Over the last several years, every aspect of our businesses, careers and personal and public lives changed. All businesses are adapting, pivoting and course-correcting to create new environments and more effective ways to operate. And COVID, one of the more prominent factors, is not the only factor that led to these changes. The world changed and so did we.
Technology Steps Up
Technology came to the rescue and provided more effective throughput for tax preparation, more creative ways to manage information through group education and individual responsibility. Plus, clients became more comfortable with Zoom and other video platforms. In some cases, firms were connecting with clients they had not seen for some time—a bonus for all.
Along with connecting with clients, there came a new challenge of blending remote and in-person interactions to move forward effectively in the new ways people were working. Going from a fluid, more interactive in-person culture to trying to collaborate successfully in a remote environment had its wrinkles.
As time moved forward, a more blended culture evolved where more came back to work in the office, while others stayed remote or partially remote.
A Culture of Integration & Change
With the shifts came dynamics that influenced how people connected inside and outside the firm. For instance:
During the early COVID days, team members came together and many firms saw them stepping forward in ways they might not have previously. Some firms began to see qualities in team members they needed in succession and growth. This was a communication/conversation learning point for firms to take the opportunity to explore and expand. It was an opportunity to learn what happened and how to nurture it. Of course, COVID brought chaos, making it hard to find out more about this “pulling together” phenomenon.
In addition, new awareness of how firms could operate in a more engaged manner began to become a bigger part of the overall landscape. This included diversity, equity and inclusion. Mental health awareness had been on the horizon for some time, but became much more a component of how firms worked and what could be done to help everyone be more effective and more successful with our well-being.
Then, as COVID waned a bit and dynamics changed and more people wanted to find other places to be, the recruitment period became an essential firm focus. Remote took on a new face when firms began hiring permanent remote team members from other parts of the country, creating another aspect to firm culture.
Clients experienced as much or even more chaos than firms, with some failing or having to course-correct in such a dramatic way they don’t look like the businesses they were before. In certain cases, many client projects were put on hold or not addressed at all. Business clients, in particular, have succession issues, growth challenges, operational business model changes, their own recruitment endeavors, ownership challenges, ownership agreements that need to be updated, merger and acquisition exploration and on and on. Often, these projects require collaboration with other professionals—all requiring an effort to reach out, to be proactive.
Conversation as the Driving Energy
Where do conversation and dialogue enter the scene? Everywhere! Why? Because each of the areas mentioned requires unique attention.
For instance, each client has their own way of communicating; some have changed dramatically and don’t act or react as they did before. The areas of DEI and mental health have their own language with structures that are new to firm leadership and to team members.
For these areas to become stronger parts of the culture, there are conversations that need to happen to bring everyone together.
What’s needed? Ways to talk about these changes where everyone is on the same page; responsibilities that need to be defined with follow-up and follow-through by all. It can’t be a one-sided approach because nobody succeeds at that.
A big part of helping conversation work is creating a business model that everyone can embrace. New and existing team members need to know their part and their path to their own success, as well as an ongoing conversation to keep everyone on track. With this much change in place, it’s essential to keep people informed about the firm and each is part of the equation.
Where do we start bringing more engagement, involvement, inclusiveness, respect and conversation into play? For me, the point of interaction (intersection) is team members, all of them, being more involved with clients.
Clients have more needs than we may understand or even know, which can be a benefit for the firm and for the client if these needs can be identified, addressed and acted upon.
This might be best described by Bryan Gruber, CPA, managing partner at Lance, Soll & Lunghard, LLP (LS):
“Maybe, that looks like we’re just putting clients on extension, but it gives us time to do things differently to add the most value and figure out what’s more important—and it’s probably not getting their tax return out right now.” (The State of CPA Firms and Where They Are Going; California CPA; July 2022)
The area of Client Advisory Services (CAS) is predicted to have a 20 percent growth rate in terms of net client fees per professional, according to CPA.com and AICPA surveys. (Courtney Vien, Journal of Accountancy, Oct. 13, 2021).
I can only imagine that the total need is much, much more considering the stress that tax processing has had. From my experience, business clients have additional needs of five to 15 times current annual CPA firm billings. What better place to be than to put team members in front of clients and be there for them.
Amping Up Our Skills
Client connection is the ultimate conversation point—an opportunity to be of service in many ways, even if it’s only just being there. You might say, “We do that already.” But how might it be even better for everyone—team members and clients? As trusted advisors, there are several considerations for connecting:
Client Need Leads: In Client Advisory Services, many times, the actual client need is vague and can be quite complicated. What might look to be a cash flow problem is really a misunderstanding about client or customer duties and responsibilities or poorly defined agreements. You may find that the person, who you thought was in charge, isn’t. It can range from very simple to quite complex. It is also essential to try to distinguish between a desire (what they want)—and a need (what is necessary). For instance, they might want to hire more people when, in reality, they need to move the team around to take advantage of team strengths and experience.
