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Putting the 'Advisor' in Trusted Advisor

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It seems these days that nine out of 10 CPAs make the claim that they are a “trusted advisor,” but by now this descriptor carries about as much differentiating clout as “new and improved.” And if you’re counting on this distinction to set your firm apart in a highly competitive marketplace, your positioning may not be as effective as it could be.

I’d suggest the key is to demonstrate that you’re unique among your peers.

Looking back to about forty years ago, ethics laws prohibited accounting firms from advertising to clients. That changed in 1977, when the bans were loosened. Public displays of promotion by CPAs soon swelled by millions of dollars.

Then, in 2001, David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford published a book that has become a landmark catch phrase in our industry: The Trusted Advisor. It’s not that being trusted, and being an advisor are bad. After all, what client wouldn’t want any less than an ethical, reliable professional counseling its company on critical business matters?

But these days, the advisory role must extend far beyond just counseling your clients a couple of times a year during an audit or tax review. CPAs are no longer measured simply by how well they know the rules, or if they get the filings in on time.

I doubt that most clients would come up with those particular attributes if asked to define the qualities of a superior accounting firm. Instead, they’re more likely to value what you contribute when your firm proactively supplies highly useful and actionable information on a proactive basis, such as the business intelligence that can help advance their profitability or insights they might never have seen if you weren’t there to offer them. 

Providing these kinds of revelations, and getting in front of your clients on a more regular basis, may be simpler than you think. Technologies are now available that enable CPAs to quickly collect and aggregate a wealth of disconnected financial and non-financial data about their clients.

Assisted by the right tools, firms are able to analyze that data in a matter of minutes, so they can easily provide informative conclusions and helpful guidance that will put an exclamation mark on the value they bring and the benefits to clients can be substantial. Many management teams struggle with interpreting financial data. Being able to review charts and graphs that you’ve prepared (i.e., charts showing five-year or quarterly trends of their performance) will help the clients visualize improvements that need to be made and open their eyes to new opportunities. And as for new business, consider the impact of being able to actually demonstrate these analytical capabilities in a competitive pitch.

Some firms never go into a meeting with a prospective client without first asking for a set of past financial statements. They use this information to prepare actual analyses of the prospect’s financial data, and steer an open discussion with questions and comments such as, “What do you attribute this movement to? Here’s what we’ve seen with similar companies in your position,” and so on. These CPAs are in the catbird’s seat because they show true initiative in learning about the prospect’s business in a way that other CPAs might be unable or unwilling to do.

Is this a characteristic that true trusted advisor’s possess? That’s something you must decide, your clients and prospects certainly will.

Rob Ganjon is CEO of iLumen, a business intelligence provider whose offerings are designed to help accounting firms and businesses automate the collection, standardization and analysis of client financial data.

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