It may sound obvious that developing good relations with clients is a vital part of any firm’s operations, but it’s all too easy to forget, particularly when the pressure is on to file accounts or meet hard deadlines.
In this article for our AATPowerUp series we’ll be looking at the importance of maintaining outstanding client relationships.
The good news for accountancy firms, though, is this is something that can be planned for, and an area in which individuals can improve their skills.
How to start the client relationship
Mark Tighe, CEO of specialist tax consultancy Catax, believes the foundations to a strong relationship are laid early on. “The way you establish an account on day one is vital,” he says.
“Everyone who is likely to work with the client should attend a face-to-face introductory meeting to find out more about the client business and its needs, as well as developing greater familiarity with the staff or managers who will be your key points of contact.
“It is amazing what a difference it makes to a relationship if you have met a client in person and established a rapport, rather than just being a voice on the end of the phone.” Once this has taken place, it’s then possible to agree a pipeline of work and how regular updates will be delivered, he adds.
Honesty is the best policy
Here, it’s essential both parties are honest with each other.
“The client needs to know if an accountant can work effectively with their business and what experience they have, whereas the accountant needs to understand the client’s accounting personality in order to ensure they are a good fit,” says Paul Donohoe, managing director of Tax Rebate Services.
“The accountant can then advise on action that needs to be taken, along with detailing his or her own role and what they will do for the client in the long and short term. It’s also important to find out what the clients expects of the accountant, what goals they hope to see achieved and what they would like to gain from the relationships.”
When it comes to the actual work, it’s vital accountants deliver what they say they will. “Many accountants fail to deliver on promises and often over-promise,” says Stephen Grayson, a partner at the Manchester office of UHY Hacker Young. “Although client relationships are important, it has to be undercut by good, reliable work. The quality, speed and efficiency of your work will always be what you are judged on aside from any personal relationships.”
But the ongoing relationship also requires careful handling, and it’s here that softer client-handling skills are essential, in addition to the technical elements. “It is very much a combination,” says Paul Russell, managing director of training company Luxury Academy.
“You can be doing wonderful work for a client but if they find you difficult to work with, or you have trouble communicating your success, the relationship will often founder. Similarly, you may have an excellent relationship with clients, yet fail to deliver on KPIs in which case your position is at risk. Soft skills enable technical skills.”
What is the right way to communicate?
Effective communication is essential, and this is often where relationships break down, says Donohoe. “Either the client holds something back or doesn’t respond to contact, as they feel that sticking their head in the sand will make a problem go away, or the accountant doesn’t clearly explain the processes and fails to keep the client in the loop at every stage,” he warns.
“Regular communication is imperative to ensure both parties are always on the same page, and it also makes the client feel more secure and in control.” Being proactive with communication can make a big difference, agrees Tighe.
“The accountants who go the extra mile, by contacting their clients with additional pieces of advice and updates on progress without having to be asked, will be the ones who retain clients and benefit from more new business through recommendation,” he points out.
“Good communication can also mitigate mistakes. If something has gone wrong, don’t sweep under the carpet; be open and honest and provide a solution.”
Building a rapport
There are other skills those working in client-facing roles require too, such as confidence and open-mindedness, says Lee Owen, director at Hays Accountancy and Finance. “The key to developing these skills is to look for opportunities where you can build rapport with your clients,” he says.
“This might start as small polite exchanges, but as your confidence and the relationship grow try congratulating a client on a piece of work or high-profile project they’ve done or share your ideas and questions with them at opportune moments.”
More junior staff can develop skills by shadowing more experienced colleagues, he adds, while networking – both offline and online – can also help to build relationship skills.
Becoming a good advisor
There are other ways in which accountants can further build relations with clients. Grayson, for instance, points to using new technology which can make life easier for clients, and also the ability to help advise clients in other areas.
“Clients will regularly ask for personal advice about how they should handle a situation so it’s necessary to frame yourself as a business advisor rather than just an accountant,” he says. “Look after clients from a strategic view which takes into account all of their business objectives and helpfully guide them through the process.”
Strengthening career prospects
From a career perspective, having strong customer relations skills will make those working in the sector attractive to other employers, adds Owen. “These skills are transferable across the accountancy and finance sector, as successful client relationships are important in most roles, particularly the more senior you are,” he says.
“If you are able to demonstrate good client feedback to a potential employer this will only strengthen your application and open new doors.”
Nick Martindale is a freelance journalist, editor and copywriter. He regularly contributes to a wide range of national and business media, including The Telegraph, Raconteur supplements in The Times and HR magazine.