Art of Accounting: Ask Stupid Questions Early

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IMGCAP(1)]One time I was working for about a month at a client that was a stock broker. Throughout the office were signs that said P&S with arrows.

When I got started on the account, I did not pay much attention to the signs. Instead I concentrated on learning what to do and then doing it. After a couple of weeks I looked at one of the signs and had no idea what it meant, never coming across anything referring to it.

After about a month, my boss met me at the client and wanted to discuss my work and go through the work papers. I had kept him informed of my daily and then weekly progress and he felt I was on track, but now he wanted to do a thorough review.

While he was with me, I asked if I could ask him a question and he said OK. I asked, “What does P&S mean?” He replied, “Purchases and Sales.” At that point I felt really stupid and told him so. He told me, “You shouldn’t feel so bad. It could have been much worse. I just asked the client that question!”

This taught me that early on you can ask as many questions about the business and operations as you want, and it won’t reflect poorly on you. It might even enhance your reputation for thoroughness. However, when you ask a question about something you should know, after you have been working on their records for a period of time, you look foolish, amateurish and/or stupid.

The takeaway is to ask about everything you can possibly think about when you first get the client and ask right away whenever something new arises.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is a partner in WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He has authored 20 books and has written hundreds of articles for business and professional journals and newsletters plus a Tax Loophole article for every issue of TaxHotline for 27 years. Ed also writes a blog twice a week that addresses issues his clients have at He is the winner of the Lawler Award for the best article published during 2001 in the Journal of Accountancy. He has also taught in the MBA graduate program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and is admitted to practice before the U.S. Tax Court. Ed welcomes practice management questions and he can be reached at WithumSmith+Brown, One Spring Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901, (732) 964-9329,

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