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Two Words Helping Breed Complacency in Public Accounting: Trusted Advisor

trusted advisor

The following is sponsored content by Joey Havens, the executive partner of Horne, LLP, an Accountingfly Firm Partner.

The term “trusted advisor” is so overused and embellished in public accounting—to the extent that this term now breeds complacency. In this post, we’ll explore this complacency, what our clients need and what service from a real trusted advisor looks like.

Complacency in public accounting

We continuously label ourselves “trusted advisors” to convey the highest level of client experience on our websites, in our proposals and throughout other firm messaging. And yes, it sounds good. I completely understand why we use that term to describe ourselves to our clients and prospects. But unfortunately, “trusted advisor” is not reflective of how our industry serves most of our clients. Our services are increasingly viewed and purchased as low-value commodities.

In his book, True Professionalism, David Maister challenges our profession and its complacency, calling out “cruisers”—competent, hard-working and successful partners who do not grow their firm or their people. Cruisers only serve as “first responders” called after decisions are already made and strategy has already been planned. Cruisers don’t take the time to find new ways to be relevant and valuable.

When we lose existing clients, or when they hire another firm for a critical project, it’s easy to hear partners and managers blaming fees. But the truth is, we are not serving this client as a trusted advisor.

What real service looks like

Clients are searching for proactive advisors who collaborate on goals, strategy and challenges. They are not looking for more information. They need forward-thinking analysis, experience and points of view that have real impact on their success and future.

We need to be in our clients’ inner circle, helping them set strategic goals, collaborate on new opportunities, and detect and solve problems. We need to advise our clients on acquisitions and sales before they happen instead of receiving tax-related calls long after the contract ink is dry.

The privilege of being a client’s trusted advisor is continually earned, and it takes great courage and rigor as well as being proactive and anticipatory. Trusted advisors provide insights and collaboration that generate value far beyond the pricing of their fees.

Where does your firm stand?

I hope we never stop pursuing the level of client service “trusted advisor” implies. Too many firms are in a race to lower fees rather than raise the level of service. Are you curious about how your service compares to that of a true trusted advisor? Take our test.

List your top five clients that you serve across the top of five separate pages. For each client, write down the following:

1. Your client’s strategic goals. (Hint: Trusted advisors go beyond “be profitable” or “grow their business”).
2. What does your client see as their biggest challenge or risk?
3. The date when you last proactively contacted and scheduled a meeting with this client and collaborated on either of these key issues or about a possible opportunity.

Do you have a lot of blank space left on your pages? You may be competent and respond quickly to your client’s needs, but if you don’t know the answers to these questions, you are probably not providing the highest level of service.

Did you pass with flying colors? You are likely having significant growth every year and clients that do not leave for service issues or high fees. There is probably no need to paste “trusted advisor” on your website — your clients are already telling the world.

Dropping “Trusted Advisor”

Let’s drop the “trusted advisor” label and start serving clients with anticipatory and collaborative insights that make our firms and our profession relevant. It’s time to hold ourselves accountable to an even better client experience and a higher level of anticipatory service.

Joey Havens, CPA, is the executive partner at HORNE LLP, where he passionately lives out his life’s calling to help others see and reach their full potential. Joey challenges leaders to bold transparency, calling on leaders to show their heart while working to connect everyone to the “why,” or the purpose, of the organization. He is a husband, father, grandfather, avid outdoorsman and college sports fan.