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Move From Serving Clients to Leading Clients to Success

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May 3rd 2016
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To thrive in your role as the most trusted advisor as an accounting professional, it’s not enough to provide compliance services and reactive services for clients as needed. You must go beyond providing what clients need to providing what they want.

Even when clients don’t specifically ask for what they want, your success depends on how well you proactively engage each client to become a partner in their success — not just a servant for their needs. There are many ways you can partner for success, but nearly all of them involve taking a leadership role with each client.

When it comes to selecting technology solutions, your role is critical. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a techie, the role of the accountant should not be absent from each client’s technology solution selections.

Your Clients Want You to Lead Them

Entrepreneurs go into business, for the most part, to pursue something they’re uniquely good at, passionate about, or simply love doing. Only a very tiny percentage of them want to have direct involvement in designing, implementing, and operating their business processes. That is, their accounting, ecommerce, point of sale, payroll, accounts receivable, accounts payable, expense management, procurement, estimating, costing, and tax solutions. It makes complete sense, but it’s also scary that all those businesses don’t have some of the most basic functions of a successful business. That is, without someone like you.

If you put yourself in a leadership role to help find the technology and business process solutions that fit their needs, you can deepen your relationship and value-add for each client.

But how do you do that? You can start by digging deeply into your clients’ business processes, and identifying opportunities for improvement. You’ll find hundreds of potential solutions out there but the key challenge is finding the right match between client needs and vendor solutions.

There is nobody on earth who is more capable of evaluating and advising clients on the right solutions for their business than you.

Provide Inspired Advice to Your Clients

However, in order for you to provide inspired advice, you’ll need to dig deep into each solution and understand how it will — or won’t — work for each client.

Evaluate: Look at each of the products/solutions. Look for product differences as well as their similarities. Sometimes the checkboxes can fool us, so your job is to discover the whole story. Watch the complete product demo and take notes on the areas you want to investigate further. Resist the intoxicating effect that a great demo can have. Remember that demos are designed to show you the BEST features of the product, and most likely they will never show you the missing features. That’s your job to discover.

Beware of brochure-ware: Brochures are great for giving you an overview of the features and benefits of a product, but brochures will never help you discover what the product does NOT do, or what doesn’t work well.

Testing and stress testing: Get a test account and data set that allows you to work through all of the use cases your client will encounter. Stress test that software with large data sets to verify performance as well as usability. Consider the whole business when evaluating chunks. Consider the digital plumbing between the chunks, and make sure data flows correctly. Scrutinize the usability of the product and consider the training ramifications before recommending. What process/staffing change will this solution require?

Talk directly with the people behind the product.

  • Without good people, products fail, period.
  • But with good people, great things happen. Just remember what happened when Steve Jobs came back to Apple.
  • Great people make great products and treat their employees and customers well.

You are “hiring” these people to help you lead your clients to better success. So interview them carefully.

It’s All About Trust

The paradigm of “Trusted Advisor” is changing, along with the technologies and business processes, and it all comes back to the word Trust. Without trust, nothing else works.

When your clients trust you, they will:

  • Implement your recommendations
  • Refer you more business
  • Pay you more, and pay you faster
  • Forgive mistakes
  • Treat you like a partner as opposed to a trusted servant/vendor.

Your clients will trust you only so long as you remain relevant and contribute to their success. And trust must be continually re-earned with your clients — especially in the new world of Internet marketing.

Ask yourself whether your clients want you to serve them or lead them to greater success. I believe your clients desperately want you to lead them — and if you don’t, they may turn to someone else who will. Of course, to effectively lead your clients, you must constantly retool your knowledge and processes or risk becoming irrelevant and out of touch.

Only the Paranoid Survive

I highly recommend Only the Paranoid Survive, by Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, published in 1999 long before Google, but the lessons are timeless and extremely relevant to what’s happening today in the accounting profession.

In this book, Andy discusses how business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and how a “Strategic Inflection Point” is a point in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change. But he also says you can be the subject of a strategic inflection point or the cause of one.

He also talks about disruption and “Career Inflection Points” that are caused by a change in the environment. These disruptions do not distinguish between the qualities (or ability) of the people they dislodge, but they are inevitable, just like changes in the weather.

He also talks about how he was always on the lookout for “10X changes” in technology that exerted tremendous force for change in markets. Examples are sound coming to movies, or the semiconductor revolutionizing the computer industry. These concepts apply today more than ever.

One of the most important lessons from this book is that if you don’t disrupt yourself, someone else will.

Agility Trumps Ability

Across the entire business world, the most successful people and companies are those who continually reinvent themselves and respond to changes in the business environment. We all strive to become the most skilled practitioner, but the fact is, even the most skilled professional cannot remain relevant unless he or she is agile in business.

Just as exercise builds new muscles in your body, when you develop new business processes, new service offerings, and new ways of leveraging technology, you build new streams of revenue for your business. Your clients desperately want new services and they want you to help them grow their businesses. They need compliance services, but they want strategic advice and they are increasingly demanding that you work with them in new ways that are dramatically different from the service delivery models of the past.

Accountants who focus more on agility than on raw ability will thrive in the coming years. Technical skills and knowledge are table stakes, but those skills won’t be enough in the new world unless you also develop the ability to use a variety of technologies to apply your skills.

Be Vendor Neutral

As an accountant, you use many tools to practice your craft. You use lots of hardware and software for accounting, tax, workflow, document management solutions, and so forth. In addition to the tools, you need lots of knowledge about the tools each client can use to improve their business processes.

The Most Trusted Advisor gains certifications on several products, but does not hide behind the badges, branding, and logos of vendors. Instead, the Most Trusted Advisor builds his or her own brand, and remains focused on client needs as opposed to vendor channel programs.

Doug’s Rules of Vendor Neutrality:

  • Clients come first, last, and always.
  • Products come and go, but the accountant-client relationship is life-long.
  • Don’t be intoxicated by Brochure-ware (what the marketing department says the product should do).
  • Build your Brand first.
  • Loan that brand to vendors, but only after deep scrutiny, client-by-client.

From Client-Centric to Accountant-Centric

The Most Trusted Advisor uses accountant-centric tools, and productizes their service. Think OutService as opposed to OutSource. For the past 30 years, software solutions have been client-centric, but today they are increasingly collaborative, or even accountant-centric.

I like to think of it as “Productizing your Services.” Instead of just recommending products that clients will purchase and use themselves, the new paradigm is one in which accountants purchase and use software solutions that help them deliver their services to clients.

This is a fundamental shift that has only recently become possible. What you need to do is to create a whole toolkit of products, from several vendors, that allow you to offer the services that each client needs.

And to help keep you from going insane, the best advice I can give is that you specialize in market niches, or specific business processes, or in specific technology areas. By acting now to reimagine your business, and redesigning it to leverage the new technologies and tools, you can create not only a great business for today, but a sustainable business for the future.

The original post appeared on the Sleeter Group blog. Doug Sleeter will be a keynote speaker at Accountex USA 2016 in November. AccountingWEB and Accountex have partnered to bring you this content as we share a belief in the furtherment of the profession through greater insights.

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