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Accountancy basics – how to speak to clients

You see when an issue crops up, especially when the client has an axe to grind with your service, (either through an act of omission or commission) which is often a euphemism for the size or nature of your fees, and you ask them if they are satisfied with everything, the answer is either “Yes” or “No” – a classic example of a closed question. Now, I am not a betting man but the odds are that your client will take the path of least resistance and simply answer “Yes”, which you both know is not the truth.

From here it can be a very short journey to receiving a letter from their new accountant requesting professional clearance. The way to avoid this simple but catastrophic misstep is to ask your client an “open question”.

An open question is a classic method to defuse or de-escalate conflict and is a fundamental tool in the armoury of a mediator who seeks to resolve a conflict.

When we use open questions, we help increase understanding of other people’s viewpoints, as well as helping our own self understand and awareness. We also increase the opportunities for creativity in the search for effective solutions.

The aim of an open question is not to give a solution to the problem, but to open up understanding of all the factors at play in the situation that is causing difficulty, especially when people have become stuck in repeated cycles of actions that are not working.

Back to our abovementioned client. She does not feel that the fee levied is justified because you failed to give her any financial advice. You simply prepared and submitted her accounts, which is exactly what the letter of engagement stated you would do.

Had you asked her to tell you about the business or financial matters that were keeping her awake at night the conversation and the professional relationship would take an entirely different direction. Your client would have mentioned things such as pensions, inheritance planning and her worries about the size of her mortgage in light of the increasing gossip surrounding an upward revision of interest rates.

A very open question indeed. Pandora’s box is now firmly propped open and just look at the fantastic opportunities you now have to cross-sell or upsell. Happy client, happy accountant – the ultimate win-win scenario.

Another advantage of using open questions in a scenario where a dispute is actually in full swing is that people are much less likely to end up battling to make their view right and the other side wrong through throwing opinions back and forward, and more likely that the disputing parties will be able to work together towards a useful and constructive outcome even where there are big differences about things.

Closed questions, on the other hand, not only don’t move the conversation forward to a solution, they usually move it further away from any solution. As we have seen your client has gone elsewhere. Not good for you and an upheaval for your client, who really likes you but just doesn’t feel you are doing enough professionally for them. Unhappy client , unhappy accountant –  a lose-lose scenario.

Closed questions are those questions where the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Here are some examples of closed questions within the context of a commercial dispute:

‘Have you tried speaking to them?’

‘Wouldn’t it be best to go to a lawyer?’

‘Should we not sue them?’

The reason such questions are not effective is because they come from the questioner’s point of view, and are simply trying to see whether the other person agrees with it or not. The closed question doesn’t increase understanding of another viewpoint / thoughts /feelings, they simply seek to reinforce the perspective of the questioner. Closed questions are also often seen as an attempt to get people to do or see something the way the questioner wishes it to be, but it is phrased as a question rather than a demand, and therefore the usual result is that the situation stays as it is, or gets worse.

Open questions start with words like: what / how / why, where there is no simple, monosyllabic word that will answer it.  We use it all the time in mediation

For example:

What do you think about my idea? [Not: Do you like my idea?]

How many options do we have in reclaiming our money? [Not: ‘Shall we sue them?’]

What communication has there been between you? [Not: Have you tried speaking to them?]

What factors are you considering when you think about raising prices? [Not: ‘You’re not raising prices now, are you’?]

What do you think about it? [Not: Don’t you think we should…?]

How do you feel about this? [Not: ‘Do you feel angry / sad / frustrated about it?]

In each case, the question opens up the conversation, and tries to see what the other person is thinking and how they perceive the situation. Open questions will usually lead to more open questions, and will result in increased understanding from all sides, which will result in a broader array of possibilities to explore in seeking solutions.

When people feel that they have been understood, they are more likely to become cooperative and collaborative, even if they are not entirely in agreement with the other side. In the case of clients who want more services than you are offering, by understanding what you are failing to provide you can start to address the deficiency. You may see yourself as only being engaged to prepare and submit accounts but in this day and age that no longer cuts the mustard, but if you are not drawing out of your clients what they really want, then in the long term your practice is probably doomed to irrelevance.

So, tell me, how do you feel about that ?

About the author Norman

I’m Norman Younger BA(Hons) FCCA MCIArb and on this blog I’m going to share over 20 years of professional and business experience at the sharp end of small business in the UK, one of the world’s most enterprising nations. As a professionally qualified accountant I have experience advising start up micro enterprises and multi million pound turnover firms. During this time I have owned several business and gained valuable insight into all aspects of the day to day operations covering everything from staffing to marketing. I established and am currently a working trustee of a charity that helps people find sustainable employment and supports entrepreneurs in getting their feet on the business ladder and climbing higher.

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