when they need to do things and when the accountant will do things, when tax needs to be paid and when refunds can be expected.

E = Estimates – Accountants aim to provide estimates of the tax payable and repayable and update these as and when the information changes.

Does anyone care to try to improve on the above?

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

Are you quoting myths or facts to support your advice?

Here’s a question: How confident are you of the validity of the stats you quote to clients and prospects in support of your views?

Misquoting stats and research can undermine your credibility. Here’s a common mistake I spotted again recently:

“Effective personal communication is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and only 7% content of the words.”

This is simply not true. It’s based on a complete misreading of the 1971 research undertaken by Professor Albert Mehrabian. Indeed my 2007 blog post debunking this myth is consistently one of the most popular pieces on this site.

Some years ago I heard a speaker at a seminar on business skills for accountants misquoting the research and stating the 7% statistic as a fact. Sadly it was a key part of her presentation and slides.

I was a fellow speaker at the event so professional courtesy ensured I didn’t point out her mistake publicly. Instead I approached her quietly and privately later in the day. I asked if she knew the origin of the statistics she was using. She confessed she didn’t but that they were well known to presentation skills coaches like her.

After we spoke she told me that it didn’t matter if she was using the stats inappropriately during her presentation skills coaching sessions. She said audiences liked them and they helped prove her points.

In effect this lady, who had seemed impressive, but for this error, was telling me she was actually quite unprofessional. At least that’s what I think of someone who quotes stats or research without first checking the facts and the origin of these. Even more so if the person knowingly continues to misquote the stats or research because “it doesn’t matter”.

Another common example is when people attribute a popular Marianne Williamson quote to Nelson Mandela. It starts:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure….”

Mandela  is often referenced as having included the full quote during his 1994 inauguration speech, but this didn’t happen. He didn’t say it, he didn’t write it and it wasn’t written for him. (Here’s the debunking piece).

These days there is no excuse for failing to check first before referencing stats, quotes or research. It’s invariably easy to trace online the original and to ensure you both give credit and get the references correct. And it’s especially important if you are going to build a presentation around the stats or research in question. And, if you get it wrong, to acknowledge this and to avoid repeating the mistake.

Failing to do so means you risk damaging your credibility and, in so doing, standing out for the wrong reasons.

What do you think?

Pricing for profit – who’s charging what?

At this week’s meeting of the Inner Circle, members shared their approach to pricing 6 specific client situations.

A variety of distinct entrepreneurial approaches became apparent during the round-table discussion.

In a clear sign of the times, none of the members referenced time-based fees or timesheets.

Most members quoted monthly fee rates, or annual fees – typically to be paid monthly. They also shared their views about how to deal with clients coming on board close to their accounting date or who leave part way through the year.

One member said afterwards that he now had the confidence to increase his fees by at least 25% almost across the board.

As ever, members shared freely what worked for them, what they’d tried and what lessons they’d learned through experience. This all means that everyone around the table moves up the learning curve that much faster. Everybody wins.

I have just sent the follow up notes from the meeting to all members, including those unable to attend due to pressures related to the 31 January deadline. The notes include a summary of the discussions, the key learning points noted by members at the end of the meeting, plus links to all of the services and facilities we discussed – plus links to related blog posts and articles. Copies will also be added to the members’ online archive for the benefit of future members.

If this sounds like the sort of exclusive group you might like to join, you can see more of what it’s all about here>>>

What are your top skills and expertise?

The top ranked personal skill or expertise on my Linkedin profile is currently ‘strategy’.  It has been moving up the list over the last year.

I am flattered that hundreds of people have endorsed me for ANY skills and expertise on Linkedin. Until recently ‘Accounting’ was top – presumably by reference to my background in and knowledge of the UK accounting profession.

The reason for this post though is because of the question in my mind since I started considering why hundreds of people were endorsing me for ‘strategy’. As I admire so many other strategic thinkers and advisers, I am quite thrilled anyone should feel this word is relevant to what I do.

After I comment on this below I share some lessons that may be of use to you re your Linkedin profile.

Do I do ‘strategy’?

I have not, to date, referenced ‘strategy’ as a skill, topic or expertise in any of my online, author or speaker profiles. So why does it appear to be so popular among my Linkedin connections?

It could be simply a function of Linkedin’s algorithm such that it is the most often promoted skill when anyone visits my profile on Linkedin. Or it could be a down to the impression people get through much of what I write about, speak about and share. Or, most likely, a combination of these two reasons.

This has caused me to reflect on the impression others get from what I do.

I frequently find myself debunking over-hyped ideas and forecasts about the speed of impact of changes on the professions. I also tend to discourage anyone from chasing the latest fad without first thinking about their target audience and focusing on ways to engage with them.  And I always encourage my audiences to clarify what it is they wish to achieve; then I recommend having a plan rather than just experimenting with new ideas all the time.

Hmm. And what is business strategy all about? It’s about identifying your objectives and creating a plan as to how you will achieve them.

So, yes, perhaps I should reflect on how others see my advice as being strategic. If you agree by all means add your endorsement to my Linkedin profile

How much importance do you place on the endorsements you get on your Linkedin profile? Remember, that endorsements are very different to recommendations.

The skills and expertise on your Linkedin profile

When Linkedin introduced their endorsements facility in 2012 I saw it as a bit of a game. I determined that it wasn’t important to get loads of endorsements. I have however long maintained that it was key to only accept onto your profile endorsements for skills you really have and which you want to promote. (See: What I like about Linkedin endorsements – October 2013)

Linkedin asks visitors to your profile, with whom you are already connected, to endorse you for a range of skills. Some of those skills may already be on your profile. Others are on the profiles of people who Linkedin thinks are a bit like you. In theory people who know you should only confirm you as having skills you really have. But, in practice, many users think they are helping you if they confirm you have skills as suggested by Linkedin. There’s no guarantee that they really think you have those skills.

