As a solo, my role has shifted over time from acting principally as a legal scribe to more of a trusted advisor to many clients. Occasionally, a client makes it clear they prefer me to stay in my legal lane and not offer business advice. I find this tension exists for other professionals as well, so I interviewed Larry Cohen, Partner-in-Charge, Business Management Hospitality Group Leader at Marks Paneth LLP, to gain his sage perspective:
1. I understand that sometimes you are hired to provide strategic advice while other clients hire you and your staff to provide traditional CPA services. When there is overlap, how do you know when your client prefers you to “shut up and focus on the numbers?” What are the “tells” when you’ve said too much?
I leverage my experiences as the CEO to Griffin Group in my current practice. Almost all my clients value my opinion, given my unique perspective in the business world. However, sometimes we provide more generic accounting and tax services. In that instance, I may make a business observation during a meeting, which usually leads to a discussion. However, if we are close to a deadline, I may get a “that’s interesting, but …” or a “we’ll talk about that on April 16th” as not so subtle reminders that my current mission is to get my staff to produce a financial statement or tax work product.
2. For advisory clients, how often is your strategic/business advice implemented? Does the frequency increase as you get to know the client better?
I’m proud to say that while my advice is not always followed, it usually leads to a thorough and thoughtful discussion or process that results in a better solution for the client than either their initial strategy or my initial advice. The frequency of advice followed doesn’t change as my relationship with the client grows, but the opportunities sometimes change as the client grows. In an early assignment for an advisory client, it may be just me, the owner, and a salesperson working for the company. As they grow, I would have helped them hire other C-suite executives, as well as a strategic investor. Accordingly, I may go from casually speaking to them several times a week to participating in board meetings where strategic issues are discussed, vetted, and decided.
3. For clients where your firm is purely providing CPA services, will you continue to give unsolicited advice as the client relationship evolves?
Probably not. We are lucky enough to mainly have clients with significant growth strategies. As they grow, so does their infrastructure and the number of people they rely upon. My responsibilities as outside CPA grow significantly as our internal staffing needs increase over time. When that happens, I certainly have my hands full managing my own staff and am perfectly happy to “shut up and focus on the numbers!”
4. So, what have you learned from all this?
While I would prefer to be a “trusted advisor,” I realize that all my clients value my services. As such, I am always pleased to serve as a part of their team.