Best Practices

No more talking about debits and credits: How to communicate more effectively with clients

While the accounting principles have stayed the same for hundreds of years, the practice of accounting isn’t what it once was. One consistent area of chang

While the accounting principles have stayed the same for hundreds of years, the practice of accounting isn’t what it once was.

One consistent area of change across the field is the move from compliance to advisory and insights. Accountants are increasingly transitioning from working with historic financial statements to real-time and proactive insights, and moving from pure compliance work to providing business advice. This creates a new challenge – the need to spend more time communicating complex information to clients. 

This is one reason that it’s important to develop soft skills, such as communication and critical thinking, alongside more technical financial skills. As Ryan Chabus, CPA, writes in the Journal of Accountancy:

“In a world that is becoming more digital, computerized, and automated, soft skills can be the differentiator between two employees competing for the same promotion or position.”

Making the move to advisory services can be tricky, especially if you are not used to meeting with clients frequently to discuss their finances.

In this article, I’ll look at three ways you can more clearly communicate the value you bring to the table, meet your clients’ expectations, and provide clients with insights that they can act on. 

What you’re up against

When it comes to explaining the value that you can supply your clients with over and above accounting and bookkeeping services, there are a few problems you are likely to run into, such as:

  • A lack of awareness around advisory services for SMEs;
  • Unintentionally intimidating or overwhelming prospects and scaring them off; and
  • Not considering things from your client’s perspective.

The phenomenon of providing insights and analytics to SMEs is a relatively new one. Until a few years ago, these insights were reserved for big companies and accountants didn’t have the resources to provide these to small businesses. However, with the advent of cloud accounting software and data analytics and reporting applications such as Syft Analytics, this is no longer the case.

It’s up to accountants and bookkeeping professionals to explain to their clients just how beneficial these insights are. But when explaining the benefits of analytics and insights, you need to keep it simple and focus on what your clients care about most.

Read on for 3 top tips to do just this. 

1. Treat your client as the hero of the story

Recently, I hosted a webinar featuring panelists from Syft Analytics and Xero Award winning firm, DoughGetters Accounting, along with the client-centric meeting app, Connect4.

In this webinar, we discussed the ways in which accountants can approach offering proactive advisory services to their clients. Something which came up repeatedly was that you need to be able to speak a client’s language to make them understand the value that you can provide for them.

As Willem Haarhoff, co-founder of DoughGetters, stressed, there’s no point telling your clients how good you are with debits and credits. Firstly, because debits and credits aren’t part of their daily terminology, and secondly because all accountants deal with debits and credits. 

What you should really be focusing on when speaking with current or prospective clients is the solution that you can provide for them. And to start that conversation, you need to find out more about your client's business, their goals and ambitions, and what keeps them up at night. 

The starting point should always be the pain points that your client is facing – not your own amazing skills. 

Put another way, if you were in a movie, your client would be the star. They would be King Arthur and you would be Merlin. While we can all agree that Merlin is a legend in his own right, in the story of King Arthur, he’s a supporting role, the wizard who provides the King with the magical tools he needs to succeed.

You have to be able to put your ego aside and position your client as the hero. Donald Miller puts this very well in his book, Building a StoryBrand where he uses the classic mythic format of the Hero’s Journey (also a favourite among screenwriters) to shape companies’ branding. 

2. Show empathy through listening and language

Empathy is key when it comes to clear communication and to ensuring that you deliver the best possible service. This starts with building a relationship.

To build a relationship with clients, you need to listen to their concerns and find out more about their business. Doing a bit of research into their industry and learning the kind of terminology they typically use can be very valuable, as it empowers you to speak to them in language that they understand and relate to. 

Speaking about debits and credits, assets and liabilities, is all fine and well when you’re speaking to other accountants but to your client, the bookseller, it may make more sense to discuss the number of book sales he makes in a week or a month, the way in which he keeps track of his inventory, how he advertises his bookshop and his latest products, what kind of profit he’s making, and whether he is able to pay himself a salary. 

Once you’ve listened to the business’s story, why they do what they do, what drives them, and what keeps them up at night, then you can begin to dig deeper into business problems you could help them solve, and you can do so in language that makes sense to them.

3. Simplify the information you share.

For someone who doesn’t understand accounting, your everyday work can be intimidating and confusing. Start with simple questions before you start suggesting that your client starts looking at fully integrated forecasts or other complicated metrics. 

Sometimes, it can help to present information visually. For many, it’s easier to make sense of graphs with different coloured bars than long stretches of numbers and text. It can also be useful to look at visualizations that highlight important trends. 

Perhaps you might start your client off with a concise financial health score, which gives them a visual indication of how their business is doing before you dive into various KPIs. 

Another way in which you can simplify the information you share is by zooming in on specific, crucial details, such as cash management, debt management, or the sales pipeline. Or you might ask your clients how they might become more efficient or how they could digitize their business. This may start with introducing workflow management tools, such as Pixie, or onboarding them onto Syft to keep tabs on their weekly finances.

Finding ways to communicate the added value you can provide

Owners of SMEs can benefit from personalized, niche, actionable advice from their accountants.

If you centre them in your approach, show empathy for their problems and goals, and simplify the information you share with them so that they can understand it better, you are well on your way to being a top advisor. 

About the author

Alex Hoffman is the Engagement Manager at Syft Analytics. She oversees Syft’s content strategy and is in charge of their blog, BeyondAnalytics. Alex enjoys creating helpful, educational, and entertaining content to help you make better business decisions, stay on top of all things Syft, and fill you in on some of the latest trends in the world of tech, business, and beyond. Alex can be found in her natural habitat - a bookshop or café, or on a lunchtime walk. You can also find her on LinkedIn.

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