June 19, 2018

Two Words Helping Breed Complacency in Public Accounting: Trusted Advisor

trusted advisor

The following is sponsored content by Joey Havens, the executive partner of Horne, LLP, an Accountingfly Firm Partner.

The term “trusted advisor” is so overused and embellished in public accounting—to the extent that this term now breeds complacency. In this post, we’ll explore this complacency, what our clients need and what service from a real trusted advisor looks like.

Complacency in public accounting

We continuously label ourselves “trusted advisors” to convey the highest level of client experience on our websites, in our proposals and throughout other firm messaging. And yes, it sounds good. I completely understand why we use that term to describe ourselves to our clients and prospects. But unfortunately, “trusted advisor” is not reflective of how our industry serves most of our clients. Our services are increasingly viewed and purchased as low-value commodities.

In his book, True Professionalism, David Maister challenges our profession and its complacency, calling out “cruisers”—competent, hard-working and successful partners who do not grow their firm or their people. Cruisers only serve as “first responders” called after decisions are already made and strategy has already been planned. Cruisers don’t take the time to find new ways to be relevant and valuable.

When we lose existing clients, or when they hire another firm for a critical project, it’s easy to hear partners and managers blaming fees. But the truth is, we are not serving this client as a trusted advisor.

What real service looks like

Clients are searching for proactive advisors who collaborate on goals, strategy and challenges. They are not looking for more information. They need forward-thinking analysis, experience and points of view that have real impact on their success and future.

We need to be in our clients’ inner circle, helping them set strategic goals, collaborate on new opportunities, and detect and solve problems. We need to advise our clients on acquisitions and sales before they happen instead of receiving tax-related calls long after the contract ink is dry.

The privilege of being a client’s trusted advisor is continually earned, and it takes great courage and rigor as well as being proactive and anticipatory. Trusted advisors provide insights and collaboration that generate value far beyond the pricing of their fees.

Where does your firm stand?

I hope we never stop pursuing the level of client service “trusted advisor” implies. Too many firms are in a race to lower fees rather than raise the level of service. Are you curious about how your service compares to that of a true trusted advisor? Take our test.

List your top five clients that you serve across the top of five separate pages. For each client, write down the following:

1. Your client’s strategic goals. (Hint: Trusted advisors go beyond “be profitable” or “grow their business”).
2. What does your client see as their biggest challenge or risk?
3. The date when you last proactively contacted and scheduled a meeting with this client and collaborated on either of these key issues or about a possible opportunity.

Do you have a lot of blank space left on your pages? You may be competent and respond quickly to your client’s needs, but if you don’t know the answers to these questions, you are probably not providing the highest level of service.

Did you pass with flying colors? You are likely having significant growth every year and clients that do not leave for service issues or high fees. There is probably no need to paste “trusted advisor” on your website — your clients are already telling the world.

Dropping “Trusted Advisor”

Let’s drop the “trusted advisor” label and start serving clients with anticipatory and collaborative insights that make our firms and our profession relevant. It’s time to hold ourselves accountable to an even better client experience and a higher level of anticipatory service.

Joey Havens, CPA, is the executive partner at HORNE LLP, where he passionately lives out his life’s calling to help others see and reach their full potential. Joey challenges leaders to bold transparency, calling on leaders to show their heart while working to connect everyone to the “why,” or the purpose, of the organization. He is a husband, father, grandfather, avid outdoorsman and college sports fan.

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Give It Up Tax Protesters, You’re Just Screwing Yourselves

Of the adherents of strange and puzzling belief systems – 9/11 Truthers, Fed groupies, Cubs fans – few work so hard to screw themselves as tax protesters.

By their own account, twww.rothcpa.com/archives/000480.php”>spend “thousands of hours” reading their arcane tracts, expanding on theories of why the 16th Amendment is a figment of our imagination, or why a gold-fringed flag means you’re in an admiralty court, which somehow undoes the income tax.


Or why the federal tax law only covers the District of Columbia and federal forts, or why Section 861 says U.S. source income isn’t taxable. The result? They still owe the taxes, penalties, and maybe $25,000 idiot fees from the tax court – and that’s if things go well. If they go badly, they go very badly.

Every year the IRS updates its handy debunking of tax protester arguments. It does little good. You can spend hours trying to talk tax protesters out of their ideas, but they move effortlessly from one gold-fringed bad idea to another, and they can almost sound like they make sense, until you get outside and get some fresh air. But there is one common problem in all of these “Tax Honesty” arguments: they don’t work.

No matter how convinced you are that Irwin Schiff’s theories of the income tax are true, that there is no income tax, all of the federal judges think there is one. So does the IRS, the Federal Marshals Service, and pretty much everyone in the Bureau of Prisons. What they say trumps what Irwin says, which is why the poor man is likely to die in jail.

But what about the glorious courtroom triumphs of Lloyd Long, Vernice Kuglin and Tom Cryer? They were acquitted by juries! Yes, these guys beat criminal charges. Why the juries voted the way they did, we’ll never really know. Maybe they were nullifiers, striking a blow against the income tax. Maybe they decided that the defendants really believed their schtick, so they didn’t “willfully” fail to pay their taxes. But these acquittals debunk the income tax only if the O.J. acquittal debunks California’s murder statute. Even though these guys didn’t go to jail (unlike many, including their pied piper, Irwin Schiff), they still have to pay their taxes.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “Of course he says that. He does taxes for a living. He’s in on the conspiracy!” If so, come on. If this stuff actually worked, I wouldn’t grind my way through every tax season pretending there is an income tax. If it worked, I would just talk to a few of my wealthiest clients, work out a deal to take 5% of their income for the next 10 years in return for making their taxes go away, wave my wand, and spend March in Mesa.

But here I am, grinding out those returns. That no more makes me “pro-tax” than believing in germ theory makes a doctor “pro-bacteria.” Still, if you really want to ruin your financial life, you’re welcome to choose your poison. But first ask yourself: are all of these big companies and rich guys who pay taxes crazy or stupid? Or is it just you?