Recently, I’ve been interviewed by a couple of different media outlets for stories about CPAs. In each case, one of the questions asked was a variation of the same theme: “Are CPAs as boring as their reputation?”
I can’t say I was overly surprised by the question. As someone who has an unnatural interest in numbers, I’ve heard the “nerd” chants going back to 2nd grade. Each day, Miss Stinnett let me grade the other students’ math papers because I finished so quickly. (Ok, that IS a little nerdy.)
After my freshman year in college, I changed my major from Electrical Engineering to Accounting and thought that the “nerd” references would recede somewhat. I mean, honestly, engineers are strange creatures! (No offense, dad.) But I was wrong. Accountants and engineers are bedfellows in the nerdy reputation business.
But is the reputation fair? Are we boring? While the reputation may well have been justified thanks to some of our green-visor, pocket-protector, slide-rule ancestors, in a future post I’ll talk about why the answer to whether accountants today are boring is a resounding “NO!” But that’s another post for another day. The bigger question that I’ve been pondering lately is, “as accountants, do we bore our clients?”
Here are a few reasons why we could be guilty and some thoughts about how to avoid the boredom trap.
We love our jargon
As with most professions, accounting is full of peculiar words and phrases. Too many of these in a conversation can quickly bore a client or other non-accountant to tears. Contra accounts, IFRS, accretive to earnings, SAS 115, double-entry bookkeeping, FIFO/LIFO, goodwill, MACRS and much, much more. It’s enough to make a client’s head spin. (Some days it’s enough to make MY head spin.)
As a financial planner, I have to consciously remind myself before each client meeting to talk in their terms. Referring to “Monte Carlo simulations” deservedly receives blank stares. “Beta” and “alpha” of particular investment options? Booooring! I need to talk about their hard work and lifetime savings and how it is making a meaningful difference in achieving their retirement goals. Simple. Straightforward.
If even your friends have stopped inviting you to happy hours, you might be guilty of this one. Try toning down the jargon. Speaking in “normal people language” will help to erase the robotic nerd reputation and keep clients engaged and interested.
We are so darn busy
Hopefully this isn’t true all the time. But certainly during busy season, we work a lot of hours. We sit at our desks and crank through a lot of tax returns or audits or quarterly reports or financial plans or whatever. We’re focused and productive and do outstanding work for our clients. But when we pick up the phone to ask them a question or answer one of theirs, we don’t always focus on them – the individual.
To the client, it’s generally pretty straightforward: “how does this impact ME?” or “when are you going to be done with MY work?” To us, our heads are swimming with tax rates, depreciation methods, SEC reporting requirements and rates of return. At any given time, I may be thinking about half a dozen different clients – deadlines to meet, cash distribution needs, IRA rollovers in process and the complexities of a newly created estate.
We have a stack of client work on our desk, and we’re maybe a little sleep deprived. But that’s not the client’s problem. Don’t bore them by spitting out everything you know or by listing all of the things you have on your plate. Talk to them. Listen to them. One on one. (And then grab a Dr. Pepper, refill your candy bowl and get back to work.)
We don’t communicate our value
Too often accountants are viewed as “necessary evils.” The thought is that auditors only exist to help a company comply with its reporting requirements. Tax accountants are only around to help an individual meet their IRS needs. Financial advisors are only around to process transactions and provide the occasional hot stock tip. “What we have here is: failure to communicate!”
If I’m not clearly communicating my value to a client, why wouldn’t they become bored and annoyed with the work I do and the bills I send them each quarter? Providing outstanding work as a qualified CPA isn’t enough. I need to link the work I do with how it is directly helping the client achieve their goals, sleep well at night and provide for their loved ones. That’s meaningful stuff – and not boring at all! But it’s rarely that clear to the client unless we’re communicating it.
CPAs do essential work. But it’s more than essential – it’s highly valuable to our clients. We can communicate that by the work product we provide, the trusted advice that we share and the way in which we treat our clients. In real estate, it’s about location, location, location. In accounting, it’s often about communication, communication, communication.
We are all in the business of serving clients, but we don’t always step back and think about those relationships. Do we speak in terms our clients understand? Are we engaging and focused on each individual client? Do we regularly communicate the true value we provide? Spend a little time today reviewing your client interactions. Are you boring them? If so, what can you do to change that?