Consulting CPA Program FAQ


The Consulting CPA program is a unique 9 week curriculum designed to help CPA’s add strategic planning, execution and coaching services to their existing accounting and tax practice. Over the last several years I have answered hundreds of questions about the program. Here are the most common. If your question is not covered send an email to jbrannon at and I’ll get back to you as quickly as I can.

Do you have to be a CPA to get your money's worth?

In short, the answer is NO!. One of our most successful students is not a CPA. His background is in HR and recruiting. But he followed the process and before he finished the program he had a new consulting client that will generate more than 30x his investment in the program.

So you don't have to be a CPA. I am one, and I think CPA's have some unique advantages that make us well suited for this work. BUT if you commit to the process you can get results whether you have some letters after your name or not.

Is this feasible for a small practice with very few business clients?

Yes. As a general rule the smaller the practice the quicker you can ramp up. While larger firms have more business clients to get started, my experience is that they also require much more discipline to actually spend time on the consulting rather than the constantly pressing tax work.

Also, keep in mind that we are not trying to add scores of clients. A full consulting portfolio can consist of less than a dozen clients. The important thing is to pick the right ones and we spend a lot of time on that

Are you going to help me get clients?

It depends on what you mean by "help." Some people expect me to wave a magic wand and bestow $100,000 worth of business on them. It doesn't work that way. We spend an entire module on business development and getting new clients. If you agree to do the work and follow the process you won't have any trouble getting new clients. If you are looking for a free ride this probably isn’t it.

How much am I going to have to spend on marketing?

Zero, although you can if you want. But it will be less effective than following the interpersonal approach I lay out that costs you nothing more than coffee or lunch with the prospect.

How long will it take to replace my tax revenue?

Some of it you will replace very quickly as your current tax clients sign up for Strategic Assessments (we charge $8,00-$12,000 for these and show you exactly how to do them). Ongoing consulting work after the Strategic Assessment is typically between $3,000 and $6,000 per month, but we have students charging $10,000 and more per month. Some people can replace their tax prep revenue in six months, others take a couple of years. It is a question of how disciplined you are, and how quickly you can hand off the tax work if you don’t want to do it anymore.

Will you show me how to price?

Yes, I'm very transparent with our pricing. That doesn't mean you have to charge what we do or serve the same business market we do. But in general, people find our real life examples very helpful when setting their own prices.

Will you help us differentiate our tax work from our consulting work?

Yes, the value difference between compliance and consulting is enormous and it is not difficult to position your consulting work as premium and separate from your commodity compliance work. I'll show you how. There is one trick in particular that works better than anything else.

Should we (or do we have to) sell our tax clients?

That's up to you. I still think there is a big advantage in having tax compliance and consulting under one roof. But you will need to manage both and some people only want to manage one or the other. I can help you decide what is best in your particular situation and build a road map for the process.

My next nine weeks are really busy. Am I going to miss out?

Potentially. You get nine weeks of unlimited personal coaching while you work your way through the program materials. After nine weeks you can still access everything in the program. There is no expiration date. So, if you are too busy to take advantage of the coaching you would miss that or have to pay for individual coaching sessions. We offer a reduced hourly rate of $250 per hour with a one hour minimum for paid coaching. 

This is not a good time. When will the session start?

This is a tough one for me. First, we do these courses because I love helping CPA’s. It’s not our primary source of income by a long shot. It takes a lot of time, but I’m happy to give it. Every year we offer them less and less because Axiom’s business and team are growing.

Second, and most important, if it’s not a good time now it’s never going to be a good time. 99% of the people who ask me this question are looking for a reason that it’s MY FAULT they can’t get started right away.

“I would have been all over it, but I have a 3 week vacation coming up and you’re starting next week.”

Here’s another one I hear often

“This is exactly what I need, but I just took on a new partner/employee/client and your program overlaps with their onboarding.”

