Client communication is now a critical skill for accountants
Clients increasingly have higher expectations from their accountant and demand a forward thinking and proactive approach. It is therefore no longer acceptable for accountants to only focus on compliance matters.
They also need to be able to understand their clients’ needs, to engage them in a discussion about the future, and to help them make the right decisions to achieve their goals.
Interestingly, accountants often know what needs to be done – yet they just don’t do it. Many find it difficult to step outside of their comfort zone. Without understanding why change is so difficult, (Clue: it’s not you, it’s your brain) changing habits can be very challenging.
What can you do to improve the level of communication you and your team provide to your clients?
1. Run workshop sessions on active listening skills to effectively engage clients
As accountants, we’re generally great at addressing technical issues and providing solutions, but we can find it quite difficult to ask the right questions to really understand more about the client’s issues and needs. Open-ended and probing questions are the best way to effectively engage clients in discussions about their needs and their objectives. Role playing can be a great way to show accountants what active listening is all about.
2. Engage in discovery conversations with clients
Now that your team understands what active listening is all about, they need to practice this by engaging in ‘discovery’ conversations with clients. By asking the right questions, you can find out more about client aspirations (where they want to go) and afflictions (what’s preventing them from getting there). You can help them get a clearer picture of their goal and really engage them in the process. This is what discovery conversations are all about.
3. Set some clear firm and individual objectives for client meetings
It’s the nature of accounting firms that tax compliance work will take over if we let it. The best way to encourage staff to engage more with clients is to set clear targets for client meetings. Ensure that a meeting is held with every client at least once a year, probably more for business clients. Set a clear agenda for each meeting, to include discovery conversations as well as technical discussions.
4. Provide training in business writing skills to all accountants
Training in business writing skills is essential if we expect our staff to communicate effectively with clients by email or letter. It’s not just getting the spelling and grammar right, it’s also the tone and words used that can have a significant effect on the way clients respond to our communication.
5. Set client expectations up front and manage those expectations proactively
Do your staff really go out of their way to explain to clients the full scope of work to be completed. Too often, we assume that clients understand what it is we’ll do, and then get tied up in knots when the nature of the work changes. Setting clients expectations means clearly explaining what you will do, when you will do it, how much it will cost, what you expect from the client and what they should expect from you. Do you explain this well enough?
6. Encourage your staff to call clients to ask ‘how’s it going’
How difficult can it be to pick up the phone to ask clients ‘how’s it going?’ Apparently very difficult based on feedback we get from accountants on a regular basis. The challenge is that we’re used to communicating with clients in relation to accounting matters, but less confident about opening up the discussion to really understand what’s happening in the client’s world. Initially, a proactive phone call can seem uncomfortable to both the accountant and client, but if you take time to explain that you want to improve communication and understanding, your clients will soon get it!
7. Ask clients for feedback on what you can do to help them
Finally, ask your clients for feedback on the quality of the overall service they receive from the firm. Feedback should be formal (surveys) as well as informal (just asking). You should ask about the level of proactivity, quality of communication, responsiveness to queries and the extent to which the client feels the firm really understands them.
If you can work on these 7 steps, you’ll be going a long way to improving the quality of communication you have with your clients.
How can you change your team’s behaviour to improve client relationships?
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can implement a step by step process to help your team be more proactive in communicating with clients, attend our upcoming online training session on Wednesday 26th March 2014. Click here for further information and registration details.
Dale Crosby | Training Beyond Accounting | firstname.lastname@example.org