Back to basics: How to listen to clients instead of talking to them

sturti client service
Norman Younger
Maximiti Limited
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No doubt your curiosity was piqued by the title, which is good for both of us. For you because hopefully you may learn an invaluable lesson and for me because you are reading my content, which is exactly why I write my column. Enough digression, let’s get down to business.

Are you still interested in reading further?

A leading question perhaps but one thing it certainly is, and that is a “closed question”. Bad, really not good at all.

You see when an issue crops up, especially when the client has an axe to grind with your service, (either through an act of omission or commission) - which is often a euphemism for the size or nature of your fees - and you ask them if they are satisfied with everything, the answer is either “Yes” or “No”- a classic example of a closed question.

Now, I am not a betting man but the odds are that your client will take the path of least resistance and simply answer “Yes”, which you both know is not the truth.

From here it can be a very short journey to receiving a letter from their new accountant requesting professional clearance. The way to avoid this simple but catastrophic misstep is to ask your client an open question.

Open questions

An open question is a classic method to defuse or de-escalate conflict and is a fundamental tool in the armoury of a mediator who seeks to resolve a conflict.

When we use open questions, we help increase understanding of other people’s viewpoints, as well as helping our own self-understanding and awareness. We also increase the opportunities for creativity in the search for effective solutions.

The aim of an open question is not to give a solution to the problem, but to open up understanding of all the factors at play in the situation that is causing difficulty, especially when people have become stuck in repeated cycles of actions that are not working.

Our abovementioned client does not feel that the fee levied is justified because you failed to give her any financial advice. You simply prepared and submitted her accounts, which is exactly what the letter of engagement stated you would do.

If you had asked her to tell you about the business or financial matters that were keeping her awake at night, the conversation and the professional relationship would have taken an entirely different direction. Your client would have mentioned things such as pensions, inheritance planning and her worries about the size of her mortgage in light of the increasing gossip surrounding an upward revision of interest rates.

A very open question indeed. Pandora ’s Box has firmly propped open and just look at the fantastic opportunities you now have to cross-sell or upsell. Happy client, happy accountant – the ultimate win-win scenario.

Another advantage of using open questions in a scenario where a dispute is actually in full swing is that people are much less likely to end up battling to make their view right and the other side wrong through throwing opinions back and forward. More than likely the disputing parties will be able to work together towards a useful and constructive outcome even where there are big differences about things.

Beware of closed questions

Closed questions, on the other hand, not only don’t move the conversation forward to a solution they usually move it further away from any solution.

Not good for you and an upheaval for your client, who really likes you but just doesn’t feel you are doing enough professionally for them. Unhappy client , unhappy accountant –  a lose-lose scenario.

Closed questions are those questions where the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Here are some examples of closed questions within the context of a commercial dispute:

  • ‘Have you tried speaking to them?’
  • ‘Wouldn’t it be best to go to a lawyer?’
  • ‘Should we not sue them?’

The reason such questions are not effective is because they come from the questioner’s point of view, and are simply trying to see whether the other person agrees with it or not.

The closed question doesn’t increase understanding of another viewpoint / thoughts /feelings, they simply seek to reinforce the perspective of the questioner. Closed questions are also often seen as an attempt to get people to do or see something the way the questioner wishes it to be, but it is phrased as a question rather than a demand, and therefore the usual result is that the situation stays as it is, or gets worse.

Open questions start with words like: what / how / why, where there is no simple, monosyllabic word that will answer it.

For example:

  • What do you think about my idea? [Not: Do you like my idea?]
  • How many options do we have in reclaiming our money? [Not: ‘Shall we sue them?’]
  • What communication has there been between you? [Not: Have you tried speaking to them?]
  • What factors are you considering when you think about raising prices? [Not: ‘You’re not raising prices now, are you’?]
  • What do you think about it? [Not: Don’t you think we should…?]
  • How do you feel about this? [Not: ‘Do you feel angry / sad / frustrated about it?]

In each case, the question opens up the conversation, and tries to see what the other person is thinking and how they perceive the situation.

Open questions will usually lead to more open questions, and will result in increased understanding from all sides, which will result in a broader array of possibilities to explore in seeking solutions.

When people feel that they have been understood, they are more likely to become cooperative and collaborative, even if they are not entirely in agreement with the other side.

In the case of clients who want more services than you are offering, by understanding what you are failing to provide you can start to address the deficiency. You may see yourself as only being engaged to prepare and submit accounts but in this day and age that no longer cuts the mustard. But if you are not drawing out of your clients what they really want, then in the long term your practice is probably doomed to irrelevance.

So, tell me, how do you feel about that?

About Norman Younger

Accountancy practice broker Commercial mediator & negotiator, Business broker  25+ years professional experience, charity trustee and community worker with a broad (but not-always "PC") view of the country's financial, business, political and social problems. Tel: 0800 2800 321. Follow my personal Google+ page


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07th Jul 2017 16:35

It puts into perspective the current software coming onto the market alleging it can pretty much do everything an accountant can do for a small monthly contribution. I wonder how many open questions it will ask....although it may have moved on from 'computer says no'....

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to justsotax
09th Jul 2017 10:58

I think that you are correct in observing the oversell as to what software is really able to achieve.
The communications revolution we are living through is built on the innate need for humans to feel part of something and communicate with one another. Looks to me like the software houses have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and forgotten that nothing replaces face to face contact.
Or perhaps I am old fashioned and in 20 years time the current generation will have forgotten.
3 weeks ago I was checking into a hotel in Fort William and duly advised by the matronly looking receptionist , a lady of around 60 I would guess, that the wifi was crap ( my word not hers) . The 4 of us looked at each other and tutted. Her response in a lovely Highland accent "the art of conversation is still alive you know ! "
And we headed for bar and drowned our sorrows as we stared across the mist laden loch into the twilight, solemnly looking at one another.
I rest my case

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