CEO CPA4IT Professional Corporation
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Skills Small Business Owners Expect You to Have

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What are the skills that small business owners expect from their accountants? Andrew Wall delves into this question and finds out what accounting and finance professionals need to be successful in the post-pandemic world.

Nov 30th 2021
CEO CPA4IT Professional Corporation
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Recently, I was asked to identify the skills that small business clients expect of their accountants. Based on my client interactions with literally thousands of small business owners, I have found  that clients have three levels of expectations:

1. Table stakes or bare minimum skills - the skills clients assume we have;

2, Important skills - the ones that savvy business owners seek out;

3. Differentiating skills- the ones that that actually wow or impress my clients. 

Table Stakes

Let's start by going through the bare minimum skills that a small business owner expects their accountant to have.

1. Get the numbers right

First and foremost, they expect their accountant to know how to file and prepare tax returns. Getting the numbers right is the bare minimum. Clients won’t even list this as a skill they are seeking because it is just assumed that you know the difference between a debit and credit and can complete a balance sheet.  

2. Answer questions

In addition to getting the numbers right, small business owners expect their accountant to be able to manage the interactions with a certain depth and breadth of knowledge. There are lots of interactions throughout the year that require you to demonstrate your accounting knowledge to your small business clients. These interactions might include questions from your clients, questions from bookkeepers, or questions from the governing tax authority. Our clients expect us to be able to know the answers to these questions and to provide them in a clear and knowledgeable fashion.

3. Meet deadlines

Lastly, this skill is arguably one of the most important of the bare minimums. Our clients rightly assume that we understand their business and are aware of the filing deadlines that affect them. They expect us to be aware of and meet all of these tax deadlines. They also expect to be given plenty of notice to ensure they have the funds available to make any and all tax payments on time. This includes taking into account holidays and the amount of time it may take for the bank to process a payment.

Important Skills

The next group of skills are the those we often see posted on forums and are the ones that sophisticated clients may ask about in your initial consultation.

1. Experience

 The first thing savvy small business owners want to know is whether you have experience. This skill set is a great introduction to the important skills because although many clients assume you have experience, they will probably seek out social proof that you do indeed have this. Clients will likely do a bit of social sleuthing before meeting with a potential accountant. They will look on LinkedIn to see how long you have been in business. They will check Google, Yelp and Facebook for reviews and even peruse your social media profiles to see what type of experience and content you share. While some may argue that experience is a minimum requirement, I have certainly handled my share of cleanups that came from people who lacked that background.

2. Communication Skills

Next on the list is communication. To me, effective communication means being part telepath, part business coach and part therapist. Clients need us to predict the questions they are going to ask before they ask them. They expect us to provide advice and coaching to help them grow and they expect us to be their therapist through all their highs and lows. These soft skills are in my opinion the most underrated and most difficult skills to perfect. 

3. Technology skills

In a world affected by COVID-19, technology skills have moved down the skill hierarchy from a differentiating skill to simply an important skill. When I first entered the cloud accounting world there were firms who were able to differentiate themselves by being “cloud accountants.” Today, everyone is expected to be in the “cloud.” Not only do clients want to see us leading the way by leveraging technology to make our own processes faster and easier, but they also want to see us using that knowledge to help them leverage technology to optimize their business. I also suspect that these skills will continue to move down the skills hierarchy until it eventually rests as a bare minimum skill.

Differentiating Skills

Differentiating skills are the skills where you define your value - the skills that the clients were not expecting. Every firm may have their own differentiating skills. The following are the three skills our clients tell us they value most:

1. Niche Industry Knowledge

At my firm, we have been specializing in IT consultants since before niche services was a trend. By focusing on a specific area, we have gained industry-specific knowledge and relationships that have enabled us to give our clients better service. As a result, we have unique tools and workflows that our clients tell us they value more than anything else we do. 

In addition serving our small business customers better, being niche-focused has made it easier to grow our practice. The community of IT consultants might not be large, but it is an inter-connected community. So, when a peer asks one of our clients if they know an accountant, it’s natural for them to say, “Actually, I know a guy that specializes in our industry. You should give him a call."

2. Financial Quarterbacking

As niche accountants, we have learned a lot about our industry. That knowledge includes knowing what we don’t know and who to call on for the other financial services our clients need. When we work with our clients, we take a step back and do an analysis of where they are now, where they want to go and how they are going to get there. This big-picture analysis helps us to identify what obstacles our clients will need to overcome and who from our bench of resources can help them overcome those hurdles. Sometimes, a well-placed pass (referral) can go a long way for moving the ball down the field.

3. Authenticity

The last and most important skill is authenticity. Some may believe that this is not a skill, but I would argue that a skill is anything that you can improve. Authenticity is the act of doing what you say and saying what you do. This may (or may not) be easy for a one-person firm, but as your business grows, you will have to work harder and harder to remain authentic. The efforts you make in culture and core values will define how authentic your firm is. If you can perfect this skill, you will build the “trust” that is often touted in our industry as being the most important virtue of a successful accounting firm.

As the world continues to struggle with COVID-19, increasing demands and staff shortages, it is harder and harder to live up to the service standards we set pre-pandemic. Now, more than ever, it is important to remain authentic not only about what you do well but what you fail to do or where you fall short. I personally have had to have some very difficult conversations with my small business customers where I admitted our shortcomings. While these were not easy, they served us well in the long term by demonstrating authenticity and building trust.

Conclusion

The skills that clients expect and look for in their accountants may vary from engagement to engagement. However, over the decades I have spent in this industry, I have learned that most (but not all) clients have a set of skills that they assume all accountants have (bare minimum), a group of skills they actively seek (important skills), and a group of skills that impress (differentiators). I encourage you to work at improving your skills in all three areas. I would suggest you to look at your own client base to identify what skills they assume you have, what skills they are looking for and the skills they don’t know they nrrf. As you delve into perfecting your skills, start with  these three questions about the skills your firm demonstrates: 

• What are you doing well?

• What are you not doing well?

• What could you start doing today?

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