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Two Words Helping Breed Complacency in Public Accounting: Trusted Advisor

By Joey Havens

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This blog is the first in the series, The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business—My Very Own Jerry Maguire Blog

The term “trusted advisor” is so overused and embellished in public accounting—to the extent that this term now breeds complacency. Our profession has taken for granted the level of client service and experience, the relevant insights and the courage necessary to proactively collaborate in fulfillment of those powerful words. We continuously label ourselves and our firms with this term meant to convey the highest level of client experience and equity relationship while our professional services are increasingly being viewed and purchased as low-value commodities. We are quickly sliding down the value slope even with many of our trusted advisor relationships.    We have all experienced the chilling effect of competition, including the Big 4 and national firms, submitting blatantly low fees on proposals in the unquenchable thirst for growth. But when we lose existing clients or when they hire another firm for a critical project, both of which are occurring more frequently, it’s easy to hear partners and managers blaming fees, “Our fees are simply too high,” they cry. We hear the same song when we lose that big proposal or opportunity. Rarely is the discussion about lack of relevance, collaboration efforts, ability to message value or simply the fact that we were not in their inner circle. The truth is, we are not serving this client as a trusted advisor.    

Two truths are always present for true trusted advisors: their clients are raving promoting fans and you never hear about their client leaving because their fees are too high. Coincidence? I think not. It really is that simple if we want to own being trusted advisors.

Why confront trusted advisor?

For numerous (some selfish) reasons, I have avoided publicly challenging our use of “trusted advisor”—respect, fear, groupthink (another blog for sure), being too focused on our firm, or maybe I am afraid of being labeled the public accounting Jerry Maguire. Whatever the reason, I know it’s time we confront our complacency. We must call out our complacency because we need to hear it, recognize it and change it—NOW. The AICPA white paper Becoming the Firm of the Future details the challenges and opportunities that exist for firms when we shake off the ropes of our past successes and address the changing workforce and marketplace—one demanding that we find ways to be relevant and valuable.

It’s time for our business and client service models to change, but if we keep telling each other and our clients that we are trusted advisors, without owning today’s market reality of how our profession and our firms are falling short of this client experience, this change will never happen. Where is the real urgency around delivering a better client experience that eliminates the commodity slide? As John Kotter says in his book Leading Change, having a sense of urgency is not about acting out of anger, desperation or fear—it simply means there is no more room for complacency. 

In his book True Professionalism, David Maister boldly challenged our profession and its complacency, calling out “cruisers”—competent, hard-working and successful partners who do not grow their firm or their people. I would add to that by pointing out that cruisers are also NOT trusted advisors. Cruisers are certainly “first responders” who are called after decisions are made and strategic direction is determined. Do we really believe that clients call their trusted advisors into their inner circle AFTER they launch a rocket or run their truck into the ditch? Cruisers do not proactively cruise in the inner circle of their clients’ lives as trusted advisors. [Tweet this]

We are the best in helping someone understand what has already happened. But clients are searching for proactive advisors who collaborate on goals, strategy, challenges and insights. They are not looking for more information but for forward-thinking analytical thoughts, wisdom, experience and points of view that have real impact on their success and future. Why aren’t we in the inner circle where we can actually help detect the problem or avoid it, facilitating the setting of strategic goals, collaborating on the possibilities of new opportunities or advising on many aspects of an acquisition/sell rather than receiving a call only about the tax issues or how to record this transaction? 

Sadly, the falsehood of being trusted advisors is a brutal reality for our profession today, and although I am painting it with a broad brush, this is true for almost all firms and has certainly proven true in ours. Challenging the use of the term is not a concern for the champions in our profession who are truly serving as trusted advisors.  We simply don’t have enough of them. As Bum Phillips once said about his great players, it doesn’t take long to call the roll.