Cautionary Tale: How NOT to use LinkedIn to drum up advisory business (and actually what does work)

LinkedIn Tips For Accountants: Why it is needed

This week I received a car crash of a message on LinkedIn. In fact it landed so badly, my instant reaction was who was this guy, and where was the delete and disconnect button. In my scramble to disconnect I looked at his profile. Oh. This was an accountant. My tribe, the people I work with to help grow their business. So, I stopped for a moment and thought, I think now is probably the time for me to share my best LinkedIn tips for accountants.

After all, with most traditional in-person marketing brought to a crashing halt as a result of Coronavirus, lots of accountants are switching their energies to LinkedIn. Now with everything in life right now you take your choices. For years many 'outreach' type lead generation companies, e.g. cold callers, have been making a living content with the annoyance they provide to the majority of people who block their calls or emails. The tiny conversion rate they achieve is enough to maintain their activities. And nurturing relationships is not part of their business model. If the 'outreach' type lead generation model of business generation is a choice you want to take with your usage of LinkedIn as an accountant, then please don't waste any more time reading this article.

I almost didn't publish this article. After all right now the last thing I want to do is criticise any accountant who is getting themselves out there to drum up business. I spend far too much time helping accountants do just this, I want to applaud any accountant who is getting out of their comfort zone to win business. However, if you are in the business of nurturing relationships, which most accountants are, there is definitely a way ‘not’ to do LinkedIn. Or should I say, a really ineffective way which waste your time and emotional energy. So in this article I dissect exactly what went wrong, and why the approach backfired. But most importantly what you can learn from it.

My back story (and why this is relevant)

In 2009 I was forcibly dumped out of corporate employment and for the first time ever needed to sell myself to generate income to put food on my kids table. (And by the way, not that kind of selling myself, we were not that desperate. Plus not sure that would earn much money...) My redundancy pay off had been better than minimum but was still not particularly generous, so money was pretty tight. Then add in 2 pre-school age kids, getting out and about to meet people wasn’t particularly feasible and was kept for only very special occasions. After all, when you put together the cost of childcare, train fare or petrol, plus the inevitable coffee/tea and/or the cost of the event, I wasn’t getting any change out of £100. So, I turned to this new-fangled thing called (at the time) social networking as a way to generate new business. And with a brand new (and pretty empty) order book, I was ready to try most things to avoid going back to corporate life.

To cut a very long story short, I learnt to win business without going out and physically meeting people by blogging and becoming a diehard fan of Twitter, and then in the last 7 years or so, on LinkedIn. Without wanting to sound big-headed about this stuff, marketing myself from the comfort of my home office has been how I’ve won business over the last 11 years. Of course, I wouldn’t profess to know every single one of the many LinkedIn tips for accountants, I’m not that arrogant. Like everyone I am learning every single day what works, what doesn’t work, what used to work and what has changed. But one thing I have learnt, and consider this your first LinkedIn tip for accountants, going straight to the sell when you haven’t taken the time to build the relationship doesn’t work in real life and it sure isn’t going to work on LinkedIn.

So, what was this car crash?

The message started:

Hi Heather, Do you know of a business owner that this would benefit? The Coronavirus Interruption Loan Scheme. Did you see my post? [link to a linkedin post]

Now picture this, you are at a networking event and someone comes to join your group. You hardly know them, vaguely recognise them and the first thing they say to you is something along the lines of the approach on LinkedIn I received. I am guessing it would feel really awkward and you wouldn’t be able to get away fast enough.

Now add in the whole Coronavirus thing into the mix. If you are like most people the last thing you want at the moment is to be sold too. See what Madeline from Fearless In Training had to say on the matter!

(No offence is meant to ‘old white guys’ as I get ‘young women’ doing this approach too.) For most of us at the moment we are just moving from "survive" to adapt/pivot in the journey for our businesses. The thing about the ‘survive’ stage of this journey is we are hunkering down, cutting costs and only spending money on what we think is essential for our survival. Luckily enough for accountants, most business owners include the services you offer as essential spend.

What was exactly wrong with this approach?

What I suspect has really happened in this scenario is the author of the message has cut and pasted the same message to nearly all of his UK based connections. After all, this LinkedIn stuff is a numbers game right? Wrong! Good sales technique (whether using LinkedIn or not) is never a numbers game. It’s all about a targeted approach. Therefore, a third of the LinkedIn tips for accountants (in this article) is to always target your messages when contacting people via private message on LinkedIn. For example, I may be a ‘normal business owner’ on the outside but I am anything but a normal business owner. (Well my ego likes to think this!) One quick read of my profile and click on my business’s websites would tell you very quickly that I am very connected to people who are very qualified to help UK business owners access the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBIL) We have nearly 45 members in the Accountants' Growth Club now. So you don’t need to be a genius to realise I am probably going to refer any business owners who need help with this to my AGC members.

