Tracy Crevar Warren

The Future Looks Bright for the Trusted Adviser

How prepared are you to seize the opportunity?

November 14, 2011
by Tracy Crevar Warren

It’s no secret that being recognized by clients as a trusted adviser is something that most practitioners strive to achieve throughout their careers, but according to the recent CPA Horizons 2025 (PDF) the trusted adviser role is more critical than ever for the future of the profession. In fact, the study revealed that to achieve success in today's fast-paced globalized and highly networked economy practitioners must earn and uphold the trust and confidence of those they serve. CPAs who look beyond traditional services while continuing in their trusted adviser role will enhance their value to clients, businesses and employers.

“It’s an exciting time for the profession as CPAs are evolving,” said Eric Rigby, a partner with New Orleans-based Rigby Financial Group and a technical adviser for the AICPA’s new Trusted Business Adviser 2.0 training program. “Practitioners already have solid relationships with their clients and know about their businesses, so it just makes sense to help them with other areas that can strengthen trust and provide greater value.”

What It Takes

“Good news, bad news! There are no credentials to officially designate a CPA as a trusted business adviser,” pointed out Rigby. “This term, which is often generic in nature, carries the greatest value when your clients bestow it upon you.”

CPAs must demonstrate not only competence and commitment to excellence in their particular area of practice, but knowledge of business and the evolving marketplace according to Horizons 2025. They need to be in tune with clients, business and employers and sharpen the adaptability skills for evolving services to address changing priorities. For example, it involves offering guidance that enables clients to overcome difficult situations such as a business turnaround and securing financing for a new project, or achieving goals that they wouldn’t likely accomplish alone such as growing their business from $5 million to $10 million. This will require leveraging core competencies of critical thinking and problem-solving skills as well as collaborating with professionals across different disciplines.

“You have to be willing to step out of your box as “Trusted Technical Adviser” and move toward being a “Trusted Business Adviser,” said Bill Pirolli, a partner with Rhode Island-based DiSanto, Priest & Co. “It means reaching beyond your specific skills to assist the client with issues that are keeping them up at night.”

In addition, CPAs overwhelmingly believe they will need to provide a greater variety of services. They must also continue to evolve as strategic partners of their clients. By applying the same experience, objectivity and expertise the profession brings to traditional services, CPAs will enhance the value