The importance of people skills and KBS generally

Apr 13, 2021 | Key Business skills, Sole practitioners

Today I share with you the transcript of a recent conversation with Joanna Gaudoin. I hope you will enjoy reading her perspective on a number of issues I have previously addressed on this blog. In summary Joanna’s view is that your marketing, business development and career development will all flourish if you work on your ‘people’ skills.  I tend to agree as you will see below where we both share a number of specific examples, tips and ideas you can action.

ML: Before we start Joanna, can I just clarify your background as regards the accountancy profession?

JG: Well, the closest I have ever got to any technical accountancy skills were my lectures on the subject at university, as part of my Management degree. I have to admit though I did miss a few of them…I have worked with a fair few accountants though, particularly on a one-to-one basis.

ML: What sort of topics have you worked with them on?

JG: I work with them on their non-technical skills, so how they communicate and engage with others in every professional scenario. What is easy to forget is that, as much as we may not like it, we all need to be able to relate to others and market ourselves in our chosen area to stand out from the crowd. And of course that helps our employer (if we have one) too. In service industries, it is the people that clients are ‘buying’.

ML: I’d go further and say that clients are ‘buying’ (from) people they trust.

JG: Yes, definitely. Of course clients want the services they have paid for to be accurate and high quality but very often there is a lack of focus on the ‘how’. If you think about any service you have purchased recently, it is unlikely you picked the supplier solely on price or even how good the core work would be. The latter is often a given anyway. You assume that someone who has a qualification and/or works for an established business will do that well. 

Clients want an accountant they feel they can trust and that means they feel confident you will do more than simply complete the core work well. There’s a lot of psychology involved but essentially we want to feel someone cares about the work they are doing for us, will keep us up-to-date and that we can engage with them easily to discuss any challenges – at both a practical and a human level.

ML: We are so speaking the same language Joanna! I may not have expressed things quite in that way before but what you are saying fits in very well with multiple elements of my ‘Stand Out framework’.   Where do you think accountants should start?

JG: Consider how you come across. Are you perceived by others in the way you want to be? A good trick is to think about the three adjectives you’d like someone to use to describe you to someone else e.g. diligent, creative, and client focused. 

I get people to work on this exercise when we are thinking about their Personal Brand. It can be very interesting for people to get input from others on that, as well as how others think they come across. We all have three core ‘tools’ we use to communicate ourselves – appearance, body language and voice. So it can be helpful to audit yourself in this regard – considering your own confidence in each of them too.

ML: Yup. I agree. The first element in my framework is A for Appearance and Attitude. First impressions count. Would you agree that some people come across in certain situations better than others?

JG: Yes definitely and that sets the tone, sometimes for whether there is a relationship at all (if there is a choice) and if there is the basis for it. Our perceptions influence how we engage with someone. A good next step is to consider the different ‘touchpoints’ you have with others professionally. What I mean here is professional scenarios. Some examples include on the phone, by email, in meetings, in video meetings (yes these do differ as we have fewer ‘tools’ available), on LinkedIn and at networking events. To market yourself well and represent your practice positively, you need to be consistent and come across positively and memorably in all of those situations and any others that are relevant for you.

ML: Again, I can only agree. Do you think most of the people you work with consider all of this?

JG: The people I work with have definitely started this journey as they are working with me. The first step is accepting this stuff matters and wanting to improve from wherever you are at. 

For the wider accountancy profession, I would say few have considered all this, yet. Many dismiss these skills as superfluous/overrated or don’t realise they matter at a conscious level. If I end up speaking to a group where some haven’t ever really thought about their non-technical skills, I usually spend some time getting people to think about how they select service providers, how they perceive others etc. Once they realise it matters to them, they make the link to the importance and how others will be doing this with them. This quickly elevates the importance of professional impact, profile and relationships in their mind.

