I’m sure there are a hundred reasons why communication skills are neglected in the Accounting industry but four stick out to me....
Too much screen time
Many accountants are simply not communicating effectively with clients because they're communicating in the wrong way; via computer as opposed to face to face.
In the last 20 years, the use of computers has exploded. We're developing addictions to cell phones and social media (click to read the alarming implications for mental health) and spending less time face to face or on the phone with clients.
The main distraction in an open plan work environment is no longer people talking on the phone (we wear headphones now), but the sounds of furious keyboard activity. Consider how often you choose to email someone instead of picking up the phone or popping in for a quick visit.
The impact of too much screen time for today’s accountant is three-fold; less understanding of the client's situation (email is one dimensional and doesn’t have context), less engagement with clients and, ultimately, less trust.
Speaking a language that clients don’t understand
Too much emphasis is placed on tax and accounting industry-specific training, with limited options to develop communication and soft skills. However, clients don't understand Accountanese. They don’t understand the P & L or the Balance Sheet. It's our job is to interpret and translate these reports into meaningful information they can understand. We owe it to them to speak their language.
To put this in context, how would you feel if your car mechanic said any of these terms to you?
‘Your big end has gone’ - a large bearing in the engine wearing out and producing a loud knocking noise when you accelerate.
‘The bushes were on the way out’ - nothing to do with woods and trees(!), but rubber parts attached to suspension that perish and need replacing occasionally.
‘There’s signs of mayonnaise under the old cap’ - a thick residue that collects under the oil cap often when there’s a problem with the head gasket.
Again, the impacts of speaking in jargon are less client engagement and damage to trust. If we flip this on its head and continue with the mechanic analogy, according to MotorEasy in the UK, 47% of motorists feel they’ve overpaid a mechanic's bill because they didn’t know what they were charging them for.
Are your clients thinking the same if you don’t speak in language they understand?
Focusing discussion on outputs, not outcomes
Many accountants know the services their clients would benefit from, but struggle to sell them. The neglected communication skill being the ability to link the service to the benefits clients are seeking.
Too often accountants describe (or try to sell) the outputs they’re producing for clients. Things like financial statements, tax returns, Business Plans or, worse still, jargon like due diligence. Your clients want to know the outcomes they will get from those services. They'll be even more engaged if you link the outcome to their overarching objective or goal.
For example, we know clients are looking for one or more of The Three Freedoms. Let’s call those the client objectives. So, if the objective is financial freedom, the outcomes you need to deliver your client might be growing sales, lifting margins or reducing debtor days. Once you've established the desired outcomes (and have quantified the value for them) you can then talk about the service that will deliver those outcomes.
Focusing on outcomes ensures we describe the value to be gained from the service (‘the what’). The ‘how to’ is the service that you’ll deliver.
Fear of public speaking
Many accountants let their fear of public speaking restrict their ability to educate their clients. Clients are missing out on the gold that accountants can deliver one-to-many via client seminars or events. In his book, ‘How to win friends and influence people’, Dale Carnegie describes the ‘shortcut to distinction’ being the ability to speak in public. He wrote this in 1936 and it’s just as relevant today.
Holding regular small-scale events provides a great opportunity to help your clients to run a better business. It's also a great opportunity to improve your communication skills.
The only way to overcome this fear is to start. Use systemised content, practise in front of your cat/dog and then in front of your team. Run your first seminar with several of your favourite clients. Then, schedule four or five more session times on the same topic to build your confidence.
Your duty of care to communicate better with your clients
There are many other reasons why communication skills are being neglected. Let’s not provide more reasons (excuses) or get into a blame game. Today’s accountants must get above the line, take ownership of the need, and take responsibility for better communication. You have a duty of care to help your clients run a better business and the way to remain relevant is to improve your communication.
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