Within the tax & accounting industry their is a gap of confidence among tax professionals in dealing with giving business advice. But what can firms do to help?
In the first part of this blog series, we looked how clients increasingly desire to get business advice from their accountants, but too often accountants’ lack of confidence can create barriers to this service.
So, what can accounting firms and their accountants do about this? While each firm may struggle in different areas (or in a combination of areas) related to confidence, your firm can work to grow its accountants’ confidence by focusing on a few key common directives, such as educate, ensure, expose, and encourage.
Let’s look at some steps your firm can take in each of these areas:
Educate on critical thinking
A noted skill gap for those newer to the workforce is critical thinking, which often plays a central role in the function of giving business advice. First must work to close this gap in order to make progress in boosting their accountants’ confidence.
When firms look at closing this gap, the initial reaction may be to jump into education around communication education or the end businesses. And while both of these are critical areas, educating around them won’t solve your critical thinking gap.
Many industry observers have concluded that there is a gap in critical thinking across the board in all industries, not just in tax and accounting. Unfortunately, most people’s education has leaned heavily on rote memorization, and away from application, which lends itself to critical thinking. This dynamic plays into a deep cycle in the tax and accounting profession — laden as it is with checklists and functions that invite and value speed through memorization and tactical step-taking.
To improve accountant confidence, firms must be intentional with their approach to educating around critical thinking to better fight against the natural patterns and tendencies. Fortunately, firms do have access to much of the resources they need to accomplish this. For example, reviewing real client scenarios (such as stepping through what could be different if the client made different choices) is a practical and effective mechanism to begin building the critical thinking muscle.
Firms shouldn’t try to teach critical thinking to their accountants, and then apply have them apply it to the firm. Instead, they should teach as they apply. Keeping the learning closely held to daily activity and real-world scenarios will both speed the natural learning and reinforce the focus as your accountants begin to see the connection to their work.
Ensure business advice matters
If firms know that business advice is desired by their clients, firms should then ensure that giving such advice is seen as a critical part of the client agreement and its importance it conveyed to the firm accountants.
Increasing accountant’s confidence for giving business advice only matters and will only work if that advice also matters to the client and if viewed as important by the firm. We’ve seen how clients are increasingly desired such advice, but has your firm formalized this as part of your engagements? Even if firms educate their teams all day long, it won’t matter if firms fail to ensure that advice-giving is part of the client relationship. While this seems like a simple matter on paper — if advice is important to clients, it should be part of the engagement agreement ( there are a variety of ways that firms could make it part of the client expectation.
Perhaps it is monthly coaching, quarterly client check-ins, or semi-annual touchpoints. Perhaps it is an open invitation to contact the firm whenever the client feels the need. No matter the cadence or style, allocating time for business advice should be documented as part of the relationship. Yet, simply documenting this need for the client’s sake is not enough, it also needs to be visible to the firm’s team.
It is the transparency of engagements and expectations that reinforce the value being placed on giving business advice which elevates the internal attention on finding opportunities for your clients.
Expose staff to client conversations
Too often people don’t realized the important role that exposure plays in improving behavior or learning new skills. If firms want their accountant to gain in confidence around giving business advice, they must increase their exposure, especially to client communications.
While both education is important and ensuring that business advice is part of client engagement is crucial —if a firm limits client conversations, especially around to business advice, to just the partners, it is missing the biggest component of success. Your accountants need to experience these conversations, see them played out in real time, watch the approach through delivery, and even note the responses and follow-ups that come about. And, just as importantly, your team needs to be exposed to this back-and-forth much more than just once. The variation of client goals, temperament, and time commitment each play a vital role in your firm’s unique conversation style through which your team must navigate.
Firms must allow the benefits of this exposure to develop over time, and realize that, even if it results in some lost production time for the team, it is crucial that the team be part of these conversations. Indeed, if firm leaders consider this advice as critical to client relationships, they simply cannot afford to fail to make this happen.
However, this cannot be a simple check the box activity. Allow for vital debrief time after the conversation, and let the person learning do the talking during this time. What did they observe? How did the client respond? Where did the client see both pain and value associated with the conversation? Navigating these kinds of questions can help firms reinforce the learning that comes from exposure to client conversations.
Taken as a whole, this exposure process will allow team members to dig into areas of uncertainty in the context of real-life scenarios, greatly increasing their confidence levels around these matters.
Encourage conversation and sharing
Learning a new skill or improving in a deficiency can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. To avoid burnout, firms need to build encouragement into this process — and that cannot be overlooked.
While direct exposure is essential, the impact can be maximized by encouraging accountants to converse and share with the wider team. If three of your firm’s staff gets to sit in on two business advice conversations each a month, then are encouraged to each share with one others as to what they experienced and learned — your exposure skyrockets. Indeed, this is not just about leveraging exposure. When your team has conversations and shares their experiences, it helps them gain confidence and underscores that they are not alone in the journey. And as they learn and discover new ways to serve clients, a shared sense of purpose will grows deeper, which also boosts confidence.
Increasingly in today’s business climate, clients are beginning to understand that they need more from their tax & accounting professionals — and they are starting to ask for it. Regardless of how your firm has approached business advice before, taking steps to increase the confidence level of your accounting team will pay enormous dividends.
Using the steps discussed above — educate, ensure, expose, and encourage — firms should build on what they already know and build on what clients are looking for. This way, firms will build up their accountants’ confidence to more fully respond to the needs of clients.