For young accountants, communication is key to developing successful client relationships

For many new accountants, landing a first job or getting to know the culture of a firm can be a major accomplishment. But in today's tight economic times, it is a new accountant's client development skills that will help him or her stand out from the pack and get on the fast track at a firm.

Of course, there are the tried-and-true methods. Network with fellow accountants, join professional organizations, and dress the part if you want to be taken seriously as an up-and-comer. But AccountingWEB wanted to uncover some less obvious client development skills.

John Trowbridge, a tax manager at Allen, Gibbs, & Houlik, L.C., said an accountant's communication skills – verbal and written – need to be fully developed for successful client relationships. You must listen to the client and determine what they need. The accountant must communicate the expectations of the services offered and how the results will be quantified. This will lay the groundwork for building a successful, long-term relationship.

"Communication skills are crucial for young accountants and it is something that is a little bit lacking," Trowbridge said.

Blame the rise of text messaging or a lack of emphasis on communication skills in academia but the importance of communication when it comes to developing ties with clients cannot be understated. Communication is essential when following-up with clients and documenting the services your firm has provided and their results. If you fail to do this, the client may not see your firm's value, choose not continue the relationship, and certainly won't refer additional work your way.

"It's a service industry and we are working for the good of the client so we need to communicate with the client and understand where they are coming from," said Allen, Gibbs, & Houlik's Wes Etheredge, a senior associate in the insurance department.

Etheredge joined the firm two years ago and said he has encountered every possible personality when it comes to his clients. He said new accountants with retail experience in college or high school, such as being a waitress or working at a department store, have had great training to work with all kinds of people and that will come in handy at a firm. Etheredge said it is the client's personality that dictates how he will communicate with them.

"In an email you can't rely on feedback and facial expressions," he said. "I've learned that first you have to learn about the client and evolve your communication based on who they are."

Many firms, including Allen, Gibbs & Houlik, send employees to training to learn how to gain new clients and keep existing clients happy. One such place is the Rainmaker Academy, which offers an intensive sales, marketing, and leadership-development program specifically for accounting and financial consulting professionals. The program is billed as being commensurate with a university graduate program in sales.

Many firms send associates and partners to training and when they return, they share a wealth of knowledge on how to maximize client relationships with the rest of the firm. Take advantage of any of these opportunities as a young accountant and volunteer to help. Many firms place a high premium on mentoring and, as a new member of the team, it can be beneficial not to go it alone. Ask about mentoring programs your firm may offer and get paired up with someone who will not only talk to you about client development but take you to meetings and show you how it's done.

Perhaps the most important client development tip comes from Bill Thompson, COO and president of CPA Mutual, the first national CPA-owned accountants professional liability insurance company in the United States, who recommends vetting all possible new clients before taking them on.

"There's an old saying that you can't let the perfume of the premium overwhelm the stench of the risk," Thompson said.

For potential clients in need of large-scale projects, such as audits, he recommends talking with their prior CPA and doing a background check, especially if the person is in a hurry.

"Partner wannabees build the practice and you might bring in a $100,000-a-year client but you might run off all your staff and no one wants to work with him because he's very demanding," Thompson warned. "There needs to be a lot of work done beforehand."

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