16 January 2015

Kevin Reed - Talking Head

Kevin Reed, Editor of Accountancy Age looks at the why communications needs to be high on the agenda for the sector in 2015.

To say that communication is a troublesome topic for accountants would be to say the world is round. By nature, they are generally regarded as introverted. Indeed, its institutes banned firms from advertising until rules and codes were relaxed in the 1980s. And, despite their partnerships bringing about a collegiate nature, these same partners working for a common goal would often jealously guard their own clients from each other.

These attitudes and ways of working transposed themselves into their client relationships. While an accountant's seriousness and professionalism would often lead to customer loyalty, the work they provided, and the way it was done, didn't really change for decades. Core services based around statutory requirements - the tax return and accounts - led to client/adviser communication being staccato at best.

But the world is changing - it's still round, but smaller, more connected, digitally focused. Some practitioners have led the charge; first realising that they are best placed to provide all the services and hand-holding that nobody else seems capable of, and that good communication, client-facing or to their chosen markets, is the way to win. And so we have four monolithic firms at the top of the profession. PwC, KPMG, Deloitte and EY represent £9bn of annual revenues in just the UK, and dominating the most attractive employer stats. They are huge, well-organised organisations in their own right.

Their comms strategy is big, broad and multi-layered. Swathes of research, spokespeople, sponsorship and lobbying set the external tone. For clients, they provide sophisticated benchmarking and post-project analysis.

And now, the rest of the profession can, and should, follow suit. In fact some are doing so already - certainly not all, but some.

Smaller firms have been expanding their service line expertise, driven mainly through clients wanting one port of call to manage all the things that would get in the way of them looking to grow their business. In turn, this requires more contact between the two parties.

The development of online, browser-based accounting and tax technology gives practitioners as-live access to their clients. Accessing their data in real-time allows them to provide better, more timely advice - and the drive towards further automation frees up advisers to provide more value-added services.

But practices have found that, over time, it's difficult to provide more services to all kinds of clients. As such, niche markets and sector specialisms have developed. But with that development, and toughening market conditions - since 2008 to be precise, practices have had to learn to be smarter. Client referrals are fine, but that will not sustain a modern firm.

And so the most forward-thinking firms make an effort to create an image that reflects their direction of travel - they then take steps to transmit that image. A focus on dentists? Well, why not set up an association of dental professionals? A group of accountants had the foresight to build on their expertise and take it to the next level.

Sector briefing papers? Sponsorship? Yes, firms are doing this, many of them. And many know that they need to step up, but don't really know how to.

What is interesting is that the evolution of these practices has been mirrored in not only their nascent internal business development structures, but also on corporate lines too.

The partner, holding onto their clients for dear life, cannot really exist in a modern firm. A matrix of service line and sector expertise has been created in the modern practice, so clients get a cradle-to-grave offering.

Marketing and communication is absolutely vital for accountancy firms - and the profession has made big strides. But there is still a long way to go. However, for the most part, they are looking to improve.

Kevin Reed is editor of Accountancy Age