Thoughts from Xerocon on High Performing Accountancy Firms

Photo 11-02-2015 17 17 04After spending two days at Xerocon London this week, I was struck almost forcibly by the noticeable differences between accountancy firms who are moving forward quickly (and taking as many of the available prospects as they can) and those who are still hesitating at the start gates.

At last year’s Accountex exhibition, Gary Turner, Xero’s UK MD, reminded accountants that the cloud is no longer new. It’s not a revolution. It’s just a thing. A part of our lives, a way of doing business that is as natural as breathing. Asking for wifi is the first question on our lips no matter where we go – Starbucks, a hotel, even a friend’s home.

So it’s no surprise that, a year on, we’re now well past the opportunity for accountancy firms to stand out using cloud accounting software. That’s becoming the norm (as I predicted after last year’s Xerocon). You can’t specialise in Xero. It doesn’t help you stand out simply because you use Xero.

So why should you use it, then? I hear you ask. Why should I bother, if the train has left the station?

Because if you aren’t part of this journey in some way – whether you catch the next train coming or start walking – the platform on which you’re currently standing is going to crumble and fall apart, and there will be nowhere for you to go at all.

Here’s what I noticed – from my experience, our Profitable Firm clients, and mingling at Xerocon with the best and the brightest of the accounting minds (and those who serve them) – about what the high performing firms are doing.

(As I’ve said before, this is not a paid Xero advert. The Profitable Firm is passionate about recommending to you what works, what is the most modern and up to date, and what our clients love. You’re welcome to use whatever you like, but in our opinion and experience, Xero fits the bill in all those categories.)

They not only accept the cloud, they embrace it in every area of their business.

Using Xero, or an online portal, or updating your website, does not stand alone as a marketing strategy. Using Xero as well as any other cloud element that is new to the firm will quickly become an issue of change management: it literally changes lives. But when lives change, they don’t change instantly, in seconds. It’s a gradual change that filters in and spreads out to the rest of the firm because “this is the way we do things here”. We have seen this with social media overtaking email. At first people just used social media now and then, and over time they started using Facebook messenger and iMessage, and pretty soon some young people don’t even have email addresses. There is a cultural shift that has to happen at the root level of your firm, or else Xero will just be an extra product that you tried to add to what you do, instead of being a reminder of how the world has already changed, and how you want to change with it.

They don’t just talk the talk, they walk and dress it.

Walking into Xerocon is refreshing and pleasant. Everyone is in jeans, cool glasses, using iphones and Macbooks, wireless and without business cards. You almost feel like you’re at a modern technology convention (or, as someone pointed out on Twitter, a festival of some kind). If you’re going to use cloud accounting, and encourage your clients to do so, you’ve got to embrace the entire mentality and methodology behind it. If you tell prospects that you’re hip and cool because you use Xero, and then they come to your office and everyone is in suits and ties with paper files and direct debit forms to sign with a pen, that’s a dichotomy. Everything needs to match: you, your offices, your team, your systems, your software.

They make sure their team are fully integrated and excited about cloud accounting.

Most of the firms who won awards for innovation and outstanding marketing brought their entire teams with them to Xerocon – or at least a large selection of the team. Being at Xerocon is inspiring. Motivating. Encouraging. Everyone is enthusiastic and keen, and you pick up on that vibe. Trying to explain that to team members later (especially if they’re stressed and still working with printers that don’t work or clients that don’t have email addresses) is an impossible task. I spoke to several team members of accountancy firms who said that being at Xerocon was at the same time incredibly inspiring – and also a little depressing, because “we know that we’ll go back to the firm tomorrow and no one will get it, and they won’t allow us to do all the things we’d love to do, and that we see others doing”. If there is even the tiniest possibility that one of your team members would say that at Xerocon, you are in big trouble. If you don’t allow the young, modern, keen, cloud-using team members to live up to their full potential at your firm, it is an absolute fact that they will leave you and go somewhere else. (Or start up their own modern firm that will compete with yours.) And after walking around Xerocon, there’s no lack of places they could go to be completely fulfilled in their work. I talked to several firms who said, “But bringing the whole team is really expensive.” One of my clients (Paul Barnes) heard that and said, “But how expensive will it be if your team are turning away the kind of clients you want to have, because they don’t ‘get’ Xero?” It’s a whole-firm thing, not just a decision you personally make, and try to push everyone else to adopt.

They want to win.