At Axiom our core values are Care, Truth and Diligence. They are also my personal values so they bleed over into The Consulting CPA. Let me encourage you to exercise Diligence by taking a time-out to think about what is really causing you to put on the brakes. Why are you hesitate to get started. Is it the money? There’s a 100% guarantee so I hope that’s not the issue. Is it the time? You need to find 2-3 hours a week to change the direction of your professional life. That’s less than 3% of your waking hours so I hope that’s not the issue. Is it the confidence? You practice in one of the most rigorous and technically demanding fields available to white collar professionals. You’re obviously smart enough so I hope that’s not the issue. On top of that you have a work ethic that gets you through a grueling tax season year after year so I know you’re not afraid to work a little. So what is it?

Let me speak Truth to you by saying that you are where you are now because you have been waiting for the right time to show up and there will never be a perfect time. Believe it or not the most successful class of graduates in the last three years was a group of committed individuals that started the first week of February and finished week 9 the week before April 15th. The program doesn’t have an expiration date. If you need to be in it there is no reason you shouldn’t start today (assuming registration is currently open of course).

Finally, let me Care for you by saying that if this is something you need to do for your own health, wellbeing and fulfillment then now is the right time. There will always be obstacles to pursuing change. We can measure the magnitude of our desire for change by the height of the obstacles we overcome to pursue it. When you decide you want it we’ll be waiting.

If you have additional questions reach out to me by sending an email to jbrannon at

When to take your client's phone call


In the last two blog posts we talked balance, both from the standpoint of limiting the work that we are not getting paid to do and limiting the number of client crises we have to solve. But there's one type of phone call you should not hesitate to answer from your client. In fact these can be a measure of your influence and value in the relationship. I call these decision points.

To broadly oversimplify there are two types of requests that can come from clients: requests to do the work, and decision points. In the do the work category you will find requests to do a little bit of research, a question that will just take “five minutes”, requests to help with major projects that were not included in the original scope, requests for reports and analysis needed urgently by insurance agents, attorneys, and workman's comp auditors. When a client asks you to do some work they are essentially asking for an extra set of hands, a set of hands that they do not have on their internal team. And that is how you should view these requests. Hands get paid to do work. The higher the skill involved or the more pressing the need the more the hands get paid.

The problem with hands is that they are very expensive to scale. Your ability to grow your consulting practice depends on your ability to replicate a disciplined system of planning, execution and coaching with multiple clients. The more you veer into the lane of special projects and other types of work the less efficient you will be in your planning and execution work. I also believe there is a toll to be paid here in terms of your effectiveness with your planning and execution work but we will save that for another day.

Rather than requests for more hands what we would like to see are requests born out of a high value relationship. To get there we must strive for a level of business specific knowledge, a deep level of trust and safety, and a body of experience that yields wisdom useful to our clients when they are faced with critical decision points. It is at these times that clients will pick up the phone and call you, not to ask you to do more work, but to ask for your help in making a decision. Don't miss these opportunities. They are the natural consequence of your role as a strategic advisor combined with your objective perspective as someone who stands outside the day-to-day business operation.

These phone calls will really take more than five or 10 minutes. You are not being asked to gather information. You are not being asked to perform detailed analysis. You are not being asked to come up with alternative options. At this point in the game the business owner has been engaged in a strategic planning and execution process that has already ticked off all of these boxes before your phone rings. What the client needs at this decision point is another brain and another gut to validate or invalidate their own thinking. 

The practical question is how to discern when the phone is ringing with a request for more work or a request for help with a decision. You can try to explicitly explain this difference to your clients and request that they only call you with specific decision points in mind. But that usually sounds a little arrogant, like they can't make a decision by themselves.

Instead I try to train my clients about what they can expect. During the workday almost all of my calls go directly to voicemail. This is just a consequence of having a lot of appointments and wanting to be fully present during those meetings with clients. The only time I will step out of the room to take a phone call is if my wife is the one on the other end of the line. She can see my schedule and if she's trying to get in touch with me I take the call. Otherwise I don't step out of the room. I don't stare at the phone. I don't respond with a text message. I just let it go to voicemail where they hear something to the effect of "let me know exactly what you need and when you need it by and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.”

When I'm finished with an appointment I check messages. If the message is a request to do work I will usually wait until I am back in the office in front of a computer where I can call the client without distraction and where I have access to more information. Or if it is more appropriate I will send an email with specific questions relevant to their request. However, if the message is a request for help with a decision I return the call immediately.

