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Do I want clients to come to my firm for accounts, or ‘advisory’?

Jul 6, 2018

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This concept of separating “advisory services” from “accounting services” is one I’m not a fan of. (And haven’t been for a long time.)

I used to work in an accountancy firm, myself. That was over 13 years ago, but even then the firm was being told that it was best to separate the two types of services. The reasoning was:

  • They could charge more. If advisory was included with accounting, clients wouldn’t value it or recognise it, so it needed to be separate.
  • It’s more valuable. Clients get accounting and bookkeeping as a grudge buy, but advisory is the stuff that changes their life and business and so they will value it more.
  • It would build better conversations. If you only did accounts, the conversation would be basic and over quickly (or held once a year). When you deliver advisory work, you can really invest in the relationship with the client and help change their business for good.
  • It’s more interesting and fun. It’s the kind of work that is not as boring as accounting or tax, and it’s what many accountants (particularly those who own the firm or are in a director/partner position) really want to do.

Here’s the problem with all of that.

If you’re going to truly advise someone, you need to have the data – the accounting, bookkeeping, payroll, tax, and all.

It needs to be the most accurate it can possibly be, so you’re advising based on the correct numbers reported in the correct way.

You need to have instant access to it so that when a problem or opportunity arises, you can get to the right numbers straight away.

Now, in my experience the accountants who are really excellent at the ‘advisory’ bit are also those who care about all the detail, the cloud accounting, the best and fastest tech that helps your clients have the most accurate numbers.

That’s one part of it. From your perspective.

Now we turn our mind to the perspective of your client.

What is easiest, best, and fastest for them? What will make their search for help the swiftest one it could possibly be? How can you build a relationship with a potential client so that whatever they need you are there for them?

The truth is, it doesn’t matter at all whether people come to you for accounts in the first instance, or advisory, or whatever.

The point is that they come. 

How do you get them to come? How do you build that relationship so they like you, trust you, and will talk to you about whatever it is that they’re dealing with (now and in the future)?

The fact is, most business owners have an accountant already. They have an understanding of accountants and what they do – or, they think they understand.

They may not know exactly what they need. Most business owners don’t say “I have a great accountant, but what I need is some advisory”.

What they really need is funding, or a loan, or fixing a short term cash problem. They need to figure out how to exit the business. To make sense of their numbers. To understand what their profit margins are, and how to get that higher.

To be fair, some people know to categorise this in a little different way. They may look for a financial advisor, a coach, or a mentor, or something else.

But if they’re searching for one, you need to be the firm that appears as the one that can help them with whatever they need in this category. 

And the way to do that is to be an accountant.

Be a really, really good accountant.

A really, really good accountant who is different than they ever knew was possible an accountant could be.

My latest favourite question to someone who is not an accountant is, “Do you have a good accountant?”

Their response always tells me within less than a second whether they need a new one or not.

The ones who need you are the ones who, on being presented with that question, hesitate. They pause. They’re trying to figure out in their mind what a good accountant is, and whether they have one.

When you have a great accountant, you know it. Instantly. “Oh yes, they’re amazing!”

The hesitation, the pause, the confusion as to what a ‘good accountant’ is reveals that their relationship with their accountant isn’t one that is life changing and which is delivering everything they need.

I met someone recently and we got talking about his business, and some of the challenges he was facing. I asked if he had a good accountant.

“Well…”, he said, and thought about it for a minute.

“Hm, sounds like you don’t,” I said.

“Well, I don’t think he cuts corners,” he said, almost apologetically.

“I’m not asking if you have a moral accountant,” I told him. “I would hope and presume that’s a given. What I’m asking is if you have an accountant who helps you with any problem that comes up in the business, makes sure you’re set up the right way so you don’t get any surprises, and without whom you can’t imagine your business at all. Oh, and you really enjoy their company and would spend time with them even if they weren’t your accountant.”

There was a long pause.

“Is that even possible?” he asked me.

I assured him that it was not only possible, but critical. He had to find an amazing accountant, or his business would suffer.

That person needed advisory, for sure. He needed to know how and whether to change the structure of his business, how to best report VAT, and some tax advice.

And the accountant that I sent him to gave him a quote for…guess what…accounting work. Some advisory too of course! But it was all included together in one proposal. Yes, the line items were separated out by what each one was, but my friend didn’t care what category it was called. He cared that he got his problems solved.

If it doesn’t matter how they come to you, then your goal in marketing isn’t to tell people about the accounting services you offer, and the advisory services you offer. It’s to talk about all the things that they are dealing with so that when they search for help – whether it’s using Google or social media or by asking friends – they stumble across your content. A video you’ve recorded, a blog post, your website, whatever.

We’re seeing a lot more accounting firms reducing the number of their ‘services’ pages on their websites in a massive way. It used to be the thing to have a page for every kind of service. So you would get all the benefit of the SEO on the keywords, and people could go to the page that they needed.

But no one wants to take time to plow through forty-seven pages on management accounts, business advisory, payroll, tax advisory, tax planning, VAT, company secretarial, and on and on.

What they really want to know is:

  • Do I like these people?
  • Does this firm seem trustworthy?
  • Is it likely they can help me with this particular problem I have?

So instead of spending time explaining all your services, or whether you do accounts or advisory or both, all of your marketing will be centred around those three questions.

Show them who the people are in the firm. Show pictures, tell stories, include video. Give them everything they need to get a sense of whether you and your team are the kind of people they can connect with.

Tell stories about your clients. Make them the hero. Explain how you help people – human beings, not simply businesses. Tell stories about Becky, who owns a bakery, and had this issue. About John, who wasn’t sure how he would bring his kids into the business. Make it personal, and real, and show some of the things that didn’t go quite right along the way. (As Kev Anderson puts it in our case studies webinar, tell the whole story, “warts and all”).

And write content everywhere about the type of problems they have. Follow the ‘they ask you answer’ principle. Share it in multiple different forms – blogs, PDFs, graphics, video, social.

When you do those things, they’ll come to you…for accounting, for advisory, for whatever. Because they didn’t know it was possible for an accountant to be that amazing, and now they know.