A Conversation with David Cottle: Author of Clients4Life

Accountants need to do a one-eighty if they want greater success. That's the advice of CPA consultant, public speaker, and author, David Cottle. What does he mean by that? Accountants are trained to deal with the past. They look at what is measurable, what is objective... basically they are calculating the success of past efforts. That means they spend a lot of time looking backwards. In his most recent book, Clients4Life, co-authored by Mark Lloydbottom, Cottle is tapping those backward-looking CPAs on the shoulder to get them to turn around. After all, everything behind us is history. We can learn from it, but according to Cottle, accountants who want to help clients improve their business prospects need to take their eyes off the rearview mirror, and instead, start looking through the windshield.

Cottle's career path started like most aspiring CPAs. He was an auditor at Peat Marwick (predecessor to KPMG) in Dallas. Later he and a friend started their own practice, in which Cottle was the audit partner. He built a comfortable six-figure income, but he was restless. He wanted an income that wasn't capped… and besides, those cold Texas winters just weren't his idea of the good life. So in 1979 when the International Group of Accounting Firms asked if he wanted to step in as the executive director, he said yes, if... they would consider letting him do the job from Miami.

As the head of IGAF for the next eight years, Cottle paid attention when a survey of members showed that what they really wanted was for him to be a sort of in-house practice management consultant, mentoring them about business growth. Soon he found himself on the road much of the time, consulting with members, delivering speeches, coaching business owners to success. Even while he was doing the coaching, he learned plenty from those he was helping, gaining valuable experience for what would be the next phase of his career. By 1987, under Cottle's direction, IGAF had grown to the point that it made sense for the headquarters to move north to New York City - a move that Cottle and his family were not interested in making. Instead, he suggested that he was ready to hand the baton to someone else, and he would turn his attention to full-time consulting.

Always looking to increase his knowledge of business success and therefore his value to clients, he scoured management books by Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, and David Maister. He attended every relevant lecture he could find, and when he talked with accountants, he kept his eyes and ears open, learning from their mistakes as well as his own. Soon he had a wealth of knowledge about what worked and what didn't, that he could pass along to his clients and readers.

Being a successful consultant isn't magic, says Cottle. But like anything worthwhile, you have to be willing to work hard to learn your craft. That may mean looking at a hundred different ways of doing something until you find the one that works best. He figures he's traveled two million miles, spent two thousand nights in hotels, worked with hundreds of accountants, and studied the masters when it comes to management. "You have to devote endless energy and resources to training yourself and not be afraid to learn from those you are coaching," says Cottle. That's the formula.

Cottle's Law

Like most business owners, Cottle has a mission. But his mission is not just a plaque hanging on an office wall. He understands that, although CPAs are generally the most trusted advisors for businesses and individuals, most accountants settle for a capped income well below what they are worth or could be worth. He also knows that with the right coaching, he can help those professionals remove the cap. He calls his theory, "Cottle's Law," which basically states that you cannot make more than you think you are worth. You can make less, but not more. "If you come close to making more than you believe you are worth," says Cottle, "you'll find a way to mess it up."

That's why he works hard to get accountants to understand and increase their value. His efforts have included several books, including Bill What You are Worth (and a seminar based on this book) and Client-Centered Service, and most recently a book he co-wrote with Mark Lloydbottom, Clients4Life.

In describing the problem that many professionals have in reaching their earnings potential, Cottle starts with the advice of Earl Nightingale, a pioneer of the personal development industry, then builds on it. "Earl Nightingale teaches there are three things that determine how much you make," says Cottle.

  • The first is demand.
  • The second is how good you are.
  • The third is how easily you can be replaced.

Nightingale made excellent points, but over time, Cottle realized that they didn't go quite far enough... there was more to consider. Eventually, he added a fourth point to Nightingale's three.

  • Number four is, it's not just how good you are at what you are doing, but are you doing the right things? And are you doing the right things right?

To illustrate, he asked a group of CPAs how much of their time was spent doing tasks in their daily work that could be done by people earning a lower rate of pay. The average answer was - 50 percent. "If you can pay someone else less to do it for you, then have them do it or you are not doing the right things."

Adding that fourth point rounded out Nightingale's theory. But there was still more. There was a fifth point, Cottle realized, and without it, the first four were meaningless.

  • The fifth and final factor (so far) is that you have to have the courage to demand what you are worth.

Of course, being "worth" a higher fee means rigorous personal training. Cottle himself learned how to add value to his clients by not just summarizing for them how they've done in the past, but using that information to serve as a guide for better business practices going forward.

Clients4Life

In Clients4Life, Cottle and Lloydbottom take CPAs through the steps of increasing their value to clients, and also of determining which clients add the most revenue, and which ones consume a lot of time while adding little revenue.

One chapter is entitled "Outstanding service doesn't cost, it pays." The authors describe how after decades of experience working with hundreds of firms, they have learned that when clients, for whatever reason, perceive their CPA firm as high-quality, those accountants are able to charge fees that are 20 percent to 50 percent higher, compared to firms of the same size and in the same market. Then the authors coach readers with a common sense approach to raising their firms into a higher billing category.

While Cottle works primarily with accountants, most professionals can benefit from his coaching. He's a man who has examined all the possibilities and all of the pitfalls and can offer great advice to those who aspire to follow in his footsteps to become consultants, or to serious business people who dream of reaching higher. To learn more about how David Cottle can coach you to success, log onto his Web site, CottleConsulting.com.

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