Why Accountants Fail to Engage Business Owners

Apr 5th 2016
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A really successful CFO once told me that he never talked accounting with his boss. He only ever talked business. The CEO, he said, wasn’t interested in the latest technology, or cutting-edge marketing techniques, or accounting principles. So, the CTO, CMO, and CFO all responded by using their individual expertise to talk business – to communicate in a language the CEO understood.

They were true trusted advisors.

This got me to thinking about when I ran my own business and would meet my accountant. I remember my eyes would frequently glaze over in these meetings. Not because I didn’t respect him; I just simply didn’t understand half the things he said.

My accountant felt expensive because I struggled to see value. And I realize now that was because he didn’t engage with me on my own terms.

How to Raise Your Value as an Accountant

As a lot of accounting becomes increasingly automated, that sense of value is only going to become harder for accountants to realize. So, in order to remain relevant and increase your value – and your margins – with your clients, you need to do two things. First, avoid using finance jargon with your clients whenever possible. And second, have a laser-focus on your clients’ goals.

What Do Clients Care About?

The simple truth is that most business owners do not care about what exactly an accountant does or how they do it. They care first and foremost about the outcome. They care about achieving business success – whatever that means to them.

This means that presenting them a balance sheet is not going to grab a client’s attention. But asking about their hopes for the future will. That may sound woolly – and I’m not saying managing accounts aren’t important – but you have to understand that most business owners are not finance experts. This stuff takes effort to understand. And we’ve got a thousand different things to think about all the time.

And that’s why, if you want your clients to engage with the services you offer, you have to give context and relevance before you start talking numbers.

How to Talk Business ...

It’s not difficult. In fact, I can guarantee that the objectives of business owners come down to two very simple concepts:

  1. They want to take money out of the business; and/or
  2. They want to invest in their business.

Will filing my tax return positively contribute to either of those goals? Will reviewing summarized accounting data once a quarter move me an inch closer to success?

Maybe. I’m not saying these things aren’t important. But I am saying that it is not obvious to most business owners why these things might be relevant. But you know what is relevant? Affordability. Try asking your clients questions like:

“You say you want to take money out of the business ... Are you able to afford to do that?”

“You say you want to invest in your business ... Are you able to afford that?”

I guarantee you there’s no faster way to capture a client’s attention than to talk about cash. Just ask them about their dreams. And ask them if they can foresee a time when they have the cash to fulfill them. Ask them how they plan to reach those goals. Then you will become the trusted advisor who can help them achieve success.

How “Business Talk” Will Lead to Increased Fees

I’ll let you in on a little secret … most clients think the only way they can get cash is through sales. But you and I know differently. I want you to imagine two different conversations:

  1. Talking Accounting with a Prospect

Client: I need someone to do my accounts.

You: Of course. We can do your tax returns and your payroll. We can also provide you with regular management accounts.

Client: OK. I’m currently collecting prices. How much will that be?

  1. Talking Business with a Prospect

Client: I need someone to do my accounts.

You: Of course. We can absolutely do that for you. But before we talk about that, we find it helpful to understand our clients and their goals. What are you currently trying to achieve with your business?

Client: Well ... in an ideal world, I’d like to take $100,000 a year out of the company so I can put my kids through school.

You: Are you able to afford to do that?

Client: If we can get our sales up 50 percent, I think it’s possible.

You: Is that going to be easy?

Client: No, but we’ll certainly try.

You: We’ve worked with a lot of businesses like yours and we’ve seen that increasing sales is just one way for someone like you to take money off the table. Would you like me to tell you about some other things you could do that would help you put your kids through school without having to increase your sales by 50 percent?

You see, this change of perspective is the difference between price and value which, in turn, is the difference between a squeezed profit margin and a high profit margin.

So, to all those finance experts out there who love to talk in finance jargon … your industry is changing and you have a choice before you: If you continue to speak “accounting” to your clients, you will forever be viewed as a cost center.

But if you want to be seen as a trusted, valuable addition to a client’s team, you need to start speaking the language of business.

Replies (3)

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By JJ Collins
Apr 7th 2016 16:53

Sound advice...well presented...thanks...

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By billtsotsos
Apr 10th 2016 13:17

Nice job Colin. You are highlighting a shortcoming of the profession - the ability to be proactive and ask the right questions of a client.

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By ochan
Apr 20th 2016 06:58

Thanks for this insight Colin. Selling our Services as accountants is one of the things am currently thinking thro. with my Partners, and to attract attention of prospects in the current business environment requires practitioners to show Business-owners how they can help businesses create value and make more money.

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