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When does an accountant become a consultant?

GG Blog

By Graeme Gordon

It’s all a question of perception.

I’m often asked to explain the transition from accountant to consultant and what this means for an individual and their firm.

My short answer is that in most cases, if the accountant is any good they will already be a consultant, probably without being aware of it.

In fact, I believe the only accountants that succeed without being consultants are those working exclusively behind-the-scenes on the technical aspects of our profession.

Think about it. Any one of your partners or senior managers who is successful in obtaining and retaining clients, doesn’t just produce or manipulate figures for their clients. They listen and fulfil the clients’ express and implied needs. In other words, they are consultants.

Every firm I know says they are their clients’ ‘’trusted advisors”. Well what is an advisor if not someone who advises and is consulted for that advice? A Consultant in other words.

The accountant vs consultant issue arises from perceptions within firms. Firstly, there is the perception of the accountant, who may well not think of themselves as a consultant. Secondly, there is the perception of the marketing and business development personnel, who have been taught to promote and discuss the financial, tax and accounting values. Finally, and possibly most importantly, there’s the perception of the clients, who think of their accountants as purely “bean-counters” even though they regularly consult them for advice.

So, how should we address this perception issue?

I cannot offer a simple answer. If I could I’d be quite wealthy, I suspect. However, here are some suggestions:

  • When offering advice, regardless of whether this is on tax, audit or anything else, emphasise the fact this advice is based on listening and responding to your client’s needs;
  • Explain verbally or in writing (or both), that the partner/accountant will need to consult with the client in depth before they are able to advise on anything;
  • In the same way that you go to a doctor’s consulting room, perhaps you can refer internally to client consulting rooms instead of meeting rooms to help change thought processes;
  • When marketing, always be aware that the client may need help, but they also want to be listened to first so word your marketing collateral accordingly.

I have been fairly successful in reducing “problems” in my organisation by getting colleagues to re-name them as “issues”. These situations are the same but the change in name makes colleagues more likely to think of possible solutions. The same is true, I believe, with the terms “advisor” and “consultant”. Start using the term; start thinking like a consultant, and you may be very pleasantly surprised by the change that occurs.

It won’t be instantaneous. It is more evolution than revolution. But, you will change minds and thus methods.

If it helps, just remember what my grandma used to tell me. “You have two eyes, two ears and only one mouth. Use them in that proportion.” When planning sales and marketing activities, if you can convince a prospect or existing client that your firm sees the opportunities and listens to what they have to say, you’ll win the deal more often than not.