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Building trust and overcoming your clients’ top 3 mental roadblocks

Let's be honest. We've all been "too busy" to do something at some point. In the case of business owners we often hear they’re too busy to take a deep look at their business trends and cashflow. Sometimes, "too busy" just means something isn't a priority. Maybe we don't see the value in it. But often, "too busy" is a cover-up for an emotion that business owners don't want to admit. It might be fear, shame, overwhelm, or doubt. When we dig deeper, we often find that a client who says they’re too busy is really struggling with a mental roadblock.

Working in bookkeeping and accounting services is kind of like being a therapist. You’re going to be there with your clients at their highest and lowest moments, and oftentimes they look to you for answers and guidance. To truly be an irreplaceable advisor, you have to demonstrate the emotional intelligence, empathy, and even vulnerability to gain your clients’ trust and respect. This is particularly true when helping your clients navigate mental roadblocks. Because trust in an advisor is what a client truly wants.

In part one of this topic, I laid out the three most common mental roadblocks I see in clients.

  1. If I don’t look at it, it’ll go away.
  2. I’m afraid of looking dumb because I don’t know all the answers.
  3. I’m too overwhelmed by the size of the problem to even start.

Now let’s talk about what to do when you encounter each of these so you can help your clients move past them and towards a better state of bookkeeping bliss.

Overcoming roadblock 1: The client who has their head in the sand

Some clients would rather stick their heads in the sand than face their problems head-on. In some cases, this can be because they’re afraid of what they might find or because they don’t want to believe there’s a problem in the first place. I’ve run into this a time or two. Here’s an example and how I worked through it.

While working with an equipment rental company that hit a period of decreased sales, I wanted to talk through their actual numbers and help make a plan to address their continued loss of revenue. Recognizing income was way down was uncomfortable for them. They preferred to just keep doing what they had been doing and ignore the problem. I was concerned because this person used to really hustle for new clients and seemed to be losing the passion for their business they once had. Notice that I wasn’t just concerned about the downward revenue numbers; a large part of my concern was for the client on a personal level.

Faced with this scenario, I know it’s important to look for small, quick, and easy wins. This helps from a financial perspective (e.g. stopping the bleed), and it’s equally good for the human side of things. When people have small wins, they’re more motivated to investigate and learn to solve the larger problems.

I suggested starting with the small step of putting clients on auto-debit, eliminating the need to hunt clients down for payment. It took two months, but we got all clients on auto-debit and we saw administrative time that was once wasted making collection calls decrease. Revenue began to tick up. Income began to rise, and they could feel the win in their pocket. It made my client feel empowered to take a deeper look at their business and make more changes. It was a huge step forward!

Overcoming roadblock 2: The client who is afraid of looking dumb

Many clients feel intimidated by accounting because they believe they have to understand complex topics to manage their business finances. This is also particularly true for skilled professionals such as doctors and lawyers who find it frustrating to not always know the right answer. This fear of looking "dumb" can prevent them from taking the necessary steps to get their business on track. It can even keep them from asking questions. In some cases, this fear can even lead to unexpected bursts of anger. You need to be prepared for these and know how to deal with them.

In one instance, I was reviewing some unanswered transaction questions with a client over Zoom. The client became angry, started ranting, and even slammed their hands on the desk (Thanks Zoom. Can’t unsee that!). It was an uncomfortable moment, but I had to remind myself that the client was just venting. Their anger had nothing to do with me. In reality, they were frustrated at not knowing how to answer the questions I needed from them. Possibly even feeling embarrassed because they might “look dumb” for not being able to provide the answers I was looking for.

The first thing I do is recognize and validate the client’s feelings. First, I take a breath and step back from the facts to focus on addressing the emotion. I make it very clear to the client that it’s OK to be uncomfortable facing a process they don’t entirely understand. And I agree with them that accounting is confusing. I acknowledge that it’s scary to admit you don’t fully understand a part of your business, even when—and especially when—you’ve built that business yourself. I’ll even admit some of these things are challenging to me, but also emphasize that I love figuring out these problems, just like tackling The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, and I’m here to help.

