insight magazine

How to Be Taken Seriously

If clients aren’t buying into your young gun, top gun image, then here are five questions you probably should be asking yourself. By Selena Chavis | Spring 2016


You’ve graduated at the top of your class, interned for one of the best and landed your first gig with a leading accounting firm. Now you’re ready to race up the ranks. Or at least you would be, if only the firm’s clients would start taking you seriously.

It’s a shared frustration among many young accountants, and it’s a reality that’s certainly not going away anytime soon, says Bob Denninger, senior associate in Plante Moran’s Chicago office. “We are a young industry. We hire a lot of young people,” he stresses. “I think it’s something that everyone has to deal with and get over.”

But that could take some time. So what can you do in the interim to win over those new-kid-on-the-block-resistant clients? Try asking yourself these five questions for starters.

1. Am I Worthy?

The answer is yes. However, as we all know, respect has to be earned. And while you might be tempted to carry out a series of “knowledge dumps” to prove your worth, that’s really not the best approach.

In fact, it’s one of the biggest mistakes young professionals make when trying to build relationships with clients. “At first, everyone wants to prove they are smart, prove they know what they’re talking about and impress clients with their technical knowledge,” Denninger notes. “But clients are hiring us because they already know we’re competent.”

Remember that, and you’ve already found your terra firma.

2. Do I Have a Mentor?

Mentoring and team partnering are part of Plante Moran’s action plan to prepare its younger staff to engage with clients. Along with responsibilities for performance evaluations and annual reviews, these mentors and partners offer an open-door policy in order to address issues and concerns that come up as young accountants develop and mature in their roles.  

“We’ve always done a good job of making sure our people are interacting with a variety of folks,” says Denninger, adding that when different generations interact consistently, they learn an incredible amount from each other. “We put a huge emphasis on transition and succession management to circumvent potential issues,” he says. And so far, it’s definitely doing the trick.

3. Am I Interested Enough?

The keys to building relationships with clients are to show empathy for their unique situations, take an interest in their issues, and dig deep to learn their wants and needs.

Denninger, for example, has done a lot of work with owner-managed businesses where company leaders take a lot of pride in the organizations they’ve built. “If you go up to one of these executives and say, ‘Hey, this is wrong, and you need to fix it, and here’s why,’ you’re never going to get your point across,” he explains. “I think a good start would be showing the same passion for a client’s business as they themselves show. That can go a long way towards making the right connection. Then they see that you’re thinking in terms of their best interests, rather than the firm’s best interests.”

4. Am I Really Listening?

Tied in with the idea of empathy is the concept of artful communication. To put it in the simplest terms, “Communication is a two-way process,” says Tom Lemanski, a certified leadership coach with Chicago Executive Coaching. “It involves sending, and it involves receiving. All too often, when we think we need to communicate better, we think we need to ‘send’ more or ‘send’ better.” However, it’s really not about sending at all. It’s about receiving, he says, which means actively listening.

Today’s modes of digital communication can be a challenge when it comes to this, since the written word loses all the nonverbal nuances of vocal intonation and body language. Young accountants therefore need to use their best judgement when it comes to communication tactics. For example, “If you’re writing an email and get to the third paragraph, it might be time to pick up the phone instead,” says Lemanski. No one wants to read an email essay.

Choosing the best communication methods is part of learning the client, Denninger emphasizes. “You simply have to learn how to adapt to different people’s working styles,” he explains.

Above all else, though, remember that, “Perception is reality in the minds of your clients, and they’re paying the bills,” says Lemanski. “I don’t know a better way to gain respect than to be completely present to them when they are trying to communicate something. When someone feels they are being listened to, you are way ahead of the game.”

5. Am I Managing Risks?

Effective communication is one part of the client trust and relationship equation; proactive risk management is another. After all, if a client is unwilling to take you seriously, they likely perceive some level of risk associated with handing off power to you—predominantly, the risk of inexperience.

If that’s the case, the best strategy is to ask—and answer—the tough, pivotal questions for them. For one, says Lemanski, ask, “How likely is such and such to happen?” and “How can I assure you that things aren’t going to go wrong?” What’s more, “If you think you have something really important to convey, make sure it’s as important as you think before you go ahead and convey it. Ask yourself, ‘Why is this so important to my client?’ and ‘What is it that my client gains from knowing this?’ Put the ‘intention’ and the ‘why’ up front,” Lemanski suggests.

In essence, you’re addressing risk from the start to counter any negative perceptions about you a client might be clinging onto. However, even if the client you’re dealing with is holding fast to his or her preconceived notion of you, the reality is, “You can’t just give up on trying to form that relationship,” says Denninger. “I think over time most figure out how to make it work.”

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