Our industry is full of people who have worked hard to build their practices or reach upper management. They're intelligent, highly skilled, and hardworking. But only a handful have reached the pinnacle in our industry and attained the mantle of 'the trusted advisor’ in the eyes of their clients.
Why is that? Interestingly, it is only subtle nuances that separate those stand-out performers from the rest.
It has often been said that ‘what got you to here won't get you to there’, and if you think about it, this premise makes a lot of sense because if the skills that you currently have are capable of establishing you as the trusted advisor, then most of your income will be coming from strategic and advisory services.
Right now, there are a handful of success breakers (workplace habits or skills shortages) that are holding you back from making the next big leap forward. The key is to identify what those are and discover some practical solutions you can use to make the next big leap.
Let's examine one of the most common success breakers in our industry and the implications it has for you as you move your practice away from compliance and toward strategic and advisory services: withholding information.
This is the refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
For a very long time, accountants and bookkeepers have been the gatekeepers of the most vital knowledge in business - financial literacy. Cloaked in jargon, rules that take years to master, and systems that obfuscate financial performance, we have inadvertently created an industry shrouded in fear and mystery.
Most of what accountants do on a daily basis is incomprehensible to a lay person, and for many decades we have gotten paid well because we are in possession of this mysterious yet valuable commodity.
When I speak to accountants and bookkeepers about educating their clients in plain language, one of the most common objections that I hear is, "But if I teach my client how to understand their financial reports, they won't need me anymore". Unfortunately, too many have bought into the mindset that keeping clients in the dark is an essential ingredient to maintaining relevance and value.
This argument holds no water when held up to careful scrutiny. It makes no more sense to perpetuate this mindset than it does for a parent not to teach their child how to walk, use utensils, read or graduate from diapers to the toilette. Our job is to support, teach and nurture our clients to become the best and most successful versions of themselves, not to hold them back for fear they won't need us.
Education enables understanding and growth, and growth is vital to the health of each small business, your practice and the whole economy. As your clients’ understanding and competency grows, so do the complexity of the problems they are confronted with. This growth allows them to turn to you for more challenging, strategic and interesting advice.
Cloud accounting and machine learning are also breaking down those purpose-built walls of specialised accounting knowledge and putting more information, insights and power directly into the hands of our lay person clients. As a result, there is a very real possibility that your job today, as you know, it is going to go away and be replaced by something else.
That is the sole reason why thought leaders, industry bodies and training organisations are urging you to focus on becoming ‘the trusted advisor’. But that mandate is both misleading and elusive.
Our entire industry and the way we educate and train new recruits are focused on technical skills, legislative changes, and GAAP processes. From day one, you are taught to speak to your clients in terms of financial statements, key performance indicators, reconciliations, and forecasts. That is your language and your domain of expertise, not theirs. No matter how colourful or beautiful your reports are, they are still incomprehensible to most of your clients who have never studied accounting and don't wish to do so.
When you sit down to advise your clients, it's easy to fall into the trap of ‘explaining accounting’, as opposed to focusing on the specific steps and strategies that your client needs to implement to grow profitably. There is very little training in university, on the job, or in industry bodies to show you HOW to become ‘the trusted advisor’. But unfortunately, there is an overwhelming and distracting emphasis on social media, apps, sales, and marketing.
However, you marketing yourself as ‘the trusted advisor’, no matter how convincingly, doesn't make it so. It isn't a designation that we declare ourselves, but rather an honour and a privilege our clients bestow upon us for curing the pain points that keep them up at night.
Becoming ‘the trusted advisor’ is about connecting with your clients and communicating in a way that inspires and empowers them to take action to improve their results. The skills to achieve this are more in line with coaching and training, than sales or marketing.
Where to from here?
If you don’t accept the premise, that your job as you know it is about to change drastically, then you do not need to do anything. You may simply sit back and watch as more and more of what you do is replaced by cloud technology and apps.
However, doing nothing is rarely a viable option in any business or industry. Change is inevitable. It is already upon us.
What got you here – to the success and accomplishments you have already achieved – is not going to get you to where you need to be as our industry continues to evolve rapidly.
Right now you are facing an uncertain future. What that means is that traditional approaches, such as hiding behind the complexity and jargon of our industry, are unlikely to be helpful. In order to evolve and remain relevant despite the changes, you must find a new set of tools, skills, talents and behaviours that complement the ones you already have, not replace them.
Here is a list of strategies that you can use to identify and acquire the new tools, skills, talents and behaviours that will catapult you to the pinnacle of our industry and enable you to become even more successful this year:
1. Specify in writing your targets for growing the advisory services of your practice. These targets must be written down in order to be effective, compelling and measurable.
2. Identify one or two specific niches of clients that you will focus on this year to achieve those targets.
3. Create a list of the two to three most important pain points that these clients have right now (the things that worry them and keep them up at night).
4. Identify and document the key strategies and steps that your clients must take in order to cure the pain points and prevent them from recurring again next month.
5. Critically evaluate the reports, dashboards, metrics and graphs that you present to your clients. Remember, your clients are not accountants and they have no desire to learn accounting. They merely want you to help them fix the problems so they can make more money while doing what they love.
6. Identify and develop the materials that you need to gain leverage on your clients and empower them to take action. When in doubt, ask for advice from trusted colleagues who have proven experience delivering impactful advisory services. It pays dividends to work collaboratively with your colleagues and it also means that you avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’.
7. Be open to trying new things (this includes technology, processes, communication styles, delivery channels, etc). It is only by trial and error that you will uncover what works and what doesn't.
8. Identify the new skills, talents and behaviours that are needed by every member of your team, and the courses or programs that will help you achieve those results.
9. Create a comprehensive budget for training over the next 12 months and a formal plan for evaluating the progress and competency of each team member. Money spent on your team's skills to deliver effective solutions is far more impactful than advertising and social media.
10. Start tracking the progress of each client to ensure they are following through on the action plan discussed with them.
11. Open a dialogue with your clients, ask for specific feedback from them about what they have learned, how it has impacted their business, and what you could do better.