How to differentiate your accountancy firm
There’s so much written about how to differentiate accountancy firms. But most of it too shallow to help you stand apart from the crowd. So here’s a deep dive into the problem, the cause and a clear plan to carve out your own special place.
By Patrick McLoughlin
I am not a huge film fan, but I’ll watch anything with Nicolas Cage in. One of my favourites is ‘Wild at Heart’. The best line, he says it couple of times, is when he talks about his jacket. He’s about to get into a fight on a dance floor after he’s told:“You look like a clown in that stupid jacket.”
He replies: “This is a snakeskin jacket and for me, it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.”
You can’t argue with that; you don’t come across too many snakeskin jackets. And if the jacket doesn’t mark him out as one of a kind, his declaration certainly does. If you can bare the language you can see the scene below.
What’s this got to do with growing your accountancy practice? As it turns out, plenty.
Downward pressure on accountancy fees is increasing. It’s not going away.
Why differentiation is critical to accountants
Differentiating yourself, expressing your individuality from all the other firms out there is the key to premium fees. If you can’t differentiate yourself, you leave it to clients and the only criteria they’ll find is price.
Imagine you have a dispute with a supplier. You’ve tried everything to resolve it but they’re being unreasonable – you need a lawyer.
Because this is important to you you speak to three law firms. They all seem alright, but you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between them. They look the same, say the same things, seem decent enough people. So who do you go with? Unless one is drastically cheaper than the others (doesn’t that ring alarm bells) most of us choose the lowest priced option.
That’s why it’s so important to feel, look and sound incomparable.
Is your website creating fee pressure?
Now pull your firm’s website up and look at how you describe what you do and how you do it. Are your claims differentiating the practice? As the league table below shows, most partners list similarities not differences.
Most of the claims fall into the minimum standards clients expect: friendly, high technical standards etc or the self indulgent and unsubstantiated: unique, leading, passionate about etc.
There’s one exception in the list. One claim that’s bullshit free and cuts to the chase: we’re cheap.
Funnily enough, the most common claim made by accountants on their website is that they’re different! The best example I’ve seen is:‘most accountants say they are different but we really are.’
I do understand the difficulty in articulating the special difference you bring to your clients. Back in the late 90s I remember sitting through a design agency’s presentation on getting the ‘we’re different, we’re better’ claim across for the first firm of accountants I worked with.
It was an awful presentation; a presentation they should never have made because the brief lacked substance. How could they encapsulate a message that couldn’t be explained?
What bad looks like
Jim Thompson from the marketing specialists, One Rabbit, has built an excellent mock-up of a terrible professional services firm’s website. It covers so many of the damaging, generalising claims accountants make.
As he says, it will make you laugh, squirm or cry.
So how can you explain the benefits you bring? That depends on what those benefits are. An acountant told me recently me about a meeting with a potential client: “he expected me to help him with cashflow and profitability! I had to explain to him, I’m an accountant I can do your accounts, that’s it.”
If you provide a compliance only service it’s very difficult not to compete on price. Whatever your marketing tactics or the brand consultants tell you, to an increasing number of clients compliance is a commodity.
(For partners looking to increase their advisory work, I always recommend attending an AVN masterclass. I did last year and saw how it opened the eyes of the dozen or so accountants there to the processes and possibilities available. Just to be clear, I’ve no vested interest, there’s no benefit to me outside of knowing I’ve helped you get on the right path.)
Demonstrate don’t assert
If your clients benefit from more than a compliance service be specific. Like Nicholas Cage, don’t tell them about your individualty, demonstrate it.
Shift the spotlight off you, your firm, your pride and passion and demonstrate the difference you make from your clients perspective. Have them explain and make sure they are specific about the numbers; have them compare you to their previous adviser or their expectations.
Where to find your difference?
If you really want to get under the skin of what makes you special you need to look beyond you and your team for answers. You provide the service, you don’t experience it, so how can you explain it?
In part two of this blog, I’ll detail how to discover your perfect client’s DNA and present your firm as incomparable. To make sure you get hold of a copy sign up below to recieve regular emailed tips.