7 Steps to Build Strong Client Relationships

By Karen Koch Reilly, CPA, WithumSmith+Brown – August 28, 2018
7 Steps to Build Strong Client Relationships

Beyond technical skills, building relationships with clients early on is crucial to growing and succeeding at a CPA firm. As part of the professional services industry, most CPA firm employees will have some level of client-facing activity, rather than feeding into the age-old stereotype of an accountant cooped up behind the scenes crunching numbers. Today, accountants play a central role in a client’s world, which is built on a foundation of trust that needs to be earned. Developing the ability to connect with clients comfortably and sincerely is necessary from day one as a staff accountant. Here are seven ways to develop strong client relationships.

  1. Start off on the right foot. From the first on-site visit with a client, it is important to handle introductions with confidence. Dress appropriately, be on time, stand up straight, make appropriate eye contact and offer a firm handshake. Don’t hide behind a senior member of the engagement team. This level of self-assurance might come naturally or may take practice, but it is an important skill to cultivate as soon as possible. It is not acceptable to avoid interacting with a client. Client service is a vital component of working at a CPA firm, and first impressions set the groundwork of long-term relationships. Starting off with confidence and exhibiting a professional demeanor sends clients the message of credibility and reliability, even as an entry-level member of their engagement team.
  2. Display genuine interest. Relationships — both professional and personal — are built on meaningful conversations. In order to progress beyond business-related topics, it is important to deepen the conversation into a quality social interaction. Being friendly helps ensure that interactions begin with a positive rapport. People like talking about themselves and tend to appreciate if others take a sincere interest in them. This doesn’t mean launching into a complaint session about the weather or traffic (which could come across as annoying), but harness some natural curiosity and have a small conversation about upcoming plans, shared passions or personal interests outside of the office. Asking questions allows staff to learn about key client contacts and initiate a solid relationship. Authenticity is key, however. The point is to set the foundation of trust.
  3. Read the vibe. One caveat to developing a sincere relationship with a client: you must “read” the comfort level of the client. In the professional services field, there will be a range of client types, even within the same industry. A client may prefer to be strictly business and would rather not share photos of their children or pet or details on their upcoming vacation. In this case, steer the conversation back to discussions of accounts payable or sales tax. As is true in life, not every person wants to be friends. Trust your judgement, and maintain the professional boundary. A strong relationship can still be developed in a strictly professional way.
  4. Keep in touch. Add client contact information and key notes into Outlook, OneNote, on their business card or in another app to help maintain the relationship. In addition to following up on work-related items, don’t hesitate to share relevant articles about their industry or current events that relate to their personal interests. Sharing useful content is valuable, whether it comes internally or externally. For bigger clients, setting up a Google Alert might help keep track of news related to their business. Regular check-ins and communication drives a true relationship, rather than one driven strictly by due dates and deliverables.
  5. Speak the same language. As the client-staff relationship deepens, it is important to use the communication channels that work best for the client. Return phone calls with phone calls; decide whether the relationship would benefit from utilizing texting or other instant messaging technology. While email is likely the most common way accountants will interact with their clients, it is best to determine what works best in the context of the relationship. Speaking the same language can also extend to using the jargon specific to the client’s industry. As a staff account develops industry expertise, this can be a way to offer additional credibility. However, keep in mind that CPA-specific jargon may come across excessively superior or arrogant. Keep it simple. Sure, it’s nice to reference the Code Sec. 274(a)(1)(A)-(B ) when discussing revised guidance on meal and entertainment expenses per the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, but, at the end of the day, provide advice in a way the client can understand.
  6. Don’t fake it. In the first few years as an employee at a CPA firm, staffers are constantly growing, strengthening and expanding their technical knowledge base. No one expects someone with a freshly framed accounting degree to know it all. So don’t pretend to know everything. Honesty sets the stage for developing trustworthiness. When a client asks a question that eludes an entry-level staff’s proficiency, it is perfectly acceptable to say “I don’t know…” followed by: “But I will find out and get back to you with the answer.” And then be sure to deliver! Clients will quickly lose respect for the accountant who does not fulfill expectations. A prompt response will showcase the accountant’s reliability and trustworthiness to the client.
  7. Be a problem solver. Problem solvers are generally drawn to the CPA profession. By building up a relationship with the client, CPAs can identify additional opportunities to provide guidance. Though it sounds cliché, this is how a new staff member transitions into a “trusted advisor.” Accounting firms are multi-faceted and offer many opportunities to assist clients with growth. This involves knowing the services a CPA firm can offer and connecting the client with helpful resources. Leverage the resources within and outside of the firm to find a technical expert that can solve the problem.

Building an emotional connection with a client and their key staff allows CPAs to understand what drives and motivates them. The client already trusts the firm with sensitive business information, but having staff exhibit a high level of both personal and professional interest allows the client to be comfortable opening up and provide additional insight into their needs. As entry-level staff move up the ladder and develop technical expertise, relationships with clients provide growth opportunities. The accountant will be able to offer advice and additional services, ultimately making the CPA one of the client’s most valuable resources.