The accountants in this office don't show any respect for me. When I ask them a question, especially during tax season, they say they don't have time to answer it. Then they complain that I don't follow their instructions, and I have to do the work all over again.
- A secretary.
I never have a minute to think. Anytime I'm not actually meeting with a client, my staff keeps interrupting me with one question or another instead of thinking things through themselves. If I ask them to leave me alone, they act like I'm goofing off while they do all the work.
- An Accountant
These quotes are fictitious, but I've heard many similar ones from my clients and their staff. You've probably heard them as well. You can hear them in the majority of accounting offices in the country, particularly during busy times such as tax season. You could summarize the complaints on both sides with the statement: "Nobody treats me with respect."
Who is right? Usually both sides. But, until the issues are addressed, the ongoing undercurrents of dissent can undermine profits as well as morale. Clients hear it in the tone of voice with which their phone calls are answered, as well as in the body language and non-verbal communication of all staff with whom they come contact.
Misunderstandings usually occur because of erroneous assumptions without factual knowledge. For example, one of my first jobs many years ago was as a secretary. I would see people in management standing around the water cooler, talking and "wasting time". In my mind, if I couldn't see them working, they were not producing, just as I was not producing if I wasn't typing. I wasn't sophisticated enough to realize that they may have been discussing a business issue, thinking, or taking the time to regroup after having solved a weighty business problem.
It's easy for these misunderstandings to occur, particularly in professional practices such as accounting and tax firms. Relatively few of these organizations are large enough to have full time managers, and only few use consultants regularly to fill a much needed gap in managing and communicating with their people. The accountants themselves must tend to their staff in addition to handling their professional practices and related tasks.
Because of this, working with the staff is always an "interruption" for the professional. One result is that accountants fail to show appreciation to their staff or to take the time to explain the overall picture and detail the procedures they need followed. Even if they do, it is with nowhere near the frequency of a middle-manager in a large corporation. Also, in larger companies, many employees never have direct contact with a customer. If they do make a mistake, it usually can be corrected before it is visible to the customer.
In contrast, the client sees almost every action taken by the staff of a small accounting or tax firm. So if an employee does not do something correctly, there usually is no way to correct the mistake before the client sees or experiences it. This is particularly true with the interactions between client and front-office staff. The result is that mistakes have a much greater impact, and the accountant reacts much more strongly when they do occur.
So how does a tax or accounting firm resolve these issues?
The single most important strategy is to take time for your staff - even if you think you don't have another five minutes in the day.
You need to schedule a 10 to 15 minute break at least once every morning and twice every afternoon when you are available to answer questions or just to chat. Your staff will accept the fact that you don't have time to answer questions immediately, if they know you will be available within a few hours.
It's frustrating for you at first, but it's a little like teaching a child to tie his own shoelaces. It takes much longer the first time to teach the child than to do it yourself, but you will save a great deal of time once the child learns how.
Plan an outing for the staff at least once a month.
It may be attending a seminar together or going to lunch. Today's employees have less loyalty to their employers than ever before and need more stroking. You can counterbalance this trend by building this time with your staff.
Deal with complaints from employees right away, and take them seriously.
Ignoring complaints will not make them disappear. You may not be able to resolve all the complaints, but it is important to listen and to let employees know you appreciate their willingness to cope with problems. For example, an accountant may respond to a complaint about a difficult client by saying, "Yes, we know Mr. Jones is very lonely. It is an act of kindness to listen to his silly jokes, and I really appreciate your doing so."
Encourage your employees to tell you when they feel uncomfortable, even if they cannot pinpoint the reason. For example, I worked with a firm where women working in a particular area were taking frequent and unnecessary breaks. When I talked with the women, they said they simply felt the need to move about but didn't understand why themselves. Investigating, I discovered that they were working in a small enclosed space without any windows and with a lot of clutter, including some packing cases that were being stored there for no particular reason.
The result was that the room made people feel claustrophobic, and the women subconsciously needed to get into an open area. The atmosphere became much more comfortable and the frequent breaks stopped when we removed the packing cases, cleaned up the area and covered a blank wall with a mountain scene of a waterfall and lake.
Be careful not to over-react because of your own difficulty with emotions or confrontation. Be equally aware that there are at least two sides to every story.
Accountants sometimes try too hard to solve the conflicts between their employees by reacting to the first person who walks in with a story. Be careful to be a concerned listener, not necessarily a judge and jury. Many times your employee is letting off steam and with your support will calm down. If you over-react, you can make the situation much worse.
