CPA as trusted advisor: Why, and is it deserved?

By Michael S. Winslow, CPA/PFS

“That was strange,” I thought as I hung up the phone. I’d just spent the last thirty minutes on the phone with a client talking about, of all things, which B-school his daughter should attend and what major concentrations she should consider.
 
This didn’t fit my view of accounting as it did not involve auditing transactions or pushing numbers around on a spreadsheet. They didn’t teach this type of thing in undergraduate school. Yet, some 25 years after receiving a diploma with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Accounting and some 22 years after earning the right to call myself a CPA, here I was being asked to advise a client on a very personal matter not even remotely related to accounting.
 
How did this happen? In a word – trust. Over the years, I had earned the trust of this client on enough accounting, financial, and tax related matters that he now trusted my advice on such matters as where his daughter should attend college. As I let that sink in, I was blown away by the realization that trust leads to influence.
 
Because CPAs usually are very active in their communities, they have a very well-developed network of contacts and referrals. And because CPA’s are trusted, when they refer a client to somebody in their referral network, more likely than not, that client will end up working with that referral.
 
A colleague of mine – also a CPA – related the story of sitting with a client who recently had sold his business and had in excess of $100 million to invest. The client had never seen this much cash and was unsure what to do. The CPA recommended the client talk to a wealth management specialist and the client agreed. After the wealth manager had explained his core values and approach to investing, the client turned to his CPA and asked for his thoughts. The CPA responded that he was a believer and that all his personal and retirement savings were invested with this wealth manager. The client turned to the wealth manager and said, “If it’s good enough for him (the CPA) then its good enough for me. How do I get started?”
 
Do you think that afternoon the wealth manager was really glad to have the CPA as a referral source? I’ll guarantee it. The endorsement from the CPA and the client’s trust of that endorsement not only gained the wealth manager a substantial client – it also greatly shortened what would normally be a very lengthy sales process.
 
Whenever I see a public opinion poll about most trusted professions, the CPA always is at or near the top. There are several reasons why CPAs are viewed so favorably. CPAs are viewed as having a great deal of competence, able to remain unbiased, able to constrain emotion from affecting decisions, and possess an aura of independence and fiduciary responsibility – meaning we generally treat our clients affairs as we would treat our own.
 
One area where sound, practical advice is indispensible is finance. Against this backdrop of favorable opinion and opportunity, when a CPA delivers a valuable financial service and honors his word, trust is developed in spades.
 
During August of this year I read an article written by a business owner about the relationship with his CPA. The owner wrote that his CPA is the benchmark he uses to measure all other consultants. He goes on to explain his CPA has three attributes he appreciates as a valuable resource. Those attributes are knowledge, experience, and what he terms the we factor… that is, his CPA considers himself part of the team.
 
When the CPA makes a recommendation, such as getting rid of non-performing assets, adjusting personal lifestyles, or finding another service provider for payroll, legal services, software, investment advice, leasing agents, business brokers, or banking relationships, this business owner is going to follow that advice. He has no reason not to follow it.
 
In many client relationships, the CPA is counted on to be a trusted business advisor, to be available when the entrepreneur needs advice, to be the quarterback of the team of professionals who help to guide the company. Through contacts with other professionals and other clients, the CPA can be an excellent source of information when a business is unsure of the path to follow or when it needs services it has not used previously.
 
Two especially complex areas of the tax code are credits for increasing research and experimentation costs and cost segregation studies on buildings. Because these areas are sufficiently complex and are heavily scrutinized by the IRS, a higher level of expertise is requisite. Our firm has chosen to partner with outside firms that possess this level of expertise to serve our clients.
 
Whenever we have a client who we feel can benefit from one of these areas, we introduce them to our preferred service provider and the client always ends up working with that provider. It all makes perfect sense. These are complicated matters, we have the client’s trust, we have pre-screened service providers we can be proud to recommend, and we’ve been through the process many times before. This helps save the client immense time, worry, and frustration trying to do something like this on his or her own. When the client understands we have their best interests at heart, a very lengthy and complex decision becomes a relatively short and simple one to make.
 
When a client trusts his CPA enough to entrust decisions affecting his own children – such as where to go to college and what to major in or how to invest $100 million of new found wealth – how much more do you think that client is going to trust his CPA on decisions that affect normal day-to-day business operations?
 
For those of you reading this article who might be potential referral sources, the ones I trust most with my client’s are the ones who put the needs of others ahead of themselves. If I receive any indication that a service provider is the least bit self-serving, they are never going to see a client through my referral… and they might even receive a negative review if overly unworthy of trust.
 
In this regard, actions speak louder than words. Show me that you are worthy of my trust and my client’s trust through many small actions over time. Show me the consistency of your character and that you understand putting the needs of others first is the most certain way to experience personal success. Tell me the truth, not what you think I want to hear. The world is full of yes people. We need more people willing to say what they think. If you are truthful, authentic, and trustworthy in your dealings with others, then you probably are somebody I will feel comfortable referring to a client and there is a 95 percent probability you’ll gain a new client or customer.
 
With a few exceptions, the CPA profession has done a good job of caring for and nurturing public trust. As a result, when public surveys are done, CPAs are viewed at or near the top of all professions in terms of honesty and trustworthiness. This trust creates influence and that influence is powerful. As such, trust has to be a highly regarded and protected asset.
 
Our words carry weight. As professionals and trusted advisors our words carry substantial weight. Futures can be and are changed by the words we speak. We have the ability to elevate dreams and ideas…or crush them… with the power of our words. So we must choose them carefully and make sure the substance of our thoughts and words rise to the level of fiduciary care we are sworn to uphold.
 
About the author:
Michael S. Winslow, CPA/PFS, is director – general services at Indianapolis-based RJ Pile, LLC.
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
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