Perception and the CPA

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Perception is everything. Our clients, coworkers, network, loved ones, community and acquaintances engage with us based on how they perceive us. Let’s be honest and admit that perhaps accountants do not always do a great job of letting people know all that accountants can do for them professionally and what we accountants are already doing for them during our engagements. Transparency and perception go hand in hand.

There are many reasons accountants don’t present ourselves in the best light. Perhaps accountants were bought up in cultures where it was rude to self-promote. In the past, accountants were not viewed as part of the decision-making process. Perhaps accountants are struggling with recognizing our own value and what accountants bring to the table. Whatever the reason, accountants must work on how accountants are perceived by our stakeholders.

As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”

Let’s discuss how perception affects CPAs using five Cs: Competence, Communication, Collaboration, Consensus and Compensation.


Oftentimes, accountants do a poor job at introducing ourselves to people. Accountants reserve our elevator pitch for formal networking events or do not use an elevator pitch at all. When accountants introduce people to the areas and industries that accountants have a strong suit and experience in, accountants make more memorable impressions. People will remember us when someone asks them for a referral.


As CPAs become more forward thinking, real-time strategic partners, clients are looking for more information and engagement. When CPAs are proactive and regularly check in with and update our clients, clients tend to perceive the CPA as more trustworthy, proactive and reliable. If you aren’t talking to your clients about emerging technology and developments that can positively impact their businesses, some other CPA will.


Sometimes CPAs are so focused on their work, they forget to include the clients. An involved client is the best client. There are times clients are not even aware of all that their CPA does for them. This is due to the lack of communication and involvement. Sure, no one wants to overwhelm or annoy a client, giving them a play by play of all that is occurring during a special or compliance project, but you do not want to keep the client in the dark either.

I recall in a past role, I was the head of an accounting department, and the external audit team came onsite for the audit. The manager in charge of the audit didn’t say more than five words a day to me. I am exaggerating, but his attitude made me perceive him as an overworked, disinterested CPA as opposed to a firm leader and team member I wanted the organization to have on board the following year. I suggested to my manger that a new audit firm should be engaged.


In the past, some CPAs simply rolled up their sleeves and did whatever needed to be done for the client. Sometimes this could impair a CPA’s independence, and in consulting engagements made the CPAs seem as if they were assuming the responsibilities of management. Not discussing things with clients and getting their input and consensus can make a CPA be perceived as an expert in compliance but not as a trusted advisor in the era of the fourth industrial revolution. Getting the client to buy into what you want to implement or perform on their behalf is important. I personally like to explain my rationale to clients and colleagues. On occasion, this leads to insightful dialogue that helps tailor recommendations and strategy and adds even more value to clients and organizations.


The compensation you request may have an impact on how you are perceived. How you are perceived may have an impact on your compensation.

Competence is assumed and expected. When clients see the value that you add to their organizations — by helping them make their processes and procedures more automated, effective and efficient; by giving them their time back by assisting them in implementing the best tools and taking part or all of the accounting function off their plate; by giving them the insight of their business that is high level and detailed, real time and forward-thinking — clients are more willing to see your value and compensate you accordingly when you add value, insight and time to their organizations.

Perception matters. Make sure you do your part in portraying what a great CPA you are and all that you bring to the table.

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