Building a Profitable Trust and Probate Practice

The recent news that the ICAEW have just licensed their 100th member frim to do probate work will I know cast a pall of gloom over many (although I suspect their involvement is a litigation opportunity in the making down the line). Accountants are really good at de-skilling processes (and delegation it is crucial to their PEP) and you should as a first step make sure your processes are as efficient as theirs are.

However, I strongly believe that, done right, the trust and probate/‘private client’ departments of firms should be a good profit generator for many years to come.

First Things First – Get Your Offering Right

My first tip for increasing the profitability of your wills and probate department is one many of you will hate and/or deride. It is also one I know to be a great profit maker for the firms I know that bit the bullet and did it and all you have to do is change your Rule 2 letter.

Add a paragraph that says you’ll charge £x per annum for every document you store for clients and that the charge will be made when the document is withdrawn from your store. Then do it. The invoice becomes the first entry on the probate account.

My friend who originally told me about this wheeze plays golf in Marbella every summer for a fortnight (after tax) on the back of it. In more than 20 years not one client has ever queried the paragraph charging the fee.

My second tip is to diversify the range of services you offer around probate. Taxation planning and financial planning are obvious bolt-ons, and both, done well, are highly profitable.

Marketing the Service

Having got the offering right, how then to market it well? I think there are two keys here. The first is to recognise tour opportunities for new business are greatly enhanced by life changes and stage. The second is to build influence (which produces a steady drip of new work).

  1. Life Stages

What do we mean by life stages? Well, in your life you do many things that cause or are caused by change or (often) age. When you move house, a parent dies, a child becomes an adult, you sell your business (or buy one), marrying a non-domiciliary, buying a second property here or abroad, a parent getting ill or infirm. There are many of these trigger events that present opportunities for the provision of the sorts of services you do or should provide. When the lifestyle changes, there is a conversation to have.

The trick here is twofold:

  1. Keep in regular contact with your clients (this is actually the big idea behind client newsletters), so that when they have such a change they think of you first – you should be reminding them that ANY significant change is a good reason to check in with you about whether there is something that should be done. You should, of course, offer a free will review every 5 years or so anyway! Always encourage them to contact you whenever they face a significant event (almost any kind) in their way of life.
  2. The second great way of identifying life changes occurs in-house: your other departments are busy working away on things (they call them transactions, usually) all the time that represent life-changers for clients…and they should be cross-referring those opportunities to you.

In terms of finding new work, look for external indicators – new members of the bowling club, the buyers of properties, firms joining the Chamber of Commerce and so on. A little market research plus a good first contact (another decent use of newsletters) can pay good dividends.

  1. Influence- Building – Building Business on the Drip

Those of you who read my blogs (Linkedin is the best place will know that I have spent a lot of my life building professional services firms both as a partner within and a service provider without…and that the approach we take to business development is based on the nearly-free approach called networking.

Networking delivers a constant drip-feed, not a rush, so you need to be patient…but it really works (it’s how we have built our businesses into market leadership, even if you may not have heard of us!).

Building influence is a very different approach for the above a ‘instant need’ based marketing such as SEO. Whereas those are about trying to spot a ‘need point’, influence building is about being the name that comes to mind when a need arises.

Here the essence of a successful strategy is to leverage the contacts you have to build your influence in a wider, but relevant audience. Firms tend to do this by social media and blogging, but given the slowness of the process and the need for continuous/repeated presence, this is unlikely to work well unless the contact cost is kept very low – which certainly means not using fee-earner time.

The first step here is to target the audience and then to work out who the influencers are. For example, your local Age Concern or bridge club will be influential with the elderly. Wealthy but active people – perhaps a golf or bowls club. Private schools are connected with the more affluent (parents and grandparents). Use your imagination, or ask clients (‘So, what hobbies do you have now you are retired?’).

Work out who is in front of those audiences and then what you have that will interest or benefit them…this may require some imagination and it may require some sort of quid pro quo. However, the maths is compelling – Google told us a while back that 86% of all searches for professional local services contain a location. People want their advice delivered locally…there are other professional firms locally whose clients would be great for you and vice versa. Get creative, get talking and from alliances which allow you to leverage each other’s reach and brand value.

It goes without saying that the delivery of networking strategy is capable of being automated so that the time commitment is minimal.

There is an additional benefit to using networking. Once you start thinking about the networks you should build, you start thinking more about your clients and their lives…and this will soon translate into being more proactive regarding their issues. Proactive to a client means ‘caring’, or at the very least ‘interested in me’. And there is probably no better reputation – or differentiator – you can have in the market.

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