[IMGCAP(1)]Here’s some things you’ll never hear anyone say, ever:

  • “I love my tax preparer; she always files timely.”
  • “I love my bookkeeper; he always cleans up my mistakes.”
  • “I love this auditor; they always make sure the financial statements are prepared according to GAAP.”

The fact is that clients don’t care about their tax return; they care about their refund. They don’t care about their books; they care about their business. They don’t care about GAAP; they care about fraud, and whether a company is a going concern or not. The work you think you’re selling them is not the work they’re buying. (Yes, I know the users of financial statements are not technically the client in an audit, but that’s a whole other column.)
Tax prep is a great example of this: It’s in the look of surprise and betrayal clients give you when you tell them they owe money on their return — as if you were supposed to wave a magic wand that would bend the tax laws and negate their own financial missteps to somehow produce a refund. That’s what they think they’re buying — not a timely filed and accurate return that keeps them out of trouble with the IRS and gets them every deduction and credit to which they’re legally entitled (if they’re entitled to any, that is).

On a more positive note, with bookkeeping, you may be selling the hours spent cleaning up and closing the books each month, but what they’re buying is the advice you give along the way — the conclusions you draw from the numbers you’ve scrubbed, and the suggestions you make based on your knowledge of a hundred other small businesses.

This disconnect between CPAs’ perception of what they’re selling and their clients’ perception of the value they get has been in place for decades; the reason it matters more now than in the past is twofold: First, because competition is fiercer than ever, and second because technology is changing clients’ perceptions in important ways. Software doesn’t replace human talent — any accountant who has ever cleaned up a client’s QuickBooks file or reviewed a botched TurboTax return knows this — but clients believe that it has. “Doesn’t the computer do all that?” they wonder.

And so they discount all the compliance work you do for them — the work that makes up so much of your billable hours — and wonder if they’d be better off going with someone a little less expensive, or, worse yet, just trusting it all to the software. This leaves you in the position of justifying work that your clients don’t value, or seeing your practice drift away into the world of DIY and cut-rate service providers.

The solution — or at least the solution that seems to best fit CPAs’ high level of expertise and technical skill — is to more clearly align the value you’re offering with the value they’re expecting. Instead of being the bookkeeper who presents them with a clean set of financials they don’t really know how to read anyway, become the CFO who takes care of the books for them, and then shows them how to grow their business. Instead of focusing on the tax return, emphasize the tax advice you give them so they’ll avoid owing money next year — or better yet, use tax prep as an opportunity to become their financial planner.

You may find that you’re doing a great deal of this value-added work already — you just haven’t been focusing on it. Now is the time to start, and not just by drawing your clients’ attention to it, but also by codifying and packaging the extra services you’re already offering. From there, you can start coming up with new services — forward-looking, proactive services with value propositions that clients can easily understand. And then when they say they love their accountant, it’ll be for all the right reasons.

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