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Beyond the Tax Return: Transition to Trusted Adviser

Trusted-adviserIs this a scenario you could relate to during busy season? It’s one of those days. Your schedule is jam packed. You’re working in overdrive to get it all done. The next thing you know, the receptionist buzzes you with news that one of your clients is in the lobby to drop off some paperwork. They would like to see you if you have a few minutes.

“ARGGHHH…not today!” you’re thinking. “I just don’t have time.” As tempting as it would be to decline the last minute request, you’re mindful that a client is right there in your office. That means you have the opportunity to amp your trust factor while they’re visiting. Maintaining a hands-off approach can make client retention tough. In my practice, the biggest complaint we hear from prospective clients who are considering a new firm is that their current tax expert never talks to them.

At our two-partner firm, we believe our input in compliance matters is important, but we use our technical knowledge to become our clients’ strategic partner. Becoming an adviser requires going beyond the tax return and having more contact with clients. I like to seize the opportunity to do this in busy season. On a typical evening in busy season, I might spend two hours interviewing a couple on their estate planning issues, asking what is important to them, discussing the tax implications of their plans and explaining how we can connect them with other advisers to address different needs. Not every adviser is able to take this time during tax season, so they may identify the opportunities, but follow up on them after April 15.

Tax information reveals a wealth of knowledge about a client’s personal and financial situation that we can use to open a dialogue about their needs, including help for businesses in which they’re involved. By doing so, we strengthen our relationship and clients turn to us first when they need advice.

As part of our approach, we actively work with estate planners, attorneys and investment advisers, identifying the ones who are best suited to serve our clients and introducing them to clients when they need specialized expertise. Taking on the role of facilitator enhances our role as central to clients’ financial concerns. Clients appreciate knowing they have a team of advisers who are considering their options from different viewpoints and addressing all possible concerns. They know they will get better advice than if we are all working in silos.

Here are two challenges to consider when shifting from technician to adviser:

  • Staffing and scheduling. To accommodate the added time spent with each client, you may have to reallocate some clients to other staff members or transition them to other firms that are a better fit. That will leave more time for your best clients. Another option is to increase your staffing cost effectively by using temp employees or outsourcing to part-timers.  And don’t forget to spend some time to educate staff so that they can spot opportunities for additional client service. To help you find ways to encourage staff, take a look at the resources in the Trusted Business Advisor 2.0 Toolkit.
  • Pricing. You will have to change your pricing to reflect the higher level advice that you give clients. Before taking on a client, we set up an hour-long initial meeting to learn more about their financial situation, questions and concerns. We candidly tell them that we’re not their cheapest option, but explain that we offer significantly more value because of the quality of insights we deliver and our availability. The result? Our clients tell us they’re glad to work with us because we’re responsive and offer them fresh ideas and perspective.

One critical element in moving from technician to adviser is having confidence in your own skills and experience. CPAs have an extraordinary knowledge base. Working with a high volume of returns over the years gives CPAs a practical perspective they bring to the table every time they work with clients. We use the stories of our experiences to illustrate our points and demonstrate the range of our knowledge. For example, when we work with people who are choosing between a family member or a corporate trustee for their estate plan, we might discuss how we’ve seen both options work in practice and explain the pros and cons of each choice.  

Are you planning now to reinvigorate your tax practice going forward? Based on our experience, I’d encourage you to consider moving to an advisory role. You will gain happy clients who trust and appreciate you, and you will get more revenue in the door.

Looking for more information on elevating your role with clients? I hope you’ll join me in June, where I’ll be presenting more insights into my experience as a Trusted Business Advisor at the 2014 AICPA Practitioners Symposium and TECH+ Conference. I look forward to seeing you there!

Jason Deshayes, CPA, Vice President, Butler & Company. 

Trusted adviser image via Shutterstock

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