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How to handle difficult conversations with clients

When problems arise, it’s natural for clients to turn to their accountant for advice and support. 

And clearly this year has been exceptional, so accountants have had to put their advisor hats on more than ever before. But with the pandemic causing a sea of long-lasting problems for most businesses, it’s likely that a lot of your current interactions with clients may be tough. 

So how do you prepare for conversations with clients that are going to be difficult? How do you instigate a chat that you know will be hard, and how can you make sure you’re asking the right questions?

We’ve put together this handy guide with essential tips that will help.

A necessary evil 

Difficult conversations can arise for a multitude of reasons. You may have to deliver some bad news, increase your prices, charge fees, discuss sensitive subjects, talk about things that have gone wrong or even advise against certain actions.

Most accountants will have been in countless situations where a miscommunication about responsibilities or how to carry out tasks has led to disaster. You’re being chastised but you feel the client is the one who hasn’t done the one key thing that needs doing. Sound familiar?

Whatever the reason, it’s not something that anyone particularly looks forward to. But actually, with the right preparation, mindset and tools at your disposal, they needn’t be as bad as you might think.

And whether you dread them or not, they are a necessity. In order to best serve both your clients and your own practice, sometimes tough conversations need to be had to move forward positively.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail 

It’s an age-old adage, but particularly true here. While it’s always good practice to prepare for communications with your clients, in circumstances where one or both of you is going to feel uncomfortable, it’s crucial. 

You want to control the conversation, and be able to keep it on a clear track with as little emotional distraction as possible. This will be much more straightforward with a well-thought out plan.

First of all, establish the goal of the conversation. And don’t be afraid to challenge yourself as to whether it’s a realistic outcome. Do you need to taper your expectations? Prepare for what the response might be (as best you can) so you’re not caught off-guard.

Be upfront with the client too about what you’re trying to achieve, how you expect the conversation to go and why it’s necessary to have. 

If it’s something you’re particularly worried about discussing, it might even be worth writing a loose script or templated responses, or at least notes on key talking points. You could run this through with a neutral person ahead of the real meeting too. While it might feel awkward and even over-the-top, it can really help to take the emotive element out if you’re saying words you’ve practiced and really considered. 

Carefully craft your delivery 

Another important consideration is not just the details of the conversation, but how best it might be delivered – in what form, and when. 

Think carefully about the urgency, when do they need to know or be told and when will they be receptive. Be mindful of notification fatigue – particularly at the moment in a time of crisis when people are being bombarded with information from all angles. You want your message to land so generally it’s a good rule to be clear about the consistency of your communications. If you signpost your regular comms it makes it far easier to highlight urgent stuff.

Likewise, consider what the best medium is to respond. For instance, a zoom call with some clients is out of their comfort zone and they would just prefer an old-fashioned phone call. On the flipside, some people respond best to a text in the first instance, followed by a call that they can arrange at their convenience. You know each client so make sure you adjust your style accordingly.

This is also true when it comes to your actual delivery. Think about your tone, your manner and your choice of language – and don’t be afraid to be informal or conversational if that suits the client and is appropriate for the situation. This also goes for punctuation in written comms, an exclamation mark can come across as aggressive! 

And take a moment to reset your breath, when we’re in a nervous situation our muscles actually tighten, making it harder to breathe. You want to keep things as calm as possible.  

Listen actively and effectively

A key lever in the success of any difficult conversation is the ability to really listen actively and effectively.

The role of the trusted advisor relies heavily on your knowledge and resources but also your emotional intelligence. 

For years, the accounting profession has been under perceived threat by the rise in software tools but actually crisis communications highlight the definite need for both. Let software do the heavy lifting so you can connect with your clients and community in a really human way. 

It’s important to acknowledge your client’s concerns, and to show some solidarity. Be clear that the situation is not unique to them and that, in fact, many other businesses are going through the same thing. Try to find some common ground and understanding. If you create a good connection you will be able to build a much more open – and therefore conducive – discussion. 

Demonstrate you are truly listening by summarising or paraphrasing what they say back to them and then ask them to do the same with you. Are they hearing what you’re trying to say? This is a really useful technique as sometimes we can think we’re being clear but actually the message is being lost in translation. This can ensure a greater clarity for both parties.

And just as important as listening, is being able to ask the right questions. We can think we know what client concerns are but have you actually asked?

A client may come to you with a challenge, but take the time to consider what might be underneath their query. Use your knowledge of the client to really understand what’s driving what they’re saying or their actions. 

Keep perspective 

Ultimately, don’t procrastinate or shy away from a tough conversation, not least because the practice of them definitely gets easier the more you have them.

It can be really helpful to look back on other difficult conversations you’ve had and the resolutions that have come from them – to give you some useful perspective. 

It may be daunting but try to think about what will happen if you don’t have the conversation. What can be achieved by having it – and what positive or successful outcome will it cause.

You play such an important role in a business owner’s life, they turn to you for advice. It’s a unique position of authority and your clients will expect compassion and care but in the long run they will also really appreciate honesty. 

If you can build a trusting relationship with clients, it will pay dividends in the long run for you and your practice. In the future when they have an issue, they will think of you, and they know they’ll be able to count on you through the good times – and the tough ones. 

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