Brexit: Talking to clients without causing offence
Philip Fisher warns accountancy firms to talk about Brexit tactfully or otherwise, clients might orchestrate their own exit.
Ignoring what leaving the European Union might do to the country, its businesses and its inhabitants, for good or bad, the Brexit process has had a further particularly heinous side-effect.
In a fashion that few of us can probably ever remember, it has managed to divide even the most close-knit communities.
Both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are indulging in internecine warfare from which either or both might never recover. Contrarily, alliances are being built across political divides, although you have to imagine that these will only be temporary.
In the same way, families have become split and friendships ended over almost certainly fallacious expectations about what might actually happen when (or conceivably if) Britain finally decides to take the great step into the unknown.
The odds are that any firm with a staff of more than eight or 10 people is likely to include at least two who will hold violently opposing views.
One task for those charged with running practices is ensuring that they operate smoothly. If colleagues either are not speaking to each other or, worse, shouting at each other, this is hardly a recipe for peace and harmony, let alone optimal profitability.
While it may not be easy, partners or staff managers need to negotiate these difficulties by whatever means, presumably demanding that any conversation regarding Europe is off-limits during working hours.
That might seem like an insuperable task, particularly if some of the individuals involved are hot-headed. However, your practice also faces a far more damaging danger.
As we all know, clients are individuals who often have very strong views about their organisations, their personal affairs and the world in general. More particularly, those who have the will to build up profitable businesses are often single-minded many of whom are likely to object to anybody or anything that gets in their way.
A significant proportion of those on whom your prosperity relies could well be vehemently in favour of leaving Europe. Or they may be equally motivated by a desire to remain within a 28 country structure. While others could have somewhat obscure views about a particular way of reaching a final position, for example stepping out of the game without reaching any kind of a deal or going back to the people for a second referendum.
As all of us will have found when discussing these issues with family, friends and colleagues it’s easy to reach a disagreement if not actually come to blows. While getting into a fight with your brother-in-law and entering a long period of silence is not the worst thing in the world, the client equivalent could be.
Therefore, if it isn’t already too late, every firm should consider running training courses to ensure that staff are instructed to keep their views to themselves when in the presence of clients and armed with strategies for doing so tactfully.
It has always been a good policy to avoid discussing politics with clients since if yours differ from theirs, that might just be the catalyst for those highly valued business associates who have preserved and promoted your business to move elsewhere.
Now, with a particularly inflammatory and provocative new source of dissension, this could be exacerbated to the extent that not one but a whole stream of clients is offended by what might be perfectly valid views expressed by you, a partner or a member of staff.
In principle, these situations should be manageable. But is it really worth taking the chance that your practice could be severely damaged because a junior auditor told either Sir James Dyson or Michael O’Leary from Ryanair that their opposing views on Europe were idiotic?
That may be unlikely, but a few too many words out of place in an audit closure meeting could just mean that a loyal client becomes an ex-client.