Return on relationship: How accountants can build client engagement

Accountants play a central role in their clients' worlds

It’s never been more crucial for accountants to build deep, strong and lasting relationships with their clients.

Andrew Albury FCPA, a director and senior private client adviser at MGD Wealth in Brisbane, argues that to compete with financial planners, traditional accountants need to lift their game. He notes that automation and cheaper offshore options are reducing the value of providing compliance services.

“Thanks to recent regulatory changes to the licensing regime, the lines between the services provided by accountants and financial planners are blurring, and many people coming into the profession have skills in both these areas,” he says.

Furthermore, while a lot of accountants’ work involves looking backwards at what has happened, financial planners help their clients plan for the future, often leading to a deeper relationship with clients.

“Accountants need to involve themselves in things not easily replicated on the internet,” says Albury.

“Communications, marketing and personal skills will be more highly rated than technical skills and number-crunching. And these are skills that many in the financial planning industry possess.”

This sentiment appears to be confirmed by a recent study by CPA Australia.

“Our research shows that the desirable qualities for accountants are trustworthiness, knowledge and qualifications, and these are the areas accountants perform best in,” says Peter Docherty, general manager, public practice at CPA Australia.

“The research has also highlighted the ongoing need to focus on certain soft skills that clients are looking for. These include being approachable, friendly and engaging.”

So how do accountants start building these skills and improving relationships with clients? Read on …

Get out and about

“Partners in smaller accounting firms should let the people lower down the chain do the compliance and tax work and free themselves up to be proactively sitting in front of clients and trying to add some value to their clients’ businesses,” says Albury.

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“A common complaint from many of our clients is that they never see their accountants. As advisers, we are out on the streets all the time. We would much prefer to be sitting face-to-face with a client and on their turf rather than ours.”

Mark Holton CPA, a director of Smithink, which consults to accounting firms, agrees you can’t beat direct communication.

“Social media, newsletters and emails are wonderful strategies to engage clients, but how do you know whether your clients are reading and understanding them?”

Become more client-centric

Albury believes in putting clients and their needs at the centre of everything an accountant does.

“Accountants, historically, have always played a central role in a client’s world and they need to better position themselves to keep this role. In order to remain relevant, they need to become almost a one-stop shop.”

He suggests a move to total wealth management that includes superannuation, estate planning, investments estate planning, tax structures and succession planning.

“These all have a role to play. Looking at them in isolation doesn’t make sense. You need to ensure that all these areas are talking to each other properly. You can make this happen through a network of good referral partners.

"But I would suggest accountants also become actively involved in the referral process. Don’t just hand out a phone number, because you may lose control of the relationship. Accompany the client to the meeting if you’re holding their hand through the process, they will still think you’re pretty good [because you facilitated the meeting with the expert].”

Know your client better

Greg Hayes, a managing director of Easton Investments and founder of Hayes Knight NSW, believes the key to building a strong relationship is to know your clients and their businesses better, “so they feel that you have their best interests at heart and have taken time to understand them”.

Albury agrees. “Know what their kids are up to, what’s happening with their health. All of those things are conversation starters. I’d usually spend the first 15 minutes to half an hour of every meeting with a client talking socially. Everyone knows people like talking about themselves and it puts them in the right frame of mind for whatever you have coming.

"Don’t just see the hourglass. This needs a different model of remuneration and ultimately you will be able to charge what you need to because of the deeper relationship and [the way in which] that helps you to add value.”

Holton is a big believer in doing a needs analysis with a client.

“You sit down with them face-to-face and talk about their issues, strengths, weaknesses, risks, funding issues and succession planning. At Smithink, we have a document with about 100 open-ended questions to ask clients.

This is a relationship-building exercise. It also shows clients that we have a very direct interest in all parts of their business. Plus, it gives us a firm understanding of what the client needs so we can deliver some of those extraordinary services such as business advisory, estate planning and financial planning. It’s all about getting to know what keeps the client awake at night.”

Be more proactive

Hayes says it’s vital to anticipate where your client is heading, rather than just reacting to what’s happening in your client’s life.

“If you can start providing advice to the client on where they are heading, then you start to add serious value to the relationship. This requires you to have spent enough time with your clients to understand them as individuals – and their businesses. Not everyone will be the same and you can’t deliver value in the same way.”

Communicate more often

Recent CPA Australia research on client loyalty shows tax time should be a means of opening doors to a deeper relationship with clients.

Docherty adds, “Our findings also highlight a need to continually communicate the scope of services that accountants can provide, so they avoid being continually positioned as taxation specialists or providing transactional advice.”

Holton also recommends creating more regular communication touchpoints so that accountants can get to know the client better and become more proactive in adding value. These, Docherty says, can include regular newsletters, social media, client surveys and running seminars and client events.

