A prominent CEO once told me that if you ask, "How is everything?" and someone simply responds, "Good," they're almost certainly telling you a half-truth.
That goes double in business scenarios where these kinds of questions are generally more social niceties than actual inquiries. With so much change and turmoil over the past year, our clients are reeling. If you haven't gotten an earful about the challenges they're facing, you probably aren't asking the right questions to get to the root of the real problems.
Ultimately, if you aspire to be an influential strategic business adviser to your clients, you must learn how to ask the questions that help you drill down into how they're really doing so that you can help them navigate that reality.
The first step to asking the right questions is approaching your clients with genuine curiosity and openness. This can be tough -- after all, who wants to hear a bunch of bad news? You might be avoiding the deeper conversations because you don't want to hear a litany of complaints. Well, guess what? If you are seeking a bright and hope-filled conversation, I'd suggest a motivational speaker, not a business owner in the midst of a pandemic.
We ask tough questions because we genuinely want to know what's wrong so that we can help. When a client replies with politeness rather than honesty, we don't get the important information that would allow us to help. In the wake of the pandemic, what used to be small problems have likely grown in size and scope.
But the good news is that, as CPAs, we know how to navigate complex challenges. While there may not be a ready-made solution for your client, you can probably help them decide on the most effective next steps using your years of experience and business acumen.
Here are some examples of questions that can help you determine your clients' real problems, and thus how to help correct them: How were your results to goal for last quarter; what's trending in the wrong direction? Are any areas of your business doing better than others? How has the pandemic reshaped your goals, and how are you feeling about 2021? Did 2020 cause you to rethink your retirement goals, succession plan, or M&A activity?
These are just some of the questions you should be asking if you seek to gain a deeper understanding of what your clients are struggling with. Any one of these questions could tee up a discussion that leads to an opportunity to help. In the absolute worst case you can listen, be empathetic, generate long-lasting goodwill, and improve client retention.
But keep in mind that all the news may not be bad news. You might find yourself congratulating your clients on their success more often than you expect. Some clients are doing quite well in this changing landscape, and you may find yourself devising strategies to minimizes taxes for a fast-growing company rather than helping a business weather tough times.
If you're still not sold on the idea of asking these kinds of questions, consider the risks of not doing so. Your clients may begin to feel as if you don't care all that much. They may start to doubt the value you are providing and start complaining about your fees. Worse still, your competition may ask one of these important questions and your client will wonder, "Why isn't my current CPA asking me this?"
Take a moment this week to create a list of 10 clients to call. Ask them a few of these questions and see where it takes you. I believe you'll find that asking better questions will lead to more substantial discussions with clearer take-aways for both you and your clients. Push through the discomfort and dig to the root of the problems your clients are struggling with -- and use your unique expertise to craft strategic business advice that will turn those problems into opportunities.
• Reprinted courtesy of Insight, the magazine of the Illinois CPA Society. For the latest issue, visit icpas.org/insight.