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The human side of advisory work

Accountants are being told from every direction that compliance work is in decline and that they need to develop more profitable advisory services. Becoming advisers is a must for forward-looking accountants, but many are struggling to make the transition.

31st Oct 2018
Commercial Production Editor
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AccountingWEB members frequently comment on how they have set off down the advisory path, only to find they lose momentum after their initial enthusiasm wears off. Or they get caught up in a thicket of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Accountants who aspire to be business advisers sometimes find they’re trapped by clients’ perceptions and struggle to break out of the established patterns. “It’s the compliance we charge for and everything else we give away for free,” commented Robert Stell of Bradbury Stell in a recent series on advisory accountants. “It’s what clients expect.”

Because clients haven’t specifically asked for business advice - possibly because practitioners haven’t broached the subject - others conclude that “clients don’t want advisory services”.

Changing perceptions and developing the confidence to overcome the inevitable hurdles surrounding new business ventures come down to some fundamental personal skills. Fortunately, they’re the same kinds of skills that will help you deliver business advice effectively. Drawing on the experiences of accountants and expert advisers working with the chartered accountants’ charity CABA, this article offers some practical pointers about how you can translate those good advisory intentions into action.

Caring about clients

Getting to know clients as people first, genuinely caring about them and understanding their hopes, dreams and aspirations is important when working on solutions and advice for their businesses. Victoria Cooper from Red Shoes Accounting Services in Ely put it this way in a recent interview: “You have to enjoy working with people and get on well with them because you’re dealing with your clients face to face and they will look to you for advice and they need to know that they can trust you.”

Graham Carson, co-founder of Inca Caring Accountants, emphasised the importance of employee engagement for practices looking to start offering financial advice to their clients. Unless you can recruit or develop team members who are committed to your goals and who connect easily with clients and know how to uncover their needs, you’ll struggle to achieve the client satisfaction and firm growth that advisory services are meant to deliver.

“Employees who are engaged, happy and motivated in what they do work harder. From a business perspective, it’s a more profitable outcome. They enjoy what they’re doing and they’re more productive,” said Carson.  

Soft skills

Accountants coach Carol McLachlan started offering her own consultancy 12 years ago to support accountants who wanted to deepen their advisory work. McLachlan found that practitioners in smaller and medium-sized firms often lacked the confidence and skills not only to sell the new services but to deliver them effectively.

Traditionally trained practitioners are typically more concerned about technical knowledge and solving tricky intellectual conundrums than developing a connection and understanding their clients, which is where McLachlan focuses her efforts. Her training develops soft skills such as empathy, emotional intelligence and the ability to listen and ask good questions that will enhance practitioners’ advisory efforts.

Being empathetic might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about accountancy skills, but being able to put yourself in your clients’ shoes and understand their aspirations and fears is where it should all start for the modern practitioner.

Similarly, practising active listening techniques and asking the right questions will improve your relationships with clients and uncover their underlying needs and expectations.

Ask for feedback, and act on it

Communication goes both ways. Having the confidence to ask for feedback and being able to accept both positive and negative comments can go a long way by helping you identify where your strong points are and what can be improved within your service model.

McLachlan found that early stage feedback really helped her improve her offering: “I got lots of feedback from clients who told me what worked well and what they'd like to see done differently.”

Carson also highlighted the importance of feedback in his practice. At Inca Caring Accountants, part of the management formula includes telling employees what they are doing well and what needs improvement, an approach that has contributed to improved profitability for the firm.


Confidence plays a great part when it comes to selling new services. When you have the right software and the right skills to analyse your clients’ finances, confidence is the missing ingredient that will help you ensure clients recognise the value you can give them and pay for that service.

The following is a set of steps recommended by chartered accountants charity CABA to improve your self-confidence:

  • Believe you will achieve your goals
  • Recognise that any changes you want to make to your confidence levels will require hard work and effort
  • Recognise your strengths by making a ’strengths assessment
  • Monitor your self-talk and rewire your brain by making a conscious effort to find evidence that suggests you can rather than you can’t
  • Set yourself SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) goals: Identify the changes you want to make and then start small and build up to bigger challenges
  • Act confident: the more you practise acting as if you have lots of self-confidence, the more it will increase your real confidence levels.

Beat impostor syndrome

By offering advisory services, many accountants might feel like they are stepping out of their traditional role and into the territory of more experienced financial advisers. Leaving this thought behind requires being able to overcome negative self-talk and the impostor syndrome, the belief of being inadequate or a failure.

“One of the constant things with impostor syndrome is to say ‘Oh, I was just lucky’ or ‘I didn't really do very much, it just landed quite well.’ If it landed quite well, look at specifically why and remind yourself that what you've done has been successful,” said McLachlan.

When it comes to receiving feedback, McLachlan remarks the importance of accepting flattering testimonials: “Constructive feedback will help you improve but also acknowledge very positive feedback,” she said. “Don't just miss it, because that is what we tend to do with the impostor syndrome. We often miss the good stuff and just concentrate on the more negative or constructive stuff.

“People don't give good feedback just on a whim, it's almost certainly genuinely made, so you need to use that to really boost your confidence and remind you that you are doing something right.”

CABA’s guide covers the topic of how to overcome the impostor syndrome over the AccountingWEB’s industry insights page.


Replies (2)

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Phil Sayers
By Phil Sayers
31st Oct 2018 10:48

I don’t agree that compliance is in decline… it’s simply that the market for compliance and the delivery of compliance services is changing, mainly driven by the increasing adoption of technology and more recently by MTD.

Accountants have always provided advice to clients, often for free, but there are significant opportunities to charge for advice… but first and foremost, accountants need to decide whether or not this is an area they want to get into. After all, you wouldn't suggest that a client radically changes their business model if this flies in the face of the client's personal and business objectives.

If the accountant simply offers advisory services to a client without understanding the client’s business and personal goals and objectives first, and without understanding what it means to the client if they achieve those goals, then it’s no surprise that the client turns down what they perceive as an added cost with no real value associated with it.

This is why the soft skills that Victoria and Graham reference are so important. The starting point has to be developing a strong relationship with the client, understanding what’s important to them, and then, and only then, identifying ways in which you can help the client to achieve their goals ….. and that’s where the real value lies.

Thanks (1)
By Paul Scholes
31st Oct 2018 17:21

Hi Phil!!

It is, indeed the soft skills, or perhaps better named "social" skills that are key to this and, if you are naturally blessed with these, then the compliance work tends to just be the hook that attracts clients, with the advisory side just flowing as part of the service as you get to know them.

I was first warned about the need to stop just doing numbers and form filling, in the mid 80s, when it was suggested that we'd soon loose all our audit work and so many firms then resorted to buying in books or taking courses in management consultancy only to find that that wasn't what clients wanted from us. The books and course materials ended up in the bin.

Having met hundreds of accountants over the decades many, especially of my generation, were attracted to accountancy precisely because it involved numbers and forms (and awe inspiring spreadsheets) and, unlike other more face to face jobs, would involve as little human relating as possible.

So it's always seemed a bit of a Catch 22 to expect shy, retiring, reserved, bred for inertia (aka conservative) types to suddenly be out there "doing the biz".

What I think has dragged this topic out over 30 years is that, as you say, compliance is in constant change meaning that there's always something new to learn, and to make money out of, typically by indicating to clients that it's all too complicated for them to understand.

But, this change, which has so greatly accelerated over the past ten years, is effectively a down hill run to a point soon when technology will take away the need for human intervention between the taxpayer/business and the authorities.

Thanks (1)