THE FORWARD-LOOKING ACCOUNTANT

Technology is taking over some routine tax and accounting tasks. This means accountants now need to make the move to trusted business advisors.

William Reeb and Dominic Cingoranelli asked an important question in their book Becoming a trusted business advisor: how to add value, improve client loyalty, and increase profits, namely if accountants can name the top strategic concerns, opportunities, challenges and initiatives for their clients in the next few years. If not, I will argue that they are not forward-looking. In other words, if what you thought about when I asked this question are tax or accounting matters, you may be still stuck in historical reporting and may be punishing your clients for historical issues and mistakes instead of proactively dealing with their challenges and opportunities.

CAs are highly technical individuals. Most clients and businesses assume CAs’ technical competency as a given. The minute you say you are a CA, you are already highly regarded because of your technical ability. But it is your ability to look forward and advise that will set you apart as an industry leader.

Technology may take over most routine tasks such as tax and accounting matters. As a result, clients and businesses are looking for an accountant who can provide a value-added service. So, how do you proactively deal with your clients and by so doing add value to their businesses?

RELEVANCE

Relevance implies being closely connected or appropriate. The first step to relevance is remaining up to date with industry trends, developments and technology. SAICA’s new CPD policy plays right into this. It requires CAs to identify areas where they want to develop and to work towards this particular area of development.

Accountants should offer their clients what they need and when they need it and do so proactively. Therefore, one has to understand their client’s business well before serving them. Not understanding their business may mean the solutions provided will not be relevant.

Read widely and seek information from many sources. This can be through reading articles linked to client industries and attending webinars and online seminars where their specific industries are discussed. If possible, have some of your team members specialise in specific industries. This can be the case where you do not have a market niche.

Training is also a major element of remaining relevant. Ensure that your staff is trained on matters to do with their field of work and interactions with clients. This training can cover such areas as:

  • Communication
  • Customer experience
  • Use of technology
  • Dealing with conflict
  • Empathy, and
  • Creativity in dealing with customer complaints or matters

RELIABILITY

Reliability is doing things on time and consistently. This means addressing your clients’ questions before they become big and urgent issues, or before it becomes too late to resolve them. If you let things go far, you may lose the relationship that you have with your clients as well.

Keep up to date with changes in your clients’ businesses. This can be achieved through regular touchpoints − monthly only may be too late. Businesses change every day. Some clients want regular calls just to check how things are going and how they are doing personally. This is even more important during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. When you call, show genuine care.

It is also important to inform your clients of the communication schedule so that they can expect to hear from you. This will also help them prepare for the call and to think about issues they want to tell you about.

Follow up on every opportunity to help your clients and make sure you understand that a relationship comes before money. Once your relationship is solid, the money will follow.

RESPONSIVENESS

Listen more than you talk back to your clients. Listen with the intention to understand your client’s challenges or opportunities. Listen with a view to help, not to respond. If you listen with the intention to respond, you will miss what the client is saying. While your client is speaking, make notes of things you think you have not understood and only come back to these things to seek clarity after your client has finished talking.

Focus more on the future of your clients’ businesses than their past. You can do this by simply asking them, ‘What do you see as opportunities and challenges for your business in the next few weeks, months or years?’

Some clients may still not tell you much about their business after this question. But this is an opportunity for you to know your client’s top strategic concerns, opportunities, challenges and initiatives. So, you have to structure your questions to cover the following fundamental business functions:

  • Planning
  • Personnel
  • Operations
  • Governance
  • Technology
  • Marketing
  • Management
  • Profitability
  • Accounting and finance
  • Information management
  • Succession management
  • Products/services
  • Business continuity plans

Responsiveness is about listening more than you talk. So, after asking the above questions, take time to listen. Questions should be about finding out more about what the client is talking about, which makes you understand the problem much better. If you develop what you think is exciting advice while the client is still talking, hold back your excitement. Allow them to finish and then provide this advice as a question. For example, ‘Mrs Client, have you considered talking to your landlord about a payment holiday?’ If she had not thought about this, she is going to appreciate your genial idea. If she had already thought about it, she is going to think you are as smart as she is.

Being responsive means responding to your clients more quickly. Some clients need responses and they need them now. It is better to respond to a client and say, ‘Hey, I have seen your text regarding project X. Can we schedule a call to discuss this?’ This is better than ignoring them, because their response will give you an indication of how urgent this matter is.

CONVENIENCE

Be where your client needs you and communicate with them at their comfort. Do not start a meeting on Zoom only to find out that your client does not have Zoom or does not like using the platform. Rather get in touch with the client and say, ‘Hey Mrs Client, I have scheduled a meeting with you for Thursday at 10:00 via Zoom. Does this work for you?’

SITUATIONAL AWARENESS

In his book Virus-proof your small business50 ways to survive the COVID-19 crisis Douglas Kruger introduced me to the term ‘situational awareness’ used by, for example, the Israel Defence Force (IDF). Kruger explains: ‘Each day, regardless of what transpired, regardless of fatigue, regardless of any other factor, the IDF assembles their people to do an intensive debrief of that day’s performance. They discuss what worked, what didn’t and how to do better tomorrow.

I want us to consider this concept in the context of a forward-looking accountant. Are you taking time with your team to:

  • Discuss each meeting you have had with a client in order to see where you can do better in the next meeting?
  • Discuss what is likely to go wrong in the week/month or year and take measures to mitigate the risks? This can be in relation to your own business and your relationship or interaction with your clients.
  • Having a conversation with your clients about where you can improve?
  • Following up on advice you have given to your clients to see how your clients have implemented it? This is important, and to take a quote from Matt Brown’s book Your inner game: 12 principles for high impact entrepreneurs: a CEO when asked if he had implemented anything of the plan recommended to him said, ‘Nothing, Tom. But remember, when you left people had to go back to their jobs.’

You can add your own things to this list, but the important thing is that you take stock of what is happening or likely to happen around you and your clients and take proactive steps to deal with these things.

AUTHOR │Lazarus Kaseke CA(SA), CEO, Eva Financial Solutions

This article first appeared on accountancysa.org.za

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