Category: Newsletters

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Successful proposals

Proposals that are well written, focus on the prospect’s real needs and are professionally presented are most likely to be short-listed for further consideration. But while your proposal must be good enough to move your firm to the next stage of the selection process, it is rarely the sole determining factor in the choice of a service provider. Here are some factors that are particularly important in determining which firm wins the competitive proposal battle:

Being well prepared for interviews and visits
Do not view management interviews or site visits as information-gathering exercises. Consider this an opportunity to demonstrate your firm’s commitment and enthusiasm for the engagement.

Differentiate your firm
Ask penetrating questions during interviews or site visits and raise issues that only someone with a thorough knowledge of an industry would know. Selecting people to attend the interview or visit is equally important. Prospects tend to be impressed by the presence of highly qualified specialists or senior partners.

Having the right team
The success of your proposal is often dependent on whether the prospect believes that you have put forward the right team for the engagement. A bidding firm will spend a lot of time selecting the best people for the core team but will frequently ignore the prospect’s wider needs in terms of specialist support or the level of professional staff required to service other geographic locations.

Thoroughly prepare your presentation
The quality and impact of the presentation is always an important factor in the selection process. When you make the short list and are asked to present before a selection committee, it is important to think through, prepare and thoroughly practice your presentation. Remember that prospects often base their selection on a firm’s style and performance during an oral presentation.

Build relationships
The firm that is selected is often the one that has developed the strongest personal relationships with the prospect. Start early in the proposal process to develop personal relationships with as many members of the prospect’s selection and/or management team as possible. Developing these relationships well in advance helps you get to know the prospect, and also enables you to understand their needs and interests, which can be of value in the development of a truly client-specific proposal.

Set fair and reasonable fees
If your fees are too high, you may be out of the running because the competition is quoting lower and promising a lot more. On the other hand, a quote that is too low could suggest that you don’t really understand the dimensions of the job. While it is rare for fees to be the sole factor in the selection of a service provider, your firm’s fees must be credible in the eyes of the prospect.

Actively demonstrate your commitment and enthusiasm
Client feedback and debriefing surveys show that two of the most important factors in the selection of a service provider are commitment and enthusiasm. Be sure to demonstrate these two key traits by paying careful attention to:

  • The questions you ask during management interviews and site visits.
  • The quality of your proposal document.
  • The performance you give at the oral presentation.

A firm that can demonstrate its commitment and enthusiasm throughout the proposal process will greatly improve its chances of winning the engagement.

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Marketing in a down economy

When the economy sours, a firm needs to modify its marketing and client development activities to deal with the new realities. When business slows down, accountants may tend to hide in their offices, ignore the outside world, and hope that business will improve. However, consider this an opportune time to put some extra effort into your marketing and client development activities. Here are a few things to consider when the economy is in the dumps.

Add value
Show your existing clients that you really care about their business by adding value wherever possible. In some cases, it is the little things that matter, like responding to email and telephone calls promptly. In other cases, you may have to give a little on fees, swallow some expenses or provide a “freebee” or two. When things are slow, clients look for greater value from all of their service providers. Do not give them a reason to find a new accounting firm because you are reluctant to bend a bit on your fees or services.

Reconfigure your services
A service that sold well in an expanding economy may not do as well in a down economy. Look at your service offerings and see how they could be changed or repackaged to make them more attractive in this situation.

Upgrade or develop a website
If your firm has a website, spend time thinking about how it can be made more effective and take steps to upgrade it. The key to making your website interesting and attractive is the quality of the information you provide. If you don’t have a website, set one up and be sure to add your website address to your letterhead and business cards. A web presence is not limited to the large players that can invest a great deal to promote their firm on the web. A relatively simple site can offer a little history, a list of services provided, and an email address and telephone number for direct contact.

Keep in touch with former clients
Do not just call past clients looking for new business — send them something of value such as a report, survey results, an article of interest or other information, and then follow up to discuss it. You will get a much better reception than if you simply telephone to prospect for work.

