Prosper Agency
April 2, 2020

Branding challenges for accountants: A discussion with Rob Brown

Prosper discuss accountancy branding, differentiation and the brand challenges accountants face with author, speaker and owner of BD Academy Rob Brown.


e discuss accountancy branding, differentiation and the brand challenges accountants face with author, speaker and owner of BD Academy Rob Brown. The BD Academy offers accountancy firms an in-house training program designed to help staff become confident and effective work winners. Rob is considered the world’s most recommended networking expert. Author of ‘Build Your Reputation’, he speaks, trains and writes on a range of BD topics such as high level networking, referrals, reputation, trust and likability. He's also a very nice chap with some fantastic insight...

Ben:  This is a broad question, but generally what challenges do you think that accountants are going to face in the next few years? 

Rob:    I know. It is broad because you can divide the accounting market up in so many different slices. There are 30, 40, 50 thousand accounting entities just here in the UK depending on which figures you look at. The majority of those are just one-man bands; one guy in a back bedroom submitted a personal tax return, right up to the top four. So they're facing different challenges at different points in the ecosystem.

But generically speaking, there are threats and opportunities all over the place. For the accounting profession generally, it is ageing. So most of the people in the accounting game are in the 50s, 60s. The Millennials now are reaching 40 years old, they were born in 1980, and so this year they're all going to hit 40. So there's an ageing profession, and that has massive implications for where firms are going to be in the next 5, 10, 15 years.

A lot of sole owned firms are looking to sell on, get out, retire, struggling to do that because of finding buyers. The digital revolution has meant that they have not modernised their firms; they've just got a lifestyle and a basic client base. And they're on spreadsheets, and only 50 to 20% of accounting firms are in the cloud. So there's a lot of old-fashioned stuff going on… the machine is creaking.

There are a lot of people in the larger firms that want to get out; they've got an equity stake. But unless you've got the succession and the new talent coming through, to generate the revenue to pay those partners and owners off, they can't get out. So that's some of the challenges that are facing accounting firms. Yes, there are more businesses out there. There are more people needing accountants, there are more things that accountants can do and sell to help their clients. So there's a massive opportunity.

Ben:    Are we seeing an increase in younger firm partners feeling progress is being hampered by the more senior partners who don't recognise the need for a modern website or don't really recognise new ways to communicate with clients?

Rob:    Yes.  They are frustrated that by the lack of new technology and digitisation of a firm. Because these people coming through are digital native, like you they've grown up with technology. The people at the top, the older people, the baby boomers are not necessarily tech-savvy, so that's a challenge. The world is changing; the way you win business now back in the day would be your immediate network.

The younger partners... are frustrated that by the lack of new technology and digitisation of a firm. Because these people coming through are digital native, they've grown up with technology. The people at the top, the older people, the baby boomers are not necessarily tech-savvy...

The people you grew up with, the people in the same streets, same town. People at your school, people at your golf club. Networking events, local business breakfasts that's not the way business is won these days. Networking has been marginalised, there's a lot of stuff going on online. We've got social media, we've got content creation, personal branding.

So firms that don't embrace the new ways of doing things will get marginalised, and become increasingly obsolete, increasingly relevant.  And if a young person is in that firm, seeing this happening and they're not at partner level or above. They don't have any influence or say in strategy and vision and how things are done and run. So that is immensely frustrating for them.

Ben:    What do you think accounting firms are going to need to do to attract a younger talent in the future?

Rob:    Modernise your tech, articulate a strong vision. Look after your people, so you become an employer of choice. Many accountants have the mantra the client is king, look after the client. But if you don't look after your people, then they can't or won't look after the clients. So it starts with your people.

Modernize your culture, there are some firms now that allow their people to wear what they want, take holidays when they want, take breaks when they want, work flexibly from home when they want. Providing they get the job done, generate the fees, look after the clients. But that horrifies the majority of accounting firms.

