My experience as the prospect of an accountancy firm

accounting firm prospectA few months ago I had an experience of looking for an accountancy firm myself.  It was a fascinating process.

As a marketing consultant to accountancy firms, finding one to assist me with a specialist expatriate tax return issue was strangely challenging.  I personally know more accountants globally than anyone else I know – including accountants themselves.  But I needed to find someone independent, so there were no conflicts of interest, and so I found myself sitting in the prospect’s seat – and let me tell you, it’s a hot one.

It was a fascinating process, and here are my takeaways from the whole thing.  Believe me when I say that these days, I am your prospect.  This is how people search for an accountant, and if you don’t get this right, you will lose business.

Prospects start with Google.

Your website should capture a prospect’s attention – specifically related to the search term they entered – within one to two seconds.  I typed in a variety of different search phrases, but if the accountancy firm website I was directed to did not address those words or phrases, I gave up immediately and went back to more searching.  It’s great to be found quickly on Google – but the next step is just as (if not more) important.

Trust is critical. 

Accounting is a field requiring massive levels of trust.  One firm had a pop up box that appeared after about thirty seconds, alerting me to the fact that this particular issue was fraught with dangers, and to encourage me to choose someone who was certified, qualified, and experienced.  It highlighted how many firms act in a fraudulent manner, and seemed to care about me not falling for that.  It suddenly made me realise how important this was, and I did further research.  It made me trust that firm just that little bit more, too.

A quick response is not critical, not important – it is essential. 

I can’t stress this enough.  When I started entering in forms, filling in questionnaires, and signing up for updates, that was because the issue was urgent, and I wanted to get somewhere with it.  The firm that impressed me the most with its expertise, understanding of the issues, a clear website, a detailed questionnaire, and a live chat function, also sent me a personal email within ten minutes of my filling everything in.  Guess who I wrote back to.

You will be researched on more than your website. 

One of the firms whose site I liked actually responded quickly, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the States.  I googled ways to look up his name elsewhere, and within less than a minute had his CPA registration number, the two states in which he was registered, whether he had any disciplinary or other actions filed against him (he didn’t), and when his certificate was last renewed (a few months ago).  It relieved my mind greatly to know that this was not someone who just built a clever website.

Social media matters. 

For the sites that I liked, one of the first things I looked for was 1) whether they had social media connections, and 2) whether what they posted on their social media channels was relevant, interesting, and current.  Some had the buttons on their site, but hadn’t posted anything in a year.  Some firms’ social media buttons went to the generic Twitter or Facebook site, but not to their specific page, so they were hard to find.  And some posted regularly, but it was all bog-standard, generic tax content which was the same on many channels.  The ones of interest to me were those who had posted within the past week, and seemed to have a bit of a personality.

The wording of your response is very important. 

The response I liked the best was from someone who grasped quickly what I wanted, offered a little information to show he knew what he was doing in this area, asked critical follow up questions, offered to give an initial fixed fee quote if he could, and asked if there was a good time to talk.

Think about how you communicate.

Remember, I am sending out enquiries to accountants in the States as a US citizen living in a foreign country who needs assistance with a US tax return.  One response I got said to call him on a certain US number, and left it in my court.  Another one asked when would be a good time to call me, and also provided a Skype username in case I found that a better way to connect.  Now which one do you think is easier for someone in a foreign country?  He knew it was unlikely I would just pick up the phone and ring a US number, and he also clicked to the fact that I was in a different time zone.  Think about who you’re responding to, and communicate accordingly.  Or give them multiple options (phone, Skype, live chat, Gotomeeting, etc).

Personal recommendation is still powerful, but it’s slow. 

While I was researching things online and receiving emails from accountants who would really like to help me with my issue, I sent out emails to three or four accountants I knew in the States, asking if they knew anyone with this kind of specialty.  I got one or two replies that day saying they would look around, which I appreciated – but by that time I’ve already got three replies in my inbox from the firms who survived my Google-purge.  Granted, if one of those comes back to me within a few days, I am much more likely to talk to someone who has been referred to me than to someone I don’t know from Adam, but it’s all a timing game.