Attend to your prospect list
A down economy is no time to forget about your prospective clients. Just don’t spend a lot of time trying to sell and persuade. Instead, spend most of your time providing information — hands-on material that your prospects can really use. These types of activities will keep your name in front of the prospect and also help communicate the value that you offer.

Broadcast your message
When business is slow, you need to get your name, your message, and your ideas out there for prospects and clients to see and hear. Giving a talk to a professional or industry group or conference at least twice a year will spread your name around and start generating some very good leads in short order. This may be the highest leverage marketing activity you can undertake in a down economy.

Renew your marketing efforts
Marketing during difficult economic times is always tough. But cutting back on your marketing efforts is the opposite of what you should be doing. When things are slow, use the time to review and re-energise your marketing efforts. While the suggestions above may require some creative thought, effort and money, they will help ensure the future growth of your firm.

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Beware common drawbacks of split testing

Firms must be aware of the common drawbacks associated with split testing if they are to improve the success rate of their email marketing campaigns. Split testing can provide firms with valuable information that can improve email marketing campaigns, but only if it is correctly carried out.

A split test is a simple way of determining what kind of email will produce the best results from a firm’s audience. It involves dividing an email audience into two separate groups (A and B), and sending two different versions of an email to the two randomised groups.

Below are three common mistakes associated with split testing that firms should understand before creating their own split test.

  • Making sure your list is random

One of the most common mistakes of split testing is dividing a contact list in half, and using those two halves as the A group and B group. The problem with this is that one half of the list will be made up of older subscribers, and will perform in a mediocre way compared to the newer segment of the list. A better option is putting every second name in a contact list into one group.

Once a firm’s contact list is split in two, firms should then check each half of the list. If one half has a majority of something, like Hotmail addresses, then a firm may experience email deliverability issues with that half of the list. This will then impact on the end results of the email test.

  • Only test ONE variable at a time

Testing more than one variable at a time prevents users from determining the impact each element has on a campaign’s performance. The only way to determine if a specific variable is the reason behind a change in email results, is to test that one variable by itself.

  • Don’t overanalyse

If the split test was set up correctly, then the end results are the results. The value of a true random split test is that the results are typically quite conclusive.

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The need to plan for growth

There are many reasons why firms must have an organised plan for growth. The buoyant economy has concentrated accountants’ minds on ensuring that a firm’s own management, growth and profitability are not left unplanned.

Accountants must now, more than ever before, commit to retraining themselves and be prepared to market, sell and deliver a new range of value added services. Partners should accept the importance of providing services that are needed by clients and prospects. Accountants need to be committed to developing a range of new niche services, and to serving clients in key industry sectors.

A firm’s success and future must be the number one priority. Firms must ensure that they look after their best client – their own practice. Some of the reasons why a firm must ensure firm growth include:

  • To survive; the first objective of any business is survival. Firms must ensure that the they are not left with problems that threaten their ability to survive and continue in business.
  • To develop the ability to serve larger clients, which are usually more profitable, and provide a greater opportunity of fee growth. Believe that clients have a ‘fee flexibility’ that equates to one times the fee they currently pay for their existing annual services.
  • To ensure that firms are able to keep up with the effect of inflation.
  • To provide resources for the development of new firm services that are required to enable the firm to keep up with the changing and challenging environment of the technology era.
  • To be able to serve more clients, thereby broadening a firm’s client base and lessening the dependence on key clients.
  • To increase partner income, as well as capital.
  • To provide a greater challenge to those partners who are currently under-utilised.
  • To replace clients lost by attrition.
  • To enable a firm to upgrade their client list. Plan to serve larger clients and provide a wider range of services.
  • To provide continuing professional challenges and greater recognition for the members of the firm.
  • To enable the partners to direct and control the future as much as possible.
  • To enable the partners to maximise the potential from their specialist expertise in tax and commercial advice.
  • To keep up with the competition.
  • To upgrade technical training and competency; to cope with increasing complexity.

The biggest challenge firms face is one of no growth. Planning to ensure that a firm meets challenges without flinching, and builds on its reputation to develop a highly skilled and professional firm working with clients is what is needed to succeed.

