How differentiating your accountancy firm attracts better clients

8 Minutes

There’s so much written about how to differentiate accountancy firms. But most of it is too shallow to help you stand apart from the crowd. So here’s a deep dive into the problem, the cause and a clear plan to carve out your own special place.

By Patrick McLoughlin

I am not a huge film fan, but I’ll watch anything with Nicolas Cage in. One of my favourites is ‘Wild at Heart’. The best line, he says it a couple of times, is when he talks about his jacket. He’s about to get into a fight on a dance floor after he’s told: “You look like a clown in that stupid jacket.”

He replies:

“This is a snakeskin jacket and for me, it’s a symbol of my individuality
and my belief in personal freedom.”

You can’t argue with that; you don’t come across too many snakeskin jackets. And if the jacket doesn’t mark him out as one of a kind, his declaration certainly does.

If you can bare the language you can see the scene below.

What’s this got to do with growing your accountancy practice? As it turns out, plenty. Downward pressure on accountancy fees is increasing. It’s not going away.

Why differentiating is crucial to your accountancy firm's future

Differentiating yourself, expressing your individuality from all the other firms out there is the key to premium fees. If you can’t differentiate yourself, you leave it to clients and the only criteria they’ll find is price: the lowest fee usually wins.

Imagine you have a dispute with a supplier. You’ve tried everything to resolve it but they’re being unreasonable – you need a lawyer.

Because this is important to you, you speak to three law firms. They all seem alright, but you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between them. They look the same, say the same things, seem decent enough people. So who do you go with? Unless one is drastically cheaper than the others (doesn’t that ring alarm bells) most of us choose the lowest priced option.

That’s why it’s so important to feel, look and sound incomparable.

Is your website creating fee pressure?

Now pull your firm’s website up and look at how you describe what you do and how you do it. Are your claims differentiating the practice? As the league table below shows, most firms list similarities not differences.

Most of the claims fall into the minimum standards clients expect: friendly, high technical standards etc or the self-indulgent and unsubstantiated: unique, leading, passionate about etc.

There’s one exception in the list. One claim that’s bullshit-free and cuts to the chase: we’re cheap.

Oddly enough, the most common claim we found associated with the word accountants, is we are different!

The best example I’ve seen is: ‘Most accountants say they are different, but we really are.’

I understand the difficulty in articulating the special difference you bring to your clients. In the late 90s I sat through an agency’s presentation on getting the ‘we’re different, we’re better’ claim across for the first firm of accountants I worked with.

It was an awful presentation; a presentation they should never have made because the brief lacked substance. How could they encapsulate a message that couldn’t be explained?

What bad looks like

A few years back the Australian marketing specialist, One Rabbit, built the excellent mock-up, below, of a terrible professional services firm’s website. It covers so many of the damaging, generalising claims accountants make.

So how can you explain the benefits you bring?

That depends on what those benefits are. An accountant told me about a meeting with a potential client:
“he expected me to help him with cash flow and profitability! I had to explain to him,
I’m an accountant I can do your accounts, that’s it.”

If you provide a compliance-only service it’s very difficult not to compete on price. Whatever your marketing tactics or the brand consultants tell you, to an increasing number of clients compliance is a commodity.

Show don't tell

If your clients benefit from more than a compliance service be specific. Like Nicholas Cage, don’t tell them about your individuality, demonstrate it.

Shift the spotlight off you and your firm onto the difference you make as seen through your ideal clients’ eyes.

Your best clients don’t want a service from you, they want help solving problems. So focus on the problems.

Connect emotionally with your perfect clients

Talk to your best clients and find out what they value most from working with you. Find out the problems you’ve helped them solve. Then let them tell their stories.

Your aim is to attract people struggling with the same blocks and issues. If they can see themselves in your clients’ words and feelings you’ve got their attention.

Meet Ed

Ed talks about a major problem common to most of us growing our businesses. Accountants explain the solutions as “working on your business, not in it.”

But Ed talks of ‘getting off the tools’. He uses the secret language that resonates with people in his position. He explains the torment, the struggle, he was going through that connects in a way you never could.

Finally, he explains how his accountants helped him to make the transition.

Where to find your difference

If you really want to get under the skin of what makes you special you need to look beyond yourself and your team for answers. You provide the service but you don’t experience it, so how can you explain it?

Ask! Select those clients that benefit the most from you, the ones you love working with. Get them on a video call – Zoom is free and easy to use. And ask them. Encourage them to tell the stories and explain the impact of your work to them personally and to their families.

If you’d like some help in positioning your practice for perfect clients just email me at and we can talk your options through.