It's no surprise that accountant Joshua Hanover frequently discusses tax law and offers strategic advice to clients. What is unusual is that while doing so he likes to quote a popular phrase from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Don't panic.
These words from the popular science-fiction series serve him well when dealing with the anxiety he often encounters during his work as a senior manager in Marks Paneth LLP's real estate group and tax practice.
Paul Herman, CPA, also handles anxious clients at his full-service accounting firm Herman & Company CPAs PC in White Plains, N.Y. "People are anxious because you're dealing with something that's very important to them, their money," he said. "When they're dealing with the IRS, or one of the states, they have a limited amount of control, and nobody wants to be out of control, especially when it comes to your money."
Most accountants are well trained to deal with technical issues. But there is minimal guidance for playing the role of unofficial psychiatrist. We spoke with several experts who offered advice for when you find yourself in that position:
- Face time is important. When working with someone new or someone who might be dealing with serious accounting issues, don't communicate solely in writing. "I usually schedule face-to-face meetings, when possible, to talk through issues that are causing frustrations or anxiety," said Geri Lail, CPA, a tax partner with Thomas, Judy & Tucker's Durham, N.C., office. "At a minimum, it is a phone call, but never an email."
- Be personal. When meeting, don't rush the discussion into business. "Start in a way that really calms people down. It may just be 'How are you?'" McBain advised. "Have time to connect on a personal level before you start on anything financially related."
- Listen. In many cases, the best thing is simply to listen. "A lot of people with anxiety just need to be heard," McBain explained. "If the person can give them space to talk and really explain what their worries are, where they're coming from, what the background is, that actually helps alleviate some of the anxiety."
- Show empathy. Herman said he tries not to interrupt his anxious clients or to cut them short. When he does speak, he's decidedly calm and measured. He also strives to be empathetic. "You need to let them know that you understand their situation," he said. "You don't want to make them feel that their concern is unreasonable." He also doesn't point out mistakes because that won't help the situation. "They may already know they contributed to the problem," he said.
- Build trust. Growing and strengthening the client-accountant relationship can reduce anxiety. If you say you're going to do something, do it. Set expectations and meet them. "Don't drop the ball, especially if it's a new client," said Hanover, who also suggests checking in every so often to help deepen the relationship.
- Accept it. Some people are just anxious and there's not much you can do, Hanover pointed out. "There are some people who need something to worry about, and you're never going to be able to get the anxiety off of them completely. To not see their anxiety can be taken as being dismissive," Hanover said. "Be concerned with them. There's nothing wrong with coddling somebody's anxieties. It's about knowing your clients and the kind of relationship they need."
This gives you a chance to spot or hear potential anxiety signals including being nervous, moving around a lot, exhibiting jitters and talking rapidly, said Heidi McBain, a licensed therapist and counselor based near Dallas. "There is something to be said about eye contact" that can be calming and reassuring, said McBain, who offers online counseling.
Small talk can also provide valuable insight. Initially, "we just talk, not even about taxes," said Hanover, who is based in Boca Raton, Fla. "What do they have planned for the future? What is their family history? We need to see the entire picture. Their anxiety might not even be based on something tax-related or financial."
While listening, she suggested, monitor for "trigger" words that may signal anxiety, such as "worried," "fear," or "scared," adding that it is acceptable to acknowledge that someone seems anxious.
Hanover suggests treating an anxious client as gently as he handled his children's fears of monsters in the closet: Treat them as though they are real, even though you know they are not. "I have to be careful in the way they are handled," he said. "In the kid's mind, those concerns are real." Treat clients the same way: They may not have extensive tax expertise, but any issues they bring up should be treated as legitimate, even if you know they are not.
Added Lail: "Anxiety is minimized as clients build their trust in you as their adviser. This is an evolving process, but if you've earned their trust over the years, clients know they can rely on you to make decisions that are in their best interest."
Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director of content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.