But we are dealing with Generation X, Generation Z. These young people coming through they don't want a career in accounting anymore, they are not loyal, and they’re not thinking beyond 5-10 years. And yes, you can get them in now with something that excites them and interest them. You're not going to keep them for five, ten, twenty years it's not a job for life anymore.

People coming through don't just have two or three jobs, they'll have two or three careers. So you've got to engage them as strongly as you can for as long as you can. Knowing that they might move on, but you got to invest in them. Get the leadership right, get the mentoring right, get the culture right, get the vision right, get the values right. You've got to be prepared to be brave and courageous with your brand.

Ben:    They need to embrace the concept of employer branding and show their firms as attractive places to work.

Rob:    Yes. You've got to make them excited to work for you and talk about you. And if you look and sound the same as everyone else, you've got a problem. I put on a video just recently; ninety-nine percent of accountants are saying the same thing.

Their websites look the same; their elevator pitches sound the same. Their promises say the same, it's a samey business. Forget about winning new clients, the war is for talent. Most leaders of accounting firms would tell you that their biggest challenge is not getting more clients, but getting more of the right people to drive growth and sustain the firm.

Ben:    Yes, that's interesting because I came to exactly the same conclusions through looking at the websites, the branding and the positioning statements in my research. There’s a lot of ‘samey’ website and branding, a distinct lack of firms being braver with their branding.

On the topic of employer branding, even adding a page such as ‘why work with us’ and putting out social media content will help you reach out to a potential employee who is looking for a job with a firm, and perhaps wants to send their CV in speculatively then you could portray yourself as a company that it's attractive to work for.

Rob:    Yes. Branding is not just for the clients to give them trust that they are with the right firm. It's not just for the prospects to give them confidence that they're about to work with the right firm. But as you're suggesting Ben, it is a statement of intent to be the employer of choice for the talent out there to come and work for you and with you.

Ben:    Yes, absolutely.

Rob:    And you've got to be brave with it, you're absolutely right. It's too risky to play it safe with your brand, with your vision, with your value proposition. Because as Gary Hamel's famous marketer in the US, Gary Hamel says it like this in two words, ''sameness sucks''… There's something in marketing called the tyranny of choice, I might even have come up with it myself over the years.

It's too risky to play it safe with your brand, with your vision, with your value proposition.

The tyranny of choice states when I need what you do, why should I come to you instead of all of my other choices, including the choice to do nothing.

So let's reframe the tyranny of choice for employment, career decisions. When I need a job, a career, when I want to work for an accounting firm, why should I work for you above and beyond all of my other choices? Including the choice to actually not work in accounting at all.

Ben:  That's an interesting point

Rob:    And unless you can make the case for you, your brand, your firm, your culture, the career paths that you offer, they're not going to come to you.

Ben:    Yes. There are a couple of accountants that I've worked with recently, and they're young business owners. They're using cloud apps like WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, Google Docs, etc. and they also are pre-qualifying their clients at the very early stage and insisting that they're using accounting apps and receipt apps and things like that, which I think was quite interesting.

And again, it's a way for them to demonstrate a more modern approach. I wonder that when an accounting firm attracts a younger generation of talent, they'll be more ready to embrace that kind of communication stack.

Rob:    It's a good point Ben. If you don't know what Slack is, you alienate the people that do know what Slack is. And if you think about the business owners, the clients of accounting firms, these are Millennials and Generation X and Generation Z.

And this is their language, this is their vocabulary, this is their world. WhatsApp has now become a verb, can you WhatsApp me that? YouTube has now become a verb, have you YouTubed it? Has moved on from have you googled it. So this is the taxonomy, this is the vocabulary now. And if you can't talk in (the clients) language, what are you going to do? Stale Pale Male accountants in dark suits, that's just not where it's at anymore.

Ben:    Why do you think that so much accountancy branding is ‘samey’, their websites and the languages is ‘samey’

Rob:    Three things. One is ignorance, they don't see that there's a problem. The other is arrogance, they don't see it's a problem. So those are for two different reasons. So ignorance, I don't know I'm supposed to have a different website, I didn't know I had a problem. I didn't know there was anything wrong with our brand; I didn't know it wasn't given the right messages out.

