Resources for Professional Firms
Thought Leadership

Why your firm needs to become an expert

Prospective clients of law and accounting firms want to work with experts who understand their world. Heather Townsend, a speaker at Alliott Group's 2018 EMEA Regional Conference, explains why firms need to change to be that expert.

Main Image
Heather Townsend

Heather Townsend

"When it comes to competitive pitches, the top 3 buying criteria of buyers of professional services are good reputation, existing relationships and better expertise/specialisation."
Heather Townsend

Four weeks ago, I was staring down a steep hill full of rutted roots and menacingly pointed rocks. Seated on my mountain bike, I took a deep breath and started to pedal slowly to the edge of the steep precipice. As I picked up speed, my adrenaline started to rise and I was in the flow. As I approached the last jump at the end of the run, everything was in alignment. I held my breathe as I was whooshed into the air on the jump. If only there had been a photographer there!

The jump was one of the best I had ever done.

But as they say, pride becomes before a fall. And in my case, a very large fall. The landing was best described as a ‘crash landing’. In many ways, I was very lucky, it could have been much, much worse. No concussion, a patch work of bruises, and a very swollen base of my right-hand thumb. And when I mean swollen, very swollen.

4 weeks after my accident my thumb and hand was still painful. The swelling was now minimal, but it still wasn’t right. I had got to the stage where I needed to admit defeat and seek medical advice.

There were two choices facing me. Try and book an appointment with my local general practitioner, or as we refer to them in the UK, GP. Or pay to go privately and see my local physio. My concern with the GP was they were just not specialists in muscular injuries. I am pretty sure I would have been told, you’ve damaged your soft tissue in your thumb. Rest it and come back in a week or so if you don’t have any improvement. Or if they were feeling very cautious, tell me to go to the local hospital’s accident and emergency department to get it X-rayed.

Now I knew I had damaged the soft tissue in my thumb/hand. The internet and my own experiences told me that much! I didn’t have the time or patience to muck about with the GP. Nor did I want to give up at least half of my day sitting in a hospital waiting room. I wanted to know quickly what I had really done, and the best way to heal my thumb quickly. After all, I had a business to run and more importantly wanted to get back on my bike AND start to play netball again. This meant I needed to see an expert.

You’ve guessed it, I paid privately to see the local physio at a time which was convenient to me. And yes, they were able to pinpoint exactly which 2 joints I had badly bruised, and which ligaments and tendons I had damaged. Even better they were able to set me up with a plan to help my hand/thumb heal quickly.

Clients don't buy low risk services from accountants and lawyers

You may be wondering what my recent experiences has to do with you and your law or accountancy practice. The thing is, your clients don’t buy low risk services from you. Even, as Tesco in the UK found out to its cost a few years ago, a set of year end accounts comes with a level of risk if amounts are not booked in the right places. Your clients normally buy services which come with a material level of financial or reputational risk. Just like me not being able to risk long and protracted conversations with GP and other medical professionals they recommended, they can’t risk something going wrong with their business or personal affairs. As a result, they want to work with the best expert they can buy. After all, an expert can normally shorten the process to generate results, or through their expert knowledge help gain better results than a generalist.

Reputation remains key

This isn’t just my story or opinion. The research on this is all in agreement. When it comes to clients’ top buying criteria, it isn’t what we would guess it would be, i.e. price. It is actually the reputation of a potential advisor. And when it comes to competitive pitches, the top 3 buying criteria of buyers of professional services are good reputation, existing relationships and better expertise/specialisation. [Refs 1 & 2]

Given that the research has been saying for many years that the path to commercial success for professional advisors is going niche, why is it now that having a niche is now so important?

The Internet has empowered clients

The reality is social media and the internet have conditioned our clients that they CAN find the right expert. They no longer have to wade through a legal directory, one google search later and they can have a handful of potential advisers to help them. Now, you may say that all your work comes to you by referral. And indeed, you wouldn’t be any different to most professional advisers. 82% of all B2B work originates from a referral [Ref 3]. However, what has changed is clients’ ability to do their due diligence before they act on the recommendation.

Just take a moment to think about the last few times you had to engage a new supplier or professional advisor for your business. How did you go about finding them? Did you, as I strongly suspect, google them and look at their website and potentially their LinkedIn or Xing profile before deciding whether to contact them? And if you are doing this, your clients will be doing this.

Your prospective clients want to work with an expert who understands their world. How is your firm changing to be that expert? Can your firm afford not to make the change?


[1] “Inside The Buyer’s Brain” Lee Frederiksen, Elizabeth Hart, Sylvia Montgomery and Aaron E Taylor, 2013

[1] FT Effective Client Advisor Relationships report, November 2012

[1] Edelman Trust Barometer

For more information

Heather Townsend is the award-winning author of 5 books including The Go-To Expert and The Accountants Millionaires’ Club. She is the global expert in what it takes to make partner, and when you get there, stay there. She blogs regularly at The Accountants Millionaires’ Club and How to Make Partner. Heather is speaking at the 2018 EMEA Regional Conference