Clients are smart people and they begin to understand the difference between the calls that get returned immediately and the calls that get returned after several hours or the next day. After a few months it is rare that I get requests for more work via voicemail. These requests begin to show up in email with details, attachments, timelines, and all the other information we have trained them to provide before we can jump in to help.

After those first few months I can almost guarantee that if a client calls my cell phone they need help with a decision point. And if I am within a few minutes of starting a meeting I will take the call. If I'm on a break in the middle of a long session I will take the call. If I am on my way home I will take the call. And yes, in a weak moment on the way to a dinner date with my beautiful bride I may even take the call.

These are the calls that make my day. They are moments when I can be completely transparent with my clients about our personal values and motivations and how they would affect my decision if I were in their shoes. They give us opportunities to talk about the things that are most important: their anxieties, their frustrations, and even their own personal blind spots. Decision point calls are milestones in our relationship and I don't worry about what I'm getting paid, what the scope of the work is, how many projects we have in the pipeline, or which option they selected on their proposal. I simply care for my clients in the best way I know how. Decision points are the most important predictive indicator of our long-term success with a client. That’s why I take the call.

Balance and Handling a Client's Crisis


In the previous post I talked about balance as it relates to taking on too much work. We often do this without getting paid by failing to say no to clients who request our help with work that is clearly out of scope from their signed fixed price agreement. The easiest way to handle these requests is with an Additional Service Request that quantifies not just what the client wants us to do, but how much you will charge them to make it happen.

In this post I'd like to address something different. Many of you who get involved in consulting work, specifically strategic consulting work where you are helping clients with the longer-range business goals and strategic execution, will find that clients begin to come to you at all times and all hours with all manner of issues pertaining to the business. Clients have called me as I'm sure they have you from the dealership parking lot wondering whether it is better to lease or buy. But they also call me after dinner wanting to know how much to offer a hot new prospective higher. They call when they open the mail and get a large workmens comp. premium adjustment. They call when the general manager freaks out on an employee. They call when a large customer makes them nervous. And to be honest these calls feel good. I like knowing my client values me enough to call when important stuff happens. But after a while the dinner and date night interruptions get old.

As you enter these new types of relationships it is up to you to train your clients what to expect. Many will look at the large amount of money they are paying you on a monthly basis and falsely assume that it means you are at their beck and call 24x7. Absent any information or training to the contrary they make assumptions about what you are supposed to do, how often they are supposed to call, and how in the loop you need to be.

The point of strategic planning and disciplined execution is to not only achieve sound business growth, but also to reduce, and in many cases eliminate, the number of crises that demand immediate attention. We never want our role to degenerate into that of expert crisis manager. Instead when it comes to a crisis we are the ones who can help dissect the crisis after it has happened, understand why it happened, oversee the construction of processes, reporting and communication methods that keep it from happening in the future. In other words, if we do our job well the business owner should have fewer reasons to call us in the middle of dinner.

Part of your role in all of this is training the business owner how to handle the crisis that arrive at their desk, and getting them to see they should be just as intolerant of consistent crisis management drills as you are. As a practical point I have found that the one thing that keeps business owners stuck in the crisis loop is an unwillingness to let natural consequences run their course. In a valiant effort to save customers from undesirable consequences, business owners often come to the rescue and eliminate those consequences for everyone involved. And that works out just fine for everyone but the business owner. The customer is happy and the employee is ignorantly blissful of any negative repercussions. But the business owner is frustrated that no one can seem to get it right and the same issues keep coming back again and again.

Chapter 4 of my book is titled “Customers Come Second.” They have to if the business is really going to grow on the strength of employee performance. The business owner who sees his or her role as training and equipping employees will not let those employees escape negative consequences even if it means short-term pain for the customer. Over and over again I see employers rescue customers from negative consequences and at the same time severely handicapped their employees who never learn from their mistakes because those mistakes were never allowed to run their course. The cycle usually gets worse as team members learn that their role isn't to take final responsibility but to just go about their business with the expectation that someone else will catch anything that falls through the cracks.