Approaching this roadblock from the emotional angle first builds trust on a personal level. Connect with your client as a person and your client will trust you as a guide. From there, I break things down into even more simple terms, or smaller chunks. We build a roadmap to the end goal, but focus on the smaller, easily doable goals along the way.

Most importantly, I give positive reinforcement when I catch a client successfully taking those small steps. I usually say something like, “We did it!,” and point out we would not have reached our goal without their input. I’ll even celebrate by pushing the Staples Easy Button I keep on my desk. I usually get a “You’re dorky” reaction, in which I take joyful ownership!

Remember, as accounting professionals we may be in it for the journey. We may love the process and solving the problems, but clients just want the end result. They want to see their business succeed and be financially healthy. That’s why it’s important to enable them to help you build their financial picture along the way, which often includes small steps and lots of praise.

Overcoming roadblock 3: The client who is overwhelmed and doesn't know where to start

The client who is overwhelmed and doesn't know where to start often feels like they are drowning in their business. Their desk is piled high with paperwork, they have missed deadlines, don’t call you back, and feel like they are always playing catch up. This type of client usually has a hard time making decisions because they feel like they need to know everything before they can act. As a result, they often get bogged down in research and never take action. Or they spin in circles because they can't figure out where to start.

The key to clearing this mental roadblock is to help them focus on the most important tasks and make quick decisions. Again, knock out the easy wins at the start to build confidence. You can do this by providing them with a list of priorities, breaking tasks down into small steps, and helping them to understand that it’s OK to ask for help and even delegate to other team members. Sometimes that drowning feeling is easily solved by bringing in another employee who has many of the answers the business owner doesn’t.

Here’s an example: I was working with a law firm that wanted to sell their business. They were in a great position to do so except for all the legwork that comes before the sale. They knew they had to provide detailed financials for any potential buyers and truly wanted to sell the business, but the sheer task at hand was emotionally overwhelming, and they were getting more and more anxious. It was just too big. The key to making progress with this roadblock is to break things into the smallest digestible pieces.

I had them start by simply gathering revenue receipts. As a side note, when you’re asking for things from the client, make sure to use language they understand. They don’t always know, or need to know, your accounting jargon. In this case, I just asked them for records of the incoming money they were paid for their services. Ta-da! We started making progress.

Next, I asked for receipts for the furniture they bought. The owner had no clue where to find those receipts, but their office manager did. This shows the value of bringing in more people who might know where the information you need is. The business owner doesn't always know everything. Don't ignore employees as resources.

Then, as I built parts of their balance sheet that had never been tracked before, I’d point out items that increased the value and the offering price of the business. That’s what an owner wants to hear! Their tight shoulders and frown transformed into a relaxed, easy smile.

See what I did there? I built a bridge between the facts I could identify from their financials and the emotions the business owner wants and needs to feel. As you’d expect, taking small steps and getting an emotional payoff in the form of a higher valuation, further motivated the business owner to keep working with me on this.

Never ignore the human side

As an accounting professional, you are uniquely positioned to help your clients with more than just their finances. You have the ability to help them understand and overcome their mental roadblocks, which will in turn help them make better financial decisions.

Sure, you probably didn’t study psychology, but by taking the time to really get to know your clients and their individual needs, you’ll be able to build a strong relationship of trust and respect. This will make you stand out from the crowd and solidify your relationship as a trusted advisor, not just a necessary evil they feel required to work with because they have no other choice.

As you go about the rest of your day, remember these four points to help you work with your clients through the emotional roadblocks and landmines you may encounter:

  1. Recognize which emotions are driving their actions and reactions. It's likely fear, shame, or anxiety.
  2. Make it OK for them to be uncomfortable. It's scary and that's OK. Let them know they're not alone and that these feelings are common and you've seen it all before.
  3. Break things up into smaller steps until they're no longer overwhelmed or afraid, and they can achieve small wins.
  4. Praise the client for achieving a goal, or even a small step toward the goal.

And if you’re looking for a community of professionals who can help you move past your own mental roadblocks—the things that are holding you back from your most successful practice—check out Roundtable Labs. We’ve got a new group starting soon, hosted by (shameless self-promo alert!) me! Required to Desired will help you transform your accounting services from a necessary evil into the type of partnership clients want.

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