When should accountants take on responsibility for client relationships?

In my previous blog, I touched on the sometimes sensitive topic of leverage of resources and responsibility for workflow within accounting and advisory firms. Benchmark reports have demonstrated for years that the effective delegation of workflow and client relationship responsibility is the key to freeing up time to focus on work that really adds value to clients.

However, for too long, partners and senior managers have resisted delegation of responsibility due to concerns about the capability and experience of their younger accountants. It’s become clear in recent years that the industry now has no choice! As compliance work becomes more commoditised and price sensitive, this work must be done as efficiently as possible, whether by delegating to accountants or outsourcing to external providers.

So, when should accountants start to take on responsibility for client relationships? Feedback from many accountants (with 0 to 5 years’ experience) enrolled in the Young Accountant eLearning Program confirms that young accountants are frustrated when they don’t have the opportunity to better understand the clients whose work they are doing. Understanding starts with curiosity ‘beyond the numbers.’ However, it’s also dependent on the willingness of partners and managers to expand the client relationship (a little).

What steps can your firm take to help accountants take on more responsibility for client relationships?

  1. Give all your accountants a sense of responsibility by formally allocating client responsibility for compliance work.

The best way to put a stop to the ‘production-line’ mentality is to tell your accountants that they are responsible for their clients from a compliance point of view. This means that they organise the flow of work from calling in to completion. They review and manage the job budget and communicate directly with clients when information is required. Of course, training and coaching is required, but it’s worth the effort!

  1. At every opportunity, invite the accountant who does the client compliance work into the meetings you’re having with clients.

Yes, having two staff attending a client meeting is an additional cost to the firm, however it’s also a great investment in the professional development of your staff and the relationship your firm has with your clients. As a partner or manager, the only way you’ll succeed in creating more personal capacity to add value to clients is by leveraging the responsibility for client relationships.

  1. Ask the accountant doing the work for feedback on issues, challenges and potential service opportunities for clients.

I remember a series of workshops on client management that I ran a few years ago for a large regional accounting and advisory firm. Most of the partners expressed a frustration that their managers and accountants weren’t stepping up to take more responsibility. A few hours later, I met with the managers and accountants … and they observed that in many cases they actually knew the client better than the partner responsible for the client, but didn’t have the opportunity to discuss the client in detail. Collaborative effort in managing client relationships is essential to maximising opportunities to help clients. Does your firm have regular ‘collaborative’ meetings where client files are reviewed and discussed?

  1. Provide training and coaching to accountants in managing client relationships proactively.

The best way for accountants to develop relationships with clients is for them to act proactively in communicating with clients. This means developing core competencies in relation to both written and verbal communication. The days where an accountant sat at their desk and churned through the processing work without so much as saying a word to the client are well and truly gone. Sure, some of your accountants may struggle with communication skills, but they can be learnt with training and coaching.

  1. Endow your younger accountants with a sense of excitement and anticipation about their future in public practice.

Great managers deal with workflow and operational issues well, but true leaders focus on the emotional needs of their staff. This means sharing the firm’s core objectives, purpose and values with all the team and then working with individuals to identify the specific behaviours expected of their staff.  It’s better to have staff that, through enthusiasm, occasionally overstep their level of responsibility than to have staff who simply won’t get engaged because they’re afraid of doing something wrong. What sort of managers and leaders do you have in your firm?

What if you’re an accountant struggling to take on client responsibility?

If you’re reading this blog as a young accountant who would like to take on more responsibility but are struggling with a manager who won’t let go, then it’s up to you to look for opportunities to show interest and engagement with clients. Take the time to better understand clients by referring to the information available to you. Suggest to your manager that you call the client when appropriate. Look at your manager’s calendar and ask to be invited to relevant client meetings. And show through your actions that you are working proactively to manage the client relationship.

The best time to start helping your young accountants develop a sense of responsibility for client relationships is as soon as they pick up their first job. How are you going to brief them? What will you do when a client needs to be contacted?

Finally, remember that when people take on more and more responsibility, they’re bound to make some mistakes and some correction is needed. That’s normal. In those cases, you would be well advised to follow Goethe’s advice, “Correction does much, but encouragement does more.”

What are you going to do this year to give your accountants more responsibility for workflow and client relationships?

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