The art of conversation

In working with accounting firms and individual professionals for many years, I have been somewhat surprised to learn a few things about Partners and staff.

The one thing that I have uncovered  is that a lot of senior accounting professionals are not good at having conversations with prospective clients.  It may be that they don’t like being out of their comfort zone or lack confidence in building new relationships or they simply haven’t been given the necessary training. I’m just not sure.

One of my clients, is a senior partner with a big 4 accounting firm. A few weeks ago I asked him what % of partners in the top 10 accounting firms within Australia, in his view, are able to proactively engage with prospective clients and build a mutually beneficial relationship. What do you think he said? 50%, 60%? He told me, in his opinion as a 30+ year veteran professional, it was around 10 to 20%. Wow! That is not good. I’m concerned that the professionals coming through the ranks – the graduates, supervisors, managers, directors and the rest not being shown good role models by their Partner-Principals.

Its not too late. Anyone – young or old, male or female, graduate or partner can change and improve the way they work. The first thing to change is to learn the art of conversation.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Come on James … you’re being waaaaaaay to simplistic!” With respect I don’t think I am. Sometimes I think that professionals be they accountants, lawyers, management consultants, engineers, architects, financial planners etc… tend to over-complicate their interactions with clients and prospective clients.

Let me leave you with this one thought –

There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation.

This was a quote by the American author, James Nathan Miller who lived and worked in the late 1800’s.

See you next post,

James E.

The true story of two bananas

I was in a meeting with a top ten accounting firm recently.

The purpose of the meeting was for me to introduce a friend of mine who needed some specialist advice regarding an upcoming transaction.

My friend & I were on one side of the table; two partners on the other side. Lets call them B1 and B2.

B1 was engaging and attentive to my friend and the concerns of his business. He was a good listener and asked the right questions.

B2 seemed to be very interested for the first ten minutes of the meeting and then for some reason “turned off” for the remainder. In the following forty or so minutes he looked at his Blackberry about 10 times and sent at least 3 emails or txts during the meeting. He asked a few questions but gave the impression that he was too important for such a “small” client.

B2 is an absolute expert in his field and commands  high fees for his services. However, in spite of his technical prowess he didn’t get the assignment. I think my friend said it best shortly after we left the meeting… “what a w_ _ _ _ _ !”

What more can I say?


A checklist worth remembering

In the last post I was sharing with you the importance of getting the small things right when it comes to clients. Here is a checklist you might like to use so you don’t forget. That aren’t in any specific order of importance.

  1. Return all phone calls promptly. Try the same business day. If not the very next morning.
  2. Reply to all emails (depending upon the urgency) within 24 hours. If its really important reply as soon as you can – say 2 to 3 hours.
  3. Phone your client for no specific reason and arrange to have a coffee with no agenda and don’t charge for the time. This shows you are interested in the client and want to invest in the relationship.
  4. Do you know your clients hobbies and interests? If not find out and make a note.
  5. With the above in mind, from time to time send you client a small gift (something to do with their interest/hobby) for no reason. It just shows that you’re thinking of them. Sounds corny but it works if done in a genuine way.
  6. Ask your client the question, “What is the smallest change that I could make that would have the biggest impact on your business?” You might just be surprised at what they say. By the way … before you ask the question tell them that they are not allowed to say lower fees!
  7. Here is a big one. If you say you’re going to do something by a certain day/time then do it. If you can’t than make sure you tell the client ahead of the time the reason why.
  8. If you don’t know the answer to something then tell the client that you don’t know but you know how to find out. Clients want honesty not half-baked responses.

Well there you go – hope the above helps.

See you next post,

James E

A word from the streets

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you will know that over the last few months I’ve been working on a book titled “What do Accounting Clients Really Want?” The book is scheduled to be published by Thomson Reuters in May/June this year. Its is a series of interviews of 25 people who buy accounting services.

When I’ve mentioned the book to friends, clients, business associates and people I bump into, almost without exception, they have asked me the obvious question, “Why?”

Since the why question has been asked of me so many times I have developed an almost scripted response that is built around one  statement, “Most advisers be they accountants, lawyers, management consultants or whoever, fall into the trap (more often that not) of assuming what their client or prospective client really wants”

I then go on to unpack with my audience at the time (usually consisting of 1 or 2 people who I have cornered somewhere!) why the above statement tends to be fact than fiction. Lets face it, the adviser in question may well be a partner in a big accounting or law firm, a director in a management consultancy or a principal within a marketing agency. They are, for all intents and purposes, a subject matter expert; they have deep technical knowledge, years of industry experience, well developed networks within their discipline, proven methodologies and processes and the list goes on.

It then becomes a little more understandable to my audience that advisers may, by default rather than be design, take on the mantle of “I know best” viz their client.

Set against the above  explanation, my audience start to nod their heads slowly in understanding. My business audience is usually one of two groups: a member of the adviser community or a client of that community.

If a thought bubble were to appear above the adviser(s)  heads it would read something like, “Oh … that’s what he means. Hmmm … have I fallen into that trap?”

On the other side of the coin, the client thought bubble reads, “Yep I know how that feels. Why on earth do they ask me questions and not listen to what I have to say?”

The above of course is a little exaggerated to make the point. If you’re an adviser, irrespective of the discipline, what does your thought bubble say? I’d love to know. Leave a comment and please tell me and others.

See you next time,

James E

Asking questions

I’m not an accountant; however, I work with accountants and their clients every day.

Over the course of my professional career, I have come to the conclusion that a lot of accountants (as well as the other advising professions of law, management consultancy, engineering and the like) assume too much about what their clients want. This is not a criticism, simply an observation.  The secret of excellence is the provision of accounting services is to fully understand what the client wants. This understanding is achieved through two simple things: (i) asking better questions and getting better answers and, (ii) listening to what the client is saying (and not saying).

At the moment I’m currently writing a book titled, “What do Accounting Clients Really Want?” which will be published by Thomson Reuters in April next year. The book consists of 25 interviews with people who buy external accounting services for the businesses they either own or manage. Usually the interviewee is the CFO or Finance director. The businesses I’ve targeted for the book are from the SME part of the market, which in my humble view is far more interesting than the big end of town.

For each interview I have stuck to the same core questions with the occasional tangent. These questions are:

1.     What is the most important quality or attribute you look for in an accountant?

2.     How important is technical expertise in an accountant?

3.     Is price and quality a trade off? Does it need to be?

4.     When looking at engaging a new accountant, how important is their firm’s brand to you?

5.     Tell me about a time when you received the best service from an accounting firm. What made it the best?

6.     Tell me about a time when you received terrible service from an accounting firm. What could they have done differently?

7.     If you were to hire a new accountant/accounting firm what are the things you look for?

8.     What is your current experience with your accountant?

9.     What has prompted you in the past, or would prompt you in the future, to change accountants? How often do you change    accountants? What steps do you take to find a new accountant?

10.  Do you prefer time-based billing or a fixed price for service or a retainer arrangement?

11.  What can accountants do to improve their service to you?

12.  Are accountants good listeners? How can accountants be better listeners?

13.  What role does your accountant play in your business? What role would you like them to play?

14.  What’s the smallest change your accountant could make that would have the biggest impact on you?

15.  What do you value most about your accountant? Why?

16.  With the pervasive use of online technologies should accountants give you the option to interact with them via the web?

17.  Do you see areas such as such as tax, accounting, superannuation and audit as a commodity or as a value proposition?

Well that’s enough for now.

See you next time around.

James E