How to Move from Trusted Servant to Trusted Advisor

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There is a growing trend of accountants moving away from traditional compliance work to more advisory work. Client demand is there, but it is up to the accountants to capitalize on that. What should accountants' roles be today?

This question was posed by Doug Sleeter, founder and president of The Sleeter Group, during a session on AWEBLive!, the 12-hour CPE marathon.

"This is the time when you, as a professional, get to decide what you want your life to look like", Sleeter said. "What is your role with your clients? Do you want to be the most trusted servant or trusted advisor?"

Sleeter acknowledged those accountants who are content preparing tax returns, noting that's a relevant and important part of the profession that isn't going away. But preparing a tax return for a client is the role of servant, not advisor—you're doing what they have to have done, Sleeter explained.

Often accountants don't even realize how they can help their clients because the spectrum of need falls out of what clients traditionally would think to ask their accountants to address.

For example, Sleeter pointed to results from a survey his firm conducted last year of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) asking what they want from their accountants.

Sixty-eight percent of SMBs surveyed said they wanted strategic technology advice from accounting professionals, but only 38 percent believed that was something they could ask from their accountant. That's a huge service gap between what accountants are doing and what clients want, Sleeter pointed out.

Take Technology, for Example
Anyone who wants to provide advice in the technology arena must do ample research, and use the tools before steering their clients toward a particular vendor, however, warned Gregory L. LaFollette, CPA, CITP, CGMA, vice president of product strategy for CPA2Biz.

People often approach LaFollette and ask him which products they should use for certain tasks, but the answer isn't that simple, he explained. There are many competing products out there and while it's acceptable to standardize on one that is a better fit for the needs of a particular client's specific vertical niche, for example, it's also important to know at least a little bit about the other available options.

Sleeter agreed, and went further to emphasize the importance of vendor neutrality, not force-fitting a client into using a tool that isn't a good match because it's the only known option. Avoid appearing like a salesman or a spokesperson for certain or vendors, he advised.

"Filter the noise. All vendors hit clients with messages; the accountant's job is to filter that", Sleeter said.

He provided the following "Rules of Vendor Neutrality":

  1. Clients come first, last, and always.
  2. Products come and go, but the accountant-client relationship is lifelong. So be careful what you recommend and how "in bed" you get with a particular product.
  3. Don't be intoxicated by "brochureware" created by marketing departments. They say what the products do, but that's not always exactly what they do.
  4. Build your brand first.
  5. Very carefully "loan" your brand to vendors, but only after deep scrutiny, client by client.

The most trusted advisor uses accountant-centric tools, Sleeter added. Accountants may even be the ones paying the vendor for the tools and then the client just pays for the accountant's services instead of having to go to the vendor directly.

Whatever model you use, there's one bottom line: "What clients really want to buy from us is inspired advice", Sleeter said.

The full recorded broadcast is available on the AWEBLive! site.

About the author:
Alexandra DeFelice is senior manager of communication and program development for Moore Stephens North America, and a regional member of Moore Stephens International Limited, a network of more than 360 accounting and consulting firms with nearly 650 offices in more than 100 countries. Alexandra can be reached at [email protected].


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