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Have Accountants Become Accidental Advisors?


In light of the challenges accountants have experienced due to COVID-19, it seems everyone is looking to get in on advisory services. Some practitioners, however, just don't realize advisory is what they're actually doing. Consultants and trainers Liz Scott and Heather Satterley explain.

Aug 31st 2020
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Liz Scott, Advanced Certified QuickBooks Online ProAdvisor and accounting professional technology consultant, co-authored this article. 

What’s more is that transactional accounting is now a commodity with firms like Bench, Pilot and scores of offshore outsourcing companies flooding the market with their low-cost, highly automated bookkeeping services. As such, small CPA and bookkeeping firms must bring more to the table than just organizing and crunching numbers if they are to hang on to their existing clients and attract new ones.

The advisory paradox is a funny one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard over the past few years, “I really want to offer advisory services to my clients, but I’m just not sure how to get started.” The thing is, every single one of these practitioners is likely already providing advisory to their clients in some capacity; they just aren’t calling it “advisory.” Not convinced? You actually provide advisory services…

  • Every time you interpret a line on a financial report or offer advice about which general ledger account to use
  • When you off-handedly tell your client how much they could save by switching service providers or brands.
  • When your client asks you to do a mid-month cash reconciliation to see if they can afford a purchase

It’s fascinating (and baffling) that so many talented, experienced professionals don’t recognize that the advice they give to their clients is by definition “advisory.” And if you don’t realize it, chances are, the client doesn’t either.

What is Advisory Anyway?

During the COVID pandemic, many of the stories from clients are surrounded by uncertainty. No matter your role -- the accountant or bookkeeper -- your clients have already bonded with you, naturally making you the financial first responders. This existing relationship makes you primed for offering advice.

Most of my peers have already assumed the role as the advisor, whether they are calling it by that name or not. This makes now, during this crisis, the perfect opportunity to redefine these activities as advisory services.

Most clients are looking for guidance to best navigate change and uncertainty. Advisory services, at their core, are about empowering your clients to make better decisions.

Change is hard, period. Business owners often feel as if they have hit-the-wall and have nowhere to turn. They need information, shared experience, and most importantly - a trusted sounding board to work through their fear and indecision.

Reviewing financials in an economic downturn and an unprecedented crisis is incredibly scary because many of our clients do not have a good understanding of the relationship between their financial reports, such as balance sheets and profit and loss. Fear then leads to indecision, inaction or arbitrary action.

Sharing our understanding and expertise of financial and economic principles with our clients can help provide clarity about their position within the economic environment. This enables their entrepreneurial spirit to blast off, leading the way to innovation and the ability and willingness to pivot.

So How Can You Help?

Your accounting brain is adeptly skilled to help your clients find clarity and direction during times of uncertainty. The tools in your analytical arsenal include budgets and cash flow forecasts to help them survive and even flourish in the days and months ahead.

You can open the door for funding opportunities by providing advice and understanding of the various options available to them. No doubt, you wake each morning familiarizing yourself with the ever-changing rules and amendments to the CARES act and other disaster legislation.

Your familiarity and understanding of financial products and the impact they have on the going-concern of a business is incredibly valuable to your clients. Share this knowledge with them and let them know you are ready and eager to help answer their questions.

The loan process is terrifying for many small business owners. Applying for funding when a business is doing well can be an arduous task, but considering that your client is likely feeling a negative impact from the current crisis, their anxiety is likely much higher. 

You are likely aware of non-traditional funding options your client may not know about and your expertise is vital when clients need to complete applications, both when applying for funding and the upcoming need to ask for PPP forgiveness. Providing resources and guidance about employer responsibilities and providing HR resources is pure gold during the pandemic!

Leverage your relationships and free resources from your partners. You can find a wealth of articles, calculators, legislative interpretations, and other guidance by doing a quick Google search or reaching out to your professional organizations.

Empathy is a key factor in building trust with your clients. Allowing your clients to see your own vulnerability and how COVID has affected your business can be both enlightening and comforting. Sharing how you have reacted to the crisis by changing office hours to accommodate additional work, transitioning to a remote workforce to keep your team and clients safe and doing extensive research to understand changing legislation helps them to know you are on their team.

Building Trust Takes Time

Each individual win with clients is celebrated by calling it out. Victories worth celebrating can be something small, such as the hiring of a new employee or opening a savings account.

Wins can also be pivotal. One client recently faced business closure due to the pandemic. They own a small chain of restaurants which has seen a dramatic drop in business. Together, we examined his market and evaluated his revenue drivers.

During our discussions, we uncovered that another venture (private waterfront vacation rentals), would provide needed revenue and restore jobs to the employees affected by the restaurant closure. This new venture is proving lucrative now and has restored financial stability to my client and their employees.

Another client (a manufacturer of high-end home furnishings) had engaged us pre-COVID to provide technology consulting services to streamline their accounting processes. When the factory was forced to close and they furloughed their employees, the client reached out to reassess our engagement plan. We decided to use the time to address some other areas in the business but keep working on the engagements during the closure.

During our call, I asked how the owner was doing. This simple question released a much-needed outpouring of anxiety and the conversation quickly turned to how we could help in other ways during the crisis.

We ended up helping the client understand and apply for disaster assistance, reconcile cash and provide projections. We even found over $10,000 of duplicate expense transactions over the past 5 years that essentially became “found money” to the client.

Our relationship grew during the spring as we provided guidance and sometimes just an ear to the owner, until she was able to reopen her facility. Needless to say, we have picked up additional service engagements with this client and established a relationship built around trust, responsiveness and empathy.

The Accountant Perspective

As the stewards and “guardians” to our clients, we care most about helping them create not only the business, but also the lives they really want. Just as the primary physician is the go-to care provider to stay healthy and seek help during a crisis, we are the financial primary providers to our clients.

Our accessibility and relationships with our clients position us to recognize when something needs action and offer advice and guidance to keep businesses healthy. We are always working to perfect our craft, just as the primary physician continues to educate themselves through training, peer groups and practice. Refining our skills as specialists and providing financial guidance is a role we the accountants must embrace and cherish by providing expertise, empathy and support.

Want to learn more? Sign up to download a FREE copy of our upcoming guide: Financial Reporting and The Language of Advisory, authored by K2 shareholder and thought leader Randy Johnston.

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