Being a ‘truly’ trusted adviser
How can accountants forge a rewarding and professional relationship with their clients? Rachel Willcox investigates.
Two of the biggest issues faced by the accountancy profession over recent years – notably, more complex compliance rules and automation – have led to a changing landscape for accountancy services that has seen the number of high-street accountants plummet to an all-time low.
Increasing complexity in tax and new ﬁnancial reporting rules for small businesses, along with developments in accounting tech, have accelerated the move to retirement and/or sale for many ﬁrms. The cloud accounting revolution has led to ‘commoditisation’ of bookkeeping and simple accountancy processes that have seen some clients shun the annual pilgrimage to their accountant in lieu of online accounting services.
It’s not all bad news. A shift in client expectations about the kinds of services they expect to receive from their accountant is an opportunity for ﬁrms to focus their eﬀorts on developing value-added services for clients. Against a backdrop of high business failure rates and the low proportion of start-ups that evolve into scale-ups, the profession has a huge opportunity to better position itself as the ﬁrst stop for business advice.
Winning the hearts and minds of both existing and prospective clients hinges on being a truly trusted adviser to your clients. But accountants who want to be seen as more than simply compliance-focused will need to develop and display a range of key business skills, explains Mark Lee, a mentor and author widely recognised as one of the top online inﬂuencers of the UK accountancy profession.
SIX HABITS OF TRUSTED ADVISERS
1 A good listener Listen in a way that your clients know that they’re being heard. Paraphrase and empathise.
2 Curious Keep asking questions.
3 A problem solver If you don’t know the answer, find someone who does.
4 Responsive Acknowledge emails within 24 hours and have systems in place to make sure queries are answered.
5 Proactive Don’t wait for them to come to you with problems, make sure you have at least three or four touchpoints in the year.
6 Informed Understand their business and their industry and make sure you see the bigger picture.
Evolution of the accountants’ role
Fundamental to that transition is understanding and accepting that the role of today’s accountant has changed. Clients need a much more forward-facing and immediate service from people who understand their business and aspirations. Accountancy is a window to the rest of the business rather than the result.
“Accountants can get closer to clients by evidencing a genuine interest in their aﬀairs and learning how to oﬀer valuable insights, ideas and advice. Typically that will mean being prepared to spend more time with those client who value such input,” Lee says.
This isn’t just about developing new revenue-generating service lines; it’s also about forging a different kind of relationship with clients. In practical terms, this requires accountants to have proper conversations with clients using terminology that they understand and ensuring that the relationship you have with them is a business relationship, not an accountancy one. That’s much more compelling proposition.
It’s no longer about how quickly you can add up a row of numbers with a calculator, but instead translating accountancy jargon into English and empathising with your clients. “You have to make sure the client relationship is solid for the duration – it’s about making them feel wanted and making sure you’re thinking about them at all times,” says Andrew Subramaniam, a partner at HW Fisher.
Charles H Green, author of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, says maintaining your professional independence is, of course, still critical, “but that shouldn’t mean you have to be cold and impersonal. Having a good relationship isn’t the same thing as liking them! We’re often in a hurry to give advice but if they don’t feel you understand them, they won’t listen to you”.
Your qualiﬁcations and ongoing professional development will give potential clients reassurance about your technical capabilities, but assuming trusted adviser status demands both technical and soft skills together with emotional intelligence.
Do all of that and, despite all the talk of downward fee pressure, you will ﬁnd that clients are happy to pay for your services, particularly when they provide answers to the business questions that keep them awake at night. If you understand how to add value and grow with your clients you’re in a privileged place.
THE EXPERTS’ VIEW
David Rudd, partner, Wood & Disney
Being in business on your own can be a very lonely place, particularly if you’re running a small company. We offer regular board meetings to see where clients are; it means they have someone to rely on but also to nag them to get things done!
It’s much more about working in partnership with clients rather than us doing the accounting to them. Get to know your clients. We start out by asking them what their goals are and what’s getting in their way. Clients find it quite refreshing to have those kinds of conversations rather than talking about compliance.
Charles H Green, author of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook published by John Wiley and Sons
One of the biggest issues for accountants is they overestimate the importance of content and cognitive arguments, and underestimate the softer issues including credibility, reliability, intimacy (a sense of security and feeling comfortable saying sensitive things) and self-orientation (do they care?). As an adviser, if you can develop a relationship with your clients, you’re in a much better position to be meaningfully involved in their success.
Rachel Willcox is a freelance journalist