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Top 10 things SMEs want from their accountant

As an accountant what you perceive your clients want and what you deliver can be different things. But in today’s business world there’s no excuse for guessing.

After being in public practice for 12+ years and continuing to have a role in this sphere (after co-founding Xero), it’s become pretty clear to me what the priorities are for small business clients. My top 10 things are pretty simple, but they really work. This should be revision for accountants and if you’re a small business owner, this is what you should expect. If you’re not, find a new accountant.

In order of importance:

  1. Get my tax done right
    Predictable perhaps, but for most SMEs this is their biggest priority. Your clients don’t understand tax so they rely on accountants to get it right and they prefer not to have issues with a tax authority, let alone be investigated
  2. Be proactive
    SMEs don’t really have huge amounts of time to sit back and think about how to make their business better. They want their accountant to keep an eye on stuff and alert them to things that can help. Hard to do when you have 500+ clients, I know. Luckily there are great software applications like Xero that make it easier.
  3. Wow me
    Everyone loves an unexpected service or result. We have to think of ways to Wow our clients. It can be anything from remembering their child is playing in an upcoming football tournament to being invited to a one-on-one breakfast for a catch up. Remember in the professional services game, the relationship is everything. It takes work though.
  4. Return my calls
    Okay this is customer service 101 and I know you’re busy, but you must communicate with your clients in a timely manner. If you don’t, no matter how good you are, they will get frustrated and start looking elsewhere. Make this a priority every day.
  5. Help me improve my cashflow
    Cash is King and the lifeblood of any business and yet it is generally the scarcest resource they have. Anything you can do to help your client to better understand how cash moves through their business, and ways to improve this, will benefit them. If you haven’t already, take a look at the Cash Summary report in Xero.
  6. Save me tax
    This is the best darn dollar any business can save, because tax spend doesn’t help it make more money. In my opinion you need to understand your client’s appetite for how aggressive they want to be on tax. There are nearly always things you can do to legally minimize tax. Look for these and suggest when suitable.
  7. Don’t send me a surprise bill
    This is the number one reason why clients leave their accountant. Always provide your clients with a quote for everything, and if you don’t know how much it will be, give an upper limit of where you will stop. No one likes not knowing how much they’re going to have to pay before they make the decision to buy.
  8. Know my game plan
    If you don’t know what your client’s aspirations and plans in life are, you need to find out. Really easy, just ask the question. The accountant is in the best position to help the business owner with life goals. This could be another Wow moment for clients.
  9. I wanna be treated well no matter how small
    Be really careful with your communication. Be sure that the right people in your client’s organisation are talking to the right people in your firm. Don’t let your junior accountant hassle the business owner for something that the bookkeeper could deal with. Again this shows the importance of relationships, but at the correct levels. Every client likes to feel they’re important, which they are. So treat them as such.
  10. Be nice to my staff
    Make sure your team treats the people in your client’s business with professional courteously. As accountants we deal with financial detail all the time and frequently make the same request to hundreds of clients every year. They speak to us less often. Don’t assume they understand the financial jargon. Be patient, and respect they are busy people too.

If there’s something I’ve missed or you have some suggestions about how to manage these, let us know.


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Michael ‘MC’ Carter
7 September 2011 #

Great list Hamish. Point 2 is an old chestnut. I think the word ‘Proactive’ is kind of abstract. Practitioners have for decades been urged to be more proactive, yet the majority are not. (The strength of their business model with effortless repeat business is part of the reason for that …) In a Client Feedback Telephone Survey we conducted for a firm recently (where we call their clients to get independent (a.k.a. real) client feedback for the firm), I thought a business owner put it really well when he said, “I just want my accountant to make suggestions. I want to know that I am not the only person thinking about ways of making this business better. I don’t want to be the only one coming up with the ideas.” I like the simplicity of that. Suggestions. It is easier for a practitioner to ask him or herself, “How many suggestions did I make to clients this week?” rather than the abstract, “Am I being proactive with my clients?” Your thoughts?

Tim from FGS
8 September 2011 #

Hi Hamish
Going to be somewhat controversial here and say that the post was OK – in the same way, MYOB is OK

It did the job but it could be so much better if it wasn’t stuck in Old School thinking.

There are so many consultants and so called experts telling accountants about what their clients want and what they should be doing to make clients happy.

The Modern Practice is doing that already and has moved beyond such boring advice. The Modern Practice embraced Xero and the freedom it brings them and their clients, so why don’t we start focusing on the 10 things the Modern Practice wants from it’s clients!!!!!

