Specialist v generalist – should you niche or not?

It’s a recurring question for accountants: Should I specialise? Or is it better to have a broad range of clients?

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My answer is to specialise – but with an important caveat.

The case for specialising in a niche

Think of other professions – lawyers, dentists or even tattooists. People will pay more to see a specialist, knowing that they have specific expertise to meet their needs. If you want to buy a house, you look for a lawyer who specialises in conveyancing, not someone who does a bit of conveyancing, maybe a divorce or two and the odd unfair dismissal claim.

A specialist elicits a great deal more respect and is perceived as having far greater authority. Yet many accountants continue to take on clients of any size, from any industry and in any set of circumstances. If this sounds like you, I’m afraid all this does is position you as a generalist – which is fine if all you’re interested in is producing compliance work, but less so if you’d like to offer business-advisory and added-value services. Then positioning yourself as a specialist becomes important.

For many accountants it makes sense to work within a specific sector. That way, they can get a much deeper understanding of the businesses they work with, the challenges they face and, importantly, the language and terminology used by people within it.

For example, Rob Walsh – from Clear Vision, based in Corsham, near Bath – has been specialising in the dentistry business for many years. As a result, his current clients refer other dentists to him and he’s recognised as an expert accountant and business growth adviser within the sector.

Case study – Clear Vision Accountants

Here’s what Rob has to say:

Some time ago, in one of our practice’s board meetings, one of our non-executives challenged us to have a niche in dentistry. Having a niche means becoming an expert and therefore we created a wheel of opportunities to get to know the sector.

The first thing we did was to work with an existing dentist client very intensively to understand the language, to put in all the necessary systems, to have monthly board meetings and to do the management accounts. This was very grounding as it gave us the knowledge that we needed and helped us to understand how the sector works.

We then created our wheel, which was:

Who can help us make sure we’re known as experts in the industry? Some answers we came up with included:

  • banks
  • IFAs
  • solicitors
  • valuers
  • companies offering private patient plans
  • finance companies
  • manufacturers of specialist dental chairs
  • software companies.

We then decided on our package:

  • a vision day
  • a team day
  • a project plan
  • all the financials required to run the business from bookkeeping and management accounts through to benchmarking and upside-down forecasting (where we look at the personal goals first and then work out the turnover at the bottom) and packaged these into three different areas.

Once we’d built up trust in board meetings, it was actually very easy to cross-sell into accountancy because clients could see the work we were doing on consultancy, so there was no problem at all in obtaining the above work.

We then set up a marketing strategy to make sure existing clients – using their contacts and talking at events – got our name known by introducers that we’d identified in the wheel. For example, speaking for half an hour at different events on how to run a dental business (rather than a dental practice) was paramount in getting our name known around the country. At the same time we produced a book called ‘The Business of Dentistry – How You Run a Successful and Profitable Dental Business Not a Dental Practice’ and offered it at the events. This gave us huge credibility and people who had seen us talk would then come and speak to us about their requirements and we would convert them as well. We also took on some of our introducers as clients on the consultancy side so that they understood what we did. They became very good ‘gold’ introducers because they could see what we did first-hand and relate it to their client base.

We also produced articles in the dental press talking about how our approach was different to make sure dentists knew that. By doing so, we’ve built up a good network of IFAs, banks, solicitors and valuers who refer work to us. Most of our work, however, now comes from existing clients, because we’ve done such good work for them that they keep referring. In addition, we always look at clients’ lists to see how these match with our ideal profile and to decide whether we should market to them.

40% of our business is now in the dentistry and veterinary sectors. (We went into vets because as the problems in both industries are similar, we were able to transfer our knowledge successfully.)

If it wasn’t for our niche, we wouldn’t be where we are now. I believe it’s key to the success of your business, but first you need to make sure you get the language right and gain an in-depth understanding of how the industry works. The benefits of doing so are huge as you’ll gain credibility, referrals and good margins, plus it’s easier to cross-sell and to convert. We’ve now published our dental book many times (at 250 each time) and we’ve also produced a vet-related book which is selling on Amazon on a monthly basis.

One important caveat

It’s important to note, however, that rather than going all in, Rob limits his sector exclusivity to 40%, as this ensures his practice is still exposed to other industries and allows cross-fertilisation of ideas and concepts.

Although having a niche within a specific industry works incredibly well for Rob and for many others, your niche could just as easily be to a specific set of circumstances.

For example, the ideal client profile of another accountant I work with was based around a specific set of circumstances and aspirations. In his case, this was business owners with a turnover of £1m – £2m who wanted to grow this to £10m and then sell. By specialising in this way, he was able to appreciate the very specific challenges that businesses face at this point in their growth journey and use his specialist knowledge to help them achieve their objectives.

By being specific about the particular industry and/or circumstances of a business you work with, you’ll also be able to be specific as to exactly how you can help them, using your credentials as an expert in that area. You’ll be better able to relate to these particular business owners, and to explain that similar businesses you’ve helped tend to experience X, Y and Z problems at this particular point in their growth journey, and that your strengths and experience can help them to overcome these.

There’s more about identifying your ideal client in my book, Putting Excellence Into Practice , which you can download.

Shane Lukas – AVN for Accountants