The Accountants SME Playbook
Your accounting degree equipped you with all the knowledge and technical skills you need to handle compliance work – the foundation of every successful accountancy practice. Now technology and automation can take care of many time-consuming basics, you have an opportunity to build on that foundation by adding a profitable, ongoing advisory service.
Your expertise and insight put you in the perfect position to help your clients shape their financial future. However, a successful advisory service requires a different level of relationship with your clients, one where they feel able to share their goals, values and dreams and confident that you’ll search out the best solutions.
Advice isn’t always straightforward. There will inevitably be a range of options, and working in shades of grey may not come naturally to someone trained to think in black and white. However, conversational skills can be learned, and could soon find yourself enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of gathering information and creating a tailored solutions for each client.
1. Be curious
Allowing yourself to be curious will help you to build the rapport you need to gain a complete picture or your clients’ situation.
“Forget about telling and selling, or jumping in with answers and quick fixes,” says Lynda Steffens, founder of The Small Business Project, who is a CPA who works with accountants to help them transform their practices. “At this stage, your aim should be to draw out all the information you can about what brought them to where they are now, their successes, what keeps them awake at night and what they want for the future.”
The key is to ask open-ended questions then show genuine interest in what they have to say.
For example, if you ask when they started their business all you’ll get is a date. If you ask what led them to start a business and you could gain insights into everything from their employment history to their family situation and their goals.
2. Structure the conversation
If you don’t feel comfortable about providing advice, it could be that you’re unsure how to open the conversation – or worried about getting lost or stuck half way through. The good news is that, once you’ve developed a basic structure, you’ll always have the security of a safety net.
The structure is less a number of questions to work through than a guide to the points you’ll want to cover. Set out these points in a way that follows a natural flow and you’ll have all the support you need when you're developing your client relationship skills.
“You just need to remember that, while the structure will remain the same, different clients will want to focus on different issues,” says Steffens. “That means you need to take a flexible approach to the amount of time you spend on each.”
Here’s an idea of how your structure might flow.
Once you have decided on your outline, it’s a good idea to have a dummy run with a colleague or family member to ensure the language sounds natural and empathetic rather than stiff and formal.
3. Build confidence with a professional process
When you have the support of industry-leading tools and processes you can have total confidence in your professionalism. You’ll find it easy to set realistic expectations, manage accountability and agree to outcomes – and you will also have a clear set of objectives to help you check and demonstrate progress each time you speak to your client.
“A detailed, transparent process will also reassure your clients that they have made the right decision in trusting your advice,” says Steffens.
Here are some of the steps to consider.
Onboarding. Whether you’re seeing your client for the first time or they’re moving to advisory from compliance, your first interaction as an advisor can pave the way to a successful, long-term relationship. Remember that clients want to feel heard and understood, so preparation is vital. Research the business and sector so you start out with a good grasp of any specific challenges and opportunities. You can then tailor your message to demonstrate both a broad understanding of the issues and those unique to your client.
Agendas and visual tools. Time poor clients will appreciate a clear and succinct overview of any agreed actions and activities. Where possible, present the information visually so that it can be reviewed at a glance.
Documentation templates. Branded, compliant and consistent documents underline your professionalism. With the right software templates, they’re fast and easy to produce.
Maintenance and accountability timelines. Financial advice is not ‘set and forget’. Realistic timelines provide another opportunity to check in and monitor progress.
Scheduled follow up. Each meeting should end with an agreed time for the next appointment. Your clients are busy and, however well intentioned, they might put off or simply forget when it’s time for a review. Again, prepare thoroughly for the meeting so that you’re not constantly searching through notes or covering old ground.
You now have a complete solution