[IMGCAP(1)]If you are following the large accounting industry news outlets, it’s no surprise that the role of an accountant has been, is currently and will continue to shift from compliance work to consulting engagements.

The resistance to this change has been threefold: First, there is not enough time in the day to make drastic shifts in operations, especially for the vast majority of smaller accounting firms. Secondly, accountants are attached to their old systems, spreadsheets and service offerings. Thirdly, accountants aren’t as comfortable with selling or business development as they are with performing the more technical aspects of their job.

The first two types of resistance will begin to fade as older partners retire and technology simplifies the transition from compliance mode to consulting mode. Finding a solution to the third type of resistance will be a process for which accountants have to dedicate themselves.  They must commit to proactively identifying and helping clients solve problems.

Firms that are beginning to sell advisory services or that are refreshing their consulting strategy can be more effective by answering a few helpful questions:

What do clients want?

In short, good clients want one of two things—to have the best business in their industry or to improve their business so they can sell it. With that as a given, you play an integral role in helping them determine how to do each of these things. The more you help the client reach these goals, the more they will be willing to pay the firm. Clients want the insights that an accountant’s business-minded analytics can provide.

What services do I sell?

The biggest thing that SMBs lack is an understanding of themselves. Business owners are often so wrapped up in their day-to-day operations that they lack the time to invest in gaining a healthy understanding of themselves. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a business owner doesn’t care about or understand their financial statements, but it does mean that they are probably unclear about how they stack up against peers in their industry. Selling insights into their performance and their industry with benchmarking and industry data can provide them with an understanding that they just don’t have time for. Your firm can then use these insights to identify problems, such as insufficient cash flow or excessive days in inventory, that can be preventing your client’s business from thriving.

How do I prepare?

Do your homework by reviewing key financial metrics and industry-specific metrics, and by benchmarking the client against peers. Having something tangible to show your client will help them to notice the value you can offer—especially when a need they were unaware of is uncovered by your firm.

What should I ask?

Besides identifying problems that hinder your client’s business growth, another key for directing your consulting engagements is listening. To listen well it is important to ask the right questions: those that draw out your client’s ideal world scenario for his business and how his business affects his personal life.

For example, you should ask about their long-term plans for their business. Depending on whether they wish to sell the business, pass it on to a family member or continue to develop it, you would advise them toward different actions.

What should I say?

If listening is primary, letting your client know that you understand him or her is secondary. Therefore, what you say should show patience and connection. Telling stories that highlight previous successes with other clients in similar positions can show that you understand the problem and how to figure out solutions.  

What do I do if I don’t have the answer?

Becoming your clients’ most trusted advisor means one of two things: either you become an expert on all their needs or you connect with experts who will help you solve your client’s problems. Having a realistic understanding of your limited time leaves only one solution: build a network of advisors.

Consider gathering a team of experts around you who can act as additional resources for your clients. Identify the advisors who complement, rather than duplicate, your services so that if you refer a client outside your firm for one need, you won’t risk losing all of the client’s business to the outsider. In the meantime, focus on the expertise you already possess that can help your clients improve their businesses.

Zach Meyer is a marketing manager at Sageworks, where he is in charge of researching, monitoring and writing about issues and trends of interest to accountants.

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