In the Spotlight Interview: Speaker & Mentor Mark Lee
1) Hey Mark, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me! Please tell us a bit about yourself and your business background…
Most recently I was described as ‘The ex-accountant who helps accountants to stand out from their competitors’.
It’s true I did qualify as a chartered accountant back in the 1980s. One way or another I kept standing out and getting promoted, headhunted and highlighted in the professional press. I was a partner in the London office of BDO and chairman of the ICAEW’s Tax Faculty in the early part of this century.
In 2006 I was made redundant for the 2nd time and realised that I was no longer getting a buzz from being a tax adviser. I decided to focus the rest of my career on doing things I knew I enjoyed. Looking back these were all activities that had helped me to stand out from my peers. I became a self employed speaker, author, mentor and facilitator.
Since then I’ve built up quite a following and have been described by Accountancy Age as ‘Probably the most networked accountant in the UK’. I’m pretty active online and in January 2015 readers of economia magazine, voted me the second most influential blogger and tweeter in the area of finance and accountancy.
2) What has been your biggest achievement so far?
Securing my professional qualifications were probably the biggest achievements. Then being encouraged to stand for election as Chairman of the Tax Faculty. I felt as If I contributed a great deal during my two year term of office.
Looking back now, one highlight was chatting with the then Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, when I hosted him at an annual dinner at the Institute. Another was representing the Institute at a meeting at No 11 Downing Street. That felt like a huge achievement.
Beyond that I was thrilled to be featured on Newsnight in 1996 in a report that challenged the idea that all accountants are boring.
3) What is the biggest problem that accountants face now?
I find that a hard question to answer as it presupposes that all accountants are the same. And they’re not. Let me explain:
Those accountants who have already established sufficiently profitable practices reference a range of problems when I talk with them. The biggest is probably the challenge to raise their fees to cover all of the additional time and effort involved in providing annual compliance services, compared with 2 or 3 years ago. There’s a commonly held concern that clients won’t pay more for what they perceive to be the same service – even though it takes the accountant longer; whether that’s due to HMRC incompetence, new systems or new obligations.
The biggest problem for accountants who have yet to reach that stage is getting enough clients of the type they want to act for. These accountants find they are only picking up low value clients as anyone willing to pay a decent fee is going elsewhere.
There is a third category of accountants in my view. Those who have ambitious growth targets. They are not satisfied with the size and profitability of their established practice. They want more. Their biggest problem is often getting and keeping competent support staff and colleagues.
4) In your view, what is the solution to this problem?
As I identified 3 problems I’d better suggest 3 solutions too.
To raise their fees, accountants need to focus on ensuring that their clients better understand the value of the services they are receiving. This implies more effective communication and awareness, greater confidence on the part of the accountant and a willingness to replace those clients who will not pay higher, fairer fees. Let them go and seek out new clients who will be more respectful and willing to pay for the service they receive.
To get more clients I always encourage accountants to stop coming across as ‘just another accountant’. It’s much easier to win new clients if they perceive you as having a distinct focus on a particular type of new client. This is just one of 7 ways that accountants can stand out from their competitors.
To get more staff, support and colleagues it’s important to look at things from their perspective. How attractive can you make the idea of working with you? Does your website echo what you say when you talk about the opportunities? I’ve seen accountancy firm’s websites that reference ‘vacancies’ when they should be talking about ‘careers’ and including quotes from staff who talk about how great it is to work there – comparing it with bigger firms they have worked at and with smaller firms they have worked at too.
5) What fuels you to keep you going each day?
A number of things keep me going. Firstly I love what I do. Whether the day ahead involves writing, mentoring, networking or speaking, I’m excited when I get up in the morning. I love knowing that what I do is helping others to become more successful.
There’s also a great sense of excitement when someone chooses to engage me as their mentor, commissions me to write a paper for them, joins The Inner Circle for Accountants or books me to speak at their conference. Every activity contributes to my monthly income target and I know I cannot rest on my laurels as I need to continue providing for my family.
Related to all the above is the direct feedback I receive whether by email, during conversations,through twitter or on Linkedin where hundreds of accountants have endorsed my skills and posted generous recommendations of my services.
6) Can you tell us what you have planned for the year?
Thanks for asking. My plans involve building on what I’ve been doing most recently.
As part of my ambition to secure more well paid speaking gigs I’m taking a more pro-active approach than before. To date, I’ve simply responded to enquiries that have come my way.
I will also be writing the remainder of the 52 week Successful Practice Course that I soft-launched recently. I will be promoting this more actively and also filling the remaining spaces in The Inner Circle for accountants and in my 1-2-1 mentoring programme.
7) How can a business owner ensure that they are always maintaining their ethics and values?
That’s a tough one as it presupposes that they have considered and identified what are their ethics and values. I’m not sure that everyone does this.
In my case I remain bound by the same professional ethics as all qualified accountants. It may be that I’m more familiar with them than many because some years back I sat on a working party that updated the related guidance for members.
I recall we went through dozens of scenarios to try to ensure that the guidance was as helpful and comprehensive as it could be. Maybe that’s why I feel I know them and apply them, almost without thinking.
If I didn’t have that familiarity I would probably stick up a summary in my office so that i could see it every day. To remind myself and to limit the prospect of being tempted to stray from pursuing those ethics and values.
8) Can you give our readers 1 tip to help them stand out from the crowd?
As you know I have identified 7 ways that accountants can stand out from the crowd. If I had to pick just one, it would be to ‘follow up effectively and appropriately’ after each new encounter. So few people do this that it can be an easy way to ensure that you stand out and thus become more memorable, referrable and recommendable.
I would stress that following up in this way does not mean sending out promotional materials. Nor does it mean persistently seeking a meeting to discuss your services as an accountant. Instead you want to think about what you can do to help your new acquaintance, what would they find of value and what can you do for them.
9) How important is it to build relationships in business?
I think relationships are the bedrock of most business activities when you are offering a service like bookkeeping or accountancy. People tend to engage and work with people they know, like and trust. If you can’t form and build relationships you will struggle to build a client base by yourself.
This is one of the reasons why I make an effort to reach out and speak with accountants who have subscribed to my newsletters and online courses. I like to know what are their issues and challenges. The more customers I speak with the more I can ensure that what I write and speak about will resonate with my target audience.
10) Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me Mark! Where can we find and follow you online?
Thank YOU, Ruth. Your questions really made me think so I hope you and your readers gain some value from my replies.
My website is: www.BookMarkLee.co.uk and my blog is available there too. It has hundreds of posts on it, mostly aimed at helping professional advisers speed up their success.
On twitter I’m @bookmarklee and that’s also my Linkedin profile name.
I’ve also written almost 200 articles on practice focused topics for AccountingWeb.co.uk – Click Here for Mark’s & Ruth’s Article ‘Are you an accountant, a bookkeeper or both?’