When you mention "soft skills" training, many accountants roll their eyes and discount the importance of such efforts. This may appear to be a reasonable reaction, but is it good business? If you think for a moment, the answer is that it is not.

Your clients assume - in most cases correctly - that you have the technical skills required to perform your job duties, but members of your firm must continually prove that they have the soft skills necessary to continue the relationships with those same clients.

The major differentiators among your competitors are the soft skills. They are very important not only from a marketing/sales perspective, but also from a firm profitability perspective. They represent dollars of profit you may be missing out on because of employee turnover or lack of the ability to increase the capacity of existing and future employees.

Let's start by defining "soft skills" into three primary categories: leadership, communications and relationship management

Accountants seem to learn from answering questions, so I pose the following questions under each category. You may want to answer them first about the firm and then about each partner and member of your staff.

Leadership

1. Does the person have an executive presence (in terms of dress, speech and relationships)?

2. Does the person have a clear and communicable vision?

3. Does the person manage themselves and have the capability to manage others?

4. Can they make decisions?

5. Does the person know their own "unique abilities?"

Communications

1. Does the person have good written and oral communications skills?

2. Does the person know how to take and give instructions?

3. Does the person know how to listen?

4. Does the person know how to professionally utilize presentation tools?

5. Does the person know how to motivate others?

Relationship management

1. Does the person know how to work in a team environment?

2. Does the person know how to manage conflicts?

3. Does the person have the desire and ability to make contacts?

4. Does the person have good client service skills?

5. Does the person have project management skills?

While this list is not meant to be complete, it does emphasize the importance of soft skills in an accounting firm. Most of the training focus is generally placed on meeting continuing professional education requirements and technical skills, rather than on the requirements of the firm and its personnel. What are you doing in the way of training for your non-CPA employees?

In today's tight labor market, firms are starting to think about strategies to attract and retain quality people. In doing so, a positive training and learning culture is a must. The above skills are not developed in one class or a day-long seminar. They are developed over a lifetime. Therefore, a program involving training, learning and positive experiences is necessary.

By having an outstanding training and learning program, firms can hire for attitude and train for aptitude. This will have a great impact upon your firm culture. Talking about such a program at partner meetings or a firm summit is not enough. This must become part of the firm's strategic plan and a professional educator should be hired to administer the program.

At our recent Learning Symposium, Charlie Flood of Waugh & Co. said that firm leadership should put a "SPIN" on the plan in order to change attitudes and create excitement. The acronym stands for:

Situation;

Problem;

Implication; and,

Need or payoff.

For example, leadership should quote the Gartner statistic that for every hour of training, you gain five hours of capacity. The problem may be obvious, but a clear and consistent statement about the problem and the firm's strategy for a solution is imperative. Ignoring the problem will only exacerbate the problem. The implication is simple: Firms without great training and learning programs will not be able to attract and retain quality people. The return on investment may or may not be obvious enough to get the necessary buy-in from firm owners. There is definitely a long-term return on investment. If some people doubt the return, specifically ask the question: "What will happen if we don't change?"

According to our model, most firms will experience an increase in capacity per full time employee of between $12,000 to $15,000 annually with a positive training and learning program.

To date, many firms have chosen reactive approaches. Now is the time to change the image and differentiate the firm by taking a proactive approach. This can be done with the following steps:

1. Hire or designate a professional educator to assist in the development of a training and learning plan.

2. Perform an annual organizational assessment of training requirements.

3. Develop a firm learning plan integrated with the firm's strategic plan.

4. Develop acceptable performance metrics.

5. Conduct a quarterly evaluation of progress.

6. Approve a training and learning budget.

Your goal should be to develop a program and reputation where clients and competitive firms are saying, "I will always hire someone who has worked for that firm." It is all about progress, not perfection.

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