Several of our clients won Xero awards at the Awards Dinner. Paul Barnes of My Accountancy Place in Manchester won the Most Valued Professional award (his sales guy kept shouting “MVP!! MVP!!” every time there was a spare moment), and Sian Kelly of Inform Accounting won the Xero Accounting Partner of the Year (Midlands). We enjoyed basking in the reflected glory of our clients’ wins, but it was also fascinating to speak to many of our other clients who told us that their goal was to be on that stage in 2016, winning an award themselves. RDA in Ireland even blogged about their commitment to win in 2016. And the other winners of awards were obviously high-performing firms, as well. The firms who want to succeed with cloud accounting really, really want to win. They’re passionate about it, and they’re going to pull out all the stops to ensure that it happens. And if you don’t want to win – at least in your own little category – you’ll be overtaken by those who do.

They use really good design.

The highest performing accountancy firms don’t look like accountancy firms. Their websites, branding, colours, style, and imagery is – there’s no other word for it – cool. They pay good graphic designers, and their branding is consistent across everything they’re doing. This impacts the success of their marketing activities, because everything is very well put together and it impresses. It matches the commitment to the cloud, because online software of any kind – and apps, websites, social media, video – are all very hip and cool. So it works.

They’d rather have it done, than perfect.

The firms who have the best success are the ones who don’t worry too much if one of the buttons is light blue instead of dark blue. Or if the Recent Blog Posts is at the top of the page, instead of the bottom. Or if the Xero logo is the Xero Certified one, not the Xero Gold. Naturally if there are problems, they fix them right away. But the goal is to get the email sent, not to have it be the best email that has ever been sent in the history of time. After all, if you do actually craft the best email ever, by the time you send it, no one will be using email anymore. (Or you might have a very small database to whom to send your perfect email, and you won’t see results.)

They collaborate, not compete.

It was truly inspiring to see over 800 accountants at Xercon sharing ideas, documents, inspiration, suggestions, templates. I lost count of the number of times when someone from one firm said, “Can you tell me how you…”, and the other firm said “Sure, I’ll send it over to you – you’re welcome to it.” This is the era of collaboration, of sharing, of playing nice with the others in your industry. One thing accountants are learning is that there is enough business for everyone – but it’s not going to walk in your front door and announce itself. You position yourself at the front, with good branding and great marketing and an in-the-cloud mentality, and they will come flocking to you.

They have stopped evaluating ROI on an item-by-item basis.

One of the challenges we used to have in talking to accountants about marketing was that they were always asking what the ROI was – for individual areas. “If you write a blog for me, what am I going to get from it?” “How many new clients will I get if I set up social media accounts?” The high performing accountancy firms have realised that marketing is an integral, foundational part of their entire purpose for being – and it should be so integrated that you almost can’t tell where all your leads are coming from: you just know that it’s obvious you have more, and of the kind you want. Certainly over time you can begin to analyse and evaluate, and discover that using Twitter ads is a good (or bad) idea for you, and that blogging works (or doesn’t) for your firm. But many accountancy firms have so far to go in the way of foundational marketing elements that it’s going to take a little time before all that is ready and you can begin churning out marketing actions that you can evaluate on a case by case basis.

Some of those foundational elements are:
– A good, clean, modern website
– An email marketing or CRM system that you actually use (or someone does for you)
– A pattern of adding every new contact you get to your email marketing system
– Modern design
– Social media accounts (or at least the big hitters – Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google Plus)
– Good clean branding that is consistent throughout all your marketing
– A content plan so that you are sharing fresh, relevant, helpful content with your niche areas on a regular basis

They accept that there is no one-size-fits-all marketing rule.

The answer to any marketing question is, “It depends.” Should you ramp up your SEO and invest in Google adwords? It depends. Do you have a good website with specific landing pages that have clear calls to action that are easy to follow and use? If you do, then Google adwords may be an avenue for you. Should you use this keyword or that one? It depends. Which one is the most profitable for you, and which matches the rest of your website and marketing? Should you focus more on Twitter or LinkedIn? It depends. It depends. It depends.

They pick an area in which to niche or specialise.

I’ve been saying it for years: by choosing a niche, you don’t have to drop all your other clients, or never work with any other type of client again. But it focuses your marketing efforts in a way nothing else will – and your prospects are no longer searching for ‘an accountant’. They want a Xero accountant on the south side of London who deals with actors and uses Macbooks and wears blue glasses. And they can find exactly what they want – so why should they go somewhere else, to a firm who is all things to all people and thereby is generic and bland?

They’re willing to invest big money.

Not just in marketing, although it’s a simple fact that the firms who invest more money in online marketing are the ones that have better and faster results. But successful firms invest in their team, in training, in new products, in custom built software or apps, in new premises, in technology. They don’t mind spending thousands or hundreds of thousands as long as it gets them where they want to go – and they’re aware that there’s an up-front spend that sometimes must be made to get a platform from which to market.

Interestingly, in this way the high performing accountancy firms are very like Xero (or the other way around?). Xero announced at Xerocon this year that they have half a million pounds to invest in UK accounting partners, and all you have to do to get some marketing funding and support is ask them. Now that’s just good business.