“Accountants need a very rounded marketing plan adopting all these things, but you can’t beat having a cup of coffee with a client, chatting about them, their business, family and goals. This builds your relationship and is also a service identification opportunity. You should do it at least annually.”

Hayes believes accountants can also formalise the way they engage with their clients. “For example, they could ensure they speak to their better clients once a month, keep them informed about what’s going on and invite them to client events that they run. It’s about showing clients they are not just a number, you actually care for them.”

Take corrective action early

If there are signs a relationship may be souring, Hayes recommends taking a step back.

“Try to identify what the problem is. It’s always easier to deal with a problem if you know what it is. Then sit down with the client and try to come up with solutions. The reality is that the job is never done. No-one has the perfect client relationship management system and anyone who says they do is probably misleading themselves. Client management will keep changing and you have to keep managing that.” 

“Accountants have always played a central role in a client’s world ... they need to keep this role.” Andrew Albury FCPA

Dominic Myssy CPA

Dominic Myssy CPA

The secrets to building long-term client relationships include showing clients you care about their businesses and being proactive in your dealings with them. That’s the view of Dominic Myssy, principal of Myssy + Co Accountants in Sydney, a boutique accounting firm servicing small to medium businesses.

Myssy says it’s important to demonstrate to clients that you are thinking about them and to deliver what you have promised. So, too, is communicating the service you are delivering and the processes involved.

“Clients have an idea of what an accountant should be providing, but it’s hard for them to differentiate between the services they receive,” Myssy says.

“The challenge for professional service providers is that we are providing an intangible service, so clients may not realise how much time we have spent on it or what’s involved; they may take your services for granted.

“That’s why we will give a high-level summary at the end of a job and explain how we saved them money. It all comes back to communications and managing client expectations.”

Indeed, Myssy has made it a future focus to have more client meetings.

“It’s gone the other way with too many emails and electronic communications. That’s not very effective, and clients really appreciate it if you can make the time to meet with them. You also get more information from the client that way, which helps to build the relationship.”

Myssy + Co operates on a referral basis and doesn’t take “walk-ins” or advertise.

“We’ve built a good network of professional partners – lawyers, financial planners, mortgage brokers – and we get a good flow of clientele from them,” says Myssy.

“But through walk-ins and advertising you can attract the wrong type of clients. Every practice should have an ideal client type and you need to be strict about this. Taking on clients who don’t fit the profile can lead to problems and disappointments, especially if they’re looking for a different type or level of service.

“Don’t take on work you can’t do or don’t want to do. Don’t try to wing it. Clients will see through that. And be selective in the referral partners you work with because it could fall back on you if something goes wrong.”

Jason Cunningham FCPA

Jason Cunningham FCPA

When Jason Cunningham and childhood friend Robert Hadded started The Practice accounting firm in Melbourne in 1997, they were both only 24  with little experience or money. They had to find a way to differentiate themselves, so from day one they centred their business 100 per cent on their clients.

“We made sure we serviced every single client above their needs. We only had a handful of them,” recalls Cunningham, The Practice’s director for marketing and sales.

That meant The Practice had to look after all their customers’ needs, including accounting, record-keeping, taxation, superannuation, banking, insurance and financial planning.

This focus paid off. The Practice now employs about 50 people and is expecting to turn over A$10 million in the next financial year. It’s about to set up an office in Sydney and is also eyeing Queensland. Cunningham, also an author, keynote speaker and media commentator, believes that too many accountants are focused on being accountants.

“When they talk to clients, they talk about balance sheets, contingent liabilities and so on. That is the wrong focus because you are focusing on yourself. The most important people in the relationship are the customers, so you should focus on them. With a CPA behind your name, they already expect you to know your accounting stuff.”

Cunningham advises accountants to avoid accounting terms and speak to clients in a language they understand, usually about what’s in it for them. Good relationships, he says, develop via good communications.

“Too often, when accountants have a question for their clients, they send an email rather than call or go out to see the client.”

Not having too many client relationships is also vital. “No matter how good you are, you can’t service too many clients well.”

Lesson learnt, The Practice is no longer an accounting firm that also offers financial planning and mortgages. It’s a firm that does just two things: business advisory and personal wealth advisory.

“However, behind that is a team of accountants, tax guys, superannuation experts, financial planners and mortgage brokers. We started looking at our business from our customers’ perspective,” says Cunningham.

Other big lessons Cunningham has learnt in building long-term client relationships include:

  • Let clients who require a different type of service go. You can’t be all things to all people.
  • Never be afraid to tell a client you don’t know the answer.
  • Don’t get too caught up in your hourly rate. Focus on the value you give your client.
  • Always be ready to address the elephant in the room – costs or why a client is unhappy with you.
  • Your mission statement must focus on what you do for others, not yourself.

Read next: How to become your accounting clients' CFO

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December 2021
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