Posts

Be an accountant who is known for great communication (1 of 3)

What are the hallmarks that make a professional services provider like an accountant be an effective communicator?

As I see it there are 3.

The first hallmark is simplicity.

Have you ever been in a presentation or a meeting when someone insists on using long & complex words and phrases rather than simple and plain language? Of course you have! It’s as if they believe that they will impress people with their command of language by using words & jargon that show just how smart they are. Doing this helps no one.

I’d like to share with you a story. The moral of this story will give you a tremendous insight into how to more effectively communicate with your clients, prospects, staff, suppliers … in fact anyone you need to speak with and whom you want to understand the words you are using.

Many years ago I attended a student residential conference whilst at university. The conference was held in a wonderful bushland setting a couple of hours drive south of Sydney.

The keynote speaker was a terrific & engaging guy with the somewhat unusual name of Winkie Pratney (that is a name you don’t forget in a hurry ) He was sharing insights on leadership and value-driven work.

Winkie’s style of instruction/teaching was great. He peppered each seminar with real life examples and anecdotes. One such story has stuck in my mind since (25+ years!). Winkie called it the “3 Stages.” Here is how it went.

There are 3 stages in effective communication – be it written or oral.

Stage 1 – This consists of small ideas in small words. We all go through this stage. From our first acts of speech we use smalls words like da-da, mummy, bye-bye and eat to convey simple greetings and requests. As children grow & develop, the volume of words increase but not so much their length and the ideas behind them are still small … “Dad can I have $10 please?” I think you get the idea.

Stage 2 – This stage is big ideas in big words. This is the use (& sometimes overuse) of jargon and technical language. Have you had a meeting with an “average” tax lawyer lately? Tax legislation is typically complex, verbose and detailed. However, sometimes the interpretation or the explanation given by the tax lawyer is equally complex, verbose and detailed – a definite case of big ideas in big words.

Stage 3 – The 3rd and final stage in effective communication is simply this: you will never become a great communicator until you translate big ideas into small words.

To unpack this simple rule a little more, consider this. If a person knows and understands their subject matter extremely well then he/she should be able to explain the material to someone new to the area. For example, I have no understanding of physics whatsoever having done no study at either school or uni – it just doesn’t interest me for some reason. However, I once saw an interview with a Nobel Prize winning physicist on television explain in small words the big idea of Einsteins General Theory of Relativity. Not bad!

Conversely, if a person doesn’t know their subject matter that well they will tend to hide behind jargon or big words. Keep this in mind when listening to a politician speak about some so-called “complex issue.”

Here is a question for you – “When you communicate with your clients do you use small words or big words?”

See you next time,

James

Please … give it to me straight

We have all heard the old saying – “give it to me straight.”

Usually in the movies someone is sitting in a doctors office on a chair on one side of the desk with the doctor sitting on the other side.  The doctor looks worried, is fidgety and is searching for the right words to use. The patient (usually a man) calmly asks the doctor to “give it to me straight.”

The doctor replies, “Marshall … I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first?”

Marshall says, “Give me the good news Doc”

Doctor replies, “You have one week to live”

“What? One week to live! That’s the good news? What on earth is the bad news?, Marshall shouts out.

The Doctor sheepishly admits, “The bad news is … I meant to tell you the good news last week”

Funny story, but unfortunately many clients of accountants, are victims of not being told the bad news early enough.

A good friend of mine is a management consultant.  He is highly skilled and experienced and earns a very good living. Being self-employed he has to fulfill the usual compliance requirements for operating a small business. As you know, in Australia one of these requirements is to lodge a quarterly business activity statement (BAS). Along with lodging the documentation there is usually an amount of tax payable.

For some strange reason my friend hadn’t lodged his BAS’s for 12 consecutive quarters. For some strange reason his accountant didn’t remind or raise the issue with my friend not until one day four years later he had a difficult chat with his client. Needless to sy it was not a nice discussion – the outcome of which was a bunch of fines, interest on what was owing, and the balance of the tax payable – a truckload of money and a blemished record with the Tax Office.

