Driving to work the other day, I heard the song “Ice Ice Baby” by 1980s rapper Vanilla Ice (don’t ask me what stations I listen to). There’s a great line: “If there’s a problem yo, I’ll solve it.” That lyric really stuck with me. At the end of the day, that’s what we should be doing as our clients’ most trusted advisors — solving their problems. At my firm, we call that “wearing a Velcro suit.” What that means is having everything stick to you — and dealing with it — no matter what clients throw at you. In other words, being 100% accountable.
Wearing a Velcro suit is the polar opposite of wearing a Teflon suit. That’s what we call people who keep deflecting and avoiding responsibility. When people hear “Teflon suit,” they think of the cable company or the DMV. But that mindset of “It’s not my job” creeps into professional service firms, too.
We should all channel our inner Vanilla Ice and put on our Velcro suits so we can become the ultimate problem-solvers for our clients. I know what you’re thinking. “That’s not what I do. That’s not in my wheelhouse.”
If that’s your mindset, fine. Just don’t complain to me about fee compression. It’s really not about fee compression as much as it’s about value compression. When the core services you’ve always delivered — tax prep, financial statements, etc. — can largely be handled by machines, they no longer have as much value to clients as they used to.
You’re in the advice business now; you’re not in the tax prep or financial statement business. At the end of the day, clients are paying you to remove friction and clear the road for them. That’s where the value is.
I know many of you would be reluctant to reference Vanilla Ice in your mission statement but thinking like Vanilla Ice will assure clients that if they throw a complex problem at you, you’ll know where to get the problem solved ASAP if you can’t handle it yourself. Don’t underestimate the value of being an expert facilitator.
Remember, most people hire you because they hate everything about taxes. Every time they get a letter from the IRS, no matter how minor, it stresses them out. As a seasoned pro, IRS letters don’t faze you. You know how to take care of them. So, let clients send you everything and bill them appropriately for the value you’re delivering.
By solving these types of complex problems, you’re not overstepping your bounds. You’re the one they want to solve it. That’s invaluable. So why don’t CPAs and accountants realize this? Because they’ve been trained to think about problem-solving as finding the right number. But that’s not how most problem-solving works. As CPAs, we have to get more comfortable working in those scary gray areas where it all comes down to providing advice and asking good questions — it’s not about arriving at the right number. You won’t see things like problem-solving and advice-giving in any accounting textbook or training manual. Decision-making, leadership and communication excellence are soft skills you’ll need to master in order to remain the trusted advisor to your clients.
Think about the last time a client asked you, “Should I sell my business or buy another business?” or “Should I take the government loan or hire more staff?” I know the tendency is to default to the numbers, but these are not black-and-white decisions in which everything balances out. Your job is to move clients forward and help them make the right decision. Part of that process may require you to enlist estate planners, insurance pros, business valuation specialists and other professionals to help you find the right solution for your client.
Don’t underestimate the power of being a trusted facilitator — the one who’s always wearing the Velcro suit and quarterbacking the team that’s working together on behalf of your client. These are gray areas in which you’ll have to start working. (For more on getting comfortable in gray areas, see my article “50 shades of (CPA) gray.”) Clients don’t always expect you to have the answer at your fingertips. They expect you to know where to go to get the answer.
Sometimes solving a client issue is as simple as helping clients solve it themselves. And that starts with asking the right questions. That’s what a trusted advisor or good coach does. (For more about this mindset, see my recent article “Hey Coach CPA!”)
After all, when you’re wearing a Velcro suit, that tells clients: “Send me anything. I own it. I’ll take care of it.”