Sometimes, the best business insights come directly from those you serve. In order to truly hear your clients, though, you need to actively listen. This is a skill. It takes practice. Sometimes, you even have to “listen between the lines” because your clients may ask for one thing, but really want another. Consider this example.
A few years ago, after one of our Partner Summits, we were flooded by attendees after a presentation by one of our long-time customers on how tax practitioners could move out of the commodity business and into the advisory-based business. These insights included progressive billing methods that quantify value, how to build multiple income streams, and how to establish a unique value proposition—each of which was supported by a template.
While it would have been easy enough to offer these templates in and of themselves, we knew that there was a larger driving force behind the interest in this approach. When we stopped to take a look at the current state of the accounting profession, the facts were clear. Technology was both driving and supporting a profound shift in the way accounting firms worked. Gone were the days of manual processes and paper-based forms. Today’s tax professionals automate those routine tasks, and instead, are looking for ways to capitalize on their knowledge and experience. The influx of interest told us that our accounting firm clients wanted to expand into advisory-based models, where there was less focus on tax returns and preparation and more focus on becoming strategic advisors to individuals and businesses. This is how Practice Forward evolved—by actively listening to our customers, understanding their environment, and identifying the best way to meet their needs.
The same holds true for accounting firms. The importance of actively listening to your clients cannot be underestimated. Active listening is what fosters deep relationships and guarantees work far into the future.
“It is important to not only listen to a client, but in the case of business clients, meet their staff and see their operations,” says R. Sean Manning, CPA & President of Manning & Company, PC. “When you see the big picture and get feedback directly from the client, it allows you to evaluate your resources and be proactive with services and solutions that will benefit them. It’s like a business check-up—and the client feels like you are taking a personal interest in their well-being.”
To ensure you are actively listening to your clients, follow these three tips.
1. Know what you’re listening for. When a client asks a question, remember to put it into context. You are more than just an accountant. You are a strategic tax advisor with a wealth of knowledge that can help your clients save money, plan for the future, and enable their business to run more efficiently.
Consider this: Are clients coming to you for more than just tax return preparation? Are they asking for counsel on tax-related legislation, business decisions, or strategic planning? Often times, when a client says they want your time, they really need your knowledge.
With this in mind, it’s important to understand that a simple request may often mean much more. For example, “help me file my tax return” often means, “help me with tax strategy”. A question like, “do you handle payroll?” could equate to “I’m interested in outsourcing my payroll and HR functions, can you take this on?” Active listening ensures you are not letting an opportunity to better meet your clients’ needs pass you by.
2. Understand the importance of non-verbal cues. Non-verbal cues, like eye contact and posture, sometimes say much more than words. If a client breaks eye contact and isn’t able to find the words they are looking for, don’t dismiss them. Instead, find another way to ask the question, like “can you give me an example?”
3. Be here now. The most important part of actively listening is being in the moment. If your client feels you are focused and engaged in what they are saying, they are apt to tell you even more than they normally would. Focus in on them—don’t interrupt or push your own agenda. Listen with an open mind and be responsive. With so many distractions in today’s world, nothing is more important than showing your clients they are your top priority.
Once you’ve actively listened to your clients and understand their needs, it’s time to implement a strategy that fulfills them. Next month, we will focus on how to successfully develop a strategic plan.