ML: Spot on. For much the same reason I avoid ever using the phrase ‘soft skills’. The prevailing view is that these are not ‘hard’ and that they are less important than ‘technical’ knowledge and experience. No one is more aware than me that I was promoted and headhunted far more because of my key business skills (KBS) than due to my technical knowledge. 

I assume you also apply the same principles when encouraging accountants to think about how they come across and build relationships with colleagues too?

JG: Yes, definitely. I couldn’t agree more with what you just said, even in a small practice most people will rank their colleague relationships at different levels. And dare I say may even avoid some colleagues…internal relationships are so important at work for both servicing clients well, generating cross – selling opportunities and for improving individual career prospects. Too often people don’t think about this enough and in a larger practice, the need to build their visibility with more removed senior people.

ML: I recall you mentioned that you often work with clients who feel their career has stagnated. What sort of tips do you share in this context?

JG: The top one would be to consider if you are in the right practice for you culturally. If you believe so then think about whether there is a role shift you could make or whether it’s about appraising new elements where you are at. What more could you be doing? Which additional relationships could you be building? Which skills do you need to work on to facilitate change? 

I have just finished working with an accountant who was in-house at a law firm and she was feeling in a real rut. We’ve been working on how she can shape her role in the future and build her relationships to move forward, both internally and externally. 

People can get so focused on doing their core job, especially when working remotely, that they forget about the difference that good professional relationships make. They help you on a day-to-day human level to feel more connected at work, bring in new opportunities and make challenges a whole lot easier to deal with, when they come.

ML: What would you say are the key catalysts for people realising this stuff matters and that they need to work on it?

JG: There are a couple; either they feel their career has stagnated or they get promoted to a new role and find they don’t have all the skills to do it well, they suddenly feel out of their depth. 

If you think about it, through school, university and even into junior career, it is what you know that matters. This doesn’t become less important with seniority but the job changes. With increased seniority, people need to manage others, lead on client relationships, and bring in more clients potentially. It’s a totally different role. 

ML: That’s so true Joanna. I have lost track of the number of accountants and tax advisers I have met who started up their own practice because they felt they were being held back at their old firms. They then either struggle to attract and generate clients or they quickly realise they need to develop some key business skills. Technical knowledge and competence are never enough to get promoted or to run your own practice. 

JG: That’s right although some do get promoted for a while purely due to their technical competence but then hit problems; others just don’t get promoted as their firms think they lack the necessary wider skills. These skills need to be developed; few people have them innately. A good team leader for instance has usually had some development focus or has had an excellent role model themselves who they have learnt from. 

ML: Totally agree Joanna. Presumably this increases positivity all round when this works well in a firm?

JG: Absolutely, it makes sure people fulfil their potential which is motivating for them and has a beneficial impact on the organisation. It sounds a cliché but truly a ‘win win’. 

Imagine the simple scenario where a firm has a range of people who are good at building client and prospect relationships versus a situation where one or two Partners are relied upon for these skills. What happens if/when those Partners leave? What is the impact of not building a range of relationships with the client at different levels so they are well embedded with your practice? Think about the opposite being true and the benefits. 

Fundamentally, what do most firms want? More and better business. This is more easily achieved when good clients are retained, when they are prepared to engage their accountant for a wider range of services and when they recommend their accountant to good prospects. 

With teams focusing on their non-technical skills all of these can be realised, as well as attracting new ‘cold’ prospects, whether through LinkedIn or by conversations at networking events.

ML: Again, I can only agree.  Do the accountants you work with often worry about how hard these skills are to develop?

JG: Sometimes and it isn’t as easy as learning a one-off technical skill. This area is all about behavioural change but it is absolutely possible for everyone to improve from where they are at, with the investment of some time. Ultimately, to improve their own career and benefit their practice which of course is mutually reinforcing too!

ML: Thank you so much Joanna. It’s been great chatting about all this – especially as we’re both on the same page. 

Joanna Gaudoin runs Inside Out Image. Joanna specialises in helping ambitious individuals and their organisations secure a competitive ‘edge’ and achieve their goals for greater professional success. 

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