Technology is rapidly transforming the accounting industry. The best way accounting firms can retain their clients is by building and solidifying trusted relationships with them. 

A Mindset Shift is Needed

Unfortunately, the ability to build and solidify strong professional relationships is a skill many young accountants are acutely lacking. 

Accountants often say that they became accountants so they would not have to talk to people.  They fail to realize they only get to do the accounting work if they have clients. Accounting is a professional service, and being able to bring in and maintain business is the determining factor in any professional services firm’s viability. 

Not understanding this dynamic is significantly problematic in both the short and long term for accounting firms.

The Problem in the Short-Term 

Few new accountants are proactively seeking opportunities to get client exposure. In preparing 2020 taxes, less than half of surveyed staff accountants reported getting direct exposure to clients through email or phone.

They’re missing out on powerful learning experiences to watch senior accountants build rapport, respond to client questions, and take a consultative approach to add value. By not interacting with clients, interpersonal skill development is delayed for staff accountants. It also puts far more pressure on the leadership team to be the client-facing person on their team since clients don’t have a relationship with the junior accountants doing most of their actual work.

The Long-Term Impacts

In the long term, accountants who rise within their firms are not prepared to take on the responsibilities of being in a client-facing role. They may be intimidated to have a simple conversation with a client and fear being asked a question they don’t know the answer to.

In fact, in a recent survey of staff accountants, 40% of respondents said their biggest fear of interacting with clients is getting asked a question they don’t know the answer to.

In addition to being unprepared for the change in responsibility that comes with rising into a management role, accountants have not built a strong network over time. Networking requires regular communication for mutual benefit over time—it can’t be rushed. By waiting to establish diverse professional relationships, accountants are not positioned to be rainmakers as they become managers and partners. 

The firm’s long-term viability requires a consistent pipeline of new business opportunities built on a foundation of long-term trusted relationships. 

How to Fix the Interpersonal Skills Gap

There are several ways accounting firms can set their early career talent up for short-term and long-term success and build a talent pipeline of future leaders.

Tip #1: Create Client Exposure Opportunities

Encourage your leadership team to include staff accountants on client calls and meetings. The staff accountant doesn’t need to participate—they’ll learn through osmosis as they stay on mute. Even a simple step of CCing a junior accountant on client emails allows for understanding client communication and gently introduces the client to the broader team.

Action Item: Set a specific goal for each junior accountant to get a certain amount of client exposure each month. Ideally, they’ll join the client meetings of different firm leaders to see the many approaches people take with their clients.

Tip #2: Provide Interpersonal Skill Training

Developing strong people skills takes intentional practice. By investing in ongoing professional development experiences, your team will become more comfortable navigating delicate client dynamics. The essential skills to focus on are: 

  • Relationship building
  • Establishing thought leadership through LinkedIn 
  • Difficult conversations
  • Email communication
  • Phone communication
  • Emotional intelligence

Action Item: Create a comprehensive, ongoing professional development curriculum that instills the core interpersonal skills through reinforcement, accountability, and practice.

Tip #3: Encourage Active Networking

Regularly inform your accountants of opportunities for them to represent the firm and meet prospective clients or referral sources. Consider providing an annual stipend for conferences, events, or business meals to encourage them to make time for this.

Action Item: Send a weekly or monthly email with networking opportunities. Build external relationship-building metrics into the performance review process to emphasize its importance. 

Summary

Firms cannot afford not to invest in the people skills of their young professionals. Their reputation, client pipeline, and referral network are at stake. Strong relationships determine which accounting firms rise to the top as more of their work becomes automated.