A question for you … “Who is at fault … the client or the accountant? Legally its the client. Morally it maybe the accountant.

What do you think?

See you next post.

James E.

Never ask this question (2 of 2)

A couple of chaps presented some interesting findings in a post last week on the Harvard Business Review blog titled “The Worst Questions a Salesperson Can Ask” See below for an extract. For the full piece go to http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/the_single_worst_question_a_sa.html

Although the article specifically refers to salespeople, it is important to note that all professionals, including accountants, have to be skilled at “selling” their offering to current clients and prospective clients. Some great lessons can be learned from what these chaps write about.

To understand what makes this question so destructive, we need to first understand where it comes from. For years, most sales training has focused on a single core principle: the shortest path to sales success is a deep understanding of your customers’ needs. If we can understand what’s keeping customers up at night, we can build tight linkages between their problems and our solutions, thereby improving our chances of selling something.

As a result, companies have poured money into teaching their reps to ask better questions. But while it sounds great on paper, this approach suffers from two major problems. First, improving reps’ ability to diagnose needs on the fly proves colossally difficult — especially among average performers. Second, and more to the point, this approach is based on a deeply flawed assumption: customers actually know what they need in the first place.

But what if customers don’t know what they need? What if customers’ single greatest need, ironically, is to figure out exactly what they need? If this were true, the better sales technique might be to tell customers what they need.

In the past we described a type of sales rep we call a Challenger. These gifted, high-performing reps succeed by doing just this, revealing to customers problems — and solutions — that they don’t even see. This isn’t your standard solution-selling approach, focused on open-ended needs diagnosis. A sales conversation with a Challenger provides valuable insight to customers instead of extracting it.

What does this sound like in practice? In our book, we present several case studies, but one of our favorites is from W.W. Grainger, Inc., the distributor of maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) supplies. In the past, Grainger reps led with facts and figures about their company — how old they are, how many items they stock, how many distribution centers they have, and so on, all leading to the inevitable “So, that’s who we are. Now tell me, what’s keeping you up at night?”

Today, a conversation with a Grainger rep is very different. It focuses almost exclusively on a series of proprietary insights Grainger has developed about its customers that prompt them to think very differently about how to manage their MRO spending — in ways that could potentially save them millions. Rather than trying to convince customers to go with Grainger as their supplier of choice for planned MRO purchasing (which inevitably leads to a price-focused discussion), Grainger reps start by showing them how much money they are likely wasting every year on unplanned purchases, which Grainger’s research shows can be up to 40% of the average company’s MRO spending.

No supplier wants to be in the business of free consulting — and Grainger is no different. The key is to teach in a way that leads customers to your unique benefits as opposed to leading with them. After reframing the way customers think about MRO spending, Grainger reps create an opportunity to talk about a set of capabilities they can offer to better manage that spend, ultimately leading to higher-level sales conversations and bigger deals.

These conversations aren’t happenstance. There’s a specific art to getting them right. We’ve found that insight-led sales conversations like Grainger’s follow a distinct choreography that’s markedly different from your standard sales pitch. Importantly, this isn’t something to leave to your individual reps to figure out. Marketing plays a critical role in identifying these teachable insights and equipping reps with the tools to deliver them to customers.

Done well, this sort of sales approach creates a powerfully differentiated interaction for customers because it leads with insight, not tiresome questions. And, as it turns out, that difference really matters.

In a survey of more than 5,000 business customers, we found that of all of the possible factors that could drive customer loyalty — including brand, product and service quality, and price-to-value ratio — by far the biggest driver is something most companies don’t even think about: the sales experience, accounting for 53% of the overall total.

Customer loyalty, it turns out, is more a function of how you sell than what you sell. Specifically, customers reward suppliers who “offer unique and valuable perspectives on the market” and “educate them on new issues and outcomes.”

See you next post!

James E

Never ask this question (1 of 2)

A few months ago I wrote a post titled “The Worst Question an Accountant Can Ask”. I was in a meeting just the other day with a senior partner from a top 10 accounting firm. To cut a long story short – he (to my great surprise) asked the question an accountant should never ask!

