Co-Editors: Steven F. Holub, CPA, and Mary Cathryn Green, CPA, M. Acc.
Tax professionals rely heavily on their technical skills, believing that if they are really good at what they do, the clients will naturally come. Many initially focused on tax because it is interesting and constantly changing, but also to make a difference. Professionals in this field are in a unique position. They can save their clients real dollars, significantly reduce their risks, help them achieve their goals, and get them out of bad situations. What other professional can do all that?
Many in the tax profession avoid and some even despise business development, leaving it to those who they think are better at it and more comfortable dealing with people. They have a list of excuses for this avoidance, but they should remember that tax expertise is highly valued by owners and decision makers and can gain a new client or solidify a relationship with an existing client.
So how to transform a good tax accountant into a successful business development professional? There are a variety of activities, starting with good tax technical skills and encompassing issue identification, creative ideas, strategic planning, marketing support, business development activities, and closing the deal. Even the smallest idea can tip the scales and make the deal happen.
Tax professionals who do not have strong people skills need to acquire them. No one wants to hear “I’m not a people person”; tax advisers are already in a people business. Even the most introverted individuals can learn relationship-building and people skills. They may not enjoy or thrive on these activities the way “people” people do, but they can learn and use them. It is important to know how to build trust, create credibility, be liked, listen, express caring, show empathy, identify with the client or the situation, and be able to read people. Prospects and clients are not just buying a service—they are buying a relationship.
The Benefits of Planning
In reviewing a client’s tax return, an adviser can identify errors, potential issues, and risks. But his or her real talent lies in planning and ideas. Good tax planning requires knowing and understanding one’s clients, their business, and their objectives. This planning time is where tax advisers can really make a difference, both for adding value to a client and for converting a prospect to a client. It also makes a huge difference in advisers’ job satisfaction—they can tap into their creativity and feel a strong sense of accomplishment.
Tax professionals sometimes have clients of their own, but in many cases they work with other partners’ prospects and clients. Advisers can do some planning without ever meeting the clients, but it is difficult to do one’s best tax planning if one has not met the clients, toured their businesses, and gained an understanding of what they do and how they do it. The engagement partners give the tax adviser information they think is important, but often only the tax professional can really know what is important or what idea will bring the biggest value for the prospect or client. Besides, face time is critical to developing any kind of relationship.
One advantage of being in this profession is that meeting with a client will often lead to more work with that client. The goodwill (expanding the relationship, being a sounding board, showing empathy) generated by the meeting is invaluable.
Establishing a Relationship
How can a tax professional infiltrate the relationship the client has with the engagement partners when they control the relationship? Tax advisers need to sell themselves, their abilities, and the impact they can make. After all, tax advisers are not there to disrupt the client relationship; they are there to enhance it. This relationship starts with being part of a team that can fully serve the client. It would be wise to make the initial meeting with the client complimentary, when the goal is to understand the client and get insight into his or her objectives. Often this is done for both prospects and valued clients.
The key is to listen, listen, and then listen some more. Ask general and specific questions. Make notes. Brainstorm ideas and strategize. Then share those thoughts or ideas with the client. The ideas do not necessarily need to be completely relevant or fully thought out, but they do need to have some relationship to the client and his or her business. When meeting with a prospect or client, share any potential ideas, even when the idea might not fully apply. This approach can lead to more ideas and discussion on how to find a way to improve the situation or make the idea work. It is amazing what can develop and how much it can save the client. Such brainstorming also gets everyone excited about the possibilities. The next step is to determine whether the idea will work, what research or additional information is needed to make a decision, and how to implement the idea.
Some tax professionals actually hold back on their ideas. They worry that the client will take the ideas and use them without retaining the adviser’s services. Though that can happen, it usually does not. A tax adviser will rarely have a second opportunity to prove his or her worth or make a lasting impression, so it is important to get the client’s attention and make a difference right from the beginning.
Tax professionals may have heard prospects or clients say, “I want to be on the bleeding edge of taxes.” However, it is the adviser’s responsibility to talk them away from that edge. The tax adviser’s role is to present ideas and educate clients about savings, advantages and disadvantages, and risks. If the adviser is uncomfortable with a client’s position, he or she needs to assess the position thoroughly, determine if disclosure is needed, evaluate the IRS rules on his or her ability to sign the tax return, and understand and communicate the potential penalties for both the client and the adviser. There are times when the best decision will be to walk away. No matter how much advisers may want or need a client, is it really worth the risk of tarnishing their reputation, the penalties involved, or even losing their license, not to mention being faced with a possible lawsuit?
The IRS’s and the AICPA’s tax practice standards not only are required, they are intended to help advisers determine when a position is bad and where to draw the line with their clients. The rules and guidelines help tax professionals be better advisers and stand up to and for their clients, who sometimes think their advisers will do virtually anything if they apply enough pressure. In many cases the lines can be blurry, so the adviser must carefully evaluate all aspects of the situation.
After the Meeting
Another important part of the business development process is diligent follow-up and follow-through. One practice that might be useful after the first meeting is for the adviser to create an action list that prospects and clients can use to follow up on issues discussed in the meeting, and then to send a follow-up e-mail or a handwritten card thanking the prospect for the meeting and including information that was either an action item or something of interest. Follow-up and follow-through can be some of the easiest things to do, but they often get missed. They can make the difference between getting and losing the business, and the goodwill they create should never be underestimated
Business development is also about networking, building strong referral relationships, giving presentations and web seminars, and writing articles or e-mail blasts. Again, tax professionals will need strong technical skills, creativity, good communication skills, and diligent follow-up, along with a passion for what they do, continued professional growth, and the desire to help their clients.
It might be intimidating for tax advisers to get out of their comfort zone, but that is really the only way to grow and add more value for themselves and their businesses. They should consider making a true self-assessment and identifying their strengths and weaknesses, then use those strengths to their advantage and continue to work on improving the weaknesses.
Tax professionals need to take their expertise to a new level. They should develop their people skills, meet with prospects and clients, be creative, brainstorm ideas and strategize, develop strategic relationships both internally and externally, do business development activities (i.e., networking, speaking, writing), and most of all be diligent on follow-up and follow-through with their prospects and clients.
Steven Holub is a partner in Cherry Bekaert & Holland, LLP, in Tampa, FL, and is former chair of the AICPA Tax Division’s Tax Practice Management Committee. Mary Cathryn Green is with Marcum, LLP, in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and is chair of the Tax Practice Improvement Committee. Rene Schaefer is a principal with SVA Certified Public Accountants S.C. in Brookfield, WI, and is a member of the Tax Practice Improvement Committee. For information about this column, contact Ms. Schaefer at firstname.lastname@example.org.