Client/Firm Teams Solidifies: By developing a team support model of at least three people (partner, manager, staff/administrative), the client can rely on them for any questions. Often used for merger transitions or retiring owners, the team approach allows the client to know they always have someone to talk with for an answer or just to be heard. In addition, it is harder for a client to leave a team than an individual—and it is easier to keep a client if one of the team leaves. See how key a team is? These connections create institutional memory because of the number of people the client touches.
Focus on Understanding as Opposed to Knowing: It might seem counter-intuitive, but focusing on knowing, having answers, solutions, etc., in our consultative work brings narrowness to the conversation, the situation and the level of success—especially in the consultative (CAS) role. In many cases, the client has more to offer to the success of what is being worked on than can be imagined—they know themselves better than we might think. That way, we may become more facilitators as well as advisers.
Communicate: We are all better communicators than we might think. We also have unique styles that might be tapped into for better understanding of how we can help ourselves and others to be more connected. Paying attention to what your current conversational skills are can almost immediately help your connection/relationship with your clients and team members. Looking at how you communicate in different arenas (home, social, business, family) can provide ideas about how you can play to your strengths, as well as how you might converse in better ways than you do. Tap into that—maybe you are more relaxed in a certain communication style in business social that might also work better in the professional mode.
Discover More About How the Client Likes to Communicate: Some may like an agenda or a brainstorming session before getting down to a more conversational process. Some people just like to talk until they are finished, to get it off their minds. Taking time to learn their needs in their interactions can go a long way toward better understanding each other and how you can work together to advance their needs successfully.
Throttle Back Questions: Questions can put people off; they can become resistant and sometimes answer the question based on what they think you want to hear. Try more of a “help me understand” approach with open-ended questions and more of a “come alongside” approach to help people be more involved and collaborative. Also, contextualize your questions within a defined area or topic so people have a frame of reference to help them answer the questions. Sometimes, you can bring a list of questions and talk them through first, so the client knows where you are going.
Consider Interaction as Important as Questions and Answers: Interaction is that space where what we are communicating and what others are communicating meet. Often, we can find ourselves in a standoff about what you are experiencing and what others are tracking. In an interactive part of the conversation, it is essential that, between questions and answers, we dialogue about open items, any misunderstandings and what we are thinking. It is where we swap information, clarify, check out what we believe is clear and what they do as well. It is not just Q&A; it is a place where we acknowledge what we think we are hearing through stopping ourselves from moving forward down a path; by touching base so we can go down the right path together. You might say: “This seems like another situation I was working on. May I describe it?”
Avoid Lines in the Sand. This is much more than knowing what to do and taking charge while leaving others behind as mentioned above. This is where we find ourselves caught sometimes in, “This is what we are going to do, period.” When there are two or more sides to an interaction, we could have a lockdown. Are we in an interaction of, “This is the way we’ve always done it” or some other variation on a theme? The only way to begin to rectify this is to find out where there is common ground and, from there, advance the process together. If you can come to terms with, and embrace, that each side has its own value, you can create more options. The minute you sense those lines begin to form, whether yours or the clients, pull back to see more about what is happening, then move forward to find common ground.
When CAS is about people, systems, operations, planning, business models, etc., the whole process/project is about the dynamics of the situation. It is here our conversation and people skills make the difference. These are also essential in firm dynamics, as mentioned. If we can mentor our team members to have conversational skills for client interactions, then those skills will find themselves into all areas of the firm.
We all know that IT and digital came to the rescue. New software, advance protocols and AI were necessary to navigate challenges of the day and, often, it included technology that we needed to address before a pandemic forced us into new challenges and new operating modes. These resources are here to stay, but they also need to be balanced by the soft skills that help make all applications of the digital more successful.
By focusing on what is happening or what happened, through inclusiveness, equal voices and collaborative dialogue, a path to resolution and success is created.
By honoring our personal soft skills at higher octaves and blending our technological skills and capabilities with these soft skills, a more balanced approach and business model can evolve. One without the other creates imbalance and distraction. The simplest road to crisis is when distractions take over.
As a profession, let’s be known for our knowledge, skills, technology prowess and for amazing soft skills and conversational tools and accessibility. Clients, team members and the firm can add value and receive value as never before.
Mark H. Fowler is chair of the CalCPA Los Angeles Chapter MAP Committee and president of Stowe Management Corporation. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.