Every CPA has probably dealt with this scenario: an initial meeting with a potential client who, while explaining their business or tax situation, asks a tax question that the practitioner knows the answer to right off the bat. It’s a basic tax question, but one that requires expertise to answer. What should be done? Should the CPA answer the potential client and give them “free” advice, or stop and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t answer any tax questions at this time. We have to charge you for those type of questions.”

This conundrum bothered the author for a few years. While a friendly disposition—and just good manners—makes a person want to give out advice for free, it’s upsetting to spend 15 minutes on the phone with a potential client, helping them with a problem, only to never hear from them again. The transaction does not balance, and accountants like things to balance.

This is part of the problem with the CPA profession. Accountants so want to make sure that they win every transaction, charge every hour, and are as productive as possible, that they lose sight of the “why”—helping individuals and businesses become more successful.

It’s okay to give advice and not receive anything in return, because most of the time free advice creates a client for life because of the earned trust. When people receive genuine advice from a professional, they are getting something of value for themselves. If it’s of true value, they will be grateful for the advice; if they are decent human beings, they will be happy that someone took the time out of their day to help them for nothing. In fact, most of the time they will ask to pay for the advice on the spot, or ask for a bill. They will become the CPA’s number one fans and advocates.

For example, this author received a call from an elderly woman a few weeks ago who wanted to set up a meeting. When asked what she wanted to discuss, she said she didn’t know how to fill out a form about liquidating her $70,000 IRA in order for the money to be accessible quickly for her children in case they needed help. I explained that she was creating a large taxable event for herself, and that she was better off keeping the money in the IRA and potentially changing the investments therein to make them more easily accessible. This phone call saved her more than $20,000 in taxes. When she asked if there was any charge, I merely thanked her for the call and asked her to keep the firm in mind if she ever needed our services in the future.

I didn’t gain a client that day, but I did gain a genuine evangelist for life. Soon afterward, I received a phone call from one of the woman’s neighbors who was looking for a CPA and has since become a client. I expect many more referrals because of the trust established in that single phone call.

This is not to say firms should give away everything they do for free; this is a profession, not a charity. But it’s okay to talk to people on the phone and help them without expecting payment in return. In the end, this generosity will reap more rewards than a mere quarter of an hour of billed time. CPAs should in fact be giving away a great deal of advice for free, because that is how one becomes a thought leader in one’s community or area of expertise. People seek advice from CPAs because they are trusted professionals, and once that trust is earned, it’s an easy conversion from unpaid potential client to high-paying client.

Jason L. Ackerman, CPA/CGMA, CFP is an accountant with Bernard N. Ackerman (BNA) CPAs, PA, in Rock Hill, S.C.