How to Build Trust, Show Tough Love, and Embrace Change with Clients and Your Team

Gusto Editors

Do you want to know how to build trust with your clients and implement change that takes them from surviving to thriving? Like any good coach, you can be the person to hold them accountable as they take actions to evolve their firm.

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for being an advisor, but you can learn from the pros. That’s why we brought you another episode of On the Margins: LIVE with hosts Caleb Newquist, Gusto’s Editor-at-Large, and Will Lopez, head of Gusto’s accountant community. They brought on expert consultant Stephanie Holt to discuss how to get clients on board with the technology transition sweeping the industry. 

Stephanie Holt is the head of Cloud Accounting, a boutique firm that helps lead, coach, and support small businesses in the transition to outsourced, cloud accounting solutions. Stephanie guides clients through the entire process of implementing software, identifies areas that can be streamlined and simplified, and helps businesses merge their accounting procedures with their business objectives. In providing these services, she helps businesses save money, time, and energy so they can focus on growing their businesses.

Why it’s hard for clients to trust the process

Two male business executives having a discussion in front of a bright window at office.

The world is changing rapidly, with automation taking root in every industry and advisory fast becoming the logical next step for CPAs. Opting to adopt tech and new ways of doing things would seem like the wisest choice for any business right now, but leaders are still hesitating. What gives?

In some ways it’s simple: People don’t like change. Change is uncomfortable. Even change for the better is rarely welcomed. So even when companies do decide that they’re going to take steps toward evolving their businesses, they need to be nudged forward at almost every step of the way.

“There’s always procrastination involved to some degree because even if it’s a great idea and you’re going to implement it, [it’s] like 30 days from now. It’s never tomorrow. It’s never an hour from now. And you may say, ‘Well, I’m just planning it out smartly,’ but let’s just face it. It’s just buying us some time to kind of absorb it and get comfortable with the idea.’”

– Stephanie Holt

There’s another practical reason why: Stephanie points out that the typical leader who can implement changes within an organization is usually not in the mental space to take on a big challenge. The typical leader is at the apex of their career. They likely spent decades working long hours, adhering to a work model that doesn’t value well-being and that outright needs to be revolutionized. 

“When you get to the point of being a decision-maker, a lot of times you’re kind of exhausted. You’ve gone through your career and you carried the torch and you might not be ready to deal with all of the pushback that comes with change management. It’s ‘Oh man, I thought in this season of my career, I would be coasting versus rallying with my torch.’ … You’ve got decision-makers who are excited to be coasting, even if it means that [is a] mild detriment to either their firm, their clients, or their employees for that matter.”

– Stephanie Holt

At Gusto, we believe in creating a world where work empowers a better life. But not every company follows that ethos. It’s not hard to imagine why a skilled professional in upper-level management who has worked for years in their field might hesitate at having to revolutionize their teams. As an advisor, it’s up to you to show them why doing so matters, how the process can be streamlined, and how they’ll enjoy the changes once they’re on the other side of them.

To show them that they can move forward despite hesitation, draw on your own experience. As Stephanie pointed out, accountant advisors themselves are generally risk-averse, which may make them hesitate to evolve their own firm, let alone their clients’. CPAs have a tendency to be risk-averse, methodical, and cautious. Pointing out errors and inconsistencies, looking for clear patterns in data, and taking measured steps towards low-risk, safe solutions is a big part of the job.

You can use this aversion to your advantage. When connecting to clients and helping them overcome their hesitations, you can think about what helped you overcome trepidation. Empathy and the ability to relate are a big part of building trust. 

How to build trust and help clients embrace change

Building trust starts with confidence. As an advisor, you need to show that you’re confident in what you’re proposing, how you plan to implement it, and what the results will be. The best way to achieve this confidence is to go through the process of evolving your firm first. By tackling your own systems, you can speak from experience about everything from conception to implementation to results.

