• Alexandra Bond Burnett

The question that will open up the client relationship for accountants

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Back in PCT (Post Coronavirus Times) Phil Hobden, Head of Educaton at Capitalise had the amazing job of going out, and training and educating Capitalise's accounting partners to not just use the platform, but to have conversations with their clients about how to drive a funding conversation and how to really find out what their clients are looking for.

Sounds pretty simple right?

However there appears to be something stopping accountants from broaching the subject of funding, or advisory.

I asked Phil what the main barriers he sees are from accountants having these conversations.

Training accountants to build relationships with one question - Phil's Experience

It's interesting. I think sometimes there's a barrier of knowing what to say. But actually, sometimes it's a barrier of that changing relationship. And that goes two ways. Think of an accountant in a firm. Note though, I'm not an accountant. I've never been an accountant. I can't count past 10 if I'm really honest, it's all the fingers I have. But I've been in this industry or in banking and finance for 15 years. I think the biggest challenge is that the role has changed around a lot of accounting.

That comfort and confidence going from compliance conversations, which are quite vanilla, to having a conversation which is more engaging, and open ended. A conversation that is more about what your client is looking to do, and how they're looking to do it, and what challenges they're having. It's that combination of knowing what to say, but also knowing that the role that you're doing has changed and needing to add this new, completely new skill set.

What your client's story can tell you

When I started with Capitalise I went out to a load of different accountants to try and look at what they were doing and how they did it. I had a really interesting conversation with an accountancy firm in London, I shall name no names....I asked them to pull up a list of their clients.

He got his list, I picked one at random and I said “tell me about that client”.

The accountants said, “that client’s been with us for 15 years. Last year, we earned 4.5k in compliance revenue. We've done two MTD returns for them so far in this period. The last conversation I had with them was about two weeks ago, I was chasing an invoice. It was outstanding... so that's the client.”

I was like right. That's what the client means to you guys, but who is the client? What do they do? Where do they come from? What are their choke points? When could they need finance when potentially? Is their runway going around? Or might they need growth or added assistance and they couldn't articulate any of that. And for me, that was the kind of the telling moment.

A lot of these relationships, especially in more traditional firms, are about a client on a spreadsheet, a number.

I’m talking about turning that client number into a client with a story so you understand what their business is and what they do, because if you start to dig into the types of businesses you're going to know what their challenges are.

Imagine a haulage company - you dig into their story and you’ll know they are likely to have challenges around invoice finance, challenges around asset finance, working capital, you're going to start to understand their challenges and HELP them with those challenges.

So why is it accountants are not having those conversations? How do they get started?

When I train a firm, I spend about two and a half hours having conversations about the different funding types and about the funding market.

Not long after I started I worked out that we needed to give people a tool, something they could take away and use themselves if they weren't confident and give to their team to make them more confident about having those conversations.

The opening question

Accountants don't want to be selling products, and I think more importantly, SMEs don't want to be sold to by their accountant. We realised that we needed to give them something, a question to talk to their clients to start having these open conversations.

I used to do a lot of coaching when I was in banking. We did a lot of work on that first opening question.

A business can change dramatically in six months, so if every six months, you spoke to an accountant they asked one question, what would that question be, this is what we came up with:

“Tell me about the plan for your business for the next 12 to 24 months/six to 12 months.”

From a funding platform perspective, that's going to start opening up opportunities for talking about growth, about finance and about what they're needing to do, but from an accounting perspective is going to open up the whole advisory piece.

Say a client has some cash flow. challenges which are stopping them from growing. Okay, why is that?

They might say… “Well, we've got some invoices that aren't being paid.”

Okay, so what are you doing about it? Nothing? Well, we could introduce you to an app to help you solve that problem. Or they may say “we keep running out of money each month and we're not quite sure why it keeps happening” .

Then you know you might be able to help by getting some cash to help them through that, and then look at forecasting and reporting to help them see what that cash runway and where those choke points are.

Where we rolled that one question has been really effective because it's a very unpressured conversation.

It's very simple, if SMEs like talking about anything, it's about their business, they're passionate about it. By asking them that's that first step of understanding what they need, understanding what they do and understanding where you can help.

The question needs to bridge the gap to help the client feel comfortable

I related back to banking. When I started with banking, I was with HSBC andI started off in a sales role or customer presentation role, or whatever they call it, but it was a sales role.

You'd sit there and you would ask people questions. You realise you're in a position of authority, and you can ask almost anything.

I tested this one day in a conversation with a client, I started to put in some random questions to see if they would answer it.

Trying to get them to talk about their mortgages or about their lending or, pointing out that they have been in their overdraft for six months was a step too far. It was the bridging question that got people to engage and get their confidence.

No one's going to tell you to go away if you ask someone, “tell me about your business”, but if you ask someone about their mortgage or about funding they probably will.

Ultimately, I think if you can pull that message down to something really simple, it will engage that customer and will give you that confidence to deepen that relationship or that conversation. That question is the small acorn that oak trees will grow from.

A lot of accountants didn't sign up for this.

This isn't why they became accountants, but they see that's what they've got to adapt and got to become. Making it simple making it engaging, It empowers you as the speaker to know that you're not going to get knocked back.

49% of SMEs will go to their accountant before anyone else, traditionally it would have been a bank.

Ten years ago they'd go to their bank manager ask them advice. But they don't exist anymore.

55,000 Bank managers left the high street after thousands of banks had branches closed. The accountant is filling that role between that traditional bank finance advisor, and the business counselor as well.

The accountant is perfect in this new role.

It's the role that the SMEs need

Today as we're dealing with COVID-19 they need to be able to ask, “How do I fund my business? How do I make this payment? What grants and fundings are available? How do I get access to CBILs?" It's all coming to the accountant.

A few exciting things are going to happen from this; that relationship, if you do it right, will never be stronger than it is at the moment.

You can build lifelong strong relationships, and these conversations you're having will let them know that you are the person that's there to support them. You're the person that they are choosing to come to for help, support and guidance - and that is pretty powerful.

Phil Hobden, Head of Education at Capitalise, an advisor led funding platform working with accountants across the UK to help them help their clients access funding from the UK market.

Listen to the full interview on the podcast

How do your communication and conversation skills rate? Find out your Pro Presenter score here