The Accountants SME Playbook
While COVID was threatening Australian businesses accountants were on the frontline, helping their clients to find a way through. Supportive and generous, many provided advice for free. Now clients have seen the value of this input for themselves it’s the ideal time to start charging for advice.
Adding paid advisory to the services you provide can make your own business more profitable and sustainable.
“I think there's a misunderstanding in the industry at the moment that, if you're doing advisory, you're not doing compliance – that you have to pick one or the other,” says founder of The Small Business Project Lynda Steffens, a CPA who works with accountants to help them transform their practices. “That's not true. The two live very happily together. In fact, I believe this blended approach is the future of accountancy.”
Accountants already have all the technical skills they need to make the change. These three changes to your mindset could be all it takes to succeed.
1. You don’t have to know all the answers
Trained to supply facts and data, accountants can find it difficult to say “I don’t know”. But accepting that you can’t know all the answers lies at the heart of good advice.
“The advisory world is very different from compliance,” Steffens says. “In this context, our value lies very much in helping our clients to explore their options through discussion and asking questions. This approach can be quite challenging as it’s all about grey areas rather than black and white.”
Most business owners want their accountant to help them gain a better understanding of their business and financials better so they can make good decisions about the future of their business. Yet, according to Steffens, one of the biggest problems clients have with their accountants is that they don’t always understand what they’re hearing.
“We hear that they’ve walked away from an hour-long meeting thinking “Did that even apply to me?”, she says. “Good, clear communication is important at every level, and the shift from number cruncher to advisor hinges on the ability to have meaningful conversations. That means listening to what your clients have to say rather than feeling you have to keep jumping in with solutions. You need to learn about the client, how they feel about their business and what it looks like from them.”
2. The client is the expert in their business, not you
No accountant can be an expert in every client’s business – and nor should they try to be.
“You may know more about accounting, but your client is the expert when it comes to their company,” Steffens says. “I often remind my own clients that they understand their business better than anyone, then ask what steps they think they should take. It sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but you’ll generally find that’s exactly what clients are looking for – a sounding board for their own ideas. They’ll appreciate a new perspective and expert insights but they don’t want to be told what to do.”
She knows how hard it can be for accountants to step back from facts and figures.
“If a client is concerned about marketing or another aspect of their business, it’s easy to feel panicky because you don’t think you have anything to offer,” she says. “Yet if you just flip it around and ask them what they think they should do they'll generally tell you.”
Once you understand what your client is aiming to achieve you can apply financial metrics. This will provide them with a clearer picture of the potential outcomes. Combining your knowledge in this way leads to effective problem solving as well as ensuring decisions are based on sound financials, benefiting the broader community as well as business owners.
“Working collaboratively also helps you to develop strong client relationships,” Steffens says. “That's where the value lies, not in giving answers to specific questions.”
3. Value your skills and knowledge
Few clients have a good understanding of business financials. You have years of training – and you have also interacted with countless businesses of all types and sizes, analysing the numbers and developing a thorough knowledge of business mechanics along the way. It’s vital that you don’t undervalue this experience, or overestimate how much your clients know. Information that seems obvious to you could be a revelation for them.
“Accountants are often very humble and bighearted people who just want to help,” Steffens says. “They take a lot of their experience and skills for granted and feel awkward about charging for advice.”
The reality is that you have all the tools in place to provide your clients with invaluable insights, education and guidance. These three changes of mindset could be all it takes to start using those tools to build a more profitable and fulfilling business.