Book review: “The Digital Firm” by Will Farnell

Book review: “The Digital Firm” by Will Farnell

Book review: “The Digital Firm” by Will Farnell

The three themes in this excellent book are ones I wish for every accountant to take on board. They are:

  1. Give information freely
  2. Always ask, “What does the client want?”
  3. Share your mistakes, too

1. Give information freely

This message we’ve long been fans of at PF (#generosity is one of our pillars. I know Will personally, and this isn’t simply something he says: he has always been willing to give and share.

It’s a critical message for marketing as well as the other aspects of business. People can get information anywhere: it’s implementation and direction that they pay for. Accountants can be concerned that if you give too much away, no one will work with you…but the opposite is true. The more you give away, the more people want to work with you.

No one has time. And those who do, don’t have your expertise, your knowledge, your personality. As James Ashford says, you could literally give someone the blueprint to a process you’ve created, and by the time they copy it and try it and figure out how it works for them and adapt it…you’re six or twelve months ahead working on something else that they don’t know about yet.

Here’s some of the great information Will shares in this book:

  • He tells his story. Most accountants are a paradox of wanting to do something new and disruptive, but wanting to know that someone else has already done it so they know it works. (Hint: if you’re truly disruptive, no one else has done it.) Will shares enough of his story that you can be encouraged that what you’re doing in building a digital firm is a good thing.
  • Fees and pricing. This is a hot topic for accountants. How much do you charge? What process do you use for charging? How much is too much, or too little? Do you use packages or tier levels? Do you track your team’s time in order to determine pricing? “Where clients were not paying the right fee,” Will shares, “we explained this to them. We also told each client that, for example, we might bill them £250 for the month and put a discount line on the invoice, which would bring it down to £175 for that month. That set our expectations, but also added hugely significant additional fees straight on our bottom line. After a year, we went round a second time, and in many cases removed the transition discount.”
  • Staff and hiring. What accountant right now isn’t interested in recruiting the very best team members you could possibly have? Whether you’re growing rapidly, or you’re hiring your first recruit, you want to get this right. Will shares what worked for them (and what didn’t!) so you can plan your own recruiting process. “Initially, when Will and Frances were recruiting before I started,” says James Kay of Farnell Clarke, “they were so busy that they waited until the last possible second before hiring. That’s why some of the people weren’t a great fit. Will and Frances were desperate. Now we look ahead instead.”
  • The ten elements of a digital firm. I love this wheel. I saw it first when Will presented at Accountex, and it not only makes perfect sense, the centre of this wheel is absolutely spot on: the client experience. It’s all about the client – it has to be.
  • Marketing. Out of eleven chapters, Will dedicates two of them entirely to marketing. This is incredible in a book being written to accountants. I firmly believe that marketing (like cloud accounting) has to become completely central to the entire firm – you can’t simply delegate it and forget it, or hire a marketing person and leave them to it, or try the latest marketing fad and wait for it to solve all your problems.

Will very kindly asked me to write one of the two marketing chapters for him, so I did. I won’t bother reviewing my own chapter… you can tell me what you think once you’ve read the book.

2. Always ask, “What does the client want?”

Right from the outset in chapter one, Will makes it clear that this book has not been written based on what you want and what you need and what will make you happy in your firm. Granted, if you follow the process and structure Will identifies you will likely get all those things, but that’s only if your focus is entirely on the client and what they want. Will’s focus from the start of his journey has always been the client, and it’s evident throughout the book:

“Since my firm’s early days in 2008, I’ve constantly asked myself, ‘What does the client want?’ It’s worked for us, and it’s still working – our client retention is incredibly high.”

“If you’re updating [bookkeeping data] regularly, you’re also in regular contact with the client. This is where you can start building relationships.”

“Firms that spend more time with clients and less time with spreadsheets generate between two and eight times more revenue per employee.”

“People look for an accountant to mirror themselves.”

“We saw a potential new client recently. They have an incredibly manual process for sales invoices. We suggested they get their developers to integrate directly with xero. That will take a significant chunk off our quoted bill, and…we did ourselves out of work but equally we’re in for the long haul.”

“With GoProposal we can be consistent and systematic, while at the same time accommodate different characters and their needs. After all, people are different and we want to serve them.”

3. Share your mistakes, too

This is something I see far too infrequently. There are millions of success stories shared by people and companies – but without the mistakes, the stories have a fake feel to them. There’s nothing more de-motivating than reading yet another “This was a little hard and that was a little hard and then i became a millionaire by doing these five things! And you can too!”

It’s not realistic, and it’s not real life.

The only thing that works is consistency, and persistence, in the same direction for years on end. With mistakes and fails and

So Will shares plenty of mistakes, and I encourage you to make sure you do that too in your marketing – the whole story, ‘warts and all’, as Kev Anderson puts it in my recent Traits guide.

“Never settle for staff who aren’t quite right”

“Will and I had a strategic planning meeting together outside the office. We examined what we wanted, particularly our weaknesses and instantly knew we couldn’t fill the gaps. Will knew James from some of our socials, and suggested is peak to him before he invited him to join the company. As James is my husband he wanted to make sure it was right.’ Frances Kay (Co Director at Farnell Clarke)

“The right staff at the right time make for a successful firm, and our growth is in no small part a result of this. We’ve learned from our mistakes. Some have been costly, some not, but they’ve all given us valuable opportunities to rethink what we’re doing and how we do it.”

“When you think you have mastered the process, realise that you need to add to it.’

“Only once have i taken on a client that i had ‘that feeling’ about, where, despite thinking I shouldn’t take him on, i did. It was a nightmare. He was a process consultant so very protective in terms of his own processes. We tried to make his process fit with ours, but it didn’t work out. We’ve learned from our experience and i hope that, by sharing this mistake, you can benefit too.”

To get a copy of Will’s book, go here.