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How to build a better practice

Feb 10, 2020
Building a successful practice can be a daunting prospect, but according to John Kennedy, it boils down to one elementary skill.

Have you ever found yourself wondering whether your practice could be more successful? If so, you might be doing all the right work but ignoring the simple steps that could turn your effort into tangible rewards.

At a basic level, successful accountancy practice owner-managers create the following:

  1. A network of high-quality and loyal clients they enjoy working with;
  2. A good income based on reasonable fees that reflect the real value of 
    the work they deliver;
  3. A good standard of living – not just financially, but in terms of doing
    things they enjoy; and
  4. A high-quality retirement as a respected and valued member of the community.
All of this sounds attractive but is often far removed from the day-to-day reality of running an office. A more recognisable scenario might be spending your time on things forced upon you at the expense of concentrating on the critical steps. And when you do get around to thinking about how to build your practice, there are many options, issues and conflicting sources of advice. It is therefore unsurprising that many accountants never get to focus on the steps that are more important before the day-to-day issues drag them back.

The simple truth is that some practices thrive and enjoy more success than most, while many never fulfil their potential. The latter instead get stuck on the day-to-day issues that overwhelm occasional good intentions to invest time in securing new clients or promoting the practice.

In this new series of articles, I will set out the steps you should take to build the practice you want. There will be no theory or abstract ideas, and I won’t advise you to do things you don’t understand or don’t like.

It’s simpler than you think

Achieving success is not complicated. In truth, the key is knowing how to get past the complexity and focus on mastering a small number of straightforward tasks. When you think about it, the single most crucial step in understanding a new client is the conversation you have with them. It doesn’t matter whether they were referred to you by an existing client, heard about you from a mutual friend, or – less likely – found out about you from a branded pen. Almost every client in every practice decides to take their business there because of a conversation with someone in that practice.

The ability to turn an initial conversation into a client relationship is the cornerstone of every successful practice, but this is where many potentially valuable client relationships stop – at the first conversation. Your success in these initial, and often unexpected, discussions will determine whether you get an opportunity to move on to a more substantial conversation. And you then need a series of precise steps that will build trust, deliver value and guarantee a mutually rewarding relationship.

The standard approach is to feel that you need to move quickly, to jump to the things you are familiar with – but this leap takes the conversation onto ground that is not yet comfortable for your potential client. So, building a high-quality practice is about having a clear structure that enables you to move confidently from an initial, casual chat to a trusting relationship. And if one person can do that, then so can you.

Much of the advice about marketing, networking, promotional gifts, websites and digital strategy won’t work for you simply because it wasn’t designed for you in the first place. Most of the existing advice was created to sell products to customers, but you are doing something very different.

Building a successful practice is about building trusting relationships with clients, you need to master the ability to take the individuals you most want to work with through a sequence of specific steps. And, like most things in life, it’s easy when you know how.

Getting the right fit

What criteria do you use to select your clients? For many years, we have asked this question when accountants seek our help, and we do it to reframe how they think about successfully building their practice. When we probe this question, we are almost always told that the key is to get as many clients as possible. “So,” we ask, “you want anyone? Your criterion for a client is that they should have a pulse?” I believe your standards should be a bit more rigorous and for very practical reasons.

To target the whole universe effectively, you will need a vast amount of money to promote your practice – not to mention an infinite amount of time to talk to all those potential clients. In truth, your pool of potential clients is much more restricted than you realise.

Successful practices are built on having a clear focus on a specific, and therefore accessible, group of people. These can be people who share your interests, or they can reflect a specific aspect of your expertise, or who you are as a person. The right people for your practice very much depends on who you are. Building a successful practice is not a task exclusively for extroverts or ‘natural sellers’ or gifted networkers; if you are a quiet, reserved thinker who pursues every issue in depth, there are many clients who are looking for precisely those attributes. If you are excited, engaged and enthusiastic about the fast-moving opportunities of the ever-expanding digital world, there are other clients who want to have an accountant just like that. If a hobby or a specific interest obsesses you, that too can be the basis for building a highly successful practice.

A thriving, fulfilling practice is one that brings together the type of people with whom you most want to work in a way that creates value both for them and for you.

Connect in the right way

For many years, we have been fascinated by the ever-increasing ways in which practice owners voluntarily waste their time, effort and money. We have seen expensive (and cheap) branded corporate gifts and a seemingly endless series of “networking opportunities” ranging from breakfast groups to conferences and sponsored events.

Equally unproductive is the more recent phenomenon of websites and emails that are “done for you”, which say things that are never going to help you build the strong relationships that are essential for a thriving practice. If you find these enjoyable or fulfilling in their own right, then go ahead – but they aren’t central to building a successful practice.

When you cut away the marketing theory, the promotional gimmicks and the pointless pressure of networking, you see a stark reality: every potential new client decides to work with you because you have an effective conversation with them. You get a new client by talking to them; it is that simple. And when you know how to speak to them in the right way, they will want to talk to you again. And by getting good at creating a sequence of steps, you are much more likely to get the clients you want.

Focus on trust

The key is to understand the structure of talking to someone in the right way. Much of the traditional advice is not the right way; it can leave you feeling uneasy – especially the bit where you are told that you need to “close the sale”. You don’t. You need to build a relationship of trust that evolves from both you and your client becoming increasingly clear on how to achieve more by working together.

To talk to a potential client in the right way, you need to understand how to chat easily with them, and this means being wholly at ease yourself. You also need to know how to move the conversation from a general chat to one where they decide to become your client and to ask you to do a specific piece of work for them. When you understand how this works, it’s easy.

The effective conversation structure was developed by examining a vast number of informal chats that evolved into mutually rewarding relationships. By following this blueprint, which is outlined in Table 1, you will create a system that works for you, that helps build a practice that makes you feel good each day and that delivers a steady stream of clients with whom you want to work. In this way, your practice will evolve and grow over time and so will your expertise, your reputation and your rewards.

The structure of an effective conversation

An effective conversation involves knowing how to listen and what to say.

Prepare

First you prepare a clear summary of the value your potential client most needs and a clear message to make sure they understand precisely why you are the best person to help them.

Probe

The most common mistake is to rush to try to convince your potential client of your value. The key to success is to become highly skilled at asking high-quality questions so the client convinces themselves that they really need your help.

Present

It is only when your questions have helped your client get clearer on what they need do that you begin to present your value and set out the way in which you can best help them achieve the success they seek.

Propose

Then – and only then – have you created the firm foundations needed to propose that you work together. 

To download a more detailed overview of The Practice Builder Blueprint, visit  www.insightstrategiesonline.com.
 
John Kennedy is a strategic advisor. He has worked with leaders and senior management teams in a range of organisations and sectors.