Give accountants a list of adjectives by which they want to be remembered and “professional” would be pretty much the top pick.

And at first sight it’s pretty easy to understand why

(Most) Accountants place a lot of store on their degree qualification; their CPD and their membership of a professional Institute. They refer to the business of accountancy as a profession. And there’s certainly lots of eye-rolling and tut-tutting when a rival, unqualified accountant comes across their path.

But what else does professionalism mean? The dictionary partially helps by explaining that it’s the “combination of all the qualities that are connected with trained and skilled people”.

We all have a perception of professionalism and what it means.

When we look instead from the angle of the client the accountant serves, we may encounter a quite different perspective…

How so?

Consider this – when we hear clients waxing lyrical about their accountant, what sort of things do we hear?

Do we hear comments about their personal characteristics or do we hear comments about how technically soundly their annual accounts have been prepared? Do we hear praise about how their accountant helped, or do we hear praise at how well the audit was carried out?

Now of course Accounts and Audit are important work, and the degree of professionalism with which they’re prepared does differ.

But is it truly material to the client?

Rather like an architect designing a house, we pretty much expect it not to fall down because of the architect’s technical expertise. But what else can the architect do to improve the quality of the building, especially taking into account the bespoke wishes of clients.

Just so with an accountant – as clients we expect the accounts and audit to be carried out correctly. But what else can the accountant deliver.

Arguably now more than ever before, the client needs Personal-ism ahead of Professionalism from their accountant.

A real-life scenario might help illustrate the point better…

When lockdown hit and businesses had to close with all the attendant implications on stock, team, cashflow, customers etc, which response would you have preferred?

Professional – where the firm sends a generic letter/email to all clients telling clients that yes, we’re still open, but we’re sorting out technology so we can work from home etc so it may take longer than usual to get back to you.  Or…

Personal – where a team member from the firm calls within 2 days offering different time slots to book in a call with the partner you normally deal with later that week. During that call, the partner is focusing on supporting you and your business

Let’s look at another scenario – where the team are now set up and working from home:

The Professional firm might demand a “normal” 9am Zoom check-in call – after all, we still need to service clients, right?

Or would you rather work in a firm showing a real Personal touch by quickly realising that the demands of juggling noisy pets, bored kids and dishevelled living rooms means that we allow team members to check in at a time which better suits them?

Accountants, like most business leaders, need to remember that during this time we’ve seen people in a very raw way that we may never have seen them before.

We’ve probably seen our team in their pyjamas! We’ve seen clients in tears, and we’ve seen ourselves the challenges of making everything work in a new way.

All this demands an additional level of Personal-ism over Professionalism. And arguably it’s something we should all hang on to once this is over.

Accountants should move away from the professional boundaries of the past and embrace more personal relationships with their fellow directors, their people and their clients if they are truly to make a difference.

Qualifications get us to the start line – they infer a level of professionalism and competence but it’s Personal-ism which humanises the numbers.