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How to hear what your clients are saying

9th Jul 2010
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Clare Haynes offers 10 tips to help you to build better client relationships by listening more effectively.

Accounting clients shared what they wanted you, accountants, to do differently. These ten tips can help you to hear what your clients are saying, to engage them further, deliver better service and encourage them to work with you more. You get to meet their expectations and widen your earning potential.

Actively listening to a client's conversation

  1. Try to understand your clients better: Clients want you to listen to them with effort and dedication. Follow their agenda and hear their language. Ask questions to encourage their thoughts to flow your way. Allow them to finish sentences without being rushed or interrupted. Listen hard for throwaway or flippant comments – which often reveal their main concerns.
  2. Avoid listening in your own language: Listen for triggers in the conversation, without trying to log what they say to fit into your mind or agenda. Nodding and maintaining eye contact like a politician on autopilot (and just waiting to add their own soundbite when you breathe) won't gain trust. Nor will putting your slant to what they just said. 
  3. Confirm your understanding: Paraphrase what clients just told you, confirming that you heard properly and with the sentiment they intended. Encourage them to explain anything you don't comprehend. It's not about what you say but what you understand. When you've heard their every point twice, you're familiar with what they said.

Gaining more trust

  1. Show people that you're trustworthy: We want suppliers to show us respect, integrity, consistency, evidence/facts, appropriate detail, set expectations, not feeling stupid and allowances for human error. Do you demonstrate this to clients?
  2. Take these six steps to being trusted. Clients respond favourably when you habitually approach them by:
  • Doing what you say, when and how you said you'd do it
  • Not second guessing their meaning or needs
  • Making it safe: through handholding; specifics; and order
  • Building rapport and use their language
  • Telling similar stories and anecdotes
  • Owning up to mistakes and issues

Meeting more of your clients' needs

  1. Keep it simple: Clients don't want to be confused by any technobabble, acronyms or nerdyness that makes them feel ignorant.
  2. Give them what they want: Start with, and expand upon, what they know already and ask how they want to broaden it out. Thus you can pace it how they want. 
  3. Identify their needs: Talk to them about how it should be and integrate your expertise, with the intention to offer more than they thought you could, in order to deliver what they need.
  4. Share the bigger picture: They will want you to solve an immediate problem or need. Demonstrate how you can help them with a wider or longer-term issue.
  5. Make add-ons relevant: Clearly demonstrate any service add-ons. Be explicit about their clear benefits in the way that speaks to them, be it time-saving, cost-savings, business growth, more ease or efficiencies.

Adopt these tactics as you see fit, to engage your clients better and to demonstrate how you listen to them. Through actively listening, gaining more trust and meeting more of your clients' needs you can add further value and build longer-lasting profitable relationships. Plus, these significant rewards take relatively little additional effort.

Clare Haynes is a soft skills specialist, conference speaker and trainer for organisations such as CIMA.

This article was republished with kind permission from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants' Annual Members in Practice Conference.

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