As expectations for accounting firms continue to evolve toward advisory services, soft skills are becoming more important than ever. Technical skills are still critical, however, they are not sufficient on their own. It is soft skills that allow you to connect to your clients, establishing a trusting relationship that can last.
With soft skills, you, your team and your entire accounting firm can become more than a commodity.
But what if soft skills don’t come naturally? What if your team prefers to crunch numbers behind the scenes? Can soft skills be developed?
Demand for soft skills is growing across all industries. Some examples of soft skills are:
Relationship building and communication
Decision-making and creative thinking
Self-motivation and discipline
Teamwork and collaboration
A recent article from Gallup pointed to a report produced by Oxford Economics listing the qualities employers need most in employees. “Interestingly, skills one can learn through education and training—such as statistical analysis, profit and loss management, and programming languages—didn't make it to the top of the list,” the article stated. “Instead, employers are looking for particularly human qualities in future hires: Relationship building, dealing with complexity and ambiguity, balancing opposing views, teaming and collaboration, co-creativity, cultural sensitivity, and the ability to manage diverse employees emerged as top priorities of hiring managers.”
Soft skills are typically people-oriented. They are not a checklist of items to complete, but more nuanced. Developing soft skills means cultivating the ability to connect with people and maneuver in complex situations.
Fortunately, these skills can be improved. In fact, the ability to improve is in itself an important soft skill. Google’s hiring criteria go beyond technical ability— The number one thing they look for is “the ability to learn.”
One important clarification is that improvement is not an overnight transformation. Regardless of the skill, improvement happens incrementally with consistent practice and growth.
Soft skills are the same. If you individually don’t feel confident speaking on the phone, your improvement is going to come with more deliberate repetition on the phone. Aim to make each conversation a little better, and by improving 1% each day, you can make great progress.
In order to achieve consistent growth in soft skills, there are specific actions you can take. These steps can be applied individually, but are even more powerful if you are leading a team. In an accounting firm of 20 people, a 1% improvement in soft skills by each person can make a significant impact.
Improvement starts with the purpose of your company. It’s not helpful to start right at the source and start correcting skills. The firms that stand out are the ones who make relationships part of their DNA.
As a firm owner, it’s important to create a focus on people, not simply a focus on numbers. If you state openly that your firm’s goal is to connect with clients, you’ll have a standard to hold your team to.
If your goal is to improve engagement with clients, it’s important to prioritize soft skills in the hiring process. When you evaluate a potential hire, it’s common to provide a questionnaire and checkbox of competencies.
This should be only the first step. By creating a culture of focusing on people, you can also interview job candidates looking for their natural abilities. By bringing on new employees who enjoy connecting with people, you’ll affirm an environment of engagement.
It’s equally important to train employees on soft skills. This is not only for their ability to connect with clients. Soft skills also include the ability to collaborate with teammates. Your training needs to go beyond competency skills, and include coaching for how to work well with others.
Your firm’s professional development opportunities are likely focused on specific certifications or software training. As an effort to improve soft skills, you could encourage employees to attend seminars on communication. You could have a company retreat focused on collaboration.
Your professional development can be an accelerated method of improving soft skills in the team.
Take steps now to improve soft skills
Building a client-focused team is a journey. You’ll start by taking initial steps, but the impact on the team can be significant over time.
To get started, there are some specific changes you can implement right away.
This will be uncomfortable, but encourage your team to record their phone conversations. Even listening to your own recordings is typically eye-opening to verbal tics and simple improvements that can be made.
A common misconception about communication is that it’s mostly about speaking. Listening is much more important in good communication. Encourage your team to practice asking more questions, then being quiet. Listening to someone else allows you to understand them, and establishes trust.
To set the tone for a people-focused firm, make the most of your meetings. Make a practice to have regular meetings that focus on what clients are doing and what your team has learned about them. By consistently bringing up clients, you’ll create an atmosphere of looking for opportunities to connect.
Work to develop a team environment. By connecting as a team, you’ll have more perspective and empathy.
Soft skills can be improved with the proper focus. The accounting firms that commit to these abilities and make genuine connections with clients will be well-equipped.