Accountants are required by their respective professional bodies to continually develop their technical skills. Technically-focused continual professional development is an accepted part of their life and career. At the same time firms, to identify the rounded competencies, are building key performance indicators into staff and partner appraisal systems. The gap between technical training and the competencies being sought by accountancy firms is a challenge for any individual looking to progress to partnership level. Also, time and money invested in developing non-technical skills is patchy to say the least. Often soft skills development is left to being picked up ‘accidentally’ on the job.
The trusted adviser
The ability to build trusting relationships with both clients and colleagues is at the heart of the ‘rounded professional’ persona. So how does an accountant establish relationships of trust? The most successful partners who are observed to be trusted advisers tend to have built an image based on three factors: credibility, competence and compatibility. They achieve this by demonstrating specific behaviours developed through specific training, coaching, mentoring and other forms of personal development.
Credibility is the first key component to being a trusted adviser. It can be established when four behaviours are brought into play. These are confidence; creating an initial impact; being honest; and delivering as promised.
People who seem in control and confident in what they say and do are more believable (and hence trustworthy) than those who appear to be hesitant and uncertain. There is no one instant solution to having confidence. Real confidence comes from experiencing sustained success, and sustained success comes as a result of applying many of the factors that follow below. Reinforcement of success – and the confidence that ensues – can be built through experiencing real life situations (albeit monitored to ensure best practice) or through ‘simulation’ via role play, where feedback can be given.
Creating an initial impact
People are never more sensitive (even if much of it is at a sub-conscious level) than when they first meet. We ‘read’ other people’s behaviour and we may have indelible impressions of them even before they have spoken. Behaviours that create an initial impact can be easily observed, controlled and improved – an eminently learnable skill.
It may sound obvious, but nothing destroys credibility among clients and colleagues more quickly than dishonest behaviour. Dishonesty can take many forms – for example, misleading people, promising something and then doing something different or not practising what we preach. A lack of total honesty may take some time to be discovered or it could be discovered the moment a few words have been uttered. In either case it is unlikely that any accountant is ever going to become a trusted adviser if their core honesty is in any way in question.
Delivering as promised
As a relationship develops with a client or colleague there are multiple opportunities to deliver (or fail to deliver). Continued credibility rests on being able to deliver on an ongoing basis – on the small promises as well as the large.
Competence draws on key behaviours that accountants sometimes feel they already possess through their technical training. While technical learning is very important here, so too is commercial astuteness and interpersonal skills. The four behaviours which build an image of competence are: knowledge; track record; expertise; and searching (non-manipulative) questions.
This is the amount we know (technically or theoretically) about a subject.
In addition to possessing sound knowledge, if people believe that we also have a successful record of providing valuable advice or help, this will build our competence in their eyes.
This is the ability to apply one’s knowledge and track record to a client or colleague’s particular situation and produce credible and believable ideas, ways forward or solutions.
Searching (non-manipulative) questions
Insightful questions that trigger a client or colleague to think in a new dimension – and see things in ways they have never seen before – can really build a professional’s credibility. This type of questioning, however, has to be applied with great skill. There is a danger that the questioner could be seen to be attempting to lead the other person in a predetermined direction in which they may have a vested interest.
Compatibility is often seen as the touchy feely side of relationships and is where accountants get the least help from their technical training. Many of the behaviours that build compatibility are reliant on an individual’s core values. Firms should test for these, potentially revising their recruitment practices and selection criteria. To some degree these values can be developed if the individual concerned genuinely wants to progress. If they don’t want to then no training will ever get them to be successful in building compatibility with clients and colleagues. The key behaviours required here are demonstrating a genuine interest; active listening; adapting behaviour; showing we care; and showing vulnerability.
Demonstrating a genuine interest
This is achieved through spending time with a client or colleague and getting to know and understand their issues. With a client this means understanding their business, its key players and the opportunities and threats it is facing as well as the goals that it has for the future. Questioning is vital in this process but there is no substitute for time invested.
To demonstrate that we have developed real understanding, we must demonstrate that we have listened to, and absorbed, the messages that clients and colleagues have communicated to us.
Those accountants who have difficulty in adapting their behaviour to deal with different people and different situations, by definition find it more difficult to build a feeling of compatibility with a wide range of client and colleague types. People find it easier to relate to – and ultimately trust – others who seem to be more like them.
Showing we care
This is a combination of many of the preceding factors. However, it is also about demonstrating that we are prepared to go that extra mile for our clients and colleagues. For example, introducing a client to a potential new customer or sending them a copy of an article which may be of interest are ways of saying, ‘I think about you and your business even when we are not doing work together’. Showing we care need not require putting in hours of extra time. Quite often something small and simple can have the same effect.
People rarely warm to a ‘know all’. Accountants need to be aware of this even though some simple behaviours required may seem alien. Accountants get paid for being right. However, projecting an aura of never being wrong is going too far. Occasionally saying, ‘That’s my mistake’ or ‘I’m sorry’ can have a positive effect on developing a relationship.
Ticket to partnership
Technical expertise alone is no longer the ticket to partnership. Accountancy firms are looking for ‘rounded’ individuals, and the ability to build relationships based on trust sits at the very heart of being a rounded professional. Firms seeking to increase their leadership talent pool can and should help their promotion candidates to identify which of these behaviours need work and then provide personal development through coaching, mentoring and training.
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