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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.