What if you don’t want to go for a niche?

There is no doubt in my mind. The more focused you can be as regards your ideal clients the more chance there is that other people will recognise when they can recommend and refer you to people who need your services. But it’s not the only route to success.

You are not alone if you find the idea of focusing on a single niche or target audience too limiting. Perhaps you feel it’s too early in your career to choose a niche? Or maybe you don’t want to be restricted to one target audience? You might also be concerned about alienating existing clients who do not fit that niche?

I have seen how referencing a niche or specialism can be a successful strategy for many professionals I know, be they accountants, lawyers, financial advisers, speakers or whatever. I have also shared insights and ideas, as to how you can identify your niche, in numerous blog posts and articles over the years. But I also accept that not everyone is comfortable with the idea.

There are many reasons for resisting the advice of those who would have us be more focused than feels comfortable. Not all such reasons stand up to scrutiny but many do so in my experience.

However, I have also worked with plenty of successful professionals who run practices or businesses that have a pretty generalised approach. Others appear to have a focus that is, in reality, very non-specific. Many years ago I was a partner at BDO when their focus was on ‘Growing Businesses’. It felt like a specialism or niche but in reality it was little more than a simple a way of saying we’d deal with any clients who could afford us.

The modern equivalent is probably claiming to specialise in SMEs. Those who claim this focus probably feel they can tick the box of having identified a specialism. Except that they haven’t, as over 99% of all businesses in the UK fit this definition. So the claim to be specialising doesn’t really mean anything.

It is clear to me that many professionals don’t want to limit themselves to a niche. Even if they understand the logic and potential benefits of doing so, they are reluctant to do so. This is typically a mistake but it’s a common one and, in many cases, it is possible to compensate for this by choosing to STAND OUT from the pack in a different  way.

Regular readers will know I have identified and reference the 7 fundamental principles that professionals can use to win more work and to be remembered, referred and recommended. No one needs to apply all seven. But it’s clear to me that the more principles you adopt the more effective will be your efforts.

Plenty of general practice accountants, generalist lawyers, financial advisers and those who work in larger firms are reluctant to reference a specific niche. I suggest this means they need to work harder on applying more of the 7 principles. This is more likely to be a successful strategy than claiming to specialise in a whole list of business sectors in which your clients operate. This approach tends to undermine the meaning of the word ‘specialise’.

By they way, the focus of this blog post is on those professionals who do not want to focus on a single niche target audience. Is this you? Do let me know what you think.

 

What makes your practice different and memorable?

Back in 2007 I wrote a chapter for a book (BusinessWise) to help Entrepreneurs with ‘Finding, Choosing and Using an accountant’. I tried to ensure that this was more practical and real-world advice than the generic and incomplete advice which appears on a variety of business and accountancy websites. I explained some of the ways that entrepreneurs could distinguish between different accountants and the sort of things that are worth finding about before appointing anyone.

In this short blog post I am extrapolating a couple of key points from that chapter and from my work with professionals, not just accountants.

The question is what can you do to best highlight the real benefits to a prospective client of engaging with you rather than with anyone else?

Firstly – many of, what we might think should be, the key distinguishing factors are taken as read by prospective clients. For example, whilst many accountants talk about their qualifications and membership of professional bodies, the public are less interested. Specifically they are unaware that anyone can call themselves an accountant. They assume anyone calling themselves an accountant is qualified just as they assume that all ‘lawyers’ (sic) are qualified and regulated by the Law Society.

It matters not if you think that prospective clients SHOULD take more notice of such differentiators. In practice they are often far more interested in personal recommendations and testimonials from happy clients. If you’re going to rely on your qualifications etc you’d best work on ways to explain that they are not all the same and how you being fully qualified benefits the client. Bear in mind that unqualified advisers win plenty of work by highlighting the benefits that their status provides.

Many professionals will claim that their personality is a key differentiator. But this misses the point. You, as a person, and how likeable you are, will often only become a factor after the prospect has agreed to speak with you or to meet you. Until then your personality doesn’t help.

So here’s my top tip: Highlight what makes you different in a positive vein rather than simply repeating all the standard stuff that most prospects will probably take for granted. Remember they’re not experts. When comparing one professional’s website with another they will read into each profile certain material that they think is probably true of all such professionals – even if it isn’t. The prospect doesn’t know. So they assume – unless told to the contrary. It’s well worthwhile clearly stating what makes you different and spelling out how clients benefit from this. Use the ‘so what?’ test. For each statement you make that is intended to evidence your credibility, imagine a prospect responding: “So what?” Make sure you can answer this question effectively.

Feel free to add comments to this blog and to share what makes your practice really different.

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>>>

The Business Hour – Radio interview with Mark Lee

I was delighted to be invited onto Margo Manning’s radio show: The Business Hour on HCR. There’s a recording here if you are interested to hear the interview.

