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Stepping outside the square

By Peter Docherty
August 02 2016
4 minute read
Stepping outside the square
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The challenge for many accountants is not to be seen as transactional accountants, but as business partners who add value and understand their client’s vision and priorities.

The role of the traditional accounting practice continues to evolve to meet changing client needs and expectations.

Successful accounting firms know that differentiating their offer by having strong and lasting relationships with their clients builds value and helps to grow their practice. 

Customer research undertaken by CPA Australia highlights that there is real opportunity for accountants to grow their firms by enhancing existing relationships with their clients. This strategy delivers far greater returns than traditional advertising. 

Clients value a qualified, knowledgeable and trustworthy accountant. The research shows consumers with an accountant have longstanding relationships with them and these relationships were a result of an initial recommendation of a colleague or family member. 

Those without an accountant told us that such a recommendation would underpin their choice. So the best marketing tool you have is your existing clients – what they say about you and your practice matters. The second most popular method to source an accountant or adviser is a referral via social media.

Accountants sometimes face the challenge of being pigeonholed as transactional accountants, focusing on taxation and compliance. Never assume the client understands the breadth of services you can provide unless you take the time to speak to them about their challenges, opportunities and what’s keeping them awake at night.

The 2015 Global Small to Medium Practice (SMP) survey conducted by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) showed that attracting new clients, keeping up with new standards and regulations, and differentiating from the competition were three of the top four challenges facing accountants globally. The other challenge was the pressure to lower fees.

With so much happening in the regulatory environment, it is sometimes challenging to find the time to focus on your practice and know where to focus your efforts. 

Many of the key messages come down to improving communication and better articulating your value proposition. 

1. Communicate your value proposition

Make sure you know, or take time to develop, a clear value proposition. If you can’t simply state the value you can add, don’t expect clients to know. 

Learn to clearly communicate your value proposition and the scope of the services you can offer. Don’t rely on glossy brochures and websites; instead rely on the art of conversation and storytelling.

Use every engagement touch point to add value by taking the time to tell a story about how you’ve made a difference. Seek feedback on the services you’ve provided and talk about the challenges being faced by your clients. Use readily available benchmarks to help clients understand how they track against similar businesses.

2.  Articulate your qualifications

Build trust by articulating your qualifications and your commitment to professionalism. Make sure your clients understand what unconflicted advice means.

As a professional accountant, you have a commitment to integrity and to be straightforward and honest in all professional and business relationships, to act with objectivity, without bias, conflict of interest or undue influence of others. 

Reinforce that you are required to maintain professional competence and due care. That you are subject to ongoing oversight to ensure you are up-to-date with legislation and techniques, that you act diligently and in accordance with applicable technical and professional standards, and that your professional behaviour is subject to a complaints and discipline system. 

This builds confidence and reassures the client they’re prioritised ahead of any other perceived conflicts.

3.  Strengthen your soft skills

Ongoing development of soft skills matters if you want to grow your business. For accountants, technical skills and competency are normally a given, and they thrive when providing technical advice. However, research shows that clients seek accountants who are approachable, who listen and are proactive in engaging clients. 

Clients want their accountant to provide services beyond compliance. Providing high-quality business advisory services demands a different skill base than that required for traditional tax and financial reporting based services.

There are many programs that can assist you to develop your capacity for business advisory services, which focus on understanding the difference between talking and communicating, building trust and relationships, understanding what motivates clients and building influencing skills.

4. Build your referral networks

Trusted relationships come from trusted sources and it is not always possible for an accountant to be an expert in every area. Referral networks offer many potential advantages such as helping your practice increase its client base.

Having established referral partners, or participating in a network, is an effective way to satisfy the increasing breadth of demands from your clients and can help demonstrate to new clients that you have the capability of a larger practice.

Be warned, however, as clients expect the same level of service, trust and professionalism from you and from any referral partners. Any referrals should be without bias or conflict of interest.

5. Use annual compliance transactions as a means of opening doors to a deeper and broader relationship with your clients

The challenge for many accountants is not to be seen as transactional accountants, but as business partners who add value and understand their client’s vision and priorities.

Annual compliance activities, such as tax returns, provide critical touch points with your clients and provide an opportunity to demonstrate how you can add value more broadly.  

Bring your compliance work alive by taking the opportunity to explore the client’s current situation, talk about their plans for the future and the challenges they are facing. Help them understand how you can share your knowledge and expertise to add value.

You’ve got more to offer that will enrich the client – make sure you tell them.

Peter Docherty, general manager public practice, CPA Australia