Arrogance, our website is just fine thanks very much; we know what we're saying. It might sound the same as everyone else, but people know what we do, we're doing okay. The third reason is laziness, complacency.

I can't be bothered, yes I know our website needs updating but we've got other things to do. Yes, it's not the most important thing on my list. Yes, we kind of get enough clients; we kind of get enough people. I'm aware it might be an issue, but let the people that come in after me deal with that.

Ben:    It's not a good position to take; it's not going to help out your junior partners when they retire.

Rob:    No.

Ben:    In what ways do you think the accounting firms should differentiate themselves?

Rob:    Okay. So when an accountant is the owner, the founder, the leader their personal brand is entwined, are overlapping with the company brand. Because they are the brand advocate, they are the brand ambassador. They are the name on the front of the building, the name on the front door, the name on the website.

The bigger the firm, the smaller the cog you play in that firm. The less your personal brand is or has to be entwined with the corporate brand. Although, the employers would expect you to live by the values of the firm. But again that's another problem; the value stated on a firm's website are the same across all firms. Honesty, integrity, we put the client first. Proactive, speed of response, full-service so they're not differentiating themselves. So asking the question of how should accountants brand themselves.

By and large, it is different for the individual than it is for the firm. The principles of branding remain the same awareness, differentiation, message, tone, clarity, relevance. Repetition and reinforcement, multi-channel. Strategic, there are thousand different ways to build the brand of a firm and the brand of an individual accountant. So I advocate choice based personal branding, choice-based business development. Of the myriad of ways to do it, picks a strategy that plays to your strengths, your objectives, your personality, your weapons, your experience, your goals, and your vision

So that it's genuine, it's authentic, it resonates with you, it's easier to get on board with. Once you've got your overall strategy right, then you can fine-tune that with tactics. For instance, if you go in with LinkedIn, there are 20 different ways to use LinkedIn to build your personal brand. Same with social media, same with content creation, same with networking.

There are 7 different strategies of networking, there are a few different ways of generating referrals to win business. There are different ways to do it. So rather than just doing what everyone else is doing, my take on personal branding is to decide, here is the soundbite Ben. What do you want to be famous for? And who do you want to be famous with?

Ben:  That's a really great answer. And funnily enough, I was listening to the 2Bobs podcast recently that mentioned that.

Rob:    Great podcast, one of my favorites.

Ben:  That leads me on to the next question, which you'll probably have some thoughts on. Do you think that some of the branding and personal branding challenges can be solved by accountants choosing a vertical niche.

Rob:  The short answer yes. There are three shifts; I'm just putting this on a video now actually for my website. Three shifts that accountants need to make, and one of them is the shift from generalist to specialist. And it's difficult for so many reasons should be good at everything, and to be everything for everyone. The biggest challenge of that is it makes your marketing so much more expensive, so much less targeted.

So much more generic, so much more hopeful. So much less relevant to everyone listening. So specialise in, you could choose verticals that's one way to go. But you could do horizontal positioning where you only do tax investigations for anyone. I know one guy that only does audit for oil rigs, now he's niched vertically with oil rigs and horizontally just dissolved it.

So in terms of niching these four niches, is what you do, is how you do it, it's where you do it and this who you do it for. What you do is your area of expertise; how you do it is your unique mechanism, your methodology, your approach, your proprietary software or process. Is where you do it which is geographically by and large, and there's who you do it for which is your vertical.

Ben:    Is number three really a niche?

Rob:    Where you do it?

Ben:    Yes.

Rob:    Yes, I appreciate we're international, we're global and we're everywhere. But I know accountants that make a great living just dealing with digital businesses in Manchester or microbreweries in London. I mean they will take business elsewhere, but this is who they actively go after in the market and this is the point. Your brand specialising doesn't mean that you won't take business from areas outside your specialisms, your niches. But you don't actively market to them, your messaging.

Ben:    Or necessarily talk about it on your website.

Rob:    Yes, but you still take them.

