Helping clients see the wood for the trees

Jul 29, 2020

Instead of counting the cost of the current crisis, clients now need their accountants to help them identify and forge a way ahead, writes John Kennedy.

Whatever your age or the stage of your career, 2020 is a year like no other. In recent months, your world, your life, and your practice will have changed in a way that no-one thought possible. This has brought great anxiety, stress, and pressure for many. It has disrupted virtually every aspect of life, and it has changed many long-standing priorities and perspectives.

At the outset, every conversation was about COVID-19. Then the emphasis began to shift; the focus started to move to how to respond to our unfamiliar new world, to learn how to deal with a dramatic new lifestyle, get better at cooking at home, become more proficient in using technology, and adapt to meeting online.

As the days and weeks went on, this shift in emphasis continued. The importance of taking care of our minds as well as our bodies, and supporting each other, came into sharp focus. It is important not to overlook the far-reaching significance of this evolution in thinking. In a world with unforeseen financial pressures, how we connect with others has taken on a revised and revitalised importance and has become established as holding significantly increased value in so many aspects of business life.

Reliable, trustworthy customers and clients you can turn to when the pressure is on matter now like never before. The implications will have an impact on your practice, and business in general, for a long time to come.

An important lesson

One of the good news stories during the initial stages of the crisis was the way Irish people contributed to fundraising for the Choctaw Nation. As you may know, during the Great Famine in the 1840s, the Choctaw tribe of Native Americans sent much-needed funds to help with famine relief in Ireland.

When the coronavirus crisis struck, the Choctaw nation set up a fundraising website. They were at first surprised, and then amazed when donation after donation came in from the Irish community around the world. In an interview about the donations, one of the contributors told this story about an old tribal chief who taught his grandson about the important lessons in life.

“There is a fight going on inside me, a far-reaching fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil; he is anger, frustration, sorrow, regret, self-pity, and doubt. The other wolf is good; he is hope, generosity, sensitivity, understanding and confidence. The same fight is going on inside you and every other person too.” The grandson was transfixed. “Which wolf will win?” he asked. The old chief smiled and said: “The wolf you feed.”

This is of crucial importance to your work in the months to come. Helping your client feed the good wolf inside themselves should be a central part of your work, as many of your existing clients will feel overwhelmed. They will have come through months of stress and worry, even the optimistic ones who bear it lightly. Many will need to look again at their finances and their financial planning, as many apparent certainties have been overturned. Much has changed, much of it forever.

With so much change happening in their lives, it is vital that as their accountant, your relationship with your clients also changes. Clients often have a fixed view of what they should want from their accountant. They believe that they should look to their accountant to prepare accounts, undertake audits, and give tax and compliance advice. In this time of change, your task is to guide them from what they believe they should want to what they genuinely need most.

Feed the right wolf

More than ever, clients need you to help them identify what constitutes success in the months and years ahead. Your value will come as much from helping them think clearly as from the technical tasks you carry out.

To fully emerge from the coronavirus crisis will take many years. The phrase the ‘new normal’ is much overused, but it holds an important truth. Things may not be normal, but they are certainly going to be new and this is true for every aspect of your clients’ experience – including how they work with their accountant.

For almost everyone, the first half of 2020 has been a time of frustration, stress and doubt. If you let your clients see you as the person who will confirm and verify a deeply damaging period for their business, their finances and their lives in a harsh financial record, you are going to be the focus of much of their stress and angst. Left to themselves, it is all too easy for your clients to focus on and feed the bad wolf.

For the foreseeable future, every wise accountant will take an active hand in guiding their clients to think about the things they most need. The greatest problem with the COVID-19 crisis, however, has been fear of the unknown. So when it comes to your role, you must replace the fear of the unknown with clarity, understanding, well-thought-out confidence and a path that takes them to a better place. This is the good wolf.

Moving from ‘want’ to ‘need’

How often have you chatted with your clients about their life, family, hopes and ambitions before ‘getting down to business’? Instead of getting down to the business of counting the cost of the current crisis, however, they now need you to help them see the way ahead. They need you to shape a clear image of a future they can reach. This is not an invitation to become a counsellor or a cheerleader; it is much more important than that.

Your role is to help your clients see the commercial realities and show them how to identify each individual stepping stone to get them to the other side of this whole challenging experience. In the short-term, that may well be about survival. You may need to place a sharper focus on identifying new ways to manage cash flow and to help them understand their options in this new reality so they can more effectively chart a course as the emergency financial instruments are removed.

While accurate returns and timely compliance will remain part of your role, your real value lies in helping remove your clients’ fear of a future that is worryingly unclear and unfamiliar. Many clients will need to restructure long-standing business practices, to secure new sources of purchase finance, or to change the terms of access to credit.

They will need you to help them understand that this will pass, and it will pass most easily and most quickly for those who know how to plan the practical steps to get to that future. The accountants who focus on the need to actively shape the future rather than count the cost of the past or worry about the unknown will stand apart as a source of uncommon, vital value. This will provide a real, tangible return for both you and your clients in the months and years ahead.

By helping your clients in this way, you will significantly improve the likelihood of their long-term financial survival. You will open up new dimensions for your relationship with them, binding them to you for years to come. And these new relationships will survive the evolution of traditional accounting as your role as an adviser continues to grow.
This is a time to take a firm hand and raise your clients from what they want, to what they need. It is time to help them feed the good wolf.  

John Kennedy is a strategic advisor. He has worked with leaders and senior management teams in a range of organisations and sectors.