Margo started by asking me to comment on a couple of news related issues. We then moved onto talking about how businesses, business owners and professional advisers can STAND OUT from the pack. And the value of having more powerful conversations.

You can find key elements from the interview using the time index details below:

  • 0.00 – 01.45     Music
  • 01.45 – 04.38   Introduction by Margo.
  • 04.38 – 08.00  Discussion re Duke of York’s recent suggestion that British Businesses need to be less polite, more competitive and embrace the Chinese market. Should we be more pushy or assertive?
  • 08.00 – 18.08   Possible differences between an employee mentality and a professional mentality.
  • 18.08 – 18.52    How to be more assertive without being pushy in sales
  • 19.00 – 20.15    The 7 key principles that can help you to STAND OUT from the pack
  • 20.15 – 44.58    How to have more powerful and impactful conversations
  • 44.58 – 49.00   Adapting the principles to online conversations
  • 49.00 – 54.59    Adapting the principles to networking events
  • 54.59 – 57.52     Final tips and thoughts

The free materials referenced at the end of the interview are available here>>>

5 lessons on collaborations from….Tony Bennett, Sting and McFly

Those of us who are of a certain age were surprised recently to see the classic American crooner, Tony Bennett, performing alongside Lady Gaga.

They started singing together in 2011 and, despite a 60 year age gap, they have recently released an album of jazz standards, ‘Cheek to cheek‘. They also appear together in the H&M holiday advertising campaign.

Similarly Sting has teamed up with and performs live alongside Paul Simon (of that classic duo, Simon and Garfunkel). And for less mature readers there is a new pop rock ‘supergroup’, McBusted who have been touring and recording together. McBusted is made up of most members of two boy bands; McFly and Busted.

What lessons can we draw from these unexpected collaborations?

  1. However long established you are, you can still ring the changes and find new audiences by collaborating with someone from a different generation who has their own fans, contacts and clients;
  2. You can also reach new audiences by collaborating with someone of  a similar age  as you will each attract your own fans, contacts and clients. In so doing they are exposed to a wider range of work and activities than if they only came to see you;
  3. Your collaboration could well be newsworthy and generate positive PR – possibly more so than anything you have done alone;
  4. Longer-term collaborations develop over time and are built on friendships and small steps before the big reveal of a full scale collaboration;
  5. Although I am unaware of the specifics I would expect that, in each of the cases identified above, the performers’ managers were involved in the financial negotiations. I recall from my days advising professional firms on their merger negotiations ,that this topic, more than any other, could scupper a deal. In the simplest cases you may be able to identify a simple split of income and expenses. But ‘normal rates’, differing perceptions as to relative value and distinct past experiences may all need to be considered.

I have been fortunate to have been invited to collaborate with a number of providers of complementary services and presentations over the years. None have become permanent partnerships, nor was this ever the plan. In each case we were simply looking to secure those benefits set out at points 1 and 2 above. A number of my friends in the world of Professional Speaking have also been embracing the idea of short-term commercial collaborations, for the same reasons.

Who do you know and who knows you well enough to be happy to collaborate with you to reap similar benefits for your business?

 

Proof that positive first impressions are not enough

At a recent private networking lunch, one of our number was a chartered surveyor.

After we’d spent a few hours together the group sought feedback from each other. Having heard me talk about the importance of STANDING OUT from the pack, the chartered surveyor, who was new to the group, asked what we would remember most about him.

He was surprised that two people (and then the rest of the group) spontaneously referenced his introduction to us. He had said he was a male stripper, before admitting he was joking and referencing his ‘real’ profession.

He then asked us to amplify our answers as to what we thought we would remember about him. Our views were all pretty similar. He had created a good first impression. We thought he was professional, fun, likeable, distinct and memorable.

I made some notes at the time as somehow I knew the conversation would be the basis for a blog post. This is that blog post but it’s not turned out to be what I had in mind at the time.

Two months have passed and I can now say with certainty that creating a positive first impression is not enough. I remember the conversation. I don’t remember the individual. Had I met someone who required the services of a chartered surveyor I might have dug out this guy’s business card. Now he is just a distant memory and will be quickly replaced in my mind by the next chartered surveyor I meet.

I vaguely recall that he told us, when pushed, about some specific type of work he does. But he spoke in language that makes more sense to property professionals than it did to me. I thought I followed what he said when we met but I can’t recall it now. So there isn’t much chance of me referring anyone to him.

In terms of the 7 key principles you can adopt to STAND OUT and to be remembered, referred and recommended, what did this surveyor do?

He tried to be clever and witty initially when referencing his business activity – but that simply detracted from what he really does. When he talked about his business he was insufficiently specific and distinct.

That still leaves 6 other principles any of which he could have adopted to help him STAND OUT. The classic one of course is the 6th principle: Follow up.