So your role is to model for your business owner clients the fact that you cannot shield them from the short-term consequences of every bad decision. You are not a firefighter who comes to the rescue every time they pull the alarm. Rather you are someone who facilitates the building of a sound strategic plan, helps execute it with consistency, and addresses failures as part of that disciplined execution process. This is the whole reason we maintain an Issues Parking Lot and spend the majority of the weekly operations meeting prioritizing and solving these issues. Your clients should have 52 opportunities a year to take a good hard look at any systems or processes that need serious attention.

If you need a refresher on the weekly execution agenda review module 3, lesson 10: Execution Rhythm. In the next few weeks this particular lesson will undergo a major revamp as we update it to reflect Axiom’s Agenda 52 system. Current and past students will be invited to take part in the live taping of that session. If you are not a member of The Consulting CPA, but are interested in having more tools like these as part of a step-by-step program for adding strategic planning, execution, and coaching services to your existing tax and accounting practice please visit our Join page.

Achieving Balance and Working out of Scope (aka Scope Creep)


Last week another CPA asked me how I achieve balance when working in these very intense relationships. It's not uncommon for clients to come to rely on you for a whole host of things. Despite your best attempts to outline scope in a fixed price agreement they will inevitably ask you to do things that, in your mind, are not included in the proposal they accepted. This is natural because your clients have never experienced anyone offering the kind of service that you offer. Strategic consulting is a lot different than traditional CPA work. Clients literally don't know what to expect. As things come up most will just ask for your help and expect that if you can't do it under the original agreement you will tell them. The problem we run into is when WE don't say no.

As a rule of thumb you should expect to say no to some type of request within the first two months of working with a new client. If you haven't said no once in your first 60 days it's almost a guarantee that you are working out of scope. And it's not the client's fault. The client doesn't know any better. They have never had anyone like you before. The only thing they have to go on is their current experience. So if you say you'll do the work they assume it's included. If you start saying you won't do the work then they will know it's not included.

The truth is we hardly ever tell clients that we won't do the work. We simply say, "That definitely sounds like something that would be valuable for you. If you'd like us to move forward there are just a handful of questions that I could send you in an email. We call it an Additional Service Request. When you get those answers back to me I will put together a quote and let you know how much it would cost."

This approach gives the client plenty of options. You are not asking them to commit to an additional investment. You are simply letting them know that if they want to move forward you are going to need more information before you can tell them how much of an investment they should expect. Once you send over your questions they will have another opportunity to either choose to answer them or tell you they've decided they can handle it on their own. If they answer your questions they will get one more opportunity to make up their mind before committing to a financial investment. This multistep back-and-forth can take as little as a couple of hours. Or it can take longer if you stall because you are uncertain whether you want the work.

If I have this conversation with a client it is almost always because I want the work. If I didn't want the work I would have said something else along the lines of, "That sounds like it will be a worthwhile project. Do you think John on your team could handle it on his own or is it something he would need someone else on the team to help out with?" The client clearly gets the message that I think this is something they can take care of internally.

There are obvious times when clients will ask you to weigh in on things you should punt to another expert. Reviewing contracts is a common one. I tell clients their attorney is better suited for that than I am. I have also been asked to weigh in on complex benefits programs. Again we reach out to outside experts who know a lot more and can actually move forward with implementation if the client makes a decision. As a general rule of thumb I find that CPA’s are pretty good at staying out of areas where they know just enough to be dangerous.

But controlling the scope of your work isn't just about staying within your sphere of competency. It is important for me to keep clients moving on their strategic plan. There will always be additional work available during execution. But if I slow down to manage that work I give up my role as the driver of bigger priorities. Some clients won’t have any problem keeping you busy on project work even if they are paying extra because it takes the heat off of them to execute the strategic plan. If you move forward with an Additional Service Request make sure that 1) it will not slow down execution and 2) it contributes to the priorities of the current quarter.

If you need a good template for Additional Service Requests check out Module 6, lesson 9 in The Consulting CPA program. If you are not a member see the Join page for more information.

Helping Family Members Set Boundaries

Below is a video we recorded for Axiom’s audience on the subject of setting boundaries within a family business. In this post I want to give you a little more behind the scenes context on this issue and how it shows up in my practice.

