As accountants, we all work with sole owners, companies or partnerships that are either:
- Uncertain, unsure of where they are going and not making full use of what they have
- Successful and know where they are going
Each of these categories requires a different approach and a different form of support.
Accountants need to adapt their approach to suit circumstances as businesses can and do often move between these categories especially during terms of uncertainty.
This is when a business needs you most. It is also the time when they need someone to give them cool, level-headed advice delivered in an appropriate way.
The issue is that most businesses often do not talk about their problems with their accountant until it is too late. By the time they express their concerns, they may have reached the point of needing an insolvency practitioner.
You can help your clients avoid this scenario by talking to them regularly and encouraging open conversation. The quarterly VAT return gives you a reason to pick up the phone to see how things are going even if the return is done by your team. The VAT owed also gives you an indicator of how things are going. If it was always around £200,000 a quarter and this quarter it is £100,000, you know there is a major issue.
There are many reasons a business can be struggling such as a major customer going bankrupt, an economic downturn leading to fewer customers, an employee embezzling money, an acquisition going wrong, a key employee leaving etc.
Regardless, they can all be solved, to at least to some degree, by generating more sales. Money coming in gives you the ability to pay bills, cover losses, employ more or better people etc.
So, the first piece of advice to give anyone struggling is to focus on sales. They need to give their marketing and sales a major boost. A company can only save so much money, however it can sell to its capacity to deliver and then increase its capacity as needed. Potential sales are always going to be much higher than potential savings. So, the first step for any struggling business is to increase sales and marketing activity.
The second step is to improve productivity and efficiency through automation, improving employee performance and streamlining processes.
The final step is cost cutting. It is not the first step as you need to invest in marketing and efficiency. Once you have them sorted, then it is time to cut back. Many companies cut marketing and training budgets first ensuring they have fewer customers in the future with employee performance stagnating or declining.
This final step may include making redundancies which are often difficult but sometimes necessary for the survival of the business and the jobs it creates.
How much you want to get involved with a struggling business will vary on a case-by-case basis. However, you can give all your clients who are struggling at least thirty minutes of your time and some practical advice.
These are businesses who are doing OK but don’t know how to move to the next level. The owner is not entirely happy with something but doesn’t know what to do about it.
These are typically businesses who have a good product or service but are not making the most of it. They have developed the business so far but are unsure of their next step. This is usually because they have fallen into the “that’s just the way things are” trap. They have become used to over-paying for services and products. They have become comfortable with “just getting by” sales.
The biggest trap is the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” trap. Many companies do not look to improve and keep using the same systems and processes day in, day out. One solicitor I know still dictates on to a reel-to-reel tape!
The problem is that it isn’t broke now but it will be when the competition overtake them.
As their accountant, you should be urging them to improve sales, increase productivity and efficiency by using technology etc. While you cannot tell them their goals, you can ensure they stay profitable with more sales and a lower cost base.
- Successful and Know Where They are Going
This is a business who has most things nailed down and has a good idea of what they want. For example, a manufacturing company who has their production line grooved in and optimised, sales and fulfilment processes in place and employs the right people.
All these businesses:
- Know what they want in terms of future sales, profits, growth etc.
- Realise they need your help in getting it
These are your dream clients. They want your value-add services as they want to achieve their goals. They are willing and able to pay for your premium services.
They are also very difficult to win as new clients as they will already have accountants who have helped them to reach this point. You may be able to persuade some that they have outgrown their current accountant or can get a better service from you but, in most cases, these clients are homegrown.
The trick is to target the uncertain businesses and help them to be more successful. In most cases, they just need a bit of support and direction.
If you just focus on the successful businesses who know where they are going, then you are going to be trying to pry them away from those people who have supported them on their journey. This can be very tricky. It is not impossible so it is worth spending some time on this but you should spend more on targeting uncertain businesses.
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