To succeed in today’s world of accounting, technical and compliance skills are no longer enough. The profession has evolved rapidly due largely to technology, and clients are now looking for very different services than years gone by. And these services require a whole different set of skills.
Soft skills are the abilities that are not often taught when studying to be an accountant, yet many of these skills have become essential. While technical skills are absolutely necessary, it takes more than a knowledge of compliance to make a genuine connection with clients.
Some examples of soft skills are:
Relationship building and communication
Decision-making and creative thinking
Self-motivation and discipline
Teamwork and collaboration
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.
Technical accounting skills are becoming increasingly commoditized. This means, for typical businesses, they can find a lot of people who can complete the technical tasks.
As technology and automation continue to improve, the hard skills of accounting and bookkeeping lose some of their importance.
This has combined with or perhaps helped create, the rise of advisory services, which essentially combines soft skills with accounting proficiency.
While many technical tasks are being replaced, the ability to communicate in a way that makes sense to someone is incredibly valuable. It’s through soft skills that accounting firms can develop true relationships with clients and become an indispensable part of their team.
Businesses are not looking for just someone to keep them compliant. Business owners are people with real goals and fears. They need an advisor who understands their issues and helps them with solutions.
If your primary benefit to a client is that you can crunch numbers, you’ll always be at the risk of losing business to someone who is faster or better. If you can develop rapport and understanding, you’ll have a client for life.
Fortunately, soft skills can easily be improved. If you’re leading an accounting firm and want to see your team making greater connections with clients, there are specific things to do.
Your accounting firm exists to serve clients. Help your team to develop a focus on people. Avoid falling into the trap of only hoping to do the work behind the scenes. Don’t make evaluations of your team’s work based only on their efficiency in getting out reports.
Make it a habit in team meetings to ask questions about the people you are serving. By prioritizing people, you’ll start to shift habits to more emphasis on connecting.
The key to good communication with clients is understanding. Everyone is different and has their own preferences. By connecting with them and paying attention to cues, you will hear what their true concerns are. Then you are in a much better position to serve clients well.
Like any skill, developing communication ability improves with repetition. Encourage your team to increase the volume of conversations with clients. A simple 15-minute explanation can develop essential rapport much more than a long email.
You may have accountants who dread the phone or video chat. This will improve with practice.
One way to develop a better rapport with clients is to ask questions. A major part of communication is listening. Ask open-ended “Why” questions to get the client talking.
When you allow someone to speak, they will feel like you understand them. This helps you become more trustworthy, developing greater rapport.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the goal of communication is to do a bunch of talking. Many times, the best thing you can do is ask some questions and do a lot of listening.
It’s much easier to measure improvement in hard skills. With soft skills, it’s a constant process. The key shift for accounting firms to make is to recognize the importance of soft skills.
Make sure as a leadership team you are committed to being people-oriented rather than technical-oriented. This will impact how you hire and how you manage your team.
When you shift the focus to a focus on people, you’ll have a leg up in understanding the real needs of your clients. Then you can offer greater service, with a more enjoyable connection with those you serve (with no risk of being replaced by automation).