A lot of us work with family businesses. This isn’t so much a niche as it is a circumstance of working with small business owners. Here’s what I mean. EVERY small business needs tax compliance services. But once a business is willing to invest several thousand dollars a month in strategic planning and execution their revenues are typically over $2 million.

This is rarified air for business owners. In the two counties where most of our clients reside roughly 85% have fewer than 20 employees. Employees don’t exactly equate to revenues but it is a good gauge for the kind of work we do. Most of our clients are going to have between 20 and 200 employees. By the time you build a business that size you are no longer a spring chicken. Our typical business owner is going to be late 40’s to early 60’s. Most of them have had kids. And it is pretty natural for those kids to get involved in the family business. So by default we work with a lot of family businesses, not because we set out to, but because we can’t get away from this dynamic.

I’m not complaining. I love the family business part of what we do, but it can be a challenge. The younger generation is often given responsibilities at an earlier age than usual. Their lack of business maturity and their willingness to speak out (presumably because they perceive a great deal of job security) make for some lively meetings. Almost every first generation client I have will ask me to help them with their struggles managing the second generation.

The irony is that even though we didn’t set out to specifically help parents work well with their kids what we do with small businesses by focusing on strategic planning and execution is EXACTLY what winds up solving a lot of their challenges. And it does it in a very objective and measurable way. The planning process gets everyone on the same page by explicitly outlining what is important and what is not, from values that will never change to the specific todo items that will determine whether you had a productive week or not. And the execution of that strategic plan is what forges people into great leaders, into servant leaders.s

As baby boomers look to retirement in droves, baby boomer business owners are struggling with succession. It is not surprising that a growing army of business coaches, psychologists, counselors and freelance gurus have dubbed themselves “family business experts.” New prospects often measure our firm against these alternatives when they are looking for help. They want to grow the business, but they also know they have to solve some family issues or things aren’t going to go well. What I tell these prospects may help you as you encounter similar situations.

To the prospect who says, “We really want to get started with you, but first I think we need to go see this counselor who specializes in family business dynamics. THEN we’ll be ready.”

What is the best way to improve a relationship? Is it to sit down and talk about the relationship or is it to work through problems together. Legendary cultures were not formed by sitting around in a circle and talking about everything that is getting in the way of creating a great culture. Think of special forces units like The Green Beret’s or the Navy Seals. Their cultures are formed through shared experience that starts with a grueling vetting process and continues with exacting standards and high levels of accountability. The Johnson and Johnson that exists today was born out of the Tylenol poisoning crisis in the early 1980’s. The esprit de corps at Apple that gave birth to the iPod and later the iPhone found it’s origins in the adversity that saw Steve Jobs summarily dismissed from his own company, then reinstated and charged with turning around an organization on the verge of bankruptcy.

My point is that the best way to build culture and the relationships that form it is to work side by side with someone on something meaningful. There are occasions where sitting face to face and confronting some 800 pound gorilla in the room is necessary. That is called accountability. But if all you ever do is talk ABOUT the relationship you shouldn’t expect breakthrough results.

What I tell my prospects is this: Look, if the counselor does a REALLY good job you will both leave with a precise understanding of what the business means to you, where you are wanting it to go and how you envision your kids helping you get there. You’ll also understand what is important to your kids, where they are most gifted and what they need from you to excel. But then what? Do you know what to do with that information to start making progress, to start running into opportunities to work on the relationship. Or are you going to walk out of your fifth or sixth session with a greater self awareness and absolutely no idea what should happen Monday morning. Let’s kill two birds with one stone and solve these issues in real time, in the real world, accomplishing something that is important to both of you.

What about your clients? Do they see you as someone who can help them grow the business and bring the family closer together?

Four Reasons CPA's Can't Add New Clients

When I talk to CPAs about growing their strategic consulting book of business they often complain about not being able to add new clients. It is important for me to understand where this struggle comes from, because if you cannot add tax and accounting clients it will probably be difficult for you to add consulting clients. In the world of professional services the service may vary, but the rules of the game for business development are the same. 

Now, we all know that each of US is good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like us. But OTHER CPA's struggle to get clients. We all know one or two that we could pass this along to. So in the interest of helping our fellow brothers and sisters are four reasons they struggle so much. Pass it on.

