We all know that modern accountancy is a very different business. The advent of computers, the trend to outsource processes overseas and the arrival of marketing managers are all part of a move that takes accountants far outside their traditional comfort zones.
The challenge for today’s profession is not only to make sure the numbers add up, but also to develop business in an increasingly competitive market. For accountants in business, the onus is on them to sell their services to their internal clients and prove themselves as a strategic benefit rather than a cost base.
But while a chocolate bar may be bought on the basis of an advertisement and a performance car might be purchased on the back of a specification and a test drive, choosing an accountant is much, much harder.
When a business person ‘buys’ an accountant it is a very subjective purchase. It’s pretty much a given that you will understand the technical intricacies of the job. But what’s more likely to clinch the deal these days boils down to far more intangible criteria.
Your customer needs to know that they can get on with you, work with you and be confident that you will ‘speak their language’. This means that accountants need to build relationships. And building relationships means spending time networking.
Networking may refer to keeping in touch with old colleagues, going out to organised events or attending corporate hospitality. But whatever its form, it involves talking to people.
Good accountants are, of course, strong on attention to detail and analytic approach, but networking involves a very different set of skills. Ones that can be learnt, but which traditionally have been less recognised as core attributes for the job.
To network effectively, accountants need to learn some of the skills of a sales person; and yes, that’s likely to include spending time in wine bars and ‘doing lunch’.
But fun aside, networking needs a structured, long-term approach because developing relationships built on confidence and trust takes time.
Firms that are serious about using networking as part of their sales and marketing activity need to devise a formalised approach. They need a clear strategy and they need to provide training and support.
It may not be chargeable, but the business case for investing in networking is strong. On average each business person probably knows 400 other people. That means on average we are only one step away from 160,000 people and two steps away from 64 million people. In accountancy terms, the numbers certainly add up.
Deciding where to network can take time, but it is a key part of ensuring that money and time is well spent. The next stage is to decide how much resource is going to be devoted to networking activities. For your strategy to succeed, people need time to follow up after networking events and keep in touch with contacts. Networking is never a ‘quick fix’, but that time invested reaps rewards.
Regular attendance at events is key. People develop confidence if they keep meeting you and see that you are reliable. If you promise to forward some information or let your contact have a phone number, do it right away. They will judge your efficiency as an indication of your professionalism as an accountant.
Having set the firm’s strategy, the next stage is to provide training and support for those who go out and do the networking. If networking takes highly trained accountants away from fee-earning work it makes sense to have them properly trained for that part of their work as well.
Partners and managers are often reluctant to ask for training in this area, despite admitting that they do not enjoy walking into a room full of strangers.
Many accountants are recognising that networking is important for their personal career progression. For those who take a route of self-development there are several books available on the subject.
In the 21st century, networking needs to be part of every accountants toolkit; it is a way of building relationships, gaining new business and securing existing clients.
With a structured and planned approach it can help both the firm and the individual accountants to develop and grow.
- Mike Edwards is a networking specialist at spoken communication consultancy Be Clear. SEVEN STEPS FOR SUCCESSFUL NETWORKING Strategy: schedule time for networking. Networking takes time, not just to attend networking meetings, but also to phone people or have lunch with your contact Preparation: do your research before you arrive. Find out who else is going to the event. If the organisers do not circulate a list speak to them nicely and they will usually send you a copy Meeting people: look confident. No one will know that you feel nervous if you look confident. Look in a mirror, tell yourself that you look ‘absolutely fantastic’… and you probably will Working the room: arrive early, taste the food, check the layout, find the toilets and the bar. This way you will have something to talk about right from the outset Building rapport: use the person’s name. It flatters people. Repeating it when you are introduced will help you remember it and will make a positive impact A clear message: explain clearly and succinctly why people buy from you. Your unique selling proposition must be clear in your mind, so that you can articulate it to your audience After the networking event: do what you said you would do. People will be impressed if you get back to them quickly with information that you have promised.