How to build lasting relationships with your accounting clients

To influence outcomes, CPAs need to position themselves as consultants.

To become a trustworthy adviser to clients or other business units, accountants need to be as good at persuasion and marketing as they are at managing the finances. The key? Building trust with clients.

While accounting studies and ongoing professional development may ensure accountants are technically competent, finance professionals have to go beyond the P&L to build trust with clients and colleagues. For those who are successful, being viewed as a trustworthy adviser can unlock both commercial and professional opportunities, and make work more engaging and challenging, too.

Before they can establish a bedrock of trustworthiness, it’s important for accountants to be worthy of their stakeholders’ trust, says William Pegg, founder of business consultancy Synthesis Group. He says accountants who are indispensable, who can demonstrate a commercial benefit and who are aligned with the rest of the business have the best opportunity to influence outcomes.

“Technically proficient people typically focus on the skill set for which they’re known, but our colleagues are not trained accountants, and so they may not understand the implications of what we say and the information and reports we provide. That’s why we get a disconnect,” Pegg says.

“We need to develop insight into what matters most to our stakeholders and solve the ‘root’ of an issue, not just the symptom. This allows an accountant to influence [outcomes] when they may not have authority,” he adds.

It’s a sentiment with which Lily Viertmann FCPA, chief finance officer, chief risk officer and general manager of finance of the risk and planning division at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), agrees. “Technical people have a tendency to quote accounting standards and rules, instead of speaking in a language that the business can understand. Try to speak the language of the business.”

Viertmann says technical skill should be a given, but that alone is insufficient. “You need to build relationships, network, and develop good interpersonal skills. Keep your ear to the ground to understand what’s happening in the business and where the opportunities and challenges are. You need to talk to a lot of people to get different perspectives on what’s happening in the business. Unless you can do that, it’s quite difficult to be an adviser.”

Understanding the business

There are common barriers many accountants face before they achieve adviser status. They may be too task-focused, or they may be brought into a situation too late, or asked their opinion after the fact. Alternatively, their advice may not be properly considered because their stakeholders don’t have confidence in their ability to help.

To get around this, according to Pegg accountants must have a clear view of where the organisation, and each of its divisions, is headed. “If you don’t know that, you can’t be confident you can give good advice.”

Viertmann agrees that understanding the business is key. “It’s then up to us to adjust our work to meet the needs of different stakeholders. This helps develop trust.

“Developing good listening skills is fundamental because it’s important to hear what people are saying and what they are not saying. Listen for what’s keeping stakeholders awake at night. Understand the problems they may be trying to solve.”

Additionally, Pegg says the finance team must solve the problems that matter the most. “To be able to design solutions to resolve their problems, finance must understand how their stakeholders tick: their hopes, drivers, even secret fears, along with their role in the organisation.”

The art of the sale

To influence outcomes, CPAs need to position themselves as consultants. They need to show that finance is not a technically focused, process-driven function. It’s an essential part of the organisational decision-making process.

“Bring stakeholders on a journey. Demonstrate knowledge of where they are today, the problems they face, and where they need to be tomorrow. From here, you can outline the path you will take to help them get there,” he advises.

Pegg explains accountants are really in a sales role. “You can’t always compel your colleagues and staff to do what you want. In this instance, you need to be able to elegantly ‘sell’ your solution, encouraging stakeholders to work with you. For this to be successful, the message needs to be less focused on your technical skills and more about what you can do for them and how this will directly contribute to their objectives.”

Importantly, he says there’s a subtle difference between the notions of “trusted” and “trustworthy” that accountants should appreciate. “Trusted is passive. Trustworthy is active. You have to have done something to warrant the trust and respect of peers. You can’t be subservient; you need to be a peer and equal. That’s when you will have your stakeholders’ attention.”

Insights, not data

As an accountant, a critical part of being a trustworthy adviser is the ability to generate real insights from the organisation’s data. Viertmann explains it’s common for people in technical fields to produce data. What’s missing is the analysis.