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The advantages of meeting with clients

Clients are more prepared to pay for what they can see and hear compared to that which they do not. How much of the work that you do at your desk can be delegated?

You become a producer as well as a consumer of available chargeable time
When you remain at your desk to work, you consume part of the available backlog of chargeable hours that either yourself or another person has sold. When you work in the client’s office, you still consume the backlog of sold hours, but you also potentially produce additional backlogged hours for the firm’s chargeable hours volume. You have a much better chance of recognising additional service opportunities when you are in the field than when you work in your office.

Clients are usually partner-friendly
Research shows that clients cannot normally see as much of the partners as they want. They value your experience and ideas. They welcome the opportunity to discuss business problems with someone they regard as able to guide and advise them to keep their business on the right path. Clients appreciate a partner who is accessible, understands their business, is reliable, responsive and empathetic.

You communicate creatively and profitably
Clients require proactive advice delivered with conviction and insight that reaches the root of the needs of the business. Today, clients do not want to hear:

  • “Your sales went up/down last year”
  • “Your profitability has increased”
  • “Your tax liability has increased”

Technology has probably delivered this information to the client ahead of your presentation of financial statements. Today clients require advice on how to:

  • Improve operating margins or stock turnover
  • Reduce expenses
  • Maximise the return from expenditures, both capital and operating
  • Provide a financially secure retirement

Clients expect their accountant to bring something to the table that contributes to the improvement of the company and their personal financial picture.

An opportunity to request payment of an outstanding account
Clients are normally prepared to pay an outstanding account during a face-to-face meeting. The credit control systems adopted by some firms do not secure payment as effectively as the personal request of a partner.

An opportunity to help your clients with additional services
Every business has problems. Your role as a partner is to identify those services you can provide that will solve the problems of your clients.Your meeting time with clients is an opportunity to listen and understand where you can probably help. It is essential that clients see your services as meeting their needs and producing tangible benefits for them.

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Why do businesses consider changing firms?

Businesses rarely solicit proposals from other accounting firms just to gain some small additional service or higher level of service. Rather they usually consider changing accountants because they perceive their current firm to be failing in their delivery of services or because of factors relating to the business itself.

Over 90% of changes are made because the prospect is unhappy with the service they receive from their current firm. These situations present accountants with a golden opportunity. Even though you might have failed clients in a similar way in the past, the point is that the prospect is unhappy now and is looking for a new firm. If they don’t sign you they will sign one of your competitors!

Problems that cause client dissatisfaction include the departure of a partner, a change of partner responsible for the client’s affairs, or the sudden loss of a valued staff member or a key part of a department. Mergers of national firms often provide clients with reason to worry that costs will increase and service standards will fall. Such changes also affect the staff, often causing morale to fall, which in turn causes service standards to drop even further. In other cases, client dissatisfaction builds up over time in response to an accumulation of minor irritations.

To take advantage of these situations you need to know when a prospect is becoming dissatisfied. Obviously if their current firm is aware of any problems they are not going to make them known, and so unless the prospect approaches you directly you have no way of knowing that an opportunity exists. This is where a key strategy of prospecting comes into play – be proactive in seeking information by:

Talking to prospects
Accountants should have a ‘hit list’ of key prospects whom they would like to sign if the opportunity arises and talk to them from time to time. Though they are unlikely to disclose their dissatisfaction directly, you can listen for telltale signs such as hesitation in their voice.

Using the profession’s grapevine
Like it or not, when a firm is having problems with its clients, rumour and gossip abound on the profession’s grapevine. Keeping your finger on this pulse is a sure way of identifying prospects. Make sure all your partners and staff keep up relationships with other accountants through social and professional networks and report back any opportunities they hear of.

Looking for businesses who need to change auditors
Though some companies are not inclined to change accounting firms it may become apparent that they need a new accountant. These situations are fairly easy to recognise but can be difficult to negotiate.

Even though this predatory approach is common in other industries, it is still comparatively rare in the accounting profession, and many accountants balk at the idea of taking clients away from other firms. But there really is no way to prospect actively for business without being predatory because in most cases for you to win new clients someone else has to lose them.