You (I mean "They") Are Not Visible

This is by far the most common problem. Most CPAs fail to add new business because they have not developed a discipline of being visible. One of the easiest ways to add new business is to follow the 50-in-50 exercise. This is a commitment to have 50 coffee meetings in 50 days. You only need 5 to 10 contacts to get this process started. And the only criteria for these 5 to 10 people is that they are interesting. They don't have to be prospects. They don't have to be business owners. They don't have to be in any certain demographic. When you meet your only agenda is to learn more about them AND find some way to help the person you are meeting with.

Near the end of your time together be completely transparent. Explain your 50-in-50 commitment and ask if they know one or two interesting people that you should invite to coffee. If you follow this formula you can start with as few as five people and you will never run out of future coffee dates.

Even though YOU are not on the agenda, at some point the conversation will invariably turn to you and your business. This gives you a chance to briefly explain what you do and how you stand out. As the network of people you have helped grows, you will begin to receive referrals.

By far the fastest way to grow a network is person-to-person. It can be done online, but it takes longer. The context of real-world interactions and the plethora of information it provides about a person simply means that trust builds faster.

That said some of my best professional relationships started on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and good old-fashioned blogs and email. The online world makes it much more efficient to broaden your network, but to be effective that network also needs to be deep. There are plenty of CPAs who spend hours upon hours on LinkedIn, Facebook groups, and blog feeds who never add a single client through these methods. If you meet people online you will usually make the most progress by taking those conversations off-line at some point where one-on-one communication happens faster and includes all of the nonverbal queues we've been hardwired to expect.

Lack of Credibility

Let's say you have been getting out there, and you are religious about connecting with other people and helping them achieve their goals. The next area to examine is your credibility. If you do not come off as someone people can trust, if your interpersonal skills are lacking, or if you lack confidence in yourself you should not be surprised that others find it hard to give you their business or send you referrals.

This is most often the case with young CPAs just starting out, especially those who are running their own firms. They have no one to push them into uncomfortable situations where they will find out what they are made of, and gain the confidence they need. It is also common among seasoned professionals who are just starting their own firms. Being thrown into the unstructured world of firm ownership can be unnerving and overwhelming. Desperation can set in as the honeymoon wears off and weeks stretch into months without a new client. There is nothing less attractive to prospects than desperation.

When you are out in the world doing your best to be visible you need to look like someone people can trust. Your wardrobe might need an upgrade. Your old beater Corolla from college might need to be traded in. You might need to polish up your communication skills with Toastmasters or a Dale Carnegie course. Traditionally these are skills and factors that are taught or pointed out by managers and people you work with. But as technology has drastically lowered the barriers for starting one's own firm I see plenty of young professionals with these blind spots.

The same principles hold in the virtual world. If your aim is to add remote clients and your website looks like something from the CompuServe days that might be a problem. Virtual businesses need to represent themselves well on today's standard platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and on industry-specific sites where your prospects are going to do a search right after they read your brilliant guest blog post.

Take a hard look in the mirror, literally and virtually. Be honest with yourself and get some third party feedback from people who aren't afraid to hurt your feelings. Your business is too important to only hear the things you want to be told.

Lack of Relevance

Now let's say you not only have the visibility thing down, you also come across as credible and people love to accept your lunch invitations. But no one is sending you business. It is probably because you are not relevant. One of the worst things the CPA can do is attempt to be all things to all people. Over and over at practice development conferences CPAs are told they need to find a niche if they really want to grow and be successful. But this counterintuitive strategy of narrowing your potential market to expand your business development is mostly ignored.

The problem is this. In the world of professional services new business comes most often and most quickly through word-of-mouth referrals. This means that when a referral source is out there in the wild and they hear about a specific problem they need to know enough about you and your specific expertise so that your name is the one and only name that comes to mind at the very moment they are in a position to send you the best kind of prospect: one with a problem and a burning desire to solve it.

Last week a friend of mine asked me if I could recommend a CPA for her growing food wholesale business. I could not think of one, and I know dozens of local CPAs. But none of those CPAs has ever sat down with me over a cup of coffee and told me about their expertise with route salesman, delivery trucks, or wholesale food distributors. If any of those terms had ever been mentioned I would have had a name for her. But almost all of the CPAs that I know describe their services in broadly generalist terms.

