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Empathy and the Accountant

Ew. Feelings.

Accountants across the world (are perceived to) shudder in horror. We’ve all seen the stereotype in movies and books - cold, humorless, analytical, desk-bound, and anti-social. But, I know the truth. Those who become truly successful in the profession know that we are in a relationship business; and relationships are all about feelings. Understanding this concept has never been more important than it is today. As the profession moves out of the backwards-focused compliance services (audits and tax returns), you are connecting and adding value to your clients business or personal bottom line. If you are positioning, both yourself and your clients for success, then you know all about feelings.

Why Should We Discuss Empathy?

I ran Twitter poll among experienced accounting professionals and asked what was the one thing that most new staff needed to work on when they begin their professional journey. Resoundingly, the answer was spoken communication. Respondents elaborated with specific examples of types of spoken communication.

These seasoned pros recognized the skills that young professionals brought to the table, but emphasized, in particular, that exercising empathy, asking questions via telephone or face to face rather than in an email, and listening to hear what is meant, versus what was said. Spoken communication, listening, and empathy were the skills that needed the most work in order to ask good follow up questions, deliver excellent service and results.

Predominantly, the ability to exercise empathy comes with life experience. Therefore, it can be difficult for young, newly minted accountants to have a reservoir of experience to draw upon in their client relationships. Sympathy, empathy’s close cousin, may be the next best thing.

Sympathy, though important, only allows us to feel sorrowful, pitiful, or badly for someone else or their situation. Empathy puts us in the other person's shoes. It gives us perspective and the ability to see how we would want to be treated if we were in similar circumstances. Rather than just feeling badly for someone, empathy gives us the insight to understand, in our own way, the client’s perspective and provides inspiration for possible solutions or ways to clarify or assist our clients in clearing obstacles. That is not to say how you want to be treated is how your client, or anyone else, actually wants to be treated, but it is a start in understanding. It also gives you a place to begin asking questions.

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule states that 80% of consequences stems from 20% of the causes. The inability to understand and respond properly to your client’s needs is definitely a root cause of miscommunication, missing information, and avoidable stress (when everyone already has too much.)

Your clients are busy people, just like you, with families, financial responsibilities, personal and professional issues of their own. What can you do to make it simpler for them to provide the information you need, cope with stressful situations, or understand complex issues that impact their businesses?

Respecting the other person’s perspective and putting yourself in their position can go a long way to bridging the client / accountant communication gap. That’s not to say that boundaries, and your own needs are unimportant, but finding a way to clearly communicate is essential in any relationship. If your client doesn’t understand the importance or need to return the completed organizer or PBC list, whose fault is that? Have you seen those organizers and lists? Some of the information seems pretty ridiculous, especially if you have no idea how that information is to be used, if it is has been provided before, or seems unimportant.

How to Practice Empathy

Practicing empathy follows the same blueprint as how to handle difficult conversations.

  1. Acknowledge their situation.

  2. Understand and consider the other person’s perspective.

  3. Determine what you can do to help both of you accomplish your goals.

  4. Inform them what you plan to do and what your expectations are from them.

  5. Thank them for working with you to resolve the issue.

What is going on in your client’s life? How much do you know about their business, personal pressures or expectations? Bottom line, do you know what each of your clients really cares about? Hint the answer isn’t their tax return.

Is is really best to reach out via email to them, or will a quick phone call with a follow up email be better? Many client’s receive so much email that they simply ignore their inbox unless they are expecting something. Maybe you can’t text them as they would like but ask if an email or a phone call is better - or both. Check if there is a better time of day or day of the week to get in touch with them. Ask if there is anything you can do to simplify the process or make it less taxing (I couldn’t resist!) to provide the information you need. Is there someone else that is able to provide this information?

This article from MindTools, Empathy at Work, has great points and even uses accountants as the example of someone that needs to work on his people skills.

Putting Empathy Into Your Practice

Entrepreneurial CPAs are on a path to transform the accounting industry and finally bring up an age of innovation in our industry. Disrupting the status quo and adapting to an ever evolving technological landscape. Adding empathy to your everyday accounting and consulting practice may be uncomfortable, but will be rewarding. This skill is part of your emotional intelligence arsenal. Relating to your clients on a personal level builds trust, creates a connection, and establishes a bond that can survive difficult times.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had a really difficult time writing this piece. I was stuck on how to explain empathy and the fine line between empathizing and understanding someone else’s perspective and being totally sucked in trying to solve or own someone else’s problems. Especially since I have struggled with taking my client’s problems to heart and worrying. I would (and sometimes still do) lose sleep concerned how clients will meet their tax obligations or answer an IRS notice, even though they put themselves into those situations. Being empathetic means I look at issues from their perspective and do what I can to help them address the issues, but it doesn’t mean I have to carry those burdens home with me. Still working on that.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to empathy. My goal is to always provide a tool or technique with every article that can be put immediately to work in your everyday life. Please let me know what you would like to know about in the arena of soft skills, leadership, and team building. Tell me what you thought of this and other articles, and put your empathy skills to work.

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Erin Kidd is an Enrolled Agent, Accredited Financial Counselor ®, and has her Master’s Degree in Business Administration. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin. She’d love to connect to talk about financial literacy, taxes, entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship and stuff that makes us laugh!

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