An accountant’s three best tools

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It’s common these days to hear that the accounting profession is moving en masse to higher-value-added services, dropping its backward-facing, compliance-oriented drudge work in favor of forward-looking, technology-enabled advice that will unleash a new era of happy, profitable clients.

This is both enticing and daunting, as it leaves many feeling left behind, finding themselves with no clue how to begin delivering this new generation of services, stranded between exhortations given at 10,000 feet and the practicalities of acting on those exhortations on the ground.

Let’s make this easy: To start bringing higher value to your clients, you only need three tools:

  • The ability to ask questions.
  • The ability to listen carefully to the answers.
  • The ability to clearly communicate the advice you create as a result.

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t make this up on my own: I learned it from consultant and “Countess of Communication” Geni Whitehouse, when she joined us on the Accounting Today podcast, “On the Air,” recently. “Accountants have a hard time picking up the phone and talking to people,” she said. “And we’re afraid to ask questions, because we think we’re supposed to have all the answers. We think we’re supposed to be the Oracle at Delphi.”

She’s right that accountants are often reluctant in these areas, of course — but asking a question can’t be any more terrifying than answering all the ones on the CPA Exam. It’s just a matter of working up the nerve, and having some good questions lined up in advance. Whitehouse’s firm has a set of questions all ready to go to help get to know clients better, and uncover some of their most important goals and issues.

Asking questions is pointless if you don’t listen to the answers, obviously, because the point is to use the information and the insights it gives you into your client’s situation to create valuable advice. That part you don’t need help with — accountants are business experts, after all. From your education, your training, your work with all your other clients and your deep industry knowledge, you’ll be able to turn the raw information into actionable advice.

Then comes the last and, I think, hardest part, and the one where Whitehouse hit the nail on the head when she said that accountants and CPAs see themselves as the Oracle at Delphi, because while the Oracle was famously wise and able to predict the future, it also spoke in impenetrable riddles.

Train yourself to deliver your advice in ways your clients can understand; speak in the language of their business, whatever it may be, rather than in the language of accounting. Give them the specific, useful advice you’d want to be given — while remembering that they most likely don’t have degrees in accounting, and never passed the CPA Exam.

Later on, you’ll start bringing technology into the equation, using data analytics and other tools to unearth useful and usable new insights and deliver unexpected new services, but for now, being a more valuable advisor starts with three simple tools: Asking a question, listening to the answer, and speaking plainly in response.

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