I absolutely love the fact that Magen Smith specializes in the self storage industry, and that Jeremiah Kovacs and Jeff DeBolt specialize in Amazon resellers, and that Jason Blumer specializes in creatives, and that Alexis Kimbrough specializes in recording artists and that Chris Farmand serves microbrewers. These CPA and accounting firms are at the forefront of the industry and they are NOT having a problem adding new clients.

Step one in being relevant is to establish an area where you stand out and where your name is the first one that comes to the mind of anyone dealing with a problem even remotely connected to your area of expertise. Those who discipline themselves to constrain their activities to a specific niche find that adding new business costs less over time and takes up a smaller portion of their weekly schedule.

Lack of Competence

If you are doing all of these things and you still cannot add new business, stop! Really think about it, and be honest with yourself. Because the only other option is that you are incompetent.

If you are getting out there and people know you exist and they know what you do, and you have credibility, and you are relevant, and you still can't add business…then it is most likely because you are not very good at what you do. Word has gotten out about you and while the smile to your face no one will touch you with a ten foot pole.

This is hardly ever the case. The world is full of CPAs (and for that matter attorneys and doctors and engineers and architects and insurance professionals and investment advisors) who are not very good at what they do. It could be in the technical details or it could be a lack of service. But these folks tend to find a downmarket niche where people are willing to put up with incompetency for a good discount. Getting customers is not the problem. Charging them a premium price is the problem. But this article is not about pricing.

The reason incompetence is rarely the reason CPAs cannot add new clients is that if you are so bad people are spreading the word about your incompetence, it's highly unlikely you are still in business. But, there are ways to do it, whether it be staying afloat with a second job or relying on the income from a spouse. If this is you, wake up! Get serious about your craft and narrow your area of focus so that you can acquire a deep enough skill set to become competent.

I love running The Consulting CPA program. It is incredibly exciting to see CPAs learn the strategic consulting skill set and build a loyal customer base around it. But anytime a CPA tells me they've always had a hard time adding new clients we hit the brakes, hard! It's important to understand exactly why adding new business has been so difficult. Everyone has to file a tax return and if you've had a hard time making it in that business you need to go back and fix the root of the problem. 

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Overcoming Resistance with Clients

Last week I was trying to help a client solve a problem that I thought they wanted to solve. I say thought because I kept running into resistance every time I would try to get more information. In this article I want to deal with resistance from clients, what it means and how to overcome it.

Last week my conversation with the resistant client went something like this.

Me: "What is your average sales cycle (the amount of time to convert a prospect to a paying customer)?"

Client: "It's all over the map. Sometimes it's one day. Sometimes it's a year."

Me: "Well, what's the average? What is typical?"

Client: "It depends."

Me: "OK, what does the process look like. What is step 1 after you meet a prospect?"

Client: "Again, it depends. Some of them go straight to being a client. And others take a while."

At this point I really wanted to say "Well, no !@#$." I restrained myself. I kept digging and eventually we uncovered some information that was helpful. But the whole process was unnecessarily painful.

There are two things you can do in this situation. The first is tactical. It will help you get the information you need, but it does not address what is really going on. The second approach is strategic. It is less about getting the information, but it gets to the heart of why you are experiencing resistance in the first place.

The Tactical Approach: Explain the bell curve

If you just want to get to the answers and avoid the 800 pound gorilla in the room named Resistance just say something like this:

"I know the specific examples are all over the map. But what I'm looking for is the middle of the bell curve. If we plot all the information on a graph, statistics tells us that about 70% of the time we're going to get an answer in the middle of the bell curve.

There are always going to be outliers. The customers that sign up in one hour are outliers. The customers that take a year are outliers. Forget about them and let's talk about the middle of the bell curve."

Usually this jars the client loose and they start sharing good information you can use. At the very least it establishes a common language so that in the future you can say, "That's an outlier. We are going to ignore it."

But when it doesn't work, when it doesn't overcome the resistance you are going to be forced to punch that 800 pound gorilla in the nose.