In the book, in between the chapters of the interviews with accounting firm clients are little vignettes called “a view from the other side” which are the responses of accountants I’ve have met and known over the years. They respond to one of four questions I pose them, one of which is, “What is the best question you have ever asked a client or prospect?”

I asked the above question of three senior accountants, two of which were partners and surprisingly two came up with the same answer: they would ask their client or prospect, “What keeps you awake at night?”

At the time I thought it was a fair enough question to ask since it had been used in sales and business development contexts for many, many years. However, in the last few days I read something that completely changed my mind on the whole subject.

During the last week, I read the blog of well-known and respected management journal that blew my socks off. They claim that the worst possible question a professional could possibly ask of a client or prospective client is I fact “What’s keeping you up at night?”

So who are these people that claim that such a simple question that has been asked countless thousands of times all around the world for the last few decades is not only so completely wrong and but can and will simultaneously prevents sales while also destroying customer loyalty?

Well they must know a thing or two since they were published by no less a journal than the Harvard Business Review. Tune into the next post to find out more!

All my best,

James E

Listen more than you speak

The second hallmark of effective professional is the ability to listen – really listen. In earlier posts you would have heard me bang on about the importance of listening when meeting and discussing issues with clients and pitching for new business.

I found an excellent list of barriers to effective listening and strategies to promote better listening.

Barriers to effective listening

There are many reasons as to why individuals fail to listen successfully, These include:

  1. Interrupting
  2. Faking attention and tuning out
  3. Becoming emotional
  4. Jumping to conclusions
  5. Getting distracted
  6. Pre-judging the subject
    Wrong focus
  7. Gathering only facts
  8. Inflexibility while listening
  9. Avoiding complicated subjects

Strategies to promote better listening

You can improve your listening skills by following some of the strategies mentioned below:

  • Maintain eye contact with the speaker.
  • Provide clues that you are actively involved in listening.
  • Focus on content, not delivery
  • Avoid emotional involvement
  • Avoid distractions
  • Refrain from formulating an immediate response
    Ask questions
  • Use the gap between the rate of speech.
  • Be willing to accept revisions
  • Choose the right environment
  • Stay active by asking questions for yourself

(Source: http://hubpages.com/hub/Importance-of-Listening-Skills-in-Professional-Life)

I remember my dad saying to me years ago … “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a very good reason … make sure you use them in the that ratio” It took me some time to work out that meant you should listen twice as much as you talk! Admittedly I was quite young at the time 🙂

Until next time.

James E

Give it to me straight

We have all heard the old saying – “give it to me straight.”

Usually in the movies someone is sitting in a doctors office on a chair on one side of the desk with the doctor sitting on the other side.  The doctor looks worried, is fidgety and is searching for the right words to use. The patient (usually a man) calmly asks the doctor to “give it to me straight.”

The doctor replies, “Marshall … I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first?”

Marshall says, “Give me the good news Doc”

Doctor replies, “You have one week to live”

“What? One week to live! That’s the good news? What on earth is the bad news?, Marshall shouts out.

The Doctor sheepishly admits, “The bad news is … I meant to tell you the good news last week”

Funny story, but unfortunately many clients of accountants, are victims of not being told the bad news early enough.

A good friend of mine is a management consultant.  He is highly skilled and experienced and earns a very good living. Being self-employed he has to fulfill the usual compliance requirements for operating a small business. As you know, in Australia one of these requirements is to lodge a quarterly business activity statement (BAS). Along with lodging the documentation there is usually an amount of tax payable.

For some strange reason my friend hadn’t lodged his BAS’s for 12 consecutive quarters. For some strange reason his accountant didn’t remind or raise the issue with my friend not until one day four years later he had a difficult chat with his client. Needless to sy it was not a nice discussion – the outcome of which was a bunch of fines, interest on what was owing, and the balance of the tax payable – a truckload of money and a blemished record with the Tax Office.

A question for you … “Who is at fault … the client or the accountant? Legally its the client. Morally it maybe the accountant.

What do you think?

See you next post.

James E.