Keep the conversation going. 

I appreciated getting a very quick response from one of the firms, and wrote back immediately.  I didn’t get another response for three days.  That was a little disappointing – the process started, and got me all excited, and then dropped me.  If you’re going to raise hopes, keep them high.

Don’t presume.

I used a Hotmail address to fill in enquiry forms.  You might think from this that I’m small potatoes, not worth expending too much effort on.  As one accountant found out when we spoke, I own two businesses and need tax assistance in two countries as well as management advice and taxation for an LLC (and possibly tax support for my business partners as well).  There were some firms I enquired with who merely fired off an engagement letter and then sent me automatic reminders for a few weeks.  They didn’t even attempt a phone call, or a personal email asking for more information.

Personality matters.

One firm I contacted sounded exactly right – their website was good, their experience seemed second to none, and someone contacted me quickly.  Unfortunately, at the time of the promised call, nothing happened.  I phoned up myself and got an extremely rushed accountant who said he was busy and would ring me a little later. When he did eventually phone, it became evident that he was technically skilled, but we just did not click at all.  He spoke so fast about highly technical information that I couldn’t follow it; I felt incredibly stupid for not knowing about regulations I couldn’t possibly have known about; and when I expressed concern about the fees he said I needed to be prepared to pay a lot of money, and if I didn’t I was being very foolish.  It wasn’t the content of what we discussed – he was right in many ways – it was the tone and attitude that didn’t work for me.  Now, bear in mind everyone’s personality is different.  Perhaps someone else (from New York, for example?) would appreciate quick, tough, straight, and a little arrogant.  It just didn’t work for me.  The good news for you is that this is a reminder that there are some people who just will not want to work with you, and that is okay.  I emailed him to say that I felt we didn’t click, and was going with someone else, and he wrote back to say that was absolutely fine.  (Perhaps he was rushing off to another late appointment, anyway!)

Automated processes must still be managed.

As many of you will know, I am a huge fan of automating your follow up so that people don’t get forgotten.  Naturally you want to make even automated follow up as personal as possible – for example, a simple email coming directly from you, as opposed to a highly-designed one from the company email address.  But no matter how much automation there is, you’ll still want to keep an eye on things to ensure that people are getting what they need on a personal level.  One firm very kindly sent me an engagement letter with all details and costs (although they hadn’t bothered to speak to me to confirm what it was I needed), and then every other day for the next week or two I kept getting reminder emails.  “Have you signed your letter yet?”  “Click the link now, don’t forget!”  “We’d like to start work, are you ready now? How about now?”  These came from a different email address than the firm itself, and had no content besides the link which sent me to the original (long and complicated) engagement letter.  A few weeks later I got an email from the firm saying it was clear I wasn’t interested, so they would stop sending reminders.  I even wrote back to say that I was confused and wasn’t sure what I needed, and got no reply.

This is difficult stuff.

I can definitely see why people don’t like to change their accountant.  It’s an exhausting process; there are massive amounts of personal information being given out, so there’s a fair level of fear involved; everyone promises the world at the beginning, but few follow through to the very end.  If it wasn’t such an urgent issue, I feel like I would have given up a long time ago.  I can see why many prospects just do not want to change accountants, even if their existing one isn’t so great.

It’s not over till it’s over. 

After an extensive process, I finally found the accountant I wanted to work with.  Everything seemed fine and he promised me help with a few basic forms.  Unfortunately, a week later nothing had come through, and I lost an entire day of my personal holiday because (after much chasing) the information was sent late.  I got one email a few weeks later, and then nothing.  No engagement letter, no follow-through, and most importantly, no tax returns filled in for me.  Since I had committed to nothing, I started my enquiry process all over again.  Had any of these other firms maintained a simple follow up system (a few emails here or there, staying in touch, checking in), they might have hit me right at the perfect moment – even though I said no at first.

This process has been exhausting and frustrating for me.  If any of you can remove even half of the difficulties I’ve had for your prospective clients, you will be very, very well received.