Realize that frequent annoyances, even though each incident is trivial, can add up.
In one firm, buying two more inexpensive printers cleared up a major conflict and reduced unnecessary backlog. The secretary and the accounting staff had all been using the same printer for mail - as well as for rough drafts of things. Invariably, something would get printed on the wrong paper (rough draft on letterhead, or letter on draft paper) because the printer prioritized the work it received. By buying two other printers, dedicated to rough drafts, the letterhead quality work handled exclusively by the secretary, was not interrupted. Also, the accountants had printers nearer their work areas, enabling them to access their drafts much more readily. Major crisis averted.
Always explain the reasons for a task.
Tasks that appear to be unnecessary are resented. By explaining the reasons for the task, the person handling it sees it's importance, as well as their own importance in completing it accurately. On the other hand, talking about tasks sometimes proves that they are being done unnecessarily because "we've always done it this way." Recently, we eliminated hours and hours of duplicated work each week because a bookkeeper was not only posting all her work to computer but was also posting it manually in three other places. She was following more than one antiquated system because no one had really trained her or supervised her work.
Maintain a careful balance between friendliness and aloofness.
It is important to be interested in your employees and to show them you care and appreciate them. On the other hand, don't be "one of the girls (or boys)". Above all don't gossip and don't complain. Don't share your concerns about other employees. Find someone other than your subordinates, such as your consultant, to whom to confide about your personal problems or staff issues.
Give graphic and sometimes exaggerated examples of the importance of routine tasks.
For example, tell your staff a client may be held liable for fraud, or an accountant could be sued for financial liability if a mistake in a document leads the Internal Revenue Service to a wrong conclusion.
Watch your temper.
If you flare up, you lose points with your staff. Emotions, unfortunately, are seen as signs of weakness.
Hire more carefully than ever before.
Too many people make the mistake of measuring skills, such as knowledge of a specific software program, rather than looking at attitude, character and personality. When you hire a front-office receptionist/secretary, it is mandatory that person treats clients courteously and politely. It's also important that telephone messages, with phone numbers and details, get taken down accurately.
You can observe in an interview the level of detail that a job applicant notices. How much has an applicant found out about your firm before arriving? Listen to the questions the applicant asks to find out if there is awareness and curiosity about your office procedures. Does the applicant have suggestions, such as a way to improve how visitors are greeted? Noting the quality of the applicant's questions will give you a sense of how consistently attentive to detail he or she will be on a regular basis. Noting the applicant's style of interacting with others on your staff will give you some clue as to the way other people will be treated.
Remember too, that no employee is perfect. Determine which qualities are most important to getting the job done. For example, if you are hiring a tax staff assistant that needs to be accurate, but rarely meets clients, can you live with someone with a fairly bland and curt personality who is extremely careful and accurate? On the other hand, what is the most important quality for your receptionist?
Don't take mistakes personally.
When a secretary tells a telephone caller at 11 a.m. that the accountant "hasn't come to work yet", as opposed to saying the person is in conference or unavailable, it's easy to wonder whether the secretary is deliberately undermining the professional atmosphere of the office.
Because of the widespread perception that women don't like to work for other women, women professionals can be especially quick to suspect insubordination, rather than lack of consistently reinforced training, when such situations occur. It's important to realize that such problems are universal. They still take time to solve, but one of the keys to increasing teamwork in your office is to refuse to take mistakes personally.
Always be a role model in treating clients and staff with respect.
The old adage that actions speak louder than words is still true. If you don't show respect for your staff and clients, it's unlikely that your support staff will do so.
Be certain that you understand the business side of your operation.
If the professionals don't understand the nuts and bolts of the business, there is no way to help if someone has a problem, no way to train and to create proper policy and procedures. In a small office, the owner should understand all the systems well enough to do it himself or herself in a pinch - even if he or she doesn't do it quite as well or efficiently. A knowledgeable consultant can be helpful to the professionals and owners teaching them the basics of what they need to know, or doing it for them. In a larger office, the appropriate professionals must understand and appreciate the importance of the bookkeeping and other record keeping staff in order to both inspire employee confidence and to ensure efficiency. It also helps to safeguard against embezzlement.
Let employees know they are important and appreciated.
If employees feel that the professionals don't care about them, they will also feel that their jobs don't really matter.
In short, treat people well. Set parameters and standards and reward the behaviors you want.