The Strategic Approach: Address the Resistance

The bigger issue is why your client keeps pushing back in the first place. Presumably you are there to help and you can't do it without good information. They know what the good information is. They just don't want to share it. If the roles were reversed and someone gave them back their same answers they'd be furious. Kids pull this kind of stuff all the time.

Dad: "I thought I told you to wash the car."

Kid: "Oh, I didn't hear you. Sorry."

Your client might be pushing back for a couple of reasons.

Their ego might be getting in the way. This is essentially the idea that "I've tried solving this problem for the last year and I couldn't do it. I'm smarter than you, have more experience than you, am more qualified than you, so therefor it is a waste of time to regurgitate the facts so you can try in vain to solve it."

The ego problem is usually subconscious. Your client doesn't even recognize what is happening. Explaining the bell curve may help them realize "OK, this person is pretty bright. I am giving garbage answers. If I give good information we might actually make some headway."

Unfortunately, because it is subconscious you will run into the ego problem again and again. This usually happens with members of the leadership team, not the business owner. Some of our client's team members are like this and we just bake it into the way we relate to them. Eventually, they come to respect what we bring to the table and the resistance, subconscious or not, stops.

If resistance isn't coming from the ego another possibility is that you're not talking about the real problem. The real problem is something they don't want to talk about so instead your client is just trying to run out the clock on this decoy.

If you are getting the run around because the client doesn't want to talk about the real problem there's no easy way out. You can address it or you can let them waste everyone's time.

When you decide to punch the gorilla in the nose just try something like this:

"I get the sense that this problem is just a distraction to keep from talking about what is really going on. If this were the real problem we wouldn't be fighting so hard to get good information. You're pretty smart so there must be another problem we are avoiding."

When you are preparing tax returns and financial statements the client will readily defer to your technical expertise. But when you enter the more nuanced world of helping them with strategy and overcoming obstacles you will encounter resistance. They may or may not realize what they are doing. It's your job to help them overcome the resistance and move things forward. It's a big part of what they are paying you to do.

If you need more help building a strategic planning and consulting business inside your existing tax and accounting practice sign up for The Consulting CPA. It has everything you need to get started today.

How to Quote Consulting Work

Someone asked me, "How do I quote consulting work for clients?" That's a long answer, much longer than the time I had to answer it. But I was able to share three ideas that have made a world of difference for me. If you want more check out this book by Randy Illig and Mahan Khalsa. It's a game changer.

Rule #1: No guessing

Don't assume you know the budget. Ask. Don't guess the time frame is 30 days. Ask. Don't assume they have the money available to pay you. Ask. We make so many assumptions about what clients want us to do and what their goals are. And these assumptions get us into trouble. Refusing to guess does slow down the process. It requires more conversation (not email) between you and the client. But it builds trust and it sets you apart from other professionals.

Rule #2: Slow down for yellow lights

This one is hard. Our tendency (on the road and when dealing with possible projects) is to speed up and just get through it. If the prospect keeps jumping all over the place and can't decide what they want then slow down and ask if you can narrow the scope or expand the budget. If you find out the decision maker is going to be out of town slow down and reschedule the presentation. If you can't get information when you ask for it slow down and find out if this is going to be a problem when you are working together on a big project. Don't speed up. Slow down. It's much faster in the long run.

Rule #3: DELIVER proposals

This is the BIGGEST mistake I see CPA's making. If a prospect or client wants you to email your proposal, politely REFUSE and suggest another option. CPA's balk at this and make all kinds of excuses, but these excuses are driven by fear, not legitimate concerns from the client. There are several options available. The telephone turns 141 years of age this week. Eighty year-old great grandparents are using Skype and FaceTime everyday without a hitch. If it's not feasible to meet face-to-face there are other options.

There is no substitute for a real time conversation. In about 50% of my proposals we end up making changes during the meeting that INCREASE our role and result in even more profitable projects for us. That will not happen if you email your PowerPoint or price quote. AND your refusal to play the email game will make you stand out from your competitors. It will build trust and assure clients that you know what you are doing.

I would encourage you to pick up a copy of Khalsa and Illig's book, Let's Get Real or Let's Not Play. It is very practical. If you don't mind some vintage video I did a presentation for my clients YEARS ago, and you can view the recording here.