There is no doubt that advising is very important to being a CPA, but that has always been the case. Clients have come to us for advice since the dawn of accounting. So what has changed? Technology has made the compliance aspect of our business easier and less time consuming, but that has also commoditized the lower end work that CPAs were performing. Our work is “shifting up”—meaning the easy stuff is being done by computers, with the hard stuff left to humans.
At the heart of the move to “advisory” is an embrace of technology in the workplace. Yes, we need to let the computers do the easy stuff. But I think we’ve shifted too far in letting the computers do all the work, which I would argue is not good for clients, is not necessarily more efficient, and is going to lead to a lack of talent in the accounting world.
What is lost in the shuffle of our perceived move from compliance to advising is that we have lost focus on what really matters to a client—client service.
I think a lot of firms have forgotten that servicing clients, listening to their needs, understanding them, and finding solutions for them, is the most important value add that you can provide. Your whole firm should be focused on this—from receptionist to the person in charge—trying to figure out how to make your client experience better. Every decision at the firm should answer the simple question: “Does this action improve our client service?”
If that question were asked and answered honestly, I am not sure that current trends in outsourcing and computerization of compliance work would be trending as hard as they are right now. Having no communication during the preparation of a tax return has never made sense to me, because when you talk with clients about tax returns is when you understand the situation, get to know them, and can offer advice to them—things you can’t do if they just scan their tax documents into a system and someone in India prepares the return that is reviewed by a first-year staffer and sent for the client to sign. Is that good customer service? I don’t think so.
A large untapped focus of CPA firms is support. Most CPAs offer terrible support—if a client has a question, receives a tax notice, or needs an answer, we have created barrier after barrier for clients to reach us. We have outsourced our phone answering to a phone tree, we have siloed email inboxes, and we have created complicated portals that make it difficult for clients to talk to us and reach us. How is this good customer service? Everyone hates calling the airlines or the banks and waiting on hold for hours to talk with someone, so why have we designed our system to be the same as theirs?
A lot of firms have forgotten that servicing clients, listening to their needs, understanding them, and finding solutions for them, is the most important value add that you can provide.
In the move to advisory, we have also just expected new hires to come in, fresh from a college education based on the way accounting was done in 1950, and expect them to be able to review tax returns and offer advice to clients. Then we get frustrated when they can’t perform the higher-level services because we’ve outsourced the way you traditionally learned, which was by preparing tax returns and doing reconciliations. Training and learning are very important, and most learn by hands-on repetition. If we take this away, it will be very difficult for new hires to learn.
I’m not advocating that we go back to preparing tax returns by hand, but there has got to be a middle ground where young professionals can learn by doing returns, bookkeeping, and so forth. Most people cannot come in to a practice without first having an understanding of how the work is created. When thinking about the new processes and client service in your firm, you’ve got to think about how your team is going to be trained to perform higher-level tasks for clients, and you’ve got to build in time for them to learn how to do it. I think it takes at least three years for most people to feel comfortable giving advice, so we have to have a three-year path for people to learn and grow so that they can perform the services they ultimately need to perform.
The herd mentality of shifting to advising is not necessarily a bad thing, but we need to stop and think about whether it’s the best path for clients and the profession as a whole. Client service should be the north star that guides firms and the profession forward.