I was interested to read the results of the PracticeWeb survey of owners of small and medium-size businesses about what SMEs want from accountants. The survey drew on the insight of quantitative and qualitative data with 100 survey responses and a series of more detailed interviews.
The survey found that above everything else, SME clients want and value professionalism. Other important qualities were honesty, reliability, experience and integrity. Interestingly, professionalism was 5x more important than an accountant being forward thinking.
Having said that, as always, research is about segments and when you look deeper into the data it revealed an opportunity; those respondents who did value forward thinking tended to have a turnover above £1m per year.
This highlights the importance of having a deep understanding of your ideal client and PracticeWeb recommends building your firm’s messaging and marketing around a buyer persona.
But, whatever target market you want to engage with it’s important to be professional. But, what does this mean?
How to define being a professional accountant?
The ACCA published an article of what it means to be professional and suggested there are seven key attributes:
- Reliability and accountability
- Honesty and integrity
- Respect for others
- Professional image
Interestingly, the article states a true professional plans in advance and would never turn up to client meetings unprepared and do what they say they are going to do on time.
David Maister, the world’s most respected consultant to professional firms, argues in his book True Professionalism that being a professional is an attitude which results in a commitment to self betterment and dedication the best and most efficient service driven by truly caring for your client.
I asked a number of people in the accounting profession how they would define professionalism:
Steve Pipe founder of AVN and accredited with over 500 LinkedIn recommendations believes there are three main things; honesty, integrity and putting the needs of others first.
Mark Wickersham author and professional speaker believes being professional is always acting in the client’s best interest with mutual trust, mutual support, mutual respect and mutual integrity.
Damion Viney, the first accountant to be awarded the Fair Tax Mark, believes being professional is all about integrity. For Damion this starts with doing what you say you are going to do. The next level is doing things the way they are meant to be done – doing things the way others would expect even if you didn’t say you’d do it. And, finally, being true to yourself.
Paul Miller of Cornish Accounting Solutions who have been named as one of the SmallBiz100 for 2910 says being professional is always having your client’s interests at heart. For Paul that means being prepared to walk away and being true to yourself and you values.
Paul Barnes Managing Director of My Accountancy Place said professionalism is about empathy, emotional intelligence, the ability to find answers as well as standards and honesty.
Rob Brown of the BD Academy and his view is that being professional extends beyond obviously acting ethically. He sites five skills that make a modern day professional:
- Strong technical knowledge
- Solid technological knowledge
- People skills
- Commercial acumen
- Selling skills
His take that technical skills around compliance are no longer sufficient because Cloud accounting has changed how accountants operate. The bar has been raised and accountants are expected to have good understanding of technology.
Commercial acumen, people skills and selling skills are perhaps the elements that distinguish the client facing professionals.
People skills are perhaps the most important and apply to compliance service as much as advisory. The ability to relate to others, be likeable and have empathy are crucial; in their award-winning article ‘How to Lose Clients Without Really Trying’ published in the Journal of Accountancy (May 1992, Vol. 173 Issue 5, p.67-70), August J. Aquila and Allan D. Koltin surveyed thousands of clients who had defected from their accounting firm and discovered the number one reason (67%) was because “my accountant just doesn’t treat me right”.
Commercial acumen and selling skills are the type of things that differentiate one accountant from another. Having sound business sense and the ability to take developments in one industry or sector and apply them to another is hugely valuable. And, the ability to sell yourself, your firm and be persuasive and influential with gravitas and executive presence to impact clients is perhaps what makes a good professional great.
How do to demonstrate your professionalism?
Here are seven practical ways to demonstrate and enhance your professionalism.
Display your credentials
The PracticeWeb research included a question about how important it is for an accountant to be a member of a professional body or institute. The vast majority (78%) felt it was important to some degree with a full 50% considering it very important. So, it makes sense to display your credentials at every opportunity.
Publish your technical knowledge
You can write blog posts on your firm’s website or engage on social media answering people’s questions. You could publish a report on a specific topic or even write and publish a book.
