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>>>>

How do you develop the personal and business skills you need to succeed?

Most professional advisers build up their technical competence and experience over a number of years, often also while studying and taking exams.

In some professions the exams and studies endeavour to address related business and personal skills. These are invariably almost as important as the technical skills. There are some notable exceptions – such as the medical surgeon or consultant who has little in the way of bed-side manner. It’s a nice to have skill, but ultimately we simply want to be operated on by the best there is.

The specific personal and business related skills we each need to succeed in our chosen career will vary, by profession, by office, by colleagues, by clients and by ambition. Some years back I set out a dozen key skill sets that most professional firms need to have if they are to grow and succeed. In some cases the skills will be spread across a number of people. In other cases, especially for professionals running their own small practice, this can be more of a challenge.

How does the firm or business in which you work help ambitious professionals to develop key business skills? This is especially important as promotion is likely to depend upon such skills just as much as on technical competence and ability.

There are essentially only four options available to an employer. They will either:

  • pray, hope or make a wish that you magically develop all the necessary skills so they can justify promoting you;
  • send you on a range of generic personal skills courses and pray, hope or make a wish(!) that you pick up and practice sufficient tips to make the time and effort worthwhile;
  • arrange for you to receive personal, tailored mentoring that overcomes the problems inherent in the “courses” approach;
  • recruit someone else who already has proven business skills across the board.

Some employers combine the last two options and arrange mentoring as an additional benefit to attract potential recruits. In such cases the mentor is usually an independent third party; this evidences the firm’s commitment to the new candidate and will be a positive supplement to the firm’s conventional induction process.

Senior experienced colleagues can provide mentoring support. Or this can be bought in from a suitably experienced external mentor.

Mentoring can be equally motivating for sole practitioners, senior managers, directors, junior and established partners where traditional ‘hopes’ and courses have not enabled them to yet achieve their potential or to be as profitable as might be ideal.

 

Ten networking tips for professionals

I developed the following ten tips some years back. The list is drawn from my mentoring programme for ambitious professionals and from my ebook on How to STAND OUT when Networking so that you are remembered, referred and recommended.

1 – Get in the right state, not in a right state. Keep in mind that you want to gain some value and benefit from the time you are committing to attending the networking event. You’ll need to look friendly and relaxed if you want people to be comfortable talking to you.

2 – You will be more interestING if you are more interestED. We have two ears and one mouth so we should aim to listen for twice as long as we speak. The people you meet will be more comfortable talking about themselves than listening to you.

3 – Networking is about starting to develop valuable business relationships; it’s not about ‘getting work’. People buy professional services from people they know, like and trust. You’re unlikely to meet someone who just happens to need your services the first day you meet them. You will need to keep in touch and to demonstrate that you can be trusted. For example by promising to follow up with an email or supplying some valuable information in the next day or so. Then ensure you keep your promise and create further opportunities to keep in touch thereafter.

4 – “What do you do?” Don’t pigeon hole yourself as yet another solicitor, accountant or barrister. Practice answering the question in such a way that ensures you are remembered specifically and distinctly from all of the rest of your profession. This is crucial if you want to eventually be referred and recommended.

5 – Focus on a niche not a list. Even those new acquaintances who are genuinely interested in you will quickly switch off if you try to identify all of the things you do or could do for clients. In the first instance you need to focus on a key area or topic no matter how broad your expertise and experience. I still remember one property lawyer I met many years ago who told me that he had advised on the acquisition of a number of petrol stations.

6 – Flirt as you network
F is for FUN
L is for LAUGHTER or at least having a smile on your face
I is being INTERESTED in what other people have to say
R is RESPONDING to what other people are saying through conversation
T is TALKING appropriately not extensively about yourself.

7 – You’re not alone if you feel alone. There will always be someone else standing alone who will be so pleased and relieved if you just go over and start a conversation with them. The chances of rejection are tiny. Simply introduce yourself, ask them their name and what do they do.

8 – Listen to what people say; don’t try to sell. You can only solve people’s problems or help them make the most of opportunities if you know what these are. That means listening and absorbing, not talking. If you listen well they’ll trust you and if you ask the right questions, you’ll uncover all the clues you’ll need in order to decide if you have something to offer them.

9 – Get the other person’s name and business card. Don’t offer your card until you’ve got theirs; this avoids you seeming pushy. If you didn’t catch their name when first introduced, ask again. No one objects to repeating their name to someone who evidently wants to remember them.

10 – Follow up afterwards. Having given up your time to attend the event make sure it is worthwhile by keeping your promise to follow up with each of the people you met. Even if you think that they may not be the most valuable contact remember that you don’t know who they know who could be interested in what you do.

These are just ten of the many issues that are commonly misunderstood when professionals go to networking events. Most may well be common sense – but that doesn’t mean they are always common practice.

You can get my 10,000+ word book specifically for accountants who want to STAND OUT and Network more effectively. Just click here for full details>>>

If you would like to book me to speak on the subject at your in-house conference or training session, do get in touch.

Twitter tripe re Top UK accounting firms Twitter rankings

I was asked recently why my website, online profile and business card all mention that one of my roles is that of a ‘debunker’. It stems from the years I have spent trying to clarify poorly researched media reports on issues about which I feel quite well-informed.

Sometimes the reports or articles derive from lazy or naive reporting. Other times it is because the data on which a survey or report is based is unrepresentative or starts from a false premise.

It’s been a while since I did any debunking but last week I couldn’t help myself. I saw reference to Top UK accounting firms Twitter rankings.  The report in Accountancy Age quoted Martin De Saulles, marketing lecturer at the University of Brighton and founder of ColdLime, who put together the ‘Firms on Twitter’ research. Accountancy Age reported that he is “surprised” that 10% of the Top 100 Accountancy firms in the UK don’t have a corporate Twitter account.

