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‘Clear communication’ from accountants key to avoiding awkward client conversations

September 9, 2022

Avoiding tricky conversations costs accounting firms £70,000 a year, says new study

Accountants need to find a better way of navigating awkward client conversations or risk losing business and demoralising their team, according to Chris Brown, managing director and founder of mid-tier accounting firm Brown and Co.

Brown admits that clients late on payments are sometimes “a nightmare to chase,” but says that tackling these interactions can “have a huge impact on profitability,” and even affect employee retention.

“Outside of the business impact, avoiding awkward conversations can be an issue for employee wellbeing, along with staff morale and motivation.

“It drags the whole team down and can essentially devalue the work the team is doing, because chasing clients becomes part of their role, instead of getting an opportunity to do the work that ensures they feel like they’re making a difference.”

Brown suggests that firms must not attempt to avoid such conversations and work instead to “minimise how often they have to happen,” by making sure both parties are on the same page from the outset.

“Leaders have an opportunity here to make sure they are putting the tools and processes in place that are going to streamline services and make things easier for their people,” he says.

“For us, it’s about setting clear expectations at the start of the client engagement process. It’s important not to start any piece of work until after the contract has been signed, as this helps manage expectations on both sides.”

Brown and Co participated in a study carried out by accountancy software developer Ignition in July 2022, which found that the average accountancy practice loses £70,000 a year through unrecoverable out-of-scope work.

Of the 470 key decision makers surveyed at these firms, 74% also admitted to delaying or avoiding an awkward conversation themselves.

Like Brown, Clare Harrall, a partner at accounting firm Moore Kingston Smith, sees overcoming these interactions as key to both client and employee satisfaction.

“Businesses with the best reputations do have difficult conversations with their clients,” she says. “It’s those that face those conversations and successfully resolve the issues that strengthen the relationships which can lead to client referrals.”

Harrall adds that a “robust client care programme” in combination with “solid internal training and clear communication” can also be vital to nurturing lasting client relationships.

“Regular conversations and feedback should reduce, if not omit the need for tricky interactions.

“Understanding your clients’ personal and business objectives and helping them to achieve this means they will be engaged and happy.”

Automating client engagement
In its latest Crunch time series report , Big Four firm Deloitte identifies a shift in the way clients engage with products and services.

As we approach 2025, it’s becoming increasingly clear that “new combinations of technology and human workforces permeate the workplace,” according to the report.

Brown agrees, stating that having increased digitisation via the adoption of Ignition’s software, his practice is now able to “engage clients […] with more confidence,” in a way that “makes it easier to show the value of its team’s work and get paid”.

However, Harrall argues that building strong client relationships can be as simple as setting up a two-way feedback system – something that Moore Kingston Smith seeks to achieve via the Client Care programme she leads.

“Through our Client Care programme, we build strong relationships and encourage our clients to trust that they can be open and transparent with us from the beginning,” she says.

“This system of ongoing feedback and two-way dialogue reduces the need for this kind of interaction, omitting awkward conversations entirely in most cases.”

How to ‘empower’ accountants
Of the respondents to Ignition’s study, 38% also cited concerns about a client’s negative response as the main reason they avoid dealing with tricky interactions.

To tackle this, Brown says accountants need to “empower one another to have these conversations” and build relationships with customers to the point that they have a “mutual respect and understanding”.

“This will work to establish accountants as the trusted advisors that the client needs, which will either remove the need for awkward moments altogether, or make them much easier to manage,” he adds.

Harrall agrees that difficult conversations are “easier to have when the relationship is strong and the client knows their advisers”. However, she also believes that ensuring firms connect with the right kind of client is vital to establishing fruitful relationships.

“If you are engaging clients that are the right fit for your firm and its offering, then they will likely find you easy to work with.

“This, supported by a robust client care programme with regular touch points, should ensure quality service delivery and equilibrium between clients receiving what they need, and your people feeling valued and motivated.”

[Accounting Age]

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