If you are like most traditional accountants and bookkeepers, you love working on the numbers, from financial statements to bank reconciliations. But this is no longer enough.
Today’s tech savvy business owners want financial statements yesterday. They are hungry for information and advice regarding their business, but often, they don’t know what to ask for.
The business owners I work with, for example, start with a dream to pursue their passion, the thing they love and want to share with the world. Keeping their books up to date or performing compliance tasks like payroll and filing taxes are rarely part of that dream.
Many business owners don’t even know which tasks they need to perform. This is where the modern accounting professional comes in.
You have the knowledge and tools to use automation, keeping their books current up to the minute. But even you, with your business knowledge and compliance superpowers need to do more. You have to communicate these requirements, functions, and their resulting data to your clients.
Unless you do this successfully, clients will never understand your value, appreciate or value all that you do. As such, you need to become your clients’ connected advisor.
The Perception Gap
Historically, there has been a disconnect between accountants and business owners. As a kid, I remember my dad, a former small business owner, running in and out of his accountant’s office. He was careful when dropping off or picking up documents to never stay long enough to be billed for the time he was there. In doing this, he missed out on valuable information that could have helped his business grow and thrive.
Many accounting professionals are moving away from the billable hour, yet the clients are still afraid to book time with us. I suspect many are afraid of fees they cannot or do not want to incur. This fear and the lack of sharing valuable information has often created more work for us on the back end. I usually have to undo something I have done or re-evaluate our plans based on information that was available early on.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Better upfront communication with clients is not a suggestion, but an expectation for the modern accounting professional. Explain your policies upfront and repeatedly. You want clients to know you are available to talk to them without fear of “the billable hour.”
In our firm, we have a standing onboarding meeting where the team greets our new clients and we start the process of collaborating. During that onboarding meeting, we schedule 12 monthly meetings.
This ensures we get the time to meet with the client briefly, each month, to share the important results of our tasks. This is how we know they know the actual numbers that are or are not growing in their business.
The Art of Listening
So what do we tell clients in these monthly meetings? Well, it depends on what is important to them and their business.
In order to advise a client you need to know what is going on in their business, personal life, or any major purchases or changes they are expecting. The key to this is listening.
Getting the client to open up can take time. Start by asking probing, open-ended questions, in a non-judgemental manner. Avoid yes or no questions.
Open ended questions will get the client talking, sharing their thoughts and goals for the future of their business. I find I need to lead the conversation for the first few sessions.
But after the client becomes more comfortable with me and my team, they are an open book. The relationship is the priority and building it starts with listening for what is important to them and what they are afraid of.
You are More Than an Accountant
I have had some interesting experiences during my client meetings, smetimes I feel like their therapist. The first time a client cried during a meeting, I was taken aback. I felt really uncomfortable.
For some clients, the financial health of their business is a personal measure of how they are doing. For me personally, this was new.
I learned that numbers on the page have no emotion for me. For many of my clients, sharing these numbers with me is very much like getting undressed at a doctor’s appointment. They are truly vulnerable.
I quickly adapted and reassured them that the numbers on the page could change based on changes in their business. We built a plan and then we worked the plan, as a team.
We measured results each month at our brief meetings and I saw the client become more confident in themselves. Their trust for me grew exponentially and they soon began leading the meetings, identifying the pain points to me and seeking my expertise. That is the process of moving a ‘B’ or ‘C’ client to an ‘A’ client.
What the Future Holds
Many fear that AI and machine learning will replace us. I say no worries. The machines can’t listen and deal with the emotions that come out during our advisor sessions.
Leave the data entry to the bots. Make more time to talk to your clients and listen to their needs, then lead the way!
Jay Kimelman, CPA, CITP, is founder and chief information officer of the digital CPA. The business focuses on delivering accounting services, solutions, and innovations to the SMB community, specializing in Xero, cloud systems integration, reporting, tax and SMB...