Darren Fleming is a speaker, trainer and mentor to senior leaders

In an era of increasing automation, evolving AI and software that can do many compliance-based tasks, accountants need to broaden their suite of services and adapt their marketing approach to remain profitable and relevant.

But accountants have generally seen selling as a dirty word. They would rather let their work do the talking than talk up how good it is. Without new business, however, you go out of business.

Without proper training, accountants engage in data-focused conversations

For too long, the accounting profession has occupied a Utopian world where no selling was required. Complex taxation law and well-resourced offices ensured that all you had to do was to open your door and watch business roll in year after year. Being profitable was easy. That’s all changed. Now, accountants need to bring in new business – or more business from existing clients – just to stay afloat.

Widen the conversation

Without proper training in how to generate new business, accountants engage in data-focused conversations. This sees them list how many partners their firm has, their capabilities and how many similar clients they work with. The aim of this style of conversation is to show the potential client how good they are and create a connection. Unfortunately, it rarely does, and things start feeling awkward.

How many accountants would advise their clients to give their products away for free?

To overcome that awkwardness, many accountants try to give their services away. They offer to ‘have a look at the books’ to see if there is anything that could or should be done differently on a try-before-you-buy basis. This sees the accountant doing a heap of work in the hope that they will get paid some time in the future.

This approach sets you up on the back foot from the beginning of the relationship. There is no connection, there is no value in the work and there is no reason for the client to move. After all, they can just take your work back to their existing accountant and have them take action on it. How many accountants would advise their clients to give their products away for free?

All about education

The reluctance to sell is an industry-wide problem. Accounting education focuses primarily on technical skills, leaving little room for teaching the art of selling, influence and client acquisition. Young, ambitious professionals often lack the knowledge, processes and experience needed to generate new business. To counter this, they resort to observing more senior colleagues. But if the person they are modelling wasn’t taught either, how can either be successful in marketing the services their practice offers?

Bridging this gap is crucial for accountants to transition from compliance-oriented professionals to successful business advisers.

Solve problems

To build a connection with your potential clients, don’t try to sell to them. When you’ve just met them, you have no way of knowing what they need to buy or if you can provide it!

Instead, open with questions to find out what problem they have. Get them to unpack their concerns in great detail for you. Ask them about the impact and how serious it is. Is it a big issue or a small one? How long have they had it and what would it mean to them if it went away? Ask them how serious they are about fixing the problem.

Resist the temptation to solve the issue for them. Tell them that you can solve their problem and that you have done so for many other clients, and leave it at that. Give them a rough guide as to what it would cost. Then ask the final question: ‘When would you like to get started on this?’

More information

Visit ACCA’s Practice Connect hub for advice and articles to support SMPs