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Most of my reading these days consists of nonfiction books. I’m not sure why, but on my vacation last week, I picked up a tattered copy of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and I couldn’t put it down. Reflecting on our profession, this passage jumped out at me:

“Maybe the knowledge is too great and maybe men are growing too small. Maybe, kneeling down to atoms, they’re becoming atoms in their souls. Maybe a specialist is only a coward, afraid to look out of his little cage. And think what any specialist misses — the whole world over his fence.”

Is this why many of us choose (actively or not) against becoming our clients’ most trusted advisor? Are we afraid to look over the fence? Most of your clients are successful people. They have complicated financial lives and they need help managing the complexity. To become your client’s most trusted advisor, you can’t be a narrow specialist. You need to become their go-to source of answers for all things financial. This doesn’t mean you know the answer; it means you are willing to find the answer. You become the expert in the only thing that matters--your client.

Speaking of books, if you haven’t done so already, pick up a copy of David Epstein’s new best-seller, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Epstein profiles superstars from the worlds of business, science, art, music, politics, sports, technology, medicine, etc., and shows that in most cases, the true icons are those who came to their calling only after obtaining knowledge from a broad range of interests. They didn’t start specializing at an early age.

Epstein argues that specialists flourish in “kind” learning environments where patterns recur and where feedback is quick and accurate. In contrast, he said generalists flourish in “wicked” learning environments, where patterns are harder to discern, and feedback is delayed and/or inaccurate.

You need range in order to do what a trusted advisor does — give advice. This is the opposite of what accountants are trained to do — record history and report the facts. This doesn’t diminish the importance of preparing accurate financial statements and tax returns, but you’re living in the world of the past tense when you do that kind of work.

Ultimately your clients need your help preparing for an uncertain future. Well, no one can predict the future. Instead, be a “thinking partner” for your clients. Let’s call it what it is — making educated guesses. Well, this world view — this lack of 100-percent precision — drives many CPAs crazy. It’s too big of a mental leap from how many were brought up in the industry.

As I mentioned in my article 50 shades of CPA gray, CPAs don’t like words such as “maybe,” “probably,” “perhaps” or “possibly” — at least in the workplace. Those are messy, ambiguous words that leave too much room for uncertainty. Unfortunately, that messy pool of ambiguity is where the world is headed, and your clients expect you to help them wade through those murky waters of uncertainty. People don’t make numbers decisions; they make emotional decisions. From their investment portfolios and to their monthly spending, to selling their homes, to deciding when to retire or when to sell their businesses, you’ve got to become comfortable digging around those gray areas of your clients’ lives.

Your clients know their business and their financial picture better than anybody else does. Most of the time your client will have the best version of the right answer locked up in their head. Your job as a “thinking partner” and trusted advisor is to ask the right questions that will bring the answer to the surface and get clients headed in the right direction.

Early career lessons

Early in my career I started out as an “investment specialist.” Then I became a “retirement planning specialist.” Eventually, I realized these so-called specialties weren’t all that complicated. What’s complicated is figuring out how all the different specialties work together. I realized I could create a lot more value for my clients by getting to 80-percent expertise in many different areas, rather than trying to get to 99-percent expertise in just one area. As Epstein explains in Range, many of the great inventors and innovators are “polymaths” who possess deep expertise in one or more core areas, but who also know the “adjacent stuff” in dozens of other technological domains.

As advisors, our biggest client roadblocks are behavioral more than factual. Understanding behavioral psychology and communication skills is just as important as understanding the tax code, retirement planning and investing. To get clients to move forward, you have to be the catalyst for their decisions. You may think you know all the answers, but if you can’t get clients to follow your advice and make the right decisions, then you’re not bringing much value to the table.

Take physicians. I don’t think of myself as a specialist in the tax issues of physicians, but I understand what often holds doctors back from making sound financial decisions. They’re really, really busy. They’re hard to get ahold of. How do you create a platform where they can reach you when they need to and vice versa? It’s not just about the tax issues they face; it’s about overcoming the roadblocks that prevent them from implementing the advice you’re giving them.

Many doctors are so used to having everyone listen to them, it’s hard for them to switch roles and listen to someone else. But they have to listen to you when it comes to their finances. A trusted advisor can get very busy clients like doctors to follow their recommendations and to ultimately achieve their goals.

If you want to have a niche in the type of service you offer — say cost segregation, audit or forensic accounting — that’s great. You can brand yourself as the go-to expert in those areas. But clients need a wide range of services, so with the specialist approach, it’s pretty difficult to fill the role of trusted advisor. To be a trusted advisor you need to have a broad range of skills and expertise — and to understand how all those moving parts work together.

Again, you need to have range in order to give advice. Your advice won’t be right 100 percent of the time, but clients appreciate that you always have their back. They appreciate that you have taken the time to truly understand them. By playing it safe, you avoid the risk (and possible embarrassment) of being incorrect, but you also risk becoming increasingly irrelevant to your clients. To me, that’s a much bigger risk.

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