When you decide to prospect on LinkedIn, which was basically what this approach was, you have to do your research first. What do I mean by this? Who is a good prospect for your service? How will your service help them at a time like this? If my LinkedIn connection had done his research on me, I suspect he would have had a very different first message. Click here to download at least 30 'cut and paste' conversation starters and proven connection request templates to use on LinkedIn. (email required)

Small talk earns the right for big talk

Once you have decided to make an initial approach, remember that small talk earns the right for big talk. And this was another problem with this cold approach. We didn’t know each other. Yes, we had connected ages ago on LinkedIn but there was literally no dialogue in between. Nothing on the chat history. Yes, nada, nothing. Let’s think about this a little, would you go to someone for advice on accessing a loan for your business survival who you had no pre-existing relationship with? Just because they said they could help you? Or, would you recommend someone in your network to this person? Of course not, no-one wants to put their reputation on the line by referring a stranger. Therefore, every single ‘prospecting’ message needs to start with relationship building. Yes, small talk such as “How is the lockdown affecting you and your clients?” At this point in time everyone is very sensitive towards any kind of sales approach. And your audience were not born yesterday. As Madeline’s tweet says, ‘hop on a call’ or variants of this message such as ‘let’s have a chat’, or ‘let’s have a free strategy session’ or 'did you see my LinkedIn message' is going to be seen as a sales approach. Even if you profess until you are blue in the face that you were just trying to help. Click here to download at least 30 'cut and paste' conversation starters and proven connection request templates to use on LinkedIn. (email required)

Let’s go to the next part of the dialogue

Like the person who takes delight in keeping the Nigerian scammer on the phone for as long as possible, I decided in for a penny in for a pound. So I wrote back this message:

No thanks - not interested right now. But if you would like some help to understand how you can use this CBIL process to generate more business, then contact my head of growth Ashley to book 15 mins in his diary. I could be wrong, but this very directive, heavy sales approach may actually switch off your ideal audience. (I nearly disconnected from you) But decided to reach out and offer help instead, because that's who we are.

Cheeky, I know, but sometimes people just need a little direction with this stuff. And I suspect I was getting fed up of the sales messages via LinkedIn.

I then got this reply…

Thanks Heather, I was only directing you to my post where I was making a free offer of information. No sales pitch. We are connections after all. However I appreciate you have radar for heavy handed sales approaches but I think it is a little too sensitive. I am happy to speak Ashley however.

Hit’s head against a brick wall multiple times…. Where do I start to unpick how bad this reply was?

When you have no relationship and no understanding of someone’s real position, any offer of free information has got a high potential of being seen as a sales pitch. I don't know about you, but my instinct when someone has told me I have said the wrong thing is to apologise. That's just good manners in my book. (Checks to make sure I haven't turned into my mother during lockdown...) Remember that relationships still matter, even though the conversation is on LinkedIn rather than in person. So, another one of these LinkedIn tips for accountants, is never, ever, ever tell someone (unless you know them very well) that they are wrong and being too sensitive. Definitely don't say this when you are the cause of the upset! I have the scars to prove this.

By connecting with someone on LinkedIn you are NOT saying you are open to being sold to. Connecting with someone on LinkedIn is like the equivalent of shaking hands at a networking event. In other words, you are open to a dialogue and seeing whether there is the basis to strengthen the relationship. Click here to download at least 30 'cut and paste' conversation starters and proven connection request templates to use on LinkedIn. (email required)

Your aim when prospecting on LinkedIn as an accountant is...

Your aim is to initially broaden your network of potential clients. It is not to go straight in with a sales message. You have no idea when they may be ready to switch accountants. So when someone accepts your request to connect, please ditch the idea of going straight to a call. It's too soon. But do start a dialogue, such as (in these COVID-19 interesting times)

How is lockdown impacting you and your business? How are your teenagers coping being apart from their friends? Have you had to furlough any staff?

Just in case you hadn't guessed, forget about shaming other accountants in these early messages by asking questions such as:

Are you getting the support you need from your accountant right now? Has your accountant been supporting you through these interesting times?

They will soon tell you if they are getting the service they need from their accountant. But they will almost definitely ask you how you and your firm is coping. And if they do, fill your boots. It's time to share some of the unsolicited thank you messages you have got from your clients recently. I think what I am trying to say with this is,  allow the conversation to develop naturally. They will give you a call, or as many of our members are finding on LinkedIn, a message along the lines of "I've been following you for a while". The correct techniques I have been describing here for prospecting on LinkedIn (for accountants) have been responsible for many of our members winning a significant chunk of their new business via their usage of LinkedIn. And by chunk I am talking 5 out of 7 leads in the last 2 weeks for one member, £100k+ for 6 months effort of being on LinkedIn for another member etc...

So how did I respond to this message?

This is what I said in response to this message:

Understandably your intentions are very much to help - of course they are. But in this situation it is always about impact vs intent.

My aim here was to help the other person save face.

And, here was how your impact became very different to your intent. 1) This is the first message we have had for a long, long time. Which means we hardly know each other and the trust isn't there. So any direct to "hop on a call" or "read my stuff" without establishing some trust or relationship is always going to be taken badly. Small talk earns the right for big talk. 2) You didn't ask what was my situation and whether I was open to help or knew of businesses which needed help. So it instantly came across as wrong. And I made 2+2 = 5, i.e. you were in sales mode and my hackles raised. 3) Some simple research on what I do would have meant that I was probably up-to-date with what was going on with the CBIL. So, it felt wrong to me. 4) If this approach didn't work with me, then odds on it may have a similar impact if used with others. They just haven't told you. Blaming me for being too sensitive is possibly unhelpful to you right now. 5) Your words used actually came across pretty aggressively. "Did you see my post" feels like a fairly rational thing to say. But with minimal preamble or establishing trust it felt to me as if I should have seen your post. (The odds are that I probably wouldn't have seen your post as we have had minimal interaction on LinkedIn) If you had perhaps written something along the lines of... "I know we haven't been in touch much via LinkedIn, if at all. But I am interested to know your experiences of the CBIL, and how your members are finding accessing it on behalf of their clients. One of the things we do at the moment is helping our clients and others access this, and have a good success rate. We wrote about this on a post here [link to post] (which you probably didn't see) Shout if it would be helpful to chat or talk further."

Click here to download at least 30 'cut and paste' conversation starters and proven connection request templates to use on LinkedIn. (email required)

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