(c) Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland. Contact ICAS for permission to reproduce this article., Soft Skills

When business relationships turn bad

By Chris Sheedy

From associations between staff and their industry partners in Big Four firms to interactions between accountants and clients in small public practices, the entire accounting industry is built on relationships. How then, does an accounting business ensure those relationships never turn bad? And how do they recognise it when they do?

Leadership expert and Chartered Accountant Alena Bennett, from alenabennett.com.au, told ICAS that every good professional relationship begins with awareness of your own motivations and behaviours. This forms the basis for understanding how your behaviour differs from, and therefore impacts, those you interact with. It’s the foundation of a good relationship.

In an environment where there is shorter downtime and where leaders and teams are under the pressure of increasingly tight reporting deadlines, default behaviours are amplified and can be the difference between a good interaction and a bad one. The impact this can have on relationships, and therefore client service delivery is significant.

What is the business’ critical path?

“A clear understanding of your organisation’s philosophy or guiding principles is another vital element. Knowing your business’s critical path allows you to recognise non-critical activity and decide whether to delegate it or drop it altogether,” said Alena.

“Focusing on the critical path results in an optimised workflow, which frees up your time to focus on more strategic and value-add activities.”

A large part of this is having more focused and effective conversations with clients, she said. Communication that is clear and purposeful allows both parties to develop a greater understanding and appreciation of each other’s needs and business models. And the remit available to accountants – should they choose to accept it – is broader than ever before. This provides the perfect opportunity to provide more value to clients.

It’s all about the communication

Accountants are at the forefront of regulation changes and available technologies and have the ability to communicate the impact these can have on a client’s financials. This opens the conversation to be directed towards activity that leverages the strengths of both parties to deliver better outcomes, Alena explained.

“The ability to have commercial conversations that are grounded in clarity and honesty lead to relationships that stand the test of time and weather the most painful of crunch times,” she said.

“However, don’t forget that homing in on your business’s clear purpose may also allow you the space to realise that some relationships have met their natural end. That’s okay, too.”

Who do you serve, and how?

Along those same lines, Jason Cunningham, co-founder and director of business advisory and personal wealth advisory company The Practice, said that in the early days of his business he had a conversation with a mentor around the importance of being ‘on purpose’.

“You’ve really got to be on purpose in your business life,” he said. “And your purpose, in business language, is known as a mission statement. The development of the mission statement is really focused on who it is that you serve and how it is that you serve them.”

It is vital that his team develop a deep understanding of their clients’ businesses and of their personal wealth-related and lifestyle-related hopes and dreams, Jason commented. Only then can they build a win/win relationship. As long as the relationship remains valuable to the client, it will likely remain a positive and good one.

“The warning signs that a relationship is heading south include the client cancelling appointments, not calling you back, not responding to your email and not paying invoices on time,” he said. “They’re all tell-tale signs.”

Nurture early on

“The most powerful time to influence the relationship is actually right at the beginning, right when you’re in love,” smiled Jason. “When someone comes to speak to you, and typically they’ve come to see you because they’ve been referred by a trusted source, they likely view you as a key person of influence in your industry. That’s the time that you set the tone and the terms of your relationship.

“Explain what your organisation does, be very clear about what you can help them to achieve, give them a timeframe and explain that if they get the value out of it that they expect, then your expectation is that they pay promptly.”

During the relationship, said Jason, success is often about the little things: “A great relationship is about manners and about being polite. Call people back when you say you will. Return their emails promptly. The world may be changing, but the simple things are staying the same.”

Decoding client behaviour

Finally, Jason advised to look to the numbers for guidance on how things are going in your client’s life. A business’s books reveal a lot more than just profit and loss.

“The numbers could tell me a story, which might then talk to the behaviour, or the behaviours, of the owner of the business,” he said. “For example, if they are heading down a path of insolvency, or if their balance sheet is hurting etc., then I would have a better point of view into the state of mind, and therefore the behaviour, of the client. That would change my methodology around how I communicate with them.”

This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of CA Australia.