The Importance of Soft Skills for CPAs

by Carrie Steffen | Dec 21, 2021

pa-cpa-journal-the-importance-of-soft-skills-for-cpasI can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “We’re a relationship business.” Certainly more times than I can count during the 20-plus years I’ve worked with CPA firms. It’s seemingly the one constant in an ever-changing profession.

Recently, though, I wonder if we’ve actually devalued relationship building. We access technology tools as a means of communicating and finding the information and answers we need; we rely on online tools to connect with clients, prospects, and referral sources. We’ve replaced real, in-person interaction, but is it an adequate substitution?

I think many in public accounting convince themselves that high-quality work will speak for itself and that relationships are ancillary. They discount the value of soft skills, including communication and relationship building. They believe that their excellent technical skill and production will lead to all the opportunities they will ever want – both within the firm as well as with clients.

To some extent, with young professionals early in their careers, this may be true. A one- to three-year professional on the staff of an accounting firm has the primary responsibility to contribute by becoming technically proficient and meeting deadlines. Beyond that, though, the hard truth about soft skills and relationship building is this: technical expertise will only take you so far. Those interested in taking their careers to the next level will soon realize that, in addition to strong technical skills, the ability to develop real and trusted relationships unlocks greater opportunities.

Most of us experience the greatest satisfaction with our chosen careers when we practice with a sense of purpose – meaning we understand and can articulate how what we’re doing is making a positive difference. How can we discern this without having built a relationship with the client and understanding the issues that are most important to them? They won’t share their greatest struggles and challenges if they don’t trust us, and they won’t trust us if there isn’t a strong relationship.

Firm leaders look for professionals who can influence, motivate, strategize, and organize. Building relationships offers the perfect context in which to develop these critical skills.

Here are a few practical ideas to get started in developing these soft skills:

  • If you tend toward being an introvert, it may not be natural for you to extend regular invitations to meet for lunch or coffee. You may need to create a system to help you. Maintain a set of activities for getting to know people, and put those activities in your calendar. Stick to the plan.
  • Be strategic about the relationships you build. Think through the purpose of connecting with someone. Can they help you? Probably more importantly, how can you help them?
  • Don’t shy away from a conversation because someone is rude. Other people can be just as nervous as you are. Forge ahead. Every time you try makes the next time easier. If the person you’re trying to engage doesn’t respond after a few attempts, you can either ask them outright why you’re having a hard time connecting or move on to the next person.
  • Recognize that it’s your responsibility to reach out and build these relationships. Don’t expect others to come to you. When you reach out, you’ll find that most of the time the people you contact are accommodating. Once you reach a more senior-level position, remember to be receptive to younger professionals who are reaching out to you. Be a good steward of your position.
  • Make the effort to build relationships with people over personal as well as business topics. You may be able to get by keeping people at arm’s length for a little while, but true relationships must go deeper to create trust.

Building relationships is critical. Early-career professionals can start building relationships inside the firm first. Find those you work with who have a different skill set or expertise, but who would be good people to know better. These internal relationships can become the nucleus of your professional network, offer you an opportunity to collaborate on client work, and help increase your visibility in the firm.

Practice the skills necessary to develop and maintain mutually beneficial relationships – both internally and externally. Shoring up these soft skills will unlock unlimited possibilities.


Carrie Steffen is cofounder and president at The Whetstone Group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which has facilitated hundreds of partner retreats and visioning sessions for CPA firms. She can be reached at carrie@thewhetstonegroup.com.

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