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Building a referral network

Accountants simply cannot wait for referral sources to contact them – they are the ones who have to actively build up their own network. No matter how sophisticated or outstanding a firm’s services are, people will not recommend them to others if they do not know about the firm.

In every industry, there are certain influential people who can be powerful market makers for you. Firms should research and identify the prominent decision makers in their local community and the industries they serve. The reference list should include clients, friends, bankers, solicitors, heads of professional associations, and those involved with specific industry groups.

Firms then need to plan the most effective means of getting them into their corner. Not surprisingly, these people can be difficult to contact. Firms need to be alert to opportunities to meet them, and seize them when they arise.

Even if a firm does meet with a referral source, one meeting is rarely sufficient to create a positive and lasting impression. Firms need to cultivate the relationship over time, by sending regular emails or letters (such as newsletters and various fliers), calling from time to time, or visiting their business. Ask if they will give out your literature with theirs. A co-ordinated program of mailings and personal contacts is essential for maintaining contact with your network.

Often referral sources have publications that would benefit from accounting related articles from a firm. Offer to write these articles at no charge. Freeing the referral from the responsibility of filling that space will help to get in front of his/her entire client/referral base.

Cultivating a referral source is effectively training an external salesperson – firms need to continuously educate him or her about the firm’s strengths and breadth of services. And do not forget to actually ask them for business! Don’t just promise to cross-refer business with them – rather suggest that you form strategic relationships.

Firm’s would do well not to forget to actually learn about their referral source. Referral sources are looking to firms not only for them to do a good job for their clients, but also, eventually, to refer business back to them. Firms need to know the same things about them that they have to know about the firm to refer.

Bear in mind that referral sources also have a reputation to protect. To begin with they are likely to be cautious about recommending a firm. They may be concerned that the firm will perform well for their clients, and the firm needs to reassure them that it will, and that it will be to the firm’s mutual advantage. For example, when in conversation with a banker emphasise all the possible ways they can benefit from an association with you. Explain that you will not charge the client for the initial consultation, you will involve the banker in planning meetings; and you will be able to alert him to potential problems.

By cultivating the people in the infrastructure in this way you influence their perception of your firm and increase the chances they will refer your services to others.

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Closing a sale

Most accountants are poor at sales. They are often not trained in sales skills, and any that they may have picked up will probably have atrophied during the years of technical training prior to their accepting client and prospect development responsibilities. The only consolation is that the competition’s practice development skills are just as rudimentary.

So what do you do when a prospect comes to you for a quote, and then uses your proposal as a lever to gain concessions from his present accounting firm? Here are three possible approaches:

Be frank
Put your cards on the table and explain the situation candidly. Explain that you understand that it is difficult to break a long-term relationship, but point out how your firm that brought tax solutions and advantages to the prospect, not their present accountant. Explain that the prospect will receive everything you offer, and that they are paying for everything you have told them.

Offer a guarantee
If you sense the prospect is close to signing, you can offer him something his present accountant will not – a guarantee. Tell him you will do 90 days’ work for his business. You will send him invoices, but he should ignore them for 90 days. At the end of this period, if he is happy with what you have done for him he pays in full; if not, he pays what he thinks you are worth.

Reverse roles
If the prospect is particularly stubborn, suggest that he put himself in your position. Suppose he is a landscaper who does contract work. He goes to a contractor and makes an offer far superior to a competitor, but the contractor says ‘That’s certainly a good offer, but I feel I ought to give my existing landscaper a chance to match it’. ‘How would you feel? What would you do?’

If these approaches doesn’t convince the prospect, you may have to leave him for a while. Come back in six months, because by then it is almost certain that his satisfaction with his present accountant will have started to wane again.

To protect yourself from your clients soliciting proposals to use as leverage against you, make it clear to them that if there is anything they are not completely happy with they should contact you immediately, and you will take care of it. Remember, it is when the client becomes dissatisfied that he starts to look around for alternatives.

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Getting everyone on the team involved

Most accounting professionals are capable of developing business if they understand the process. Business development skills, like most skills we learn in life, need to be built one step at a time. Here are a few ideas that may help put client development in perspective as well as help you improve your business development skills.

