Is the profession headed for bottle shock?

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By Edi Osborne

One of my favorite, albeit lesser known movies, is Bottle Shock. The 2008 movie tells the story of the events that set the stage for the blind taste test, also referred to as the Judgment of Paris, between French and California winemakers in May 1976.

The French, secure in their knowledge of their wine’s vast superiority, agreed to compete against the lesser known New World California wine makers.  They didn’t even see it as a fair fight. To everyone’s surprise, especially to the California winemakers, the French wines did not hold up to the scrutiny of a blind tasting. California wines won the competition.

This paradigm-shifting moment forever changed the way California wines were viewed and valued all over the world. From that point on, Napa Valley became a major player in the global wine industry. Thirty years later, the same contest was held with full confidence the French would win. California took the prize, again.

Today the wine list in any great restaurant reads like a geography lesson. Once it was proven that the French were not unbeatable, the floodgates opened, making way for thousands of wineries worldwide. And while some of the wines are good, some are incredible, and some are not worth drinking, consumers still benefit from the enormous variety of options.

This movie got me thinking about the potential for the same kind of upset in the accounting profession. There are other professional groups edging their way into the sacred relationships accountants have had with the business community, and opening up choices for consumers like never before. The question is, if you were to hand a business owner two blind tax returns, one prepared by a CPA and one by another tax professional, who would win? The CPA, like the French, might be in for a bit of bottle shock.

Before the Judgment of Paris, the French took it for granted that their long history as the world’s greatest winemakers would trump all others. In defense of themselves, the French argued that Americans did not have a refined palette and, therefore, could not discern good wine from bad. Amazingly, I’ve heard CPAs make that same argument about the ignorance of the business community with regard to the value they have to offer. But just like with wine tasting, what you like and what you will pay for it is all a matter of perception. If you are wine drinker, you might have experienced your own bottle shock when the $400 bottle of wine doesn’t taste any better than the $40 bottle (or at least not ten times better).

Now, as far as I know, there isn’t any worldwide contest to judge the capabilities of business advisors by professional segment. However, I believe it would be a mistake for the profession to assume they would win in a side-by-side blind comparison. For that reason, every interaction we have with clients should be viewed as its own judgment – as a moment of truth. Your 20-year history with a client should not be taken for granted any more than you can assume you will close every bit of business you go after.

Whether it is with clients or prospects, CPAs need to continually reinforce their value to the business community. And I don’t mean strutting out your brochure at every visit. I am referring to the perception clients have after every interaction.

Here’s a relationship-building checklist you might want to review before every meeting you have with a client or prospect:

  1. What significant event have they had since you spoke with them last? A child’s birthday, death of a parent, a wedding, a vacation, launch a new store, purchase a piece of equipment, etc. In other words, you need to prove they exist in your mind even when you are not in the room with them, by asking about events that are important to them.
  2. Was there an “I’ll get back to you on that” type question brought up in a previous conversation? If so, you better have an answer to give or a progress report to share.
  3. Have you got a new book, article, or story to share with them that relates to an issue you have discussed previously?
  4. What one aspect of financial fluency are you going to enlighten them on during your visit? Taking three minutes out of a meeting to talk about one particular financial ratio and how it is or isn’t performing continually reinforces your value.
  5. What business opportunities can you tell them about? Opportunities or ideas always present themselves when you read the paper or talk with others in your firm, other clients, community leaders, etc. Are you good about connecting your clients with those ideas and/or opportunities?

Bottom line, you may have been the best accountant in the world for the past 20 years, but your history does not guarantee your success.

Having CPA on your wine label is not enough to win the blind taste test anymore. Your future success depends on the perceptions you impress upon your clients and prospects. Will you leave them with the perception that you really care about them and their business or will they have a piece of broken cork in their glass?

About the author:

Edi Osborne has been providing the profession with out-of-the-box insights for more than 20 years. She is the driving force behind The Passionate Accountant, and CEO of Carmel Valley, CA-based Mentor Plus. She welcomes your comments and queries at [email protected].

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