Become the expert in your client

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When I attend CPA conferences or read the trade publications, there’s plenty of advice about how CPAs can get to the next level. Most of the time, it’s about mastering a technical area especially in light of the new tax laws. That’s useful, of course. But you rarely hear suggestions about how to work more effectively with clients or how to help clients solve their problems.

Getting to the next level in your client relationship—really becoming the expert in your clients-- doesn’t have anything to do with the numbers—the technical side. It’s about understanding all the moving parts of the client’s life and how those disparate parts move together.

There will always be room for specialists—people who go narrow and deep on things like cost segregation, the nuances of tax reform or manufacturing audits, etc. In that role, you’re the well-paid specialist who’s brought in to solve a unique problem for a client. But once you do your job you go away. You’ve completed your role and you’re not expected to build deep and lasting relationships with the client you just helped.

Compare that to being your client’s most trusted advisor, (i.e., their Personal CFO)—the air traffic controller who’s directing all the outside experts working on your client’s behalf. In this role, you have to speak many languages so you’re conversant with a myriad of experts, but no one expects you to be the expert in each area. Nobody has the bandwidth to become an expert in every possible issue your client could face.

Mastering client relationships is one thing in our profession that can’t be commoditized. All the other things—tax prep, financial statements, etc.—will be automated eventually. IBM’s Watson can do almost anything, but it can’t say to a client, “I’ve got a seat at the table with you. I know your business and family situation. We’re looking in the same direction and I’m going to help you solve your financial challenges and problems.”

Becoming an expert in your clients is an art and a science. It’s about human behavior and people are not always rational.

Your job is to be the Advocate, the Catalyst and the Integrator for your client.

The Advocate
The Catalyst
The Integrator

Always in the client’s corner.

Always aligned with the client’s best interests. My job is to say,
“I know everything about you. I’m going to act in your best interests and help you get to where you want to go in life.”

Clients always turn to the advocate because they know the advocate has their back.

Help clients get stuff done (in spite of themselves).

It’s great to have the client’s back at all times, but I have to help you make decisions. I have to protect you from decision fatigue and information overload. Let’s isolate the most important decisions that are going to make the biggest impact on your future.

Pull together all the pieces in the client’s mosaic* to make it work in sync.

As the client’s personal and/or business life gets more complex, more and more specialists will need to be brought in to help them. Your client doesn’t want to manage relationships with all the new specialists entering the picture. Your client wants you, their most trusted advisor, to be the point person. Your client just wants the solution.

Source: The Personal CFO

* See the word “mosaic” in the Integrator’s box above? When viewed from close range, a mosaic doesn’t look like anything besides a bunch of glass tiles randomly thrown together. But, as you step away from the mosaic, those glass tiles start to form a clearer picture. Unfortunately, most of your clients live about an inch away from the glass tiles--they’re deep in the muck of their business and personal lives and they can’t see the big picture. They just see random pieces of glass. Your job is to pull those parts together and explain to them what they mean so they can make decisions and move forward.

By the way, you can’t be just an advocate or just a catalyst or just an integrator. If you truly want to be the expert in the client, you have to play all three of these roles to help your client move forward.

For more about being an Advocate, Catalyst and Integrator for your client, see The Personal CFO.

Next steps

You may decide that you prefer being the niche expert in cost segregation and tax reform. You can make a good living in that role. You just don’t get the satisfaction of building deep and lasting client relationships. But, if you do want to be the expert in your clients, you and your team will have to change the way you do things. CPAs tell me all the time, “I know everything about my clients.” What they really mean is they know everything about the client’s tax return. But, what about all the other important relationships, milestones, goals and aspirations a client might have?

It’s amazing how few CPA firms have a client relationship management system that captures all the details about what’s important to a client and that documents all the important little things that you and your team members are doing on behalf of the client.

Let’s look at your onboarding process. What kinds of questions are you asking new clients so you can understand what their needs are and how you’re going to meet them? How deep is your data intake process besides getting what we need for client tax returns? What do you really need to know to become truly valuable to a client—not just another place to get the boxes in their tax return filled in.

As discussed in my book, you need to understand the client’s “map.” Where are they now (Point A) and where do they want to go (Point B)? It’s your job as the expert in the client to help them develop a plan to get from Point A to Point B. As I like to remind my own team, the word “plan” is a verb, not just a noun. Planning is an ongoing process.

After you develop the plan, then you have to determine how you’re going to measure your progress. You and your client have to agree on the numbers that tell you whether or not you’re on track.

Real-world example

It’s very important that you view a plan from your client’s perspective, not yours. Your client’s business may be growing slower than you’d like to see, but if a client’s comfortable with that conservative growth rate, then it means they’re on track. Other clients may be hellbent on doubling their business every two years. They may be growing by double digits, but if they’re not on track to double every two months, then you need to make some adjustments that can be mutually agreed upon. Again, the actual financials don’t mean anything in and of themselves. They’re only relevant with respect to where a client wants to be going.

If your client has a business or a demanding job, ask them: “Why are you really doing this?” It’s not really about making “X” amount of dollars. It’s about getting more out of life and living life on their own terms. Automation can’t determine that for people, but the expert in the client can. You’re the only one who can say to the client, “Based on where we agreed that you want to go in the future, these are the things we can do to get there in a more effective way.

I’ve found that CPAs are very good at understanding Point A—i.e., balance sheet and income statement. But you have to know the client’s Point B. Where are they trying to go? If you don’t know where they’re trying to go, how can you help them draw their map and formulate their plan?

By the way, you don’t have to spend significantly more time with clients in order to become experts in them. But, when you do get together, you have to ask the important questions, not just what you need to fill in the boxes on a tax return.

But when you know why a client is working so hard at their job or business—what their Point B really is—then you can provide them with valuable advice when they call you last-minute with a detailed question.

Clients rarely tell you they’re dissatisfied, short of leaving you. But here are three tell-tale signs that you’re not the expert in your client:

1. You don’t know your client’s goals.

2. You only hear about important client decisions after the fact—i.e., “how should we depreciate this machinery that we just bought?”

3. Outside advisors are pinging you with tasks after they’ve had meetings with your client.

Embrace your role as your client’s advocate, catalyst and integrator. There’s no better way to become the world’s foremost expert in your client.

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