Over the last couple of months, I've been discussing the four most neglected skills of Today's Accountant. In the final blog of this series, it's time to discuss empathy.
Who cares about empathy?
Accountants live in a world of numbers. The numbers must be right, and the client needs the accountant to just get on and do the work - it’s a grudge purchase for the client anyway, as they don’t have a choice. So, it’s got nothing to do with empathy, right? Wrong!
Empathy is the ability to see things from our clients’ perspective AND be prepared to do something about it.
As accountants, if we're unable to see things from our clients’ perspective, how can we help them with their issues? Of course, we must do the grudge purchase work (think annual accounts and tax returns), but we have a duty of care to provide so much more.
We should be helping clients overcome their problems in business so they can get the life they want. No one else is really helping them in this space and we already know our clients very well - and they trust us.
What's the story behind the numbers?
Here’s a classic example of a lack of empathy and an inability to see beyond the numbers. A client was looking to open a second business in a new shopping mall. Their first business was a great success, so they thought they’d expand. Naturally the bank requested a forecast. I allocated this work to one of my team to do.
When it came time to review the forecast, I asked the team member if she would proceed with the expansion if she owned the business. She replied, 'Oh that’s a good question, I hadn’t thought about that - but the forecast is right, I’ve reconciled everything, and my assumptions are set out in the notes'.
When I showed the team member that the business was going to make a cash loss after the loan repayments a light bulb turned on; the numbers were telling a story and that story was going to be a nightmare for that client.
How often do we see this as accountants? The financial statements are telling a story, but there’s little or no interaction with the client about what business life is, was, or will be like for them.
How does your client feel when they come into your office to go through their financials? I remember bumping into a friend after he’d seen his accountant. He proudly told me that he hadn't been told off this year and, while he worried about how he would pay his tax bill, his accountant had told him that paying tax was a good sign. I was horrified - the accountant hadn't thought to discuss how to plan for that tax bill and wasn't planning to see my friend for another year.
Empathy is not just about our clients
We also have a duty of care to our team as leaders of the business. Displaying empathy does not mean we come across as a soft touch or pushover; in fact it builds trust and confidence.
Here’s a great video: Simon Sinek - Most leaders don’t even know the game they’re in
Sinek quotes that a lack of empathy looks like this: “Your numbers are down for the third quarter in a row. You have to lift your numbers. If you can’t lift the numbers, I can’t guarantee what the future will look like for you.”
Contrast this with empathy: “Your numbers are down for the third quarter in a row. Are you OK? I’m worried about you. What’s going on?”
Can empathy be learnt?
While I’m no psychologist, my view is yes, absolutely. We all have different empathy scores as a result of our up-bringing, environment, and personality types. But, just as leadership skills can be learned, so can empathy. Here are a few ideas:
- Ask more questions. One of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective people is ‘seek first to understand’. By asking better questions, we’ll gain an understanding as to the problems and challenges our clients are experiencing. Note here that empathy is one of those seven habits too.
- Client growth brainstorming. Before having a meeting with your clients to go through their annual accounts, hold a 15-minute client growth brainstorming session with your team. Help them see the problems in the financials and discuss how you can add value.
- Role playing. Practise ‘interviewing the client’ in pairs with one person as the accountant and the other as the client.
- Run Complimentary Client Review meetings. CCRs are a forum where you ask your clients their goals and their challenges and then agree on how you can work together to overcome those problems and help them to get to their goals.
- Establish effective meeting rhythms with your team. Have them submit a weekly team member report (covering what they’ve done in the week, what their current challenges are, what support they need, and what they plan to do next week) and then go through the reports in a 15-minute stand up meeting. If more support is needed, set aside the time to do this.
- Stick to your core. Your core purpose and Core Values are an expression of how you operate; they’re not just nice words. Learn them off by heart, live into them, and share examples of them in action with the team .
Why not discuss with your team how you can all do better at heightening your empathy for each other and for your clients?
"Empathy is caring about the human being; not just their output."
- Simon Sinek