Why didn’t someone tell me?

Mar 29, 2018
Eamonn Leahy reflects on the things he wishes he had been told before setting up an accountancy practice for SMEs.

More than 30 years ago, I set up as a sole practitioner. I quickly went through a steep and unplanned learning curve. What I believed was needed to practice fell short of what was actually needed. I believed that after working in a small firm, and then for three years in the tax department of a much larger firm, I was well equipped to practice. This was not the case. There is more to practice than technical competency. This is a reality experienced by other professionals – in architecture, law and medicine, for example – who set up in practice. Architects, solicitors and doctors like being architects, solicitors and doctors, but they don’t always enjoy the business of being an architect, solicitor or doctor.

In short, I discovered that general practice is where science meets art. This became real when I opened my doors and my art education began. Not unreasonably, I believed that the client wanted me to do simply what they asked. “Please do my accounts, audits, tax and company secretarial work,” they said. They may have innocently asked this, but hidden within those simple requests were more complex unspoken needs. Identifying and delivering on those needs is the secret to practice growth and professional satisfaction.

Unspoken needs

Many SME clients are isolated or go through periods of isolation. They look to their accountant for a safe space. They want their accountant to be an audience listening to their concerns, an advisor pointing out choices available, a confidant to share the burden of commercial life and a referrer of trusted service providers in a world where identifying others is a difficult task. Their isolation springs from the fact that there is often no-one they can open up to about the business and the problems arising. In different times, the person they confided in may have been the bank manager. That is a role that banks no longer allow their managers to fulfil for a variety of internal reasons, and this is the space I had to occupy.

To service these unspoken and newly identified needs, I had to rethink my offering and reorganise my practice. In short, I had to learn new core skills quickly. Four underdeveloped skills stood out above the others.

Client interviewing

Other professions, such as the medical and legal profession, recognise this and offer some training. There is little recognition of these needs in the accounting profession, however, and we as a profession are the worse for that. Face-to-face meetings with clients are the sharp end of service delivery. I needed to understand how to optimise this important moment in time. The client needs to leave the meeting believing they had said everything they wanted to say, that I understood what was said, that it was being taken seriously, and that there was a plan formed or being formed to address the issues. I need to leave the meeting clearly understanding the task to hand and securing an instruction to act.

In hindsight, before I addressed this issue I was overly anxious to get to the point at the meeting. I unwittingly did not allow the client the time or space to tell their story in the manner and at the pace they wanted. In my rush to the facts, I now believe I left some clients behind.

Moving at the client’s pace, taking notes, questioning to round off my understanding and confirming the facts throughout the meeting leads to a better outcome all round. A well-run client meeting will highlight new business for the practice and let the client know we are looking for more business.

Marketing activity

Marketing is an activity I misunderstood and undervalued when I set up in practice. At the time, I confused it with advertising or isolated efforts almost at random. One of the reasons I chose accountancy as a career was the fact that I did not want to work in sales. The bad news is that sales effort is required. The good news is that marketing is not sales as I imagined. The cold sales pitch is not the norm, so out with that dread.

It quickly became clear that my richest source of new business, as for most professionals, were my clients. Marketing covers an enormous area, but the underlying principles are dastardly simple. Find out what the client wants and give it to them. Answering this question involves a lot of reflection, listening to existing clients, and being alert to often coded requests. I had to develop and disseminate a consistent message to a defined audience. The marketing effort had to be embedded into the service experience. After all, the set of accounts and tax return I would prepare will look like any other prepared by a competent accountant. Because the physical output is the same as that of my competitors, the experience had to be different. Once I figured out how to do this, marketing became more routine and ordinary.

Negotiation skills

Negotiation is much more present in my day-to-day working life as a practitioner than as an employee. I found myself charging reasonable fees and then being forced down to lower levels by clients who were better at representing their own interests.

I found myself unavoidably negotiating with service providers and employees. I was weak in this area. This was not healthy for practice welfare. I had to learn to ensure I put forward my interests and the interests of clients on those occasions when I represented them to third parties, including their bank and Revenue.

Learning that negotiation must be conducted in a manner that preserves or, better still, improves relationships was a valuable lesson.

Time management

Time management is the skill that allows me to organise and do more over the course of the day. When successfully done, capacity, earnings and job satisfaction are increased. Applying lots of little tips allowed me to juggle the breadth of demands put upon me by myself and others. It shapes my day, week and year to my needs.

This became apparent within my first year, when I was fully occupied working but not earning an income greater than the salary I left behind. How could this be? I was managing my time poorly. When I understood this, reorganised within the time available and addressed the issue, capacity increased and profit followed.

Conclusion

For each of the topics above, I sought out books and read. Many of those books are now out of print but for those interested, there are several worthwhile texts available online.

Practices serving the SME spectrum tend to be smaller firms. Smaller firms think differently to larger firms. We are like a guerrilla army without the resources of the bigger firms. We don’t have the manpower or specialists for this, departments for that, deep resources financially or technically. We must therefore engage in asymmetrical activities, taking advantage of our understanding of client needs and our capacity to quickly adapt.

Armed with the right skillset, everything is possible in this space but active learning is at the heart of practice advancement.

Eamonn Leahy is a Director at Leahy O’Riordan Chartered Accountants.

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