You’ll also need confidence in how you communicate with your clients. While you don’t want to be pushy, there’s no room for hesitation. You need to grab opportunities, as most people require some convincing. For example, if a client shows lukewarm interest in your proposal but then backs away or doesn’t follow up, follow through on that lead. You need to be strong enough in your convictions and your approach to help steer them in the direction of change. Stephanie shared her experience:

“If they’ve made it to the point where they’re making an appointment on my calendar, then there’s a shred [of hope] there. There’s something. My website [states that] we’re all cloud-based. Any referral that’s going to have come from one of our clients is going to have come with the idea that we put them on these systems that are making things better. So, if you’ve made it through the doors of my office or made it onto a Zoom call with me, there’s a thread [of a chance] and I’m just going to hold onto it until like my hands are lifeless.”

– Stephanie Holt

Remember, your job is to be your client’s partner. You need not only to hold them accountable to change, but you also need to help launch, implement, and refine their migration to technology. Let them know that you’re going to be available to answer questions, follow up on progress, and advise them when they hit roadblocks. 

Expect resistance. Your clients will worry about disruptions in workflows, change management, and security issues, among many other things. 

“It is like I am the buddy of the skydiver. [I have to say] ‘You have to come. I’m going to protect you. I’m the one that pulls the shoot.’ I try to give them as much coddling and validation [as I can] that I’m going to be that guy [who] pulls the shoot and helps them. But we’re jumping out of the plane like this. You can scream the whole way down, you can freak out at the bottom. It’s totally cool, but we’re doing this thing or we’re jumping out of this perfectly good plane, and you’re going to love it when we get there.”

– Stephanie Holt
Two male employees discussing business project at meeting.

Since your clients are dealing with the unknown, you’ll want to show concrete examples of how they’ll benefit from changing how they operate. Here are a few benefits you might share with clients:

  • Easier access to data in real-time, from any connected device
  • Faster, more streamlined processes with automation 
  • Automatic and secure data storage
  • More time for employees to focus on growth and innovation
  • Infinite scalability with the cloud
  • Better ability to hire innovative, creative thinkers who want to do more than routine work

When things get tough or clients hesitate, keep circling back to the benefits of automation and cloud accounting. Just like you might keep a picture of a ripped bodybuilder to keep you motivated at the gym, your clients need to keep a clear picture of what they’ll gain from the transition process.

“We have to really dig deep into understanding how one system or another system is going to make [things] better and really give good examples. [I might tell them] ‘Hey, now your employees are going to be able to do this [or] do that,  and it’s going to empower you to do that.’ I go down a pretty exhaustive list, but I’m not afraid to do it. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to the end where I’ve said, ‘All right, there are no other benefits that I could tell you to get you here.’”

– Stephanie Holt

Once your clients have taken the leap, it becomes a matter of keeping them moving forward. It’s a journey with many unfolding layers. Like hikers climbing to the top of a breathtaking mountain, the transition is challenging but worth it. Stephanie compared it to switchbacks on a trail. 

“We take it kind of like a switchback. So it’s a rally for the moment, get to a plateau, kind of enjoy the process that you put into place, [and] really see how it mixes in with your workflow, and then look for the next climb.”

– Stephanie Holt

On a journey like this, it’s equal parts motivation, planning, organization, and implementation. Behind all of these, you’ll also need to picture your end goal. Mindset is everything.

Learn more about tough love with clients

Most clients will need a little tough love to get them going with a technology migration. It’s only natural that they’ll hesitate because most people don’t like change. Getting an entire team on board with change management can feel daunting, especially if your client is at an apex in their career. They probably weren’t expecting to do so much heavy lifting late in their career. 

Keep reminding them of how their entire team and business will benefit from the migration to new technology to keep them motivated. On the journey to evolving their firm, be highly communicative, reliable, and available for them to ask questions. This builds trust, as does the confidence you’ll have if you’ve first done the migration yourself.

Gusto is here to help you be the best advisor you can be. Don’t forget to check out our other article based on the same episode: “How to Show ‘Tough Love’ with Your Clients as a People Advisor.”

Becoming a Gusto Partner can make your life easier. Get payroll and HR support for your team and our new advisory revenue stream for your practice through our people advisory platform. As a Gusto partner, you’ll also get tools to help you expand your accounting practice and offer your clients new insights, plus a free payroll subscription for your own accounting firm. Sign up today!

Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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