Mark Lee highlights 10 techniques accountants can use to improve the likelihood that clients will follow their guidance.
AccountingWEB’s Any Answers section regularly features accountants seeking guidance after clients have ignored or questioned their advice.
What can you do to avoid such situations?
Let’s approach the situation from another direction and assume you have approached another professional, but don’t like the advice they have offered. What factors affect your reaction?
The 10 key areas below are relevant to accountants who want to influence clients; they apply just as well to doctors, lawyers and car mechanics.
If you start trying to give advice too early you will lack credibility. I think this used to be one of my biggest mistakes. When I was in practice I had a tendency to recognise a pattern of facts and to leap to premature conclusions. It took me a long time to learn that it’s important to ask good, focused questions to get all of the facts out – and to ensure that the client has told you everything that they think is relevant.
Advice offered too soon tends to lack credibility. Practice asking good open questions and, where appropriate, good closed questions too. This way, you can ensure that your advice, when you give it, takes account of all key information.
If you have the necessary experience you should also be able to support your advice with evidence of similar previous situations, relevant case law, legislation or rules.
I doubt that telling a client, “I asked your question on a forum for accountants and this is what they said” has quite the same impact. But it may well work in some situations. Whether it is sufficient evidence to influence the client to follow your (their) advice is open to question.
When you give your advice you need to help your client to know you are thinking about what is best for them. They need to feel they are the focus of your advice. It should never be about you showing off how much you know. So keep your client in mind whenever you are giving advice.
When you get this factor wrong, clients can start to think you are doing the taxman’s work for them. How you phrase your advice can make all the difference. So rather than saying, “You can’t do that”, better to suggest, “The taxman doesn’t let you do that.”
Clients are more inclined to follow you advice if they feel you have listened to them before leaping in to tell them what they should do. Nodding your head as you listen is one way to do this. Making notes of (at least) key words they use is another.
How confident would you feel taking advice from a doctor if you felt they had not been listening to you when you explained your problem? Have you ever noticed how rarely doctors interrupt you when you describe your symptoms? Even though they have heard such things many times before they tend to let you finish. And because they do this we tend to respect their advice.
To show you have listened to the answers to your questions you also need to paraphrase and reflect these back to the client when offering your advice. You can do this face to face or in writing.
This is one of the real reasons why we are encouraged to set out the facts on which our advice is based when sending follow up letters/emails to clients. It’s not just to cover ourselves. It implies that we have taken account of all we were told and that our advice reflects this. Do ensure that you check your advice does indeed take account of all you have learned about the client’s scenario.
If your adviser tells you that they have seen the same or similar situations many times before, you may be more inclined to believe them. But there is also a trap here so hold off before you refer to past experiences.
If someone leaps in with a load of assumptions before hearing you explain your situation and surrounding circumstances, their advice will be less credible – despite their past experience.
So hear your client out and get all of the facts on the table before you draw conclusions and give your advice – based on your past experience. And ensure the client knows that you have relevant experience of such situations. If you haven’t encountered such a case before then don’t try to pull the wool over your client’s eyes. They will see through you and be less inclined to take your advice now or in the future.
If someone sounds unsure, if their advice is unclear or if they ramble on and on, you are less likely to do as they say.
So you will want to ensure you come across as confident. Avoid going too far and appearing to be arrogant though. It’s not an attractive quality in an accountant.
If you have insufficient experience to advice in a specific situation, have the confidence to admit this to the client. Recommend that you or they take a second opinion from someone with more specialist experience. Your client will respect you for this and will have more confidence in your advice when you do give it. They will get to know that you don’t attempt to fake it. That, in itself, instills confidence.
First impressions count. If you have previously tried to persuade your client to do something but were ignored or if it became obvious you were making it up, then it will take time for your client to see you differently. You may have sowed the seed for them to routinely question or challenge your advice.
Space and time
If your advice is unwelcome then allow your client time to think it over. Do not attempt to pressure them into agreeing with you immediately. Give them some space and time to think it through.
Perhaps the only time when this would be inappropriate is when there is a huge tax bill to pay and you fear they may abscond!
Accountants are renowned for being indecisive. There is even a joke about the client who went in search of a one-armed accountant. He wanted someone who wouldn’t start their advice with: “On the one hand…”
I remember being trained years ago what to do if I felt compelled to tell clients that there were two or more options for them to consider. We need to remember that clients prefer paying to get advice, than for simply getting a list of options. We have to be prepared to reach a conclusion and offer our advice, for example with a phrase such as, “If it was me…”
So there’s my list of 10 key factors. What else do you think affects whether clients listen and take your advice?
Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB and writes the BookMarkLee blog. If you like his articles, do check out his blog and ebooks for accountants who want to stand out and be more successful in practice, online and in life. He is also Chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax specialists.
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I porvide NED-style mentoring support to sole practitioner accountants and am Chair of the Tax Advice Network - a nighly ranked online resource for anyone seeking indepdent tax advisers. As such it is also a long established lead generation facility for tax advisers and tax accountants.
Many of my articles on AccountingWeb date back to my...