Small things count

I had a meeting the other day with a CFO of a manufacturing company. Its a private business with an annual revenue of around $25m and employs about 80 people. Not a huge organisation but still a viable and solid client for any size accounting firm.

The CFO, lets call him John as in John Cleese (one of my favourite actors/comedians), told me that they had changed accounting firms recently. Given the work that I do, I’m always interested in the reasons why clients leave their accountants and use another firm.

When I asked John why the change I expected to hear him say things like lack of the right expertise, constant mistakes and the like. However, he said it was simple – they didn’t return his phone calls or reply to his emails. At first, I thought he was joking, but sadly he wasn’t. John was so angry at the time that he even thought about lodging an official complaint with the Institute of Chartered Accountants. What is even more surprising is that the firm in question wasn’t a 2-3 man shop but rather a CBD-based firm with over 60 staff! Surely it doesn’t take a genius to work out that small things count when it comes to clients.

In the next post I’ll be sharing with you a simple checklist you might like to ask yourself and members of your team every now and then. You might just be reminded of some basic small things that you may have forgotten!

See you next post,

James E

The worst question an accountant can ask (2 of 2)

A couple of chaps presented some interesting findings in a post last week on the Harvard Business Review blog titled “The Worst Questions a Salesperson Can Ask” See below for an extract. For the full piece go to http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/the_single_worst_question_a_sa.html

Although the article specifically refers to salespeople, it is important to note that all professionals, including accountants, have to be skilled at “selling” their offering to current clients and prospective clients. Some great lessons can be learned from what these chaps write about.

To understand what makes this question so destructive, we need to first understand where it comes from. For years, most sales training has focused on a single core principle: the shortest path to sales success is a deep understanding of your customers’ needs. If we can understand what’s keeping customers up at night, we can build tight linkages between their problems and our solutions, thereby improving our chances of selling something.

As a result, companies have poured money into teaching their reps to ask better questions. But while it sounds great on paper, this approach suffers from two major problems. First, improving reps’ ability to diagnose needs on the fly proves colossally difficult — especially among average performers. Second, and more to the point, this approach is based on a deeply flawed assumption: customers actually know what they need in the first place.

But what if customers don’t know what they need? What if customers’ single greatest need, ironically, is to figure out exactly what they need? If this were true, the better sales technique might be to tell customers what they need.

In the past we described a type of sales rep we call a Challenger. These gifted, high-performing reps succeed by doing just this, revealing to customers problems — and solutions — that they don’t even see. This isn’t your standard solution-selling approach, focused on open-ended needs diagnosis. A sales conversation with a Challenger provides valuable insight to customers instead of extracting it.

What does this sound like in practice? In our book, we present several case studies, but one of our favorites is from W.W. Grainger, Inc., the distributor of maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) supplies. In the past, Grainger reps led with facts and figures about their company — how old they are, how many items they stock, how many distribution centers they have, and so on, all leading to the inevitable “So, that’s who we are. Now tell me, what’s keeping you up at night?”

Today, a conversation with a Grainger rep is very different. It focuses almost exclusively on a series of proprietary insights Grainger has developed about its customers that prompt them to think very differently about how to manage their MRO spending — in ways that could potentially save them millions. Rather than trying to convince customers to go with Grainger as their supplier of choice for planned MRO purchasing (which inevitably leads to a price-focused discussion), Grainger reps start by showing them how much money they are likely wasting every year on unplanned purchases, which Grainger’s research shows can be up to 40% of the average company’s MRO spending.

No supplier wants to be in the business of free consulting — and Grainger is no different. The key is to teach in a way that leads customers to your unique benefits as opposed to leading with them. After reframing the way customers think about MRO spending, Grainger reps create an opportunity to talk about a set of capabilities they can offer to better manage that spend, ultimately leading to higher-level sales conversations and bigger deals.

These conversations aren’t happenstance. There’s a specific art to getting them right. We’ve found that insight-led sales conversations like Grainger’s follow a distinct choreography that’s markedly different from your standard sales pitch. Importantly, this isn’t something to leave to your individual reps to figure out. Marketing plays a critical role in identifying these teachable insights and equipping reps with the tools to deliver them to customers.

