Two ears, one mouth: Act accordingly

Register now

As trusted advisors, we spend so much of our day thinking about how we’re going to deliver answers. Instead, we should be spending a lot more time asking intelligent questions.

Numerous studies have shown that client dissatisfaction doesn’t stem from high fees or from occasional mistakes made on technical work. Clients leave because they don’t feel valued, or they don’t feel their CPA is listening to them. Knowing that clients want to be heard means we should get a lot better at listening. To take it a step further, we need to get better at asking questions.

There is a single powerful question developed by Dan Sullivan, founder of Strategic Coach, a firm that works with thousands of entrepreneurs nationwide. Before I share that powerful question with you, let me ask you this: How can we forge stronger relationships with our clients throughout the year?

Asking the key question that can change your practice

At your mid-year review with clients, don’t just shoot the breeze by asking, “What’s new?” or “How’s it going?” You have to engage in DTR (Defining the Relationship) and this one single question is essential for doing so:

“If we were having this discussion three years from today, and you were looking back over those three years, what has to have happened in your life both personally and professionally for you to feel happy with your progress?”

Now you can ask follow-up questions, such as, “What does your ideal future look like?” and “How do you see me helping to making you successful?”

In a nutshell, the Sullivan question asks, “Where do you want to go and how do you see me helping you get there?” Here’s the best part: Clients will tell you exactly what they need from you.

By the way, these are not complex existential questions — you don’t have to overthink them. Just bring them up in a mid-year review with clients. You could start by saying, “There were a lot of tax changes this year. We made it through together. Now I want to know what’s most important to you and your family right now.”

If your client is a business owner, he or she might say, “I’d really like someone to help me keep my books in order all year long. That will make year-end accounting and tax season so much easier.” Or, the owner might tell you, “I’ve been running this business a long time. I’m thinking about selling in a few years so I can start spending more time around the people I love, or maybe start another business.”

Getting a client’s business “sell-ready” is an entirely different way for you and your client to start looking at the business. It can be a lucrative consulting assignment for you — an opportunity that you wouldn’t have known about if you didn’t ask the right questions.

Another client might be part of a family limited partnership. He or she may have some questions about how the partnership is being run. Maybe the partnership is no longer in line with what they want to accomplish over the next several years. Your client may be aching for simplicity — something that many LLPs are not. Most clients aren’t going to tell you about these kinds of situations voluntarily. You’ll only find out by asking. If you do, you are likely to get add-on assignments for setting up (or simplifying) entity structures for them. You might also learn that a client is highly vulnerable to liability and you may take on the responsibility of restructuring their insurance and other risk-mitigating strategies.

As a client’s most trusted advisor, knowing more about your clients starts with asking the right questions. Let me repeat that question below:

“If we were having this discussion three years from today, and you were looking back over those three years, what has to have happened in your life both personally and professionally for you to feel happy with your progress?”

When a client answers this question, he or she may give you an idea of where they want to be in three years.

Your follow-up response should be: “Specifically how do you see me helping you accomplish this?”

And then they’re going to tell you: “Well, I’d like to do X” and X is either something you do or something you don’t do. It’s most likely going to be something that you do, i.e., getting a business ready for sale.

Now it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to help that client with X, what you’re going to deliver and how you going to charge.

If you decide to take on the assignment, then you need to keep drilling down with further questions, such as, “Where do you want to be in three years?” Based on that information, you can then ask your client where he or she expects to be in 12 months and even 90 days.

You always have to take the conversation from “What’s most important?” to “What’s most important right now?” Together, you and your client will have to take the vision from three years out, to one year out, to 90 days out. Now you are in a position to say, “If you want my help accomplishing these goals, this is what working with me could look like.”

Most CPAs I know want to get consulting assignments from their clients, but you need to have a target defining success.

If you want to build better relationships with your clients, start by asking better questions. Not sure which questions to ask? Start with the Dan Sullivan question we discussed in this article. Deep, intense listening is so much more important than talking. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and only one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Client strategies Client relations Client retention Consulting Small business