Ask tax clients these questions to uncover advisory service opportunities

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Accountants preparing for the upcoming season may be tackling the annual checklists related to hiring, training, technology updates and scheduling. However, if you are interested in developing advisory services that deepen relationships (and engagements) with clients throughout the year, you can also use this time of year to do some casual research to help you make this transition.

With all of the headlines about how artificial intelligence or “robots” will steal jobs from CPAs in the coming decades, it’s important to remember that accountants’ human traits of compassion, curiosity and collaboration are why your clients trust you and why they’ll continue to be willing to pay for your help when they need it. The key is to help them realize that accountants can help them with more than taxes alone.

Some accountants find that even in the course of providing fixed-fee services such as tax preparation, they can offer “free” coaching and mentoring to clients. In the process of simply talking with clients and learning more about their challenges, these accountants uncover needs for additional services that aren’t part of the original engagement. A simple, “I can help you with that issue” will lead to new engagements and clients who are happy to have their needs met by someone they already trust. For example, among the needed services that Ed Mendlowitz, partner at WithumSmith+Brown PC, recently described uncovering in the process of providing “free” consulting to clients are:

• Buy-sell agreements

• Succession planning

• Business valuations

• Estate planning

• Forensic evaluations of internal controls

• Pricing-method reviews and

• Preparing projections for a client’s possible new business.

As you set up phone calls or meetings with clients to discuss year-end or tax-preparation topics, try asking one or two of the following questions to uncover opportunities to provide advisory services in the coming year. Most appointments with skilled service professionals such as doctors, lawyers and accountants involve a few pleasantries at the beginning and often at the end. Consider asking one of the following questions to learn more about the client’s ongoing business issues so you will have ideas for what services they might need after tax season.

“Are you still enjoying running your business, or are you giving thought to retirement or exiting in the next few years?” (It’s easier to transition a business that is performing well than to do so when the owner is already experiencing burnout, so you might learn that your tax client also needs succession planning services.)

“Have you been able to add staff or spend on other growth initiatives this year as you’ve wanted to? If not, what is keeping you from doing so?” (Accountants can help business clients analyze profitability and cash flow trends to determine whether growth can be financed internally. Accountants can also be excellent resources for helping business clients secure loans from banks or other capital providers. They can help clients understand why they might or might not qualify for a specific loan amount, help them understand ways to improve financial metrics that influence credit decisions, or help them negotiate loan terms.)

“Do you have a good sense of how your business performed over the last year? How are you tracking performance—monthly, quarterly?” (Clients value insight and proactive advice. Begin planning now to use a system that translates clients’ financial statements into a snapshot of their business performance with noted areas for improvement, so that when they pick up their tax returns, you can send them away with this brief report along with an offer to help them learn more at another appointment.)

“Do you know how your business is performing compared with peers?” (If the client doesn’t, you’ve uncovered an opportunity to provide industry data to help them understand where they can improve and where they are doing well. If the client does know, they may share areas they’d like to improve, such as managing receivables or profitability. These are advisory service opportunities for later in 2018.)

“Is your business generating sufficient cash flow?” (Many business owners confuse cash flow with their checking account balances, and if they are constantly worried about being able to make payroll, they could benefit from a cash flow analysis. They may not understand how much cash flow can be affected by making small changes to receivables collection or inventory management. These are all opportunities to provide insight and value.)

Asking these questions doesn’t commit you or your firm to more work either before or during tax season. But perhaps you will hear multiple clients indicate a need for succession planning or business performance improvement advice, and you can begin planning to meet those needs in 2018 and beyond.

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Tax practice Consulting Small business Tax planning Mary Ellen Biery Ed Mendlowitz