Done well, this sort of sales approach creates a powerfully differentiated interaction for customers because it leads with insight, not tiresome questions. And, as it turns out, that difference really matters.

In a survey of more than 5,000 business customers, we found that of all of the possible factors that could drive customer loyalty — including brand, product and service quality, and price-to-value ratio — by far the biggest driver is something most companies don’t even think about: the sales experience, accounting for 53% of the overall total.

Customer loyalty, it turns out, is more a function of how you sell than what you sell. Specifically, customers reward suppliers who “offer unique and valuable perspectives on the market” and “educate them on new issues and outcomes.”

See you next post!

James E

The worst question an accountant can ask (1 of 2)

If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any length of time then you’ll know that I have sweated over a book that I’ve been working on for several months titled “What do Accounting Clients Really Want?” which was published by Thomson Reuters back in August.

In the book, in between the chapters of the interviews with accounting firm clients are little vignettes called “a view from the other side” which are the responses of accountants I’ve have met and known over the years. They respond to one of four questions I pose them, one of which is, “What is the best question you have ever asked a client or prospect?”

I asked the above question of three senior accountants, two of which were partners and surprisingly two came up with the same answer: they would ask their client or prospect, “What keeps you awake at night?”

At the time I thought it was a fair enough question to ask since it had been used in sales and business development contexts for many, many years. However, in the last few days I read something that completely changed my mind on the whole subject.

During the last week, I read the blog of well-known and respected management journal that blew my socks off. They claim that the worst possible question a professional could possibly ask of a client or prospective client is I fact “What’s keeping you up at night?”

So who are these people that claim that such a simple question that has been asked countless thousands of times all around the world for the last few decades is not only so completely wrong and but can and will simultaneously prevents sales while also destroying customer loyalty?

Well they must know a thing or two since they were published by no less a journal than the Harvard Business Review. Tune into the next post to find out more!

All my best,

James E

Help me help you!

If you have been reading this blog for a while you would have noticed that I’m a fan of David Masiter (see http://davidmaister.com)

David has published a wealth of material on how professional services firms should relate to their clients and prospects. Back in April 2006, David wrote a blog titled “What do you want from me?” Have a read below. I’ve made a few tweeks so it fits better with the theme of my blog. I hope that’s OK!

It’s common that clients will assign work to you badly, and that will cause you problems. How can you do what they want if they don’t tell you clearly what they want? The key is to take responsibility and ask permission to ask questions.

When someone gives you a task to do, say something like ‘I really want to do a great job for you, so can I clarify a few things?’ Most people will say ‘Yes.’ You can then be sure you understand the following details about your assignment –

  1. The context of the assignment – ‘Please could you tell me what you are going to do with this when I get it done, tell me who is it for, and where does it fit with other things going on?’
  2. Deadline – When would you like it, and when is it really due?
  3. Scope – Would you like me to do the thorough job and take a little longer, or the quick and dirty version?
  4. Format – How would you like to see the output of my work presented? What would make your life easier?
  5. Time budget – Roughly how long would you expect this to take (so I can tell whether I’m on track or not?)
  6. Relative priority – What’s the importance of this task relative to the other things you have asked me to do?
  7. Available resources – Is there anything available to help me get the job done? For example, have we done one of these before?
  8. Success criteria – How will the work be judged? Is it more important to be fast, cheap or perfect?
  9. Monitoring and scheduled check points – Can we, please, schedule now a meeting, say, halfway through so I can show you what I’ve got and ensure that I’m on track for your needs?
  10. Understanding – can I just read back to you what you’ve asked me to do, to confirm that I got it down right?
  11. Concerns – before I get started can I just share with you any concerns about getting this done (e.g., other demands on my time) so that I don’t surprise you later?

Yes, your client should be good at assigning work and giving you this information anyway. But the truth is that many people won’t have thought through what they really want from you until you guide them through their ‘either-or’ choices.

If you have not received answers to these questions, you don’t yet know what to do, and the risk of being judged a failure is high!

Don’t rely on your client to give you all this information. Pull it out of him or her!

Some sage advice from one of the real masters.

All my best,

James E