The inference behind the piece was that firms are missing opportunities and need to beef up their twitter activity if they are to achieve any form of social authority.

I must admit I’m not surprised by the research results. I have been monitoring how accountants and accountancy firms use twitter for some years. Chasing follower numbers is a mugs game. It’s much more important to track and respond to any negative tweets and to engage with clients – if your key connections are themselves tweeting. To be fair the report does reference this facility to use twitter for reputation management. This is a potentially valuable use of twitter especially by firms with well-known names.

I curate a number of twitter lists. One shows all UK accountants who tweet in their own names. Another shows all those who tweet in the name of a UK accountancy firm. I add to the lists as and when I find new names.

At the time of writing there are over 700 accountants on each list. You can follow either or both lists to see the difference in tweeting styles. Those who use the firm’s name are invariably more boring with fewer followers – other than for the biggest firms where name awareness is more widespread. There is also more need to monitor what is being said about the firm so as to be able to respond promptly to limit the damage – especially if the media are monitoring and waiting for negative tweets. It is also clear that only a minority really understand how to make twitter work for them.

Few of the top 100 firms tweet more than once or twice a day and only the top 7 have more than a few thousand followers. I have more followers personally than do all bar the top 7 listed firms – though, as I said above, follower numbers are not worth chasing. How many people will be influenced  by twitter when making their choice of a top 100 accountancy firm?

The research shows that these firms don’t see twitter as a key communication medium – nor do they need to in my view. To suggest that they are (all) at fault for failing to embrace twitter is to both misunderstand twitter and to misunderstand what motivates the firms.  I have my own views as to what it is and what it is not worth such firms doing on twitter. Clarity of focus and of objectives is crucial. Simply being present and posting links to press releases is unlikely to serve any valuable purpose.

What is Mark Lee doing now?

This blog normally contains advice and insights to help readers. Every now and then I use it to share something more personal – for example, so that I have a record of related stats. This time I am answering a question I am often asked: “What are you doing now?”

Since 2006 I have pursued a portfolio career. It took a while to work out what links the various strands. These are best summed up as: Helping professionals who want to STAND OUT and ensure they are remembered, referred and recommended.  

This focus includes advice across a range of topics including elements of marketing and personal branding, networking, social media, reputation management and related practice development skills.

Whilst many of the professionals I work with are accountants and tax advisers, I also work with lawyers, financial advisers, finance companies, consultants, speakers and bankers. Naturally I can adapt my services for others too.

To quote from my Linkedin profile:

ALLOW ME TO HELP YOU BY:

  • engaging me to speak at your conferences, seminars, networking groups, masterclasses, webinars and training sessions;
  • booking me to mentor you 1-2-1;
  • engaging me to write for your publication or blog or to provide strategic consultancy advice; or
  • subscribing for my regular blog posts, articles, podcasts, webinars and newsletters

As indicated on my website and on my bookmark-shaped business card I am a Speaker, Mentor, Facilitator, Author, Blogger and Debunker.

That final reference to being a ‘debunker’ is intended to emphasise that my input, insights and advice are focused in the real world; despite my energetic and enthusiastic approach I am no fan of the hype and empty promises made by so many other bloggers and consultants to the professions.

In addition to the above I also hold a number of distinct professional roles. These include:

  • Facilitator of The INNER CIRCLE FOR ACCOUNTANTS – a select group of smaller practices in London who assist each other in overcoming day to day and strategic frustrations.
  • Chairman of the TAX ADVICE NETWORK – connecting accountants with independent tax experts.
  • Network Independent Director (think Non Exec Director) of Winmark’s TAX DIRECTOR NETWORK – for in-house Heads of Tax in FTSE 350-sized companies.

Some people still approach me for tax advice although I gave up being a tax adviser in 2006.  I shared my reasons here>>>  When asked for tax advice all I can do is direct the enquiry to the Tax Advice Network that I chair. That Network comprises many tax experts who provide advice across a wider range of tax topics than ever I could have done, even after a 25 year career in the profession.

If you would like to see if I can help you, your clients or anyone you know, do explore my website, give me a call or drop me an email and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Getting sufficient support for your practice

The main topic for discussion at last month’s meeting of The Inner Circle was: How do you get the right staff and support for your practice?

The topic had been raised during a number of the conversations I had with members after the previous meeting. Not all have staff however.

We met at The Eight Club in Moorgate, London and members of The Inner Circle again benefited from the willingness they all had to share their experiences and insights during our round table discussion. In accordance with one of our key membership principles everyone agreed to abide by the Chatham House Rule.

During the morning we discussed a range of related issues including:

  • Formulating job specs and people specs; being clear as to what you really need and how to assess candidates’ suitability.
  • Using your website to effectively support your message and what works in practice including related tools and automated systems.
  • Sourcing, managing, liaising with and relying on home workers and other remote workers (either in the UK or overseas).
  • Making interviews more informative and a better filter.
  • Titles and roles that appeal and which motivate – whether or not they are on staff.
  • Inducting new workers effectively – whether or not they are on staff.
  • Motivating the right people to stay with you.

At the end of the meeting everyone shared their key learning points and takeaways. Two observations stood out in this regard.

One member said he didn’t have any staffing issues but he still valued the meeting and had benefitted from some of the related issues we addressed. Another member who had been making copious notes announced that there was so much he would be doing as a result of attending the meeting he wasn’t sure where to start.  We’ll address that when I have my catchup call with him later this week!

After the meeting I circulated to all members my summary of all of the identified key learning and action points. I also shared links to the third party sites mentioned during the meeting and also to some of my blog posts that address related issues.

If you’d like to know more about The Inner Circle, just click this link>>>