Are you an accountant, a business adviser or both?
It has become increasingly common for accountants to describe themselves as ‘accountants and business advisers’.
The accountants and firms that do this may or may not charge extra fees for providing clients with business advice.
Some marketing experts encourage use of the longer phrase as a way of distinguishing the firm from all those local competitors who are simply ‘accountants’. It is unclear whether all rebranded firms start giving business advice or just continue doing what they have always done.
Only some of them explicitly offer business advice as one of their services. I have heard many tales of ‘accountants and business advisers’ who still limit their work and advice to the traditional areas, by which I mean clients do not perceive they receive any business advice.
That is the reason for my initial question: Are you an accountant, a business adviser or both?
This article will enable you to decide whether it would be appropriate and beneficial to describe yourself as a business adviser, as well as an accountant. Note that I am not advocating that you do this, unless you feel it would be right to so do.
Let’s start by considering accountants who do not highlight their ability to provide business advice. This could be for a number of reasons, such as:
- Lack of interest, confidence, knowledge or experience – resulting in an absence of business advice to clients
- It just comes naturally and feels right to provide such advice when engaging with clients, but it’s not a separately billable area of work
- Never considered it before
- Dislike of watering down the ‘accountant’ branding
Only you will know which of these is relevant to your own approach.
Are you a credible business adviser?
Where do accountants get their knowledge, expertise and experience from, to offer business advice to clients?
Personal experience: From running your own practice, prior in-house finance roles or simply from working with other clients?
Research: This supplements and brings you up to date by reference to information gleaned from recent books, blogs, articles and conferences.
Systems: Perhaps you have bought into a programme that assists you in adopting a structured approach to the provision of business advice.
There are different approaches you can adopt as regards business advice too. For example:
- The provision of regular business input and advice from a quasi non-exec perspective. Beware if you do this, that you do not overstep the mark and get so involved that you are either conflicted out of your audit work or could be deemed to be a shadow director
- Acting as a business coach encouraging, challenging and supporting clients to achieve greater success than they might otherwise have thought possible
- Simply being at the end of a phone and the first port of call for any business related challenges that arise - not that you or the client expects that you will be able to advice on all such matters yourself. But where it’s outside your comfort zone you invariably know someone who you are happy to recommend. See: 25 collaborative work opportunities for accountants.
If you have limited knowledge, skills and experience I would strongly discourage you from raising anyone’s expectations that they might get business advice from you. Providing business advice in such cases could be unethical and unprofessional.
On the other hand, if you decide to reference your ability to provide business advice, you will need to evidence your ability to be a constructive and credible business adviser.
Would it suit your current client base?
Time and again I hear business owners complaining that their accountants fail to provide business and tax advice. They simply do the books, produce tax returns and tell the client how much tax to pay.
Of course that basic service is all that many clients require or will pay for. Others may need to be educated as to the value of the additional advice you could provide over and above the basics.
An increasing number of accountants offer regular business advice as an optional additional service, often alongside regular reviews of management accounts and business plans. How far you stray beyond the financial side of things will depend on your experience and knowledge.
You simply need to know your limitations and avoid getting drawn into offering advice based on heresay and rumour unless you qualify it suitably.
If you have sufficient business clients who could afford to pay you more than they currently do then you may want to promote your ability to offer them business advice.
In addition to your own knowledge and experience you could also provide advice by reference to relevant software tools, resources and checklists. Many variations of these are available on the market and can help you to develop your business advisory function. My advice would be to research what’s currently available and see what is best for your firm. Whilst the software tools and checklists are a real help, they won't do the job for you and you need to be committed to spending a little time in making them work for your business.
“Clients won’t pay for it”
Some accountants who might be interested in providing business advice to clients have decided that their clients wouldn’t pay for it. This may well be true – depending on the client base in question.
In such cases I would suggest that it's worth considering whether continuing to be simply an ‘accountant’ is limiting your ability to attract the larger business clients you seek.
These may be looking for someone who is both an accountant and a business adviser. This will depend partly on what service they have received to date, in addition to the service they thought they were going to get from their current ‘accountants and business advisers’.
Does it come naturally to you?
Not all accountants have the personality, interest or ability to give valuable business advice. This need not preclude you from encouraging clients who would benefit from it and pay for it to obtain it from a trusted source.
It is both professional and generally appreciated by clients when you introduce suitable third parties who can provide advice the clients need. This includes any form of business advice if it’s not something you are able to provide yourself.
Could you learn from your peers as to how they provide business advice to clients? Maybe it is less daunting than you think it would be. Perhaps the fear of working out how to package, promote and bill for business advice is worse than the reality – which could also be quite profitable.
Most accountants in practice who have business clients are capable of providing at least a modicum of business advice. This is especially the case if their training was sufficiently broad and they have been taking an interest in clients’ affairs and/or they held in-house finance roles before moving into practice.
If that’s the case for you then you are probably both an accountant and a business adviser. Do you agree and do your clients know?
Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB. As a speaker and mentor his focus is on helping accountants who are determined to be more memorable and successful. He also facilitates The Inner Circle group for accountants and is Chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax specialists who provide support to smaller practices
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