6 ways accountants can build client relationships and improve communication

Accountants are highly technical and detailed people. However, soft skills such as an ability to communicate and connect with clients may sometimes be lacking.

A new book offers strategies to improve communication and engagement with clients.

The inability of some accountants to meaningfully connect with their clients is hardly surprising.

After all, the sector often attracts introverts who may not be suited to selling their services, according to Lynda Steffens CPA.

The Queensland business coach, accountant and self-confessed introvert has released a book advising finance and business leaders on strategies to better run their firms and grow profitability. Called Accounting Revolution, the book aims to educate readers about client connections.

“For the most part [accountants] tend to be more on the introverted scale,” says Steffens, whose career includes formerly running her own firm, LS Accounting, and management roles at Synergy Accountants and Smith’s Lawyers.

“We are highly technical people, we are highly detailed people, we are amazing at processing a lot of stuff.”

She laments, however, that soft skills such as an ability to communicate and connect with clients may be lacking. Her book includes the following tips to help accountants and other business owners rethink client conversations.

1. Build awareness

For any leader or manager seeking success, awareness of business goals is crucial.

“If we have awareness around who we are and what we want to achieve, that’s a good first step,” Steffens says.

She argues that accountants have underestimated the value of their trusted adviser role and, as a result, have failed to leverage it. They should be transitioning from providing a functional service – that is, doing tax returns and financial statements – to becoming a vital resource for clients.

“By discussing more than just tax and accounting, you’ll really connect with your clients.”

2. Maximise your "superpowers"

Superpowers include using knowledge and data to help clients, without drowning them in the detail: analysis (sort, manage and analyse information and use it for the client’s benefit); low risk (appreciate that clients often value a conservative and measured approach when getting business advice); the ability to come up with solutions; and love of learning – taking advantage of education and experience to help clients.

3. Become storytellers

Vital information can be communicated via telling a story, rather than just “bombarding clients with facts and figures”, Steffens says.

4. Ask more questions

Accountants may be fearful of asking too many questions in case they do not know the answers on the spot. “People pay us to get it right,” Steffens says. “What if we don’t have the answer? That would be embarrassing.”

She suggests asking open-ended questions – such as: What else? If you did know, what would it be? And how does that make you feel? – to learn more about clients and, ultimately, deliver greater value.

Ask clients why they are in business, find out their strategic goals, and check what their future holds.

“If you delve into those areas you get a deep understanding and connection with your client, and then you can bring the detail in.”

5. Follow the script

In her book, Steffens outlines a program that she believes combines the power of accounting with coaching.

It provides a structured, informational grid that acts as the foundation of client engagement. The aim is to ensure that accountants do not have to think on the spot when speaking with clients about their business, instead drawing on tools of engagement, including meeting agendas and scripts.

6. Aim for structure

Steffens is an advocate of structure when dealing with clients, enabling them to come on a journey with their accountant, rather than engaging on an ad hoc basis.

She uses the five Ps to provide such structure:

PLAN (to build a client’s strategic foundation)

PROTECT (to hedge against risk and safeguard a business through a better understanding of its financial numbers)

POSITION (to get clients ready for growth)

PROGRESS (to work with clients to keep their initiatives on track)

POWER (to give clients the sense that they are back in control of their business)

The power of the three Ds

Lynda Steffens CPA proposes a simple, three-step process to win over clients.

Discover
Offer a free meeting for clients of 30 to 45 minutes to address what they want from their business. Use this consultation to show clients how you can help them reach their goals.

Dig
Go deeper into the client’s business to analyse its operations.

Deliver
Provide the client with a proposal that outlines the time-frame and the delivery cost from your discussions.

Why write such a book?

Steffens says in her interactions with accounting colleagues she became disturbed that so many wanted to quit their job.

“Accountants who had been around for a long time were overwhelmed and overworked,” she says.

“All they would say to me is, ‘I’m just waiting to get out of the industry’. It broke my heart.”

She hopes her book can make a difference – and keep them in the profession.

Read next: Return on relationship: How accountants can build client engagement


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March 2020
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