Ben:    Sure. So obviously accountants have relied on word-of-mouth traditionally for their referrals. How do you think that that's changing now? I mean there is obviously social media... But how do you think accountants can shift from relying on word-of-mouth referrals to gaining interest in their business from other ways?

Rob:    You write about referrals, but why do you say that? What's your evidence that referrals are not working?

Ben:    It's not that they're not working, because I think that things like Google reviews and asking for referrals on social media is still a powerful tool. But I wonder if clients then are going to go and look at social proof, social media to find something to lend credence to the referral that their colleague has just given them.

Rob:    What we do know about choosing accounting services or indeed any b2b buying decision is that the actual vendor, the accountant, the adviser, the supplier is entering the decision making process later and later. So back in the day when there was no internet, there was no online, there was no social. If you wanted an accountant, what would you do?

Ben:    You ask your business owning friends and colleagues.

Rob:    You'd ask people that you knew…So that's what we would term word of mouth. These days we might do that, but what would we also do, we would go online. We'd do our due diligence. So think of buying a car, you know everything about the car you want before you walk into the showroom. You know how much it costs you, you know what colour you want, you know what terms you want, you know what extras you want.

You've done all of the due diligence as they call it before you rock up. Think about when you go to the doctors these days, doctor Google you know what's wrong with you, you know what symptoms it is, you know what the required treatment is. If you know it needs referring to a specialist, you'll ask for it.

So we're doing our own research, and it's only when a prospect who is perhaps not happy with their accountant has identified three or four accountants that they might want to work with, they then invite them in. They know what they want; they know how much they want to pay. They've looked at three or four websites, asked a few people. They invite three or four firms in to do a pitch or a proposal.

You're so far down the buying process there, it's almost done. So you can't affect any decision-making, you don't have the right to qualify that client, a prospect. So yes, referrals are becoming less relevant in a way. We are relying more on online. The game is changing, and if accountants don't change with it they will become obsolete.

...referrals are becoming less relevant... We are relying more on online. The game is changing, and if accountants don't change with it they will become obsolete....

Ben:    Yes. But again if you do specialise as an accountancy practice, then you're so much more likely to attract that custom over your generalist competitor who might also have been ‘in the running’.

Rob:    Yes, that's fair comment.

Ben:    Do you have any other final thoughts on the state of branding for accountancy practices at the moment?

Rob:    I wonder if there's an arrogance around accounting firms where we mentioned arrogance before, I know. It is such a good business model, recurring fees, everyone needs an accountant. By law, people need what an accountant does.

It's not an optional extra, it's not a luxury. So there's a lot of complacency around, arrogance around. Many firms feel there's enough business to go around, so why innovate? Why change? Why do anything different to what we've been doing for the last 100 years? The brandings worked just fine. The website does just fine.

Ben:    In the next 5/10 years, do you think we'll see an upsurge in forward-thinking, accountancy practices, embracing branding?

Rob:    Will we see more innovative firms? … Yes, the next five to ten years, not a whole lot will change. This change consolidation, mergers, acquisitions, sales of accounting firms all of that is going on, but it's been going on like that for some time. You're always going to get firms at the bleeding edge.

You've had a look at some of these websites; you've designed some of them. You know what's possible, but until firms see it as an imperative that rises to the top of their critical business issues list, they are notoriously intransigent for whatever reasons. Ignorance, laziness, complacency they're on a good thing. The branding has worked thus far, so it moves down the list of priorities. And making the business case for a rebrand is only possible when the accountants are hemorrhaging clients, losing out to competition, struggling to attract talent.

Ben:    Yes, sure.

Rob:    Having too many of the wrong kind of clients, lower profit margins. Less of a fit with their areas of expertise, does that give plenty to go on?

Ben:    Yes… t's really interesting to talk to you about it because I've given it a lot of thought. In the last week, I've written an article on some of these points we've discussed which is available on my website. Thanks for taking the time to chat today Rob.  

Find out more about the BD Academy at their website here...

Connect with Rob Brown via Linkedin here

Written by Ben Stanbury

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