Why accountants should see themselves as doctors to their clients

Imagine your business takes a visit to the doctor. Now imagine this doctor is an accountant, your business advisor or mentor. How would the visit go and what should you get out of that visit?

I have not been to a doctor in a very long time. But, I do remember, from a few visits that I have had, what the visit was like and what we chatted about with my doctor. The last time I went there, the visit took the following steps: 

1. Familiarity: 

The first thing my doctor did was greet me and made me feel welcome. We also chatted about a few personal things that we had talked about on my last visit. What also made me feel good was that he remembered what we last spoke about and he also remembered and knew my name. 

Accountants, before you start a meeting with your client, take some time to talk with them on a human level. This is important because it shows that you do not just care about the money that you are getting out of the relationship but also about the welfare and wellbeing of your clients. Remembering their names and what you last spoke about may also be a sign that you value them and their businesses. 

2. Symptoms: 

The next phase of my visit involved me as the patient having to present my complaints or symptoms to the doctor. This was my turn to chat about what I thought was wrong with me. At this stage the doctor was quiet, just taking notes as I spoke. 

As accountants, we often want to jump to provide solutions. Maybe this how we were trained. Maybe it is because we know a client who came to us with a similar business and we immediately assume they have the same problems. 

But this approach is wrong. You need to take time to listen to what challenges your client faces before jumping into solutions. If you jump into solutions, you may provide the wrong prescription that will not work. 

Also, very important, do not interrupt your client when they speak to you about their “symptoms.” If you have a question, write it down and only come back to it when they have finished talking. Similarly, if you think of a solution while they speak, hold off your excitement to provide a solution. It may be too early or maybe a wrong solution altogether.  

3. Diagnosis: 

The discussion about my symptoms was followed by an in-depth diagnosis. The diagnostic procedure involved the process of the doctor obtaining further information about my symptoms, previous state of health, living conditions, and so forth. 

Satisfied that he had understood my situation, I was made to lie down on his surgery bed for further examination. I do not know what this process is called but, I would imagine it was a process to check if my body system was functioning properly. At one of the visits, he even drew a sample of blood, which was sent for further examination. 

How does this work for accountants? 

After, your client has given you a series of “symptoms” you need to ask further questions that make you understand their business and/or situation better. Take this process as though you are looking at a tree and then going into each branch to analyse why this branch has no leaves, if it needs pruning, if it needs additional care or if it needs to be cut down altogether. Just bear in mind that you are still not providing a solution at this stage. You may need to take some of the branches away for further examination at your laboratory (your office for you and your teammates.) The process may also involve having to look at their systems and process to further understand the challenge at hand. 

4. Prescription: 

The next step involved the doctor handing me a few tablets and medicines, some of which I had to take right in his office. But, of course, he first had to find out if I have any allergies and if I had tried or was on any other medication. I also had to get a prescription to get more tablets at the pharmacy. 

Accountants should only be providing proposed solutions after they have understood the clients business and their challenges. I say proposed solutions because businesses do change every day and you also do not want to tell your clients how to run their businesses. They came to you to get insights. They are still the directors/shareholders responsible for making decisions in the business. 

Have you noticed that I have not spoken about the prescription that has to be taken to the pharmacy yet? I want to combine this with my next point. 

But, before we get there, please remember to find out if your client has tried or tested any process or solution before jumping to providing a solution that they may have tried and has not worked or that their business is ‘allergic’ to. 

5. Specialist: 

There are certain things that my doctor may not be able to do because he is not trained to do those things. As a result, sometimes he may have to refer me to a specialist that deals with those specific issues. For example, at one stage he had to refer me to an ear specialist for further examination. 

Accountants should not pretend to know everything and try to provide a solution for something that is outside their skill set. There is no shame in referring your client to a specialist as long as you maintain and manage the relationship and project. I call this the contractor model. 

There are some projects you just have to outsource because you are not a specialist in these. Your client will still respect you for this. 

Oh, the prescription! This is the same as giving your client “homework.” For example, this could be where you tell them how they should and implement a new process. Giving a “prescription” is good, but always follow this up to ensure that it is being implemented as intended. And hopefully, your fees cover this as well. 

6. The past: 

Have you noticed how much time my doctor spent on past events? Not much. The majority of his time was spent on the present (how I feel and why) and the future (getting me better and back to health.) 

There is little value in historical financial information. Accountants should be focusing more on the future projections, cash flows, plans and strategy for the business. The focus should be on helping your client to grow their business, not punishing them for past mistakes like “you have not allocated this expense item correctly.” 

7. Duration: 

My visit to the doctor was something in the region of 16 mins. But, so much was done in that 16 minutes. 

I am not prescribing time for meetings, but I am encouraging accountants to be prepared as much as they can. There is nothing as embarrassing as inviting a client to a meeting only to appear unprepared and arranging for another meeting. Ensure that the agenda is clear before the meeting starts. 

Value is not in how long your meeting with a client lasts. In fact, as one of my clients put it, “The shorter the meeting, the more prepared you were.” 

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