If asked, accounting practitioners would look at this question, scoff, and answer with an emphatic, “No!”
“We are professionals, our clients are successful business owners, and we are their most trusted advisor,” they might say. “How can one even suggest the issue of low self-esteem?” As a former Big Four CPA and current industry consultant and coach, let me suggest that the assertion is not preposterous. According to low self-esteem experts Dr. Marilyn Sorensen and Ronya Banks, the following traits appear frequently in those suffering from LSE:
- Poor communication skills and poor social skills;
- Don’t make/sustain eye contact with others;
- Don’t engage with others;
- Don’t take risks (risk-averse);
- Unable to discern who and when to trust;
- Fear and anxiety of making a mistake, being rejected, looking foolish or inadequate;
- Self-focused: Only viewing and thinking of what goes on around them on the basis of their own wants and needs; and,
- Rigidity: Motivated by fear of doing something wrong and receiving negative feedback. Those with LSE seem to narrow their choices to be safe from erring.
Let’s examine how LSE might manifest itself in the management of an accounting practice and interaction with clients.
Many accountants are afraid to bill what they are worth, fearing that higher fees will immediately send their clients away. They allow their clients to lobby for fee discounts and to negotiate a lower fee if they are not happy paying what they are charged.
There are no fees negotiated on a visit to the dentist or doctor. There are no fees negotiated at the grocery checkout. So why do accountants allow this in their accounting practices? Simple fear — the fear that they will lose a client because their prices are considered “too high.”
The fact is that clients leave accounting firms for several reasons other than prices. They leave because their accountant is unresponsive and does not communicate effectively or often enough (an LSE trait). They leave because they don’t feel that their accountant values them as a client (another LSE trait — being self-focused). They leave because they feel that their accountant does not add value to their business (yet another LSE trait — rigidity). Fees are generally way down the list of reasons why clients leave their accountants.
I am often asked, “Where can I meet CPAs; where do they network?” The answer, sadly, is that you can’t because they don’t. CPAs, like any other professional services provider, need to network to be a resource to their client base and to build strategic alliances with other advisors, yet general networking events are notorious for the lack of CPAs in attendance in my community. The “too busy” excuse may be appropriate for busy season, but not for every month of the year. The reason CPAs don’t network is the lack of social skills, and the inability to maintain eye contact and engage others — all traits of LSE.
The biggest complaint that clients have about the accountant/accounting firm is that their CPA is not proactive. I can tell you firsthand that the very first CPA I trained for a large, local accounting firm, when asked how he identified additional service opportunities with existing clients, responded with: “We wait for them to ask.”
CPAs tend to be firm-centric and reactive when interacting with clients; their clients want them to be client-centric and proactive. This follows the template of an individual with LSE — poor communication and social skills, not engaging with others, and being self-focused.
Not being proactive impacts both the accounting firm and the client. The firm leaves money on the table by not identifying additional service opportunities with existing clients, and the client believes that the CPA does not care enough about the owner or his business to ask basic questions.
Most CPA business clients are more successful than the CPA’s practice. Does it ever occur to a CPA to ask the owner, “How did your business become so successful? Please tell me your story.” How can one be a provider of professional services without a shred of curiosity? CPAs manage to do that. The reason? Low self-esteem.
Imagine the way a client would look at you when you proactively ask questions about the owner and his business. Client loyalty will improve, as will your fees per client, and both you and your client will improve your respective bottom lines.
When asked, most clients will answer that their CPA is their “most trusted advisor.” The paradox here is that only 8 percent of survey respondents say that their CPA provides a “superior client experience.” The client wants a CPA to be client-centric, proactive, holistic and collaborative. This is a hallmark of a trusted advisor. The CPA with low self-esteem only knows how to be firm-centric and reactive. The DNA of the CPA with LSE does not allow him to play the trusted advisor role.
The good news is that LSE is not a terminal diagnosis. Look at your clients from their perspective, and determine what really matters to them. Be curious, learn as much about the client, the business and the industry as you can. Focus on a particular industry or industries. Join and attend local chapter meetings of client trade associations. Show your client you care. Measure your success by the achievements of your client. Make it your mission to help your client define and achieve success. Be a partner in that success and you will have a client for life — and more referrals than you can imagine.