Time to bury the accounting stereotypes

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett June 23, 2013

Marketing
A couple of reports last week that talk to changes and challenges in the accounting profession caught me eye.

Both come from AccountingWeb UK. Both suffer the same problem: playing to stereotypes that may well exist but which are far from what I see in the market.

But the problems don't end there.

Read on to find out why a more rounded assessment of the market might suggest a different picture.

Muddling marketing and sales

The first titled: Can accountants make good salespeople? is a worrying piece at several levels. Here's the first problem from which pretty much everything else flows:

Sales and selling appears to have grown a negative reputation in the accountancy profession - accountants consider it “dirty” work that undermines their trusted adviser persona, according to marketing expert Paul Shrimpling.

Marketing and sales are discrete though interconnected activities. They require different skills. Here is a definition of marketing from Wikipedia:

Marketing is the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers, for the purpose of selling the product or service. It is a critical business function for attracting customers.

Here is Wikipedia's definition of selling:

Selling is offering to exchange an item of value for a different item. The original item of value being offered may be either tangible or intangible. The second item, usually money, is most often seen by the seller as being of equal or greater value than that being offered for sale.

Although the conversation around this topic went in a variety of directions, commenters got hung up on the problem of 'ice breaking' in initial meetings. This is where in my view marketing and sales become muddled. It would have been more useful if there had been a broader discussion of the piece where Shrimpling is quoted as saying:

“Accountants are better than traditional salespeople in that they’re not naturally predisposed to sell. That might sound contradictory, but accountants are methodological, reluctant and trusted, whereas salespeople get a bit cocky and don’t follow the system.”

This is odd. It adds to stereotypical thinking for both accountants and salespeople but without adequately explaining why the imputed characteristics contribute to one or either being better.

While there is no question that trust plays a huge part in any sales effort, our erstwhile commenter has utterly missed that the best sales people don't sell. They don't have to. They get alongside their customers, they develop trust, they ask questions and they listen, they look for outcomes and not solutions, they let customers convince themselves of the appropriateness of a particular deal. Above everything, they have passion. How do I know this?

I've had the opportunity to watch some of the best salespeople in action. They get customers to sell to themselves.

One of the best is the CEO of a well known software company that regularly grows at double digit rates. His view is that selling is 85 percent passion and belief in the value proposition you are selling. It certainly helps to have a highly differentiated service but that's not a slam dunk. If anything, differentiation suggests the need to find customers aligned to your vision. Moving on...

Sage gets itself into trouble

Sage's publication of its latest professional accounting Pulse Report and accompanying infographic was also troubling. Before getting to the contentious points, Sage should be given credit for acknowledging the changes occurring in the market in its published research. Check the following image clip from the infographic:

Sage infographic

These findings do not surprise - mostly. The one surprise is the speed at which the number of professionals expecting to use online services has changed in the last couple of years. A further reading suggests this change will occur within the next three to five years. That should provide encouragement to the current crop of cloud players hoping to capitalize on the shift in the way software is acquired.

Unfortunately, in commenting on the report Sage fell into the trap of perceptually lumping older professionals into a 'has been' camp. Duane Jackson, CEO Kashflow caught the mood:

Wow, way to go Sage - insult your main channel to market why don't you!

I found this article via this tweet from Phil Hendy:

"the irony of @sageuk saying I am past it!http://www.accountingweb.co.uk/article/generation-y-accountants-step-forward/543120 … Their software is so past it @kashflow and @xero are overtaking them"

I couldn't have put it better myself. Glass houses and stones anyone?

Sage were incredibly late to leverage the benefits of the internet and now finally have a very low-functionality product (compared to KashFlow, Xero, FreeAgent or many others I could name) they feel they can preach to those who have already left them and moved on to bigger and better things.

It's like someone who has just discovered MySpace cornering the Twitterati to lecture them about the benefits of social media.

We should not be surprised that Jackson uses the story as an opportunity to give Sage a whipping. He's been doing that as an effective marketing ploy for more years than I care to remember. Get past the rhetoric and he has a point. In my view, Sage has struggled culturally to figure how to parse the change to cloud accounting and find a suitable response to those who have been cleaning up in their wake.

David Lewis saw an ageist angle:

I can't see any evidence in the article that supports the statement - as it is written it strikes me as being ageist and baseless.

Hopefully Sage will at least PROPERLY justify the statement or post an apology.  At the time of writing my attempts to obtain a response from Sage have proved fruitless.   Ironically one of the changing demands of recent years is the growth of social media and the need to respond!   Particularly, when outcomes are not as desired!

The ensuing furore forced Sage to issue an explanatory post where they said:

The story isn’t about age – it’s about the increasing prevalence of the social media savvy, connected accountant. While clearly there are some fantastic examples of accountants today who are leading the way in this area, it’s equally clear that the generation that grew up with Facebook and gmail and is used to saving their valuable music collection on iTunes or Spotify will know no different. As a result, just as the forward thinkers today are breaking new ground, we expect them to do the same.

BUT

We certainly don’t think that leading this tech revolution is the place for ‘Gen Y’ only – there are many well established professionals in this industry who have worked this way for some time now and led the way in terms of changing the industry and the way it operates. 80% of you already believe that you will use more services online over the next 3-5 years, and 17% of you already communicate with your clients via social media.

A good point. I have been documenting and videoing forward thinking professionals for the least five years. My last trip to Australia lead to filming some great examples of firms that are leapfrogging the competition. Here is the playlist. At the recent ICAEW cloud accounting event I met many others who are actively embracing cloud accounting. Last year, Xero filled ICAEW's Great Hall with customers and potential customers.

Verdict

It is sad to see the stereotypes or at least the perceived stereotypes of the past being perpetuated into the present. Some of the best sales people I've met are senior partners in small firms who have served 30 plus years. So are some of the young guns I've met. They know how to manage client relationships, they know how growth works, they know how to make the best of their differentiated positioning.

Professionals who are carving out new positions are changing the way in which the profession operates. They see the benefits of online services as a way to reshape their entire business model. The characteristics I've observed suggest that age has nothing to do with how they are creating the 'new.' It is however fair to say that around 60 percent I've met fall into the 'Gen Y' category. If the Sage Pulse report is a fair cross section of the profession then that statistic will likely change rapidly.

Featured image credit: © eugenesergeev - Fotolia.com

Image credit: © Brian Jackson - Fotolia.com