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The term ‘accountant’: Gaining recognition, winning clients

The government has long been lobbied to give the term ‘accountant’ formal legal protection and ensure that it comes with minimum qualification standards, but this issue is also one that it has long resisted, writes IFA CEO John Edwards.

The term ‘accountant’: Gaining recognition, winning clients
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The government’s argument is that protecting the term makes the sector non-competitive, and is wholly unnecessary because of the natural checks and balances in place through legislation.

However, as the Institute of Financial Accountants (IFA) and other professional bodies continue to argue, without protection, many potential clients are unwittingly using unqualified accountants, and in doing so are putting their business at risk and are potentially even committing fraud.

Shout about membership

Interestingly, although it is relatively common knowledge in the sector that the term ‘accountant’ is not protected, and that any business or individual can call themselves an ‘accountant’, this knowledge is not widespread among your existing and potential clientele.

In fact, according to the IFA’s most recent survey, just 18 per cent of businesses who use an accountant are actually aware that it is not a protected term. Our research has highlighted that respondents list ‘qualified’ as the key attribute they expect of their accountant, along with ‘professionalism’ and ‘trust’, yet less than one in five know that you do not have to have any kind of formal training to call yourself an accountant in the first place.

This issue has never been more pressing than it is at the moment, when businesses are grappling with complex, fluid and often rapidly changing legislation. Now more than ever, they need a qualified, experienced professional to guide them, but without legal protection for the term ‘accountant’, how can they be sure? That is why the IFA is encouraging accountants to shout about their membership of a professional body by:

Reminding your clients: Most likely, your clients made a decision to use you based on relationship or price, and few will have asked about your qualifications or membership of a professional body. In fact, many may have taken it for granted. When you are giving them a substantial amount of additional advice and guidance, consider reminding them that you are a qualified member of a professional body and that they can be sure both of the quality of your advice and your accountability. It might just be the reassurance that they need right now.

Telling potential clients: Give prominence to your membership when pitching or quoting for new clients. Tell them what your membership means, how it holds you to account and why it protects them. It will help you provide credibility and reassurance.

Adding it to your marketing materials and stationery: As well as your designatory letters, make sure your office stationery, marketing materials, website, proposal templates, presentations and any external communications include the logo of your professional body, and do not forget to display your certificates with pride. It might not be the reason they buy from you, but ‘member of a professional body’ was one of the top five reasons our survey respondents selected, so it will definitely be a decision validator.

Promoting it through local PR: Only 18 per cent of our survey respondents know that there is no regulation for setting up as an accountant, so it is safe to assume that the remaining 82 per cent assume the term is protected. That means they may not know to ask if their existing provider is qualified or a member of a professional body, and might just assume that they are. This could be a great angle for you to tell in your local PR, encouraging businesses to check they are getting quality advice.

If we were in a period of ‘business as normal’, using an unqualified professional is risky enough, but doing it at a time when legislation is moving at such a pace, businesses could inadvertently be using incorrect or even fraudulent advice to make their decisions, without even knowing it. At best this could mean fines from HMRC, at worst, irreparable damage to their reputation and loss of their business.

Assumed, not validated

When choosing which accountant to use, qualifications are often assumed, not validated. Your professional membership, on the other hand, demonstrates your qualifications – which have been independently verified – as well as your insurance, experience, continued professional development and commitment to minimum practice standards.

Your professional body is doing its bit in the fight for recognition, but your support will be essential too.

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