Want to stand out? Stop thinking like an accountant…

Here at the BDLN we’ve just completed a survey. Surveys aren’t known for their excitement but this one was duller than most. Not just any kind of dull, but National Speed Awareness Course dull; Bank Holiday at Ikea dull; rainy day in Watford dull. We visited the websites of 20 selected accountancy firms…

Our findings were as follows: the chances of finding an accountancy website that deviates from the sector’s standard language and feel are incredibly low. However, if you love tired clichés – particularly “partner-led service”, “trusted adviser” and “tailored approach” – then you’re in luck. Equally, if you enjoy reading unoriginal ‘meet the team’ profiles telling you that partner Andy supports Everton and enjoys jogging, then things are looking up, too.

We finished our brief and unscientific survey thinking: where are the killer messages; where are the points of difference? Where’s any evidence that an ounce of original thought has gone into the vast majority of these websites? And finally: why is the entire accountancy sector so content to clone, copy and regurgitate?

Why is the entire accountancy sector so content to clone, copy and regurgitate?

After a strong coffee and an office debate, we concluded that the sector as a whole fails to place enough value on marketing. Not the ‘spend a zillion quid on a fancy new logo and a TV campaign’ sort of marketing, but the nuts and bolts, business development sort of marketing, where you work hard and put yourself out to get your name out there. OK, firms pay lip service to it, but generally speaking it is an after-thought, still regarded as alien and otherworldly compared to the solid, billable world of accountancy services.

That approach needs to change. In today’s fast-changing landscape, accountancy firms that don’t put marketing and business development centre stage risk falling by the wayside.

One firm where marketing has been elevated is Shelley Stock Hutter, thanks in large part to Bobby Lane, head of outsourcing and business development. Bobby’s background in retail and PR – he held various shop-floor retail jobs during his university days before qualifying with BDO and then joining Saatchi & Saatchi’s PR division – puts him in the perfect place to build and mould both the firm’s profile and his own personal brand.

The marketing starts with the SSH website, which feels fresh and original, featuring well-shot, short, testimonial-style videos that go straight to the heart of what the firm offers and stands for. For example, clicking on ‘about us’ takes you to a video for each partner in which clients offer their personal thoughts about that partner. And rather than tons of text explaining team backgrounds, there are clear links to LinkedIn profiles. Essentially the website cuts the crap, its minimalist look being a result of clear, logical thinking.

Bobby tells us: “We researched accountancy websites and, like you, felt that most looked and read the same. So we ripped up the template. People who come to our website know what an accountant does so we didn’t bother with long lists of services. We thought: let’s get rid of all the rubbish that people aren’t going to read anyway and get to the heart of the matter.”

To stand out further you have to transmit your name far and wide. And that takes time, effort and, most important of all, the support of the firm

It works, but a good website can only get you so far. To stand out further you have to transmit your name far and wide. And that takes time, effort and, most important of all, the support of the firm. Bobby explains: “People say they’ve got no time to focus on marketing and business development and in fairness most haven’t because they get bogged down in the day-to-day. We as a firm took a different view. We recognised that the partners here have different skills – some are incredible tax experts, others are brilliant at relationships. My skill set, having spent years in marketing and sales, was such that spending my day reviewing files made no sense. So we freed up some of my time to focus on business development and marketing, because you can’t perform those roles half-heartedly. Building a social following and media relationships takes time and effort.”

Today SSH has over 30,000 Twitter followers and boasts one of the most extensive media profiles of any UK firm. Bobby says: “Around five years ago we decided to concentrate on building relationships with the national press, radio, TV and online publishers. It’s taken time – building a profile takes hard work, hundreds of conversations and plenty of putting yourself out for people – but now the practice as a whole does a lot of media work. One partner writes for the medical press, another for the property press, and another for the technical accounting press. I pen a fortnightly column for The Mirror in which I try to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.” Bobby also writes for fashion website Drapers, regularly contributes to The Times, and has acted as a business agony uncle on BBC radio.

That sort of profile is hugely valuable and worth far more than expensive ad campaigns and swish branding. And SSH has got there by thinking like a marketer, not an accountant.

So now take a look at your website. Is it fresh, inspiring and original? Does your firm fully support individuals who focus on business development and marketing? If you’ve answered no twice then it’s time to change.