- Specialising is key to success in the future - build niche clients or areas of expertise.
- Business planning workshops help accountants adapt to changing business needs.
- Collaborating with other service providers can help firms to diversify.
By Alexandra Johnson
The tenuous future of traditional accounting has been well postulated by accountants, industry organisations and the media. The message is clear: accountants must diversify their services and add value to the businesses they serve. But how do compliance-focussed accountancy practitioners respond on a practical level to this advice?
Brisbane FCA, business coach and writer Scott Charlton has devoted his career to exploring this question. He has developed a cornucopia of business techniques, systems, articles and books to help accounting firms and financial planners realise their potential and diversify their services.
Charlton’s enthusiasm for accounting and business is palpable, but he has learned his lessons the hard way. “When I started out, there were very set ways in which you entered the profession,” he says.
After graduating, he worked for both large and small accounting firms. “And I think while I was learning a lot, it felt a bit like a straitjacket. The focus was very much on doing the ‘work’ as opposed to contemplating the client’s needs and applying all the knowledge I’d accumulated more constructively.”
Offering holistic services
It was not until he opened his own firm that he realised he could make up the rules, “and that it was up to me to set the direction of my business, which is both exciting and a bit a scary at the same time”.
Charlton understands well why many accountants fail to offer holistic services to their clients.
“Ensuring that the tax and other compliance deadlines are met for each and every client, along with reacting promptly to other client requests, is a demanding occupation. Combine this with juggling staff issues and a complex suite of technology, it’s hard to be strategic on a day-to-day basis.”
As a result of being time-poor, Charlton says accountants do not devote enough attention to developing robust, repeatable services that address client requirements. He says effective solutions require the development and investment of software systems.
“And it involves venturing into new and unfamiliar territory. All of this requires taking time away from tax deadlines and other pressing issues of the day.” Additionally, he says, accountants are loath to appear pushy, or to be seen as pursuing their own agenda at the expense of the client.
“And many lack specifics about how to market additional services. This results in any additional capability becoming a best kept secret.”
Charlton says specialisation is a key to success and that there are a number of ways to approach this. “It could be as simple as doing more of the work you like to do, for the clients you like to work with.”
He says a client niche can be vertical, defined by a particular industry, or horizontal, focussing on clients with similar issues across a range of different industries, such as privately-owned businesses. Accountants can also concentrate on a particular area of interest, such as business valuations.
But he warns that specialisation should be authentic. “Regardless of how the area is identified, the overriding criteria is that there needs to be a genuine professional interest on the part of the practitioner.”
Authenticity, he says, is borne as a result of having a vision for your business. “There is an overabundance of accounting firms with bland ‘me-too’ value propositions. These are reflected in websites that show bullet-point lists of services, which are identical to everyone else, and well-intentioned waffle about giving personal service.
“These firms are full of earnest, hardworking practitioners who are working hard but with their eyes closed.”
Among other services, Charlton offers practitioners a two-day breakaway business planning workshop to set higher aspirations and clarify their goals. He helps his clients to get their business ready for the changing modern business environment. This includes practical steps to diversify accountancy practice services, advice on how to adopt effective technology and how to articulate new services to clients.
Crucially, Charlton believes accountants must collaborate with other service providers. “My long-standing goal is to increase the extent of collaboration between the accounting and financial planning professions, which is an area of focus in two of my books, The Bold Accountant and Partnering with Accountants.
“Clients need the input from both their accountant and their financial planner, and it’s far better that clients get this input in a coordinated manner.” Charlton is clearly a busy man, but seemingly has boundless energy. On a personal level, how does he achieve this?
He puts his own advice into practice – specialisation.
“I’m inspired by the world in which I live in as a business coach specialising in accounting firms, financial planning firms and multidisciplinary firms. The more I focus on this group, the more I discover there is to do.”
He says in the day-to-day interaction he has with practitioners, he realises how much he knows about them. “The more that I delve into this, and the more I put pieces of the puzzles together, the more I feel compelled to share it. I’m a writer, I’m a facilitator, I like to conduct forums where these concepts are shared. I find that extremely rewarding to see how this assists practitioners.”
Read more from Scott Charlton at acuitymag.com