Accountants need a better bedside manner

GOOD CLIENT RELATIONSHIPS are the lifeblood of any professional practice. It is sometimes unfortunate that this philosophy is not well observed; professional people do often seem to be “superior”, remote and even arrogant in their relationships to clients.

Accountants are in some measure authority figures, a bit like doctors. Your clients believe what you say – they may not like it, but they accept it, however unwillingly. But we need people not only to accept but also perhaps question and discuss our words. This needs really good communication – something which accountants are often not good at.

I recall an embarrassing incident when visiting an audit client, My senior berated an inoffensive book-keeper lady over what seemed to me some trivial matters, until she broke down in tears and fled – not good client relationship practice and a total breakdown in communication.

Effective communication starts with attitude, the realisation that people – your clients – are human and, to a greater or lesser extent, anxious at what you have to tell them. So it is essential to get them on your side from the very beginning and avoid any hint of confrontation.

The way to get people on your side is to be empathetic – see things from their point of view. Not always easy when you may be facing a worried or even hostile client, who does not want you there at all.

I had such an experience when, as a consultant, I had to interview the stony-faced accountant of the firm – no chance of empathy at all! He replied to my attempts at getting information almost in monosyllables. After a few minutes he got out from behind his desk and said “this meeting is now terminated”. Not a great success for my communication skills.

Anyone can be a better communicator but it takes practice and determination. When dealing with clients think out what message you have to get across; then use words and phrases appropriate to the client; try to avoid jargon – you will understand it, but will they know what you are talking about? Above all, be sincere in your delivery, friendly but not obsequious.

Then, listen very carefully and show that you are listening – small nods, small noises of affirmation, so the client is aware that you are really listening and concerned. Pay attention, what they have to say is important to them as well as to you. Respect what they say and respond as cordially as possible, even though they may be giving you a contrary argument.

Most important of all is your need to get them to have confidence in you – not just in your professional competence, but in you as a person who they can like and trust.

Your client wants to be comfortable with you; to do that you have to be comfortable in yourself. So examine your own thoughts and feelings. Do you like what you do? Do you like dealing with people? Do you like yourself?

Think through these ideas, because you have to put your expertise to use. Polish your communication skills to help you gain the confidence to be of comfort to the client so that they come to trust you in all respects. You have to earn that trust in all your dealings with clients by developing that special bedside manner – not easy, but worth a great deal.

Think about:

• Try to be empathetic, remember your clients are people too with hopes and fears. They are likely to anxious too, in dealing with you.
• Good communication is the key to good client relationships. Talk to them plainly, don’t confuse them with jargon. Keep an open mind and listen – really listen – to what they say.
• Think about your own attitude to yourself, your job, your clients. Professionally you need to be confident, but show this modestly. Avoid behaving arrogantly – this could offend people, which is the last thing you want – uncouth behaviour of any sort damages trust and could lose you clients.
• Cultivate the bedside manner!

Sidney Callis is a chartered accountant who has worked in large and small businesses worldwide. He has taught at universities and business schools internationally for over 20 years. He is the author of several books including Working with People (Hodder & Stoughton). His latest e-book, Money Matters! – an overview of accounting basics – is available at


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