3 myths about providing advisory services to accounting clients

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With the latest tax deadline behind them and the individual tax season ahead, accountants this time of year often realize that they are on a treadmill of never-ending deadlines with only brief periods of relief.

They may be enjoying the break they have now, but they know that the treadmill will be “on” very soon, because they have spent years working hard for clients and putting in long hours during compressed work schedules.

It doesn’t have to remain this way, according to Rick Solomon, CPA, a coach and consultant in the accounting profession. Solomon, CEO of the Center for Enlightened Business, says accountants deserve more than the status quo.

“Humans are very adaptable, so accountants have adapted to their life as it is and most of them are not living a bad life,” Solomon says. “They may be making a decent living. They’re working really hard and they’ve come to accept that this is the way it is, and they say, ‘I don’t have a bad life, especially compared to some other people.’ ”

However, “Something much, much better is possible,” says Solomon, in the webinar, “How to make more money with better clients and fewer hours.” Solomon advocates the idea that accountants should leverage their experience and knowledge to provide advisory services that can boost their income while allowing them to work fewer hours in the process.

However, he says that it can be difficult for accountants to shift their mindset as it relates to providing services beyond compliance work.

Accountants understand the importance of following rules and processes—it’s what many of them spent years studying and have spent years practicing. “We as accountants, and I am a former practicing accountant, fall into this thinking pattern that we are providing compliance services that in a way, any accountant can provide, so we undervalue our own services. We don’t know how to differentiate our services, so we’re kind of perpetuating this perception that we’re basically technicians who churn out work.”

In addition, one of the biggest roadblocks for accountants to begin a more fulfilling career as a trusted advisor is that several myths about advisory work have permeated their thinking for too long, according to Solomon. “You have to let go of your beliefs about what it means to be an advisor,” he says.

Here are three myths that accountants commonly hold about providing advisory services:

1. You have to be an expert. Solomon says many accountants are worried that if they don’t already have expert-level knowledge of a topic, they should not provide advice at all.

2. You have to have all of the answers immediately. Some accountants shy away from offering advice to business clients because they don’t want to be caught flat-footed by being asked something for which they don’t immediately have all of the answers.

3. You have to be able to fix the client’s business. Accountants lacking confidence in their ability to solve all of a client’s problems may be reluctant to dig into problems—even those that they clearly have experience addressing.

The true role of the advisor, Solomon says, isn’t to have all of the answers but to be able to guide the business client through the process of obtaining information and generating ideas that will form the basis of real solutions to their problems. And accountants absolutely have the experience and knowledge to help clients with many issues, he says. “If you asked an accountant what a business should do if their cost of goods sold was 5 percent higher than the rest of the industry, there’s not an accountant around who wouldn’t know how to begin to address that,” he says.

The accountant serving as an advisor actually has the following responsibilities:

• To help the client understand where they should focus their attention;

• To be able to ask questions that get the client thinking about what they are currently doing and what they might be able to do instead;

• To challenge assumptions about running a business so the owner can consider new approaches to improving operations or financial performance;

• To be a “thinking partner”—someone who learns what clients want to accomplish in the business and who can help them figure out ways to be successful.

“It’s a conversation,” Solomon says. “It’s not having all of the answers.”

Solomon says accountants can benefit from having a structure to the conversations they have with clients and a process they can follow to pursue advisory services.

“It’s not just about earning more in fewer hours, although that’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “What’s even better is you can serve clients in a better way. You’re making a difference in their lives—not because you’ve figured out a clever way to bill more, but because you’re living to your full potential as an accountant and an advisor. As a professional and a human, it is more fulfilling to play that role and be that person. You have more personal fulfillment and you’re no longer putting up with crappy clients who complain about prices and are late with their papers and cause all of the stress but generate a minor piece of your income.”

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Consulting Small business Mary Ellen Biery