The keys to active listening, and why feedback isn’t always good.

The term ‘soft skills’ can seem mysterious, even vague. In a business sense, soft skills are a combination of people, social and communication skills a person has within a workplace.

Ben Farrow, CEO of FirmChecker, an online reviews and rating platform for professional services such as accountancy, says that during FirmChecker’s Client Choice Awards, soft skills emerged as the key factor in accounting firms delivering client satisfaction.

“Soft skills are typically the things valued most highly by clients as a differentiator between businesses,” says Farrow. “People assume an accountant will have the technical capability because of their degree. But what we find, year-on-year, is that more than expertise, attributes like communication and being a good listener – as well as the ability to give clients peace of mind – are the things that come across as being the most important.”

Being a good listener is crucial to building a long-lasting and fruitful client relationship, insists Farrow. “Listening and understanding the context of your business in the industry is really important,” he says. “Clients don’t just want to search for an accountant who’s an expert on tax. They may work in the agriculture industry and want an accountant who specialises in that, so it pays to really listen and hone in on your client’s specific needs.”

Advantages of active listening

Active listening is also a great way to win new business. “Accountants need to be good listeners, both in getting to know the client when they first come on board, but also when measuring client satisfaction,” says Farrow. “It’s about seeing where they can improve their service to that client, and to improve their performance as a whole.”

Excellent communication with clients across the board should remain a priority for accountancy firms who want an edge on competitors. “Something as simple as keeping people up to date with the status of work or what’s happening with larger issues that may affect them can actually have quite a big impact,” adds Farrow. “I think more people are becoming aware that a client’s experience is becoming a huge part of their marketing.

“For most professional services, business comes from word of mouth and repeat business. You’re going to have a higher return on effort if you’re focused on serving your clients well, because then they’ll be bringing in other clients like them.

“That’s the case for most small – to medium-sized firms. There are about 25,000 accounting practices in Australia and they’re all doing similar things, so it’s difficult to stand out as a brand. It’s not difficult to stand out in terms of serving your customers well.”

Farrow’s hot tip for listening to clients’ needs is to ask for ‘advice’ – never ‘feedback’.

“It helps to ask for ‘advice’ rather than ‘feedback’ because it positions it differently,” he says. “It makes it constructive and people are willing to give their two cents worth and say how they think things could be done better, and what they thought was done really well.

“The term ‘feedback’ can have a negative connotation, and often comes with filling out a form, which can be quite boring. Something as simple as that can actually make a big difference in terms of response rate.”

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