Research from Hinge reveals that obtaining expert status enables you to earn 13x more, helps your firm grow faster and be more profitable.
Look the part
As PracticeWeb ask, “does your digital presence meet the professionalism test?” Do you have an up to date website? Are your social media channels branded, do you have engaging content on your website? Does your office make the right impression? Does your personal brand impress?
Good voice tone
How you say what you say is more important than what you say; Dr Albert Mehrabian understood the importance of how we use our voices. He created the 7-38-55 Rule which states that when communicating with 100% success, the actual words used are 7%, the way we say something is 38% and our body language 55%.
Do what you say you are going to do
Doing what you say you are going to do is crucial to being perceived as a professional. Everything you say you are going to do is a promise, even if it is a small thing it’s important to deliver on your promises. Always doing what you say you are going to do is being considerate and builds social capital.
Publish and refer to your standards and values
Professionals adhere to a strict code of ethics; make sure you make clients aware of your professional bodies’ standards and consider publishing your firms Core Values and service commitments.
Be structured and organised
A professional has a proven process, they are structured and well organised; they do not wing it – they rely on processes, systems and checklists.
How to use agendas to demonstrate and enhance your professionalism?
Here are six ways agendas will help you demonstrate and enhance your and your firm’s professionalism.
Preparing for client meetings
Adopting agendas, which you send out to clients before a meeting, forces you will be prepared for every meeting.
Reference your standards and value
When sending the agenda you can embed your firm’s professional membership and reference your standards and values.
Showing your firm has a proven process
Sending an agenda communicates to the client that you are not just making it up as you go. This can be for potential new client, a pre-year end compliance meeting or an advisory session.
Staying on track
Agendas ensure you cover everything that needs to be covered in the time allowed. They enable you to control a meeting and hold yourself accountable. This is particularly relevant as the type of meetings change to include more advisory content; the agenda support your performance with a framework.
Demonstrating you do what you say you will do
If you use an online agenda (whether you use a Google document or a meeting system like Lean Huddle) you can demonstrate to the client that you do what you say by marking your actions and completed.
Driving a more professional culture
Agendas are not just for client meetings; they are for all meetings and can help your firm develop an unfair competitive advantage.
An unfair competitive advantage is something that your competition can’t buy or easily copy. All firms can partner with Cloud accounting providers, create a modern corporate identity or acquire the same tax knowledge. However, culture is far more difficult to copy and this is why it can be an unfair advantage; locking clients in for life an enabling you to charge premium prices.
Using agendas with internal meetings will improve leadership and management at your firm. This will help rise internal standards, drive performance and improve productivity which will ultimately impact the client with a better client experience.
Research in the Federation of Small Businesses found that a 20% improvement in management has the impact of 65% more capital employed or 25% more employees.
In terms of internal agenda, you can have agendas for:
- Annual strategic planning
- Quarterly management review
- Monthly department meetings
- Weekly management meetings
- Weekly team meetings
- One to one appraisal and performance reviews
Note – LeanHuddle comes with all these agendas included for you to use.
The humble agenda has so much potential, using them is common sense but it is not common practice. Using agendas is your opportunity to be more professional than your competition.
What are your agenda options?
As always, one option is to do nothing and not take advantage of agendas. However, with client valuing professionalism above everything else, and there being a no cost options with Microsoft Word and Google Docs, there is a strong argument to start using agendas, at least for every client meeting.
A client meeting could be with a potential new client, the compliance cycle or a tax planning opportunity like explaining incorporation of a sole trader to limited company. But, a client meeting could also be a video training session on Xero, QuickBooks or one of the Apps or an advisory session.
The benefit of using an online agenda is that attendees can collaborate on the agenda before the meeting. And, there is one record of what was discussed which can act as an audit trial of the meeting.
In terms of the choice between using a free system such as Google Docs or a purpose built system like LeanHuddle, think about the client’s perception of your professionalism. Is it worth paying the cost of a cost of a cup of coffee to enhance your professionalism?