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How to make clients listen to your advice

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12th Aug 2013
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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. 

Questions

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.

Evidence

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.

Focus

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.”

Listening

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.

Reflection

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.

Experience

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.

Confidence

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.

Previous encounters

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!

Specific

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.

Replies (6)

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By hilary gallup
13th Aug 2013 11:14

How to make clients listen to your advice

As a former lawyer with many years' experience in private practice, I can assure you that lawyers have this problem too! So much so that it is many years since I first heard the joke about a one-armed accountant  - only then it was a one-armed lawyer!  

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Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
13th Aug 2013 12:51

Personality and keeping in touch is important...

An interesting article, Mark. I think the way one comes across at the first meeting with the client is key as Mark states 'First impressions count'.

Also how large your 'block' of clients is - do you keep in touch with them or do you just send an impersonal newsletter round every so often? I would submit that the larger firms by their very nature cannot keep in touch with each and every client - there are too many clients to look after. This is why many clients go to smaller accountants and this should be those firms USP - the personal touch.

My number of clients is small enough me to me to still have the personal touch. If I've not heard from one of them for more than say 6 months I ring them on the pretext that I am making sure I have their current details and to remind them (in other words nag!) to let me have their accounts on time.

My clients know on pain of death not to do anything financial or contractual without talking to me first - and I mean pain of death!

 

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By Tim Robinson
13th Aug 2013 14:09

Superb Article

Mark

Why are all of your the common mistakes so familiar to me....?

Thanks for a top-notch article, very thought provoking.

Tim

 

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By Billy Kang
14th Aug 2013 09:13

No jargon. Use layman terms

In my 20 over years of dealing with clients, the most effective way of getting their attention was to use 'their language'. Therefore, it will be good if we expose ourselves to their industry and their lingua. I never use jargon. Most of the clients cannot differentiate between Dr. and Cr.; Fixed and Current Assets; Depreciation and Capital Allowance etc. Bring ourselves to talk in a language that they can understand and comprehend.

Your suggestion that we, accountants, are (seemed to be) indecisive. This is because we try to give alternatives. Thus avoiding being bias. That is not effective. We must always propose our 'solution', i.e. help our client to decide. That is what they are paying us for!

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By lme
14th Aug 2013 14:40

Thank you

Very helpful article

I find telling the whole truth helps build trust - even if its unpleasant to do at the time I make myself tell my clients if I find I have missed something previously, however small.

I am also learning to trust my gut - e.g. if I have a feeling that someone could be trouble even if I don't think the feeling is really justified I will be turning them away in future or making sure I factor in the extra costs of the hassle that will inevitably come - I can always do a lower bill if the hassle doesn't materialise. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
14th Aug 2013 15:23

I agree trust is very important

What I was aiming to do in the article was to go beyond 'building trust' to 'increasing influence' although I accept that the two are closely connected.

Mark

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