Over time though it seems that Linkedin stops asking about random skills – especially if you haven’t added new ones to your profile even after people confirm you have them. This is certainly true in my case. I don’t recall the last time I had rejected the addition of a new skill that someone had endorsed me for (prompted, no doubt, by the Linkedin algorithm).

I would encourage you to reflect on the top 5 skills/expertise currently showing on your profile. Do these reinforce the message in the summary of your profile and in your profile title? Or will these skills/expertise confuse your message?

My advice is to delete any reference to skills/expertise that you do not have or that you know are not relevant to what you wish to be known for. And then, maybe ask some of your close connections to visit your profile and to endorse you for just 3 or 4 skills/expertise that you genuinely feel are relevant and justified.

This will serve three purposes.

  1. It will help you to understand what people really think you’re good at;
  2. It will encourage Linkedin’s algorithm to focus more on those popular topics when it invites other people to endorse you; and
  3. It will enable you to revise your profile to better reflect what you’re known for which should make it easier to achieve your business or career objectives

So I suggest this is a sensible strategy to pursue ;-)

My PIPs for 2015 (That’s my Plans, Initiatives and Promises)

This is not intended to be my New Year Resolutions. Instead this is simply the last in a series of four inward facing blog posts. Normal service will be resumed next week!

The first two posts in this series referenced the growth in popularity in this blog and website each year. The third post referenced my 2nd place in a recently published top 50 chart. This fourth post in the series simply focuses on what you can expect to see from me in the coming year.

Background

I have posted almost 600 pieces here since I first started blogging in 2006. Over the last few years I have never once even considered predicting how the blog would develop or what I might choose to do with it. I wasn’t sure which paths my portfolio career would take. I was ‘finding myself’ I suppose and waiting to find some clarity too.

I am delighted by the continued increase in readership of this blog. We have now hit a new high of over 32,000 visitors each month since August 2014.

Going forwards I have more specific plans than ever before. This makes it much easier to anticipate the direction and focus of the blog. It will also be interesting (to me, at least) to look back in a year’s time to see how things have turned out.

If you have not registered to receive email updates from this blog please do so using the sign up form to the right.

Plans

This website and blog will get a makeover shortly to make it easier for readers and visitors to find what they want. This will be the first update for two years and the first major revision to the site since its launch in 2006!

The new look site will also better promote:

  • My availability as speaker, author, facilitator and mentor;
  • The Inner Circle for accountants; and
  • My ebooks and related products. I will shortly launch my first audio product to help accountants who want to get more work, referrals and recommendations. It will focus on a fundamental prerequisite that is rarely addressed in sales or marketing texts and courses.

Initiatives

I invite commissions to share my advice and insights in regular columns for online and hard copy magazines. This seems especially relevant given my recent showing as number two in the top 50 social media commentators for Accountants as voted for by readers of Economia magazine.

Unlike most other commentators and advisers to the profession much of my advice is aimed at the thousands of small practitioners rather than multi-partner firms.

I also invite invitations to speak at conferences and at in-house events and away days for larger firms in 2015. As a Fellow of the Professional Speaking Association I have a passion for this activity and always give of my best – energetically, enthusiastically and entertainingly.

Promises

I am committed to starting and running a second Inner Circle for Accountants in the Spring.

You can be assured that, in all my activities, I will retain my independence and integrity. I will continue to challenge and debunk the hyped up marketing messages that bombard you every day. And I will continue to blog and write about real-life, practical and commercial issues that matter to you.

I conceived the acronym ‘PIPs’ for this post. I believe that they are more than glorified New Year Resolutions. But maybe time will be the best judge of that.

Mark Lee voted 2nd for social media influence in #Economia50

The monthly finance magazine for accountants, Economia, has just published their annual list of:

“the top 50 most influential sources of finance news and information in social media, voted for by economia readers and ordered by Leaderboarded and Klout”

This year I am ranked 2nd – just one off the top spot.

I’m thrilled and amazed. Last year I was ranked around 20th, which was astonishing enough. The precise rank moved around a bit as one’s klout score varies. Mine has been quite consistent around 78 (out of 100) for most of 2014 and that clearly has a major impact on this year’s ranking. Few other people in Economia’s top 50 this year have such a (relatively) high score.

In previous years the top 20 places in the Economia top 50 have been largely populated by well-known journalists, economists and broadcasters. Many of those famous names are nowhere to be seen in the latest top 50 list. As such I can’t help but wonder whether I really have jumped from around 20th to 2nd in just one year.

There are also quite a few new names on the latest list – some of them seem to have pretty low klout scores, relatively few followers and only very limited activity on twitter.

Maybe my continued objectivity and cynicism about social media (and this top 50 chart) is part of what qualifies me to be so highly rated in this field. I understand the limitations of social media. I do not see it as a panacea or as an essential part of every accountants’ marketing activity and I do not believe that all accountants NEED to be on twitter. Equally I am well aware of what can be achieved if social media is approached with an informed perspective.

Having said all that, I am extremely grateful to those who voted for me this year. Thank you. I am delighted that my contributions, tweets and posts are considered to be of such value and interest. And I will continue to help spread the word about how useful social media can be to those accountants willing to take the time to understand it. That means both as regards the opportunities it presents and also the limitations as to what can be achieved if you don’t really understand the medium in question.