As I type this blog post I remember that I did send him a quick note and asked to connect with him on Linkedin. I don’t recall if he agreed. I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember seeing any form of follow up from him. If that was a conscious decision on his part it’s fine. And yes, I’m aware that his memory of me may be equally as fuzzy. I could have followed up better myself but chose not to do so as this was an experiment to facilitate a blog post ;-)

I suspect that he hoped that somehow his first impression would carry him through. That is, he hoped he had done sufficient on the day to secure referrals from a varied group of business professionals who enjoyed his company for 4 hours. If I’m right then he was wrong.

How often have you done something similar and hoped it was sufficient – possibly after spending much less time with a new acquaintance? Even if you STAND OUT somehow when you create a first impression, it’s not always enough.

 

You’re hosting a professional Networking event. What outcome do you want?

I was recently invited to attend an evening reception hosted by a top family law firm in London. When I arrived I realised that this was the first time for ages I was at an event where I didn’t know or recognise a soul.

No matter. I’ve been attending networking events for long enough to feel quite comfortable striking up conversations with strangers. I endeavoured to practice what I preach so I made a point of listening carefully, taking note of people’s names (especially those without badges) and applying the 4 suits approach to powerful conversations.

This blog post is part of my promised follow up to a conversation with the managing partner, Gavin Scott. I was particularly taken by his response when I asked him what did he hope to get out of hosting the reception/party?

I should add that the guests were quite a disparate group and went beyond the normal range of attendees at professional business networking events hosted by lawyers and accountants.

I asked for and obtained Gavin’s permission to note down his reply and to incorporate it into a blog post (with attribution). He explained that his primary motivation was to make valuable connections for his clients. He explained:

“I am keen to build relationships with other professionals who can help our clients do things that we cannot help them to do ourselves. We do our utmost for our clients but there is a wide range of areas where we cannot provide help in-house. So building good new connections makes me happy”

Clearly elements of Gavin’s reply are a consequence of his practice being a family law firm rather than a full service law firm or accountancy practice. But, at it’s core, Gavin’s reply told me he is a client focused professional and I was impressed.

The firm, of which he is Head of the London office, is the largest UK family law firm so has a high profile and a powerful brand in its niche sector. The lawyers working there can rely on that to a degree in their efforts to STAND OUT from the pack. This is but one element of the STAND OUT principles they could be using of course. Nevertheless Gavin’s attitude also makes him STAND OUT in my view.

Do you agree?

Do you focus on just one approach to STANDING OUT?

Have you noticed how many so-called experts try to convince us that there is just ‘one secret’ to doing something well? I have become more aware of this since formulating my Framework containing the 7 fundamental principles that can enable professionals to STAND OUT from the pack.

What I have realised is that most other people seem to focus on only one or two of these 7 principles. Regular readers will recall that the 7 principles start with the first 7 letters of the alphabet, so as to make them easier to recall.

Yes you can choose to ensure you STAND OUT by wearing outlandish clothes, an extrovert nature and an over the top approach to your business branding and messaging. But there are other, less extreme, ways to achieve a more long lasting and positive impact.

In my framework ‘Appearance‘ includes how you look and present yourself face to face and also how your profile presents you online. Is your image consistent, relevant and memorable? Do you have charisma, create a positive impression and invest in yourself? There are many other factors that can apply here too including some that are otherwise addressed as personal branding.

Business messaging and branding covers a range of typical marketing focused messages and how you present your business as compared with your competitors.

Beyond these two headline issues my framework goes on to emphasise the value of 5 other fundamental principles that can enable you to STAND OUT positively from others who do what you do:

Conversational impact
How well do you listen and tailor your conversation so that the person you are with feels engaged and interested? How good are the stories you tell about the clients who have similar issues to the person you’re with or to people they know?

Dependability and trust
How much effort do you put into evidencing this so that you STAND OUT from those others who do not do this?

Experience and Expertise
How tailored and relevant is your reference to your credibility or do you simply repeat the same relatively meaningless assertions as to how ‘qualified’ you are?

Follow up
Do you do this routinely and regularly? And do you ‘follow up’ BEFORE you meet with people too?

Giving and sharing
Those of us who adopt a giving and sharing mentality tend to STAND OUT positively as compared with those who are more stand offish. No one is suggesting you give away your IP or your ‘billable advice’ but adopting a helpful, caring and sharing approach will pay dividends if you want tow in more work, be remembered, referred and recommended.

Do you focus on one of the above or on something completely different?

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 7 fundamental principles 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 seven fundamental principles are easy to recall through a simple acrostic. Each of the principles 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 principles, 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.

Many professionals rely on a brash personality or strong business branding to STAND OUT. These can help but they are not right for everyone. And effective business messaging is often a struggle for advisers and speakers who have yet to find a niche; and for those who are happy having a wide range of clients across a number of business sectors.

A good understanding of the 7 fundamental principles makes it easy for anyone to STAND OUT from the pack.

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.