“It’s easy to expect the audience to work it out. At the other end of the spectrum, presentations may be so simplistic they just explain what the audience can already see. As an adviser, you have an opportunity to deliver insights and intelligence. Marrying different sources of information makes the whole conversation a lot richer.”

Keynote speaker and corporate educator Alan Cameron-Sweeney says too often he hears accountants say they spend so much time preparing reports, they don’t have time to analyse them. Automation is a way to address this.

“Automate your data with business intelligence systems to free up your time. If you want to be positioned as an adviser, you need to report on the numbers that matter, so start having conversations about the metrics that actually drive growth in the business,” he says.

CPAs have to be able to give insightful commentary to be viewed as an adviser in the business. “Simply reporting salaries are behind budget, for example, doesn’t cut it. You need to explain why they are behind budget. The business may have spent too much on overtime, or perhaps machines kept breaking down because they are not very reliable and so fewer staff were required,” Cameron-Sweeney says. “A more insightful piece of advice may be: we need to look at replacing our machines, as they are not cost-effective.”

Superior analytical skills help accountants to transition to being a true adviser, which is important given their central role generating insights about the business.

“Your job is to help your client or business make better decisions. To provide insights, you need to know how to find the cause of issues, how to structure analysis effectively and communicate with clarity. You need to be able to speak the business’s language, not just the language of finance,” he adds.

Sharpen your soft skills

The ability to persuade is also vital, says Cameron-Sweeney. “It’s one thing to give a presentation; giving one that persuades requires a different skill set. The numbers can’t speak for themselves in the way finance would like. You need to be aware of what people want and need.”

Partnering skills are also important. “You need to know how to manage up and across, by building an understanding of what your partners want. You also need to be able to give effective feedback on ideas in a way that moves things forward and is not confrontational,” he adds.

“Trusted is passive. Trustworthy is active. You have to have done something to warrant the trust and respect of peers.”

When it comes to skills, Viertmann says keep learning and adapting. “Our environment is changing dramatically and the industry is rapidly evolving.”

Collaboration is another important skill, she says. “We need to work with others to develop comprehensive solutions to problems, so problem-solving skills are also valuable. Think outside the box and be innovative, rather than thinking in the traditional way. Do whatever you can to help broaden your thinking.”

Start the conversation

Moving from accountant to adviser is a process that takes time and planning. “Being an adviser doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey and not a right,” Viertmann says.

Starting the conversation involves being completely open and honest about where the business is right now, says Pegg. “Be open about changing how you work, and emphasise this is to help stakeholders. Be clear that change takes time, especially with big teams. At this point, there’s an opportunity for the CFO to demonstrate the benefits of finance becoming more integrated with other teams.”

Every accountant has an opportunity to move from service provider to trustworthy adviser. The idea is to become truly integrated with the wider business, work on soft skills and realise that it takes time to garner adequate respect to be viewed as a genuine adviser to the business.

ASB case study

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) CFO Lily Viertmann FCPA is one finance professional who understands how to position her work and her team as trustworthy. She uses the 2017 marriage equality survey as an example of how her team was able to partner and consult with different stakeholders.

“We were working to a very tight timeframe and we had to collect a large volume of information because everyone on the electoral role was eligible to have their say.”

Given the volume of work that was required, the ABS engaged a third party to scan the forms. “We needed a partner with operations in most capital cities because there was such a large volume of information.”

The ABS finance team took the initiative to model locations where there was likely to be a bottleneck of forms to scan, to help the ABS project lead better support the service.

“Partnering with them in this way on a proactive basis allowed us to solve potential issues,” Viertmann says.

Read next: Challenge clients and win more contracts


Like what you're reading? Enter your email to receive the fortnightly INTHEBLACK e-newsletter.
June 2019
June 2019

Read the June 2019 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

Each month we select the must-reads from the current issue of INTHEBLACK. Read more now.

CONTENTS