Cross-sell
A good place to start developing business with existing clients is through cross-selling your firm’s other services. Professionals who are good at cross-selling attribute their success to these best practices:

  • They make their firm’s range of services well known to existing contacts and clients
  • They work at developing contacts in other areas of the business because they know that at some point an important problem or issue will arise where their firm can be of assistance.
  • They maintain close personal relations with their contacts to reinforce a sense of understanding and trust.
  • They keep in touch with their contacts even when they are not doing any work for that client.

Network
Once you’ve gained cross-selling experience, the next step is to start honing these skills on new contacts that you’ve developed through your networking efforts. Too often business development activities with new contacts fail simply because they are done in “fits and starts” — one call on a prospect, one get-together with another, and one lunch with yet another prospect. To be successful with new contacts requires both continuity and persistence. You must invest in relationships and continually reinforce your presence and capabilities to ensure that you immediately “come to mind” when people need help with an issue or problem.

If you are not willing to be patient and meet with a prospective client numerous times, your networking and marketing efforts will be wasted. Because of the number of exposures required to move to the selling phase of a relationship, it is much more effective to concentrate your business development efforts on a few carefully selected prospects rather than spread yourself over too wide an audience.

It is also important to understand that a prospect is usually “buying” what a firm has done for other clients. However, even if you have done all the right marketing things to convince a prospect of your firm’s expertise, many professional service contracts are still made on the basis of relationships. Therefore, when the assignment you’ve been chasing is given to some one else, it’s often because of the closer relationship this individual has with the prospect.

Customise
Business development efforts must be customised to the prospective client. That means that you need to know a lot about the person or company you are targeting, and then develop an approach that is geared to meet the prospect’s specific needs. Most prospective clients want to work with a professional who shows a genuine interest in them and is knowledgeable about their field.

Developing new business is important for all accounting professionals. Not only will success in business development lead to increased income for you and your partners; it can also make your accounting practice more rewarding and a lot more fun. Bringing in new clients gives you the opportunity to deal with new challenges and also to work with people with whom you have developed a close and friendly relationship.

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Late paying clients

The importance of successful marketing and selling cannot be underestimated, but it is of equal importance to be paid when you have fought so hard for the business.

Chasing up late-paying clients is probably one of the most dreaded administrative tasks any businessperson has to perform. Unfortunately, some clients see no need to pay, or will create disputes over their bills that will never be resolved unless you insist on payment.

Accounting firms have a tendency to go easy on their clients or adjust their debt chasing policy according to each client. There is nothing wrong with this approach if you are not looking to improve your cash flow position. However, as most of us are, developing a debt management policy – and making sure your colleagues and partners stick to it – is essential.

As with any other policy, it is best put in writing. You should include the following elements:

When an invoice is considered overdue
60 days is common in the accounting world. Your letter of engagement should state your payment terms, so that clients have a clear understanding of your policy from the outset. State on your invoices that the amount is due within 60 days of the invoice. Consider offering a small discount to clients who pay within 10 days. For new clients or annual invoicing, it is wise to call the client just after you have sent the invoice, both to ensure that it has been received and to answer any questions they might have.

Collection methods
A ‘good guy, bad guy’ approach can be very effective, making the managing partner the ‘bad guy’. Alternatively, someone in administration can deal with chasing up debts, thereby keeping the partner(s) at a distance, and allowing them to maintain a ‘good guy’ status. You should also include a clause in your policy that deals with whether, and when, you will charge interest on late payments.

Accepting partial payment
Some money is better than none, so partial payment can be a good alternative, as long as you have a clear plan for taking payment of the outstanding sum. Set a maximum settlement period for the sum overdue, and if you do arrange for the client to make payments in instalments, obtain written agreement to that effect.

Partner support
Whatever your policy, it must be supported unanimously by every partner, or it will not succeed.

Speedy invoicing
The managing partner should put rules in place so that work can be billed quickly. Ensure that partners are prompt in supplying the details needed to prepare invoices. Emailing invoices can also be an effective way of speeding up the payment process.