What is the DNA of your ideal client?

You could be doing all 10 of the things on the list above and the clients still piss you off!!

Let’s see a Blog post about the 8 things every Modern Practice demands of it’s clients.

I will write it for you if you like!!!

Charles Sondergaard
8 September 2011 #

These top ten reflect our service standards. Agree that the hardest one to achieve is to be proactive. We are members of the Proactive Accountants Network and the first thing you learn is to run your own business efficiently and to aim at achieving these 10 standards. We have four key divisions, Planning and Strategy, Business Support, Self-Managed Superfunds and Annual Compliance. By separating out the compliance it allows the other divisions to interact with their clients throughout the year and not when the tax work is done. In our business the only constant is change. We have come a long way and have a long way to go. We are now rolling out Xero to businesses in WA. We have a dedicated training room, for small group training on Xero, and a Chartered Accountant heading our Xero services team. By this time next year we should have at least 100 businesses on Xero, and many of these will be using the Add-On software to better run their businesses. Using Xero will allow us to efficiently review quarterly results with our clients and help them plan and achieve their goals. Xero is going to be a great leverage for us in being Proactive with all clients. Thanks Xero Team

Rachel Teen
8 September 2011 #

As an SME myself I also endorse your list Hamish and it was good to read through. One thing I think could be added to it….perhaps as 2’b’ !!… that EOY accounts be done and presented to the client within a month, or at least close too. These days with software such as Xero there really is no excuse for clients having to wait 6 months (in some cases I know of, 12 months!) for their business results. These days SME’s expect to know exactly how their business is performing in realtime. Many SME’s are maintaining their own books anyway and handing over their ordered financial information to accountants for ‘finishing off’. Client’s priorities have certainly changed in the last few years and having up to date knowledge is pretty high on the agenda now.

Earl Rudolfo
8 September 2011 #

That’s a terrific list, Hamish. Would be great to get feedback from clients on prioritizing the items to suit their business needs. Here’s my take – 5,2,6,8,4,1,3,7,9,10.

Btw – love your comment, MC!

Gayle Buchanan
8 September 2011 #

Hi Hamish, thanks for the share, the list is awesome! I wouldn’t change a thing @Rachel, ditto the EOY, just had a client wait 8 mths for work I sent through to their accountant 8 mths ago, granted there were changes in the practice however Hamish’s No. 2 would have decreased the business owners frustration. @Tim, go the controversial, always love to read the flip side, thank you – reminds me I’m in the right profession – service, service, service. @Charles – go WA (gorgeous place). After 30+yrs book keeping I learnt the hard way – It’s not about how good I look, it’s about the results I get for clients (after all they pay the bill). If they are nasty people though they are politely shown the door! Thank you Xero, you help my clients results soar!

Hamish Edwards
8 September 2011 #

Hey @Michael, long time no see. The Proactive things is difficult, and I do intend to write a dedicated post about some of the things I used to do and what I have seen in the market. But if its going to work in a practice, it cannot be about the Partner. The firm needs systems and practices to build out Proactivity. @Tim, thanks for your thoughts, we will discuss internally what the 8 might be. @Charles, I love what you are doing. I think next gen firms will will the owners of cloud apps for their clients. This means we are the information custodians and because we know the business and the owner we can oversee the info flow and identify the key stuff the owner should be away of. Dare I say you guys are more like CFOs for your clients than tax accountants?

Jerry Zhao
8 September 2011 #

Thanks for sharing, Hamish!

the WOW factor is a bit hard task. We have to understand what client want to wow them… and a lot of them just small detail things. won’t even cost any money. but make you connect to our clients.

Steph Hinds
8 September 2011 #

Awesome article as always Hamish. On top of the above we add… human, challenge me & have fun.

Kes Phelps
8 September 2011 #

Being proactive is definate plus for me. I really appreciate being notified when it’s vat time because i never remember. Then again, if the tax man let me pay along the way and be in credit then it wouldn’t be an issue..

Andy Lomax
17 September 2011 #

With products like Xero that seems to do most of the work where can accountants really add value as all the number crunching and booking has been done already.

Neil O’Brien
19 February 2015 #

I mentor many small businesses and have an accounting background and I often have to explain the profit & loss account etc. because their accountant doesn’t do it – or if they go through it, it’s as an ‘accountant’ and their client does not understand.
This is a huge one.

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