[IMGCAP(1)]Developing trust is complicated, but trust is the ultimate competitive advantage for winning and retaining clients.

He is an excerpt from a new eBook, Next-Level Accountants: Your guide to growing a firm of trusted advisors:

Accountants may assume that the technical expertise and knowledge of your partners and staff are what set the firm apart from competitors, but Charles H. Green, who literally wrote the book on being a trusted advisor, says that is not the case. “Expertise is the entry requirement, the jacks for openers, the table stakes,” he says. “But it’s not the expertise that determines whether you get the deal.”

Instead, what determines whether you win or keep the client is the trust you develop. Unfortunately, however, accountants sometimes unintentionally take approaches with clients that impede trust, says Green, founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates, co-author of The Trusted Advisor and The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, and author of Trust-Based Selling. This can mean not only lost business, but also undue scrutiny of bills and a relationship that becomes more adversarial than consultative.

Green believes that some accountants’ efforts to convey expertise and knowledge to assure clients of the firm’s competence can actually hurt the chances of building trust. Here are two situations to avoid, along with simple phrases Green suggests that accountants employ instead.

Don’t: Rush to the Solution
“The biggest single obstacle I find over and over to creating trust is a perfectly well-intentioned inclination to rush to the answer too soon before having adequately listened to people,” Green says.

This inclination comes from a good place: The accountant wants to help.

“We have this temptation to solve the problem, to come up with the answer and to drive toward a solution, and the sooner we can give it, the better,” Green says. “The unfortunate fact is that’s not how people work.”

Many people don’t want advice or solutions until the advice-giver fully understands who they are and where they’re coming from. This type of understanding isn’t about the advice-giver defining the problem by asking questions like “how big,” or “how many” or “have you thought about,” Green says. Instead, it’s about listening “until the other person lets you know in no uncertain terms that you know them and you understand their problem.”

Do: Ask for More
Green says using three simple words can address this challenge: Tell me more.

“Sort of lean in, pay full attention and stop your brain from thinking what the problem is and just listen to what the person is telling you,” he says. “Say things like, ‘Tell me more about that,’ or ‘What’s behind that?’ or ‘What do you think?’ Of all of those, the best is just ‘Tell me more.’”

Green notes that it’s these kinds of questions that medical professionals ask during diagnoses, that negotiators use and that marriage therapists suggest. “Marriage therapists will tell you one of the biggest turnoffs in relationships is being dismissive of people or solving their problems without listening,” Green says. “We all want to be heard before we accept advice.”

“Obviously, it is still a problem-solving profession and we do have to come up with advice. But the biggest problem is doing that too soon,” Green says. “It’s helpful for an accountant to say, ‘Before we jump to some answers, I want to make sure I understand your situation. Is there anything you haven’t told me or am I missing anything?’ Even just saying that makes the other person appreciate that you’re trying to get the big picture. Then it’s OK for them to say, ‘Yeah, you have everything; you’ve got all of the information. What’s the answer?’”

Don’t: Overplay Your Expertise
Another way efforts to reassure the client of your technical proficiency can backfire as it relates to trust-building is when an advisor places too much emphasis on their expertise. Is this possible? Green says it is.

He recalls a client who once described how his former Big Four firm lost out on a bid for an engagement, and when he asked the prospect for feedback on why, he got a surprising answer: a lack of trust. “So my client said, ‘What? That’s really hard to hear because we totally believe in trust and we’re dedicated to serving you, and we really think we have the best and smartest team, and we’ve invested the most time to understand your situation, and you’re telling me you don’t trust me? I don’t get it,’” Green recalls.

“He told my client, ‘We trust that you have really smart people—maybe the smartest people out there, and we trust that you’d bring together your best people for us. In fact, we trust that you’re so good that whenever we get into a disagreement or an argument, we trust that your people are going to beat up our people every time—and therefore, we don’t trust you.’”

That prospect was worried he would get steam-rolled rather than be assisted. Green says this illustrates how it’s important for accountants to acknowledge occasionally that you may not have all of the answers.

For example, sometimes you may not think you’re getting the big picture from the client or you may think the client is wrong about something and you don’t know exactly what to say. “The wrong thing is to just bull ahead and tell them what you think without addressing the elephant in the room,” Green says.

Do: Keep it Human
Green suggests clarifying any questions or uncertainty by using these four simple words: Please help me understand.

“Furrow your brow and say, ‘Help me understand,’ ‘How come nobody’s mentioned this?’ or ‘Maybe I’m missing something. It would seem you’d want to do so and so; please help me understand why that hasn’t seemed to come up.’”

“One of the ironies is that we spend all of this time as accountants and consultants trying to show people how smart we are and how trustworthy we are. But one of the most trust-creating things we can say is, ‘I don’t know.’”

To learn more about building an accounting practice full of trusted advisors, download the complimentary eBook, Next-Level Accountants: Your guide to growing a firm of trusted advisors.

Mary Ellen Biery is a research specialist at Sageworks, a financial information company that provides financial analysis and valuation applications to accounting firms.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access