This article was first published in the July 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

It was the former US president George W Bush who reputedly said that the problem with the French was their lack of a word for entrepreneur. Now, we may all understand and use the word – which, of course, comes from the French – but I’m not convinced that accountants really understand what their entrepreneurial clients are looking for from them.

The dictionary definition of an entrepreneur is an owner or manager of a business enterprise who makes money through risk and/or initiative. That is not how most entrepreneurs would describe their accountants (particularly the ‘risk and/or initiative’ part).

What most entrepreneurs want from their trusted business adviser is assurance that they are acting within the law, expertise in terms of applied knowledge on complex issues, and guidance that adds value to their business. Yet many firms shy away from proactivity and take actions that distance their contact with these clients. Many also fail to recognise that much of their role is to meet clients’ needs and not just respond to their perceived ‘wants’.

I once had a great relationship with a very entrepreneurial client, who said he enjoyed my support because I:

  • regularly challenged some of his more extreme ideas, but did so politely and positively and came up with alternatives
  • kept in contact with him (and not just when there was a problem)
  • took an interest in him and his family beyond just the business
  • spent time with him looking to the future, even though we both knew that the assumptions we made were uncertain and that we were not dealing with either perfect or commoditised solutions.

A successful relationship with an entrepreneur depends on the adviser’s recognition that all clients are different. Practitioners need to spend time understanding their clients’ goals and ambitions, rather than just sending out mailshots on topics that may or may not be of interest.

While all entrepreneurs are unique, they often share certain characteristics and attitudes, and it is important for the adviser to recognise these. Entrepreneurs are normally passionate about their business and highly motivated to be successful. They are not afraid to take risks and normally have strong self-belief. Above all else, they work hard and have a very disciplined approach to what they do. They also want evidence of these characteristics in their accountants.

Entrepreneurs tend to be very flexible in their approach to problems and want a similar lack of rigidity in their advisers. They constantly look for new approaches and are unlikely to welcome being told why they cannot do things. They take on the role of agents of change with enthusiasm.

Accountants are well placed to be the most trusted advisers for entrepreneurs. Financial acumen is an essential element of business success, and entrepreneurs should be selecting accountants who can support them and adjust to their needs as they expand. But they need more than ‘just an accountant’: they need someone who specialises in creating services tailored to their needs and adds value to their business.

Accountants’ typical risk aversion can be a sharp contrast to entrepreneurs’ risk-taking instincts. This dichotomy must be recognised and addressed, although all parties should remain grounded in their actions. Advisers to entrepreneurs need to balance economic caution with entrepreneurial spirit and help their clients to strike a balance between optimism and unjustified overconfidence.

It’s a cliché but true: when buying advisory services, people buy people first, products and services second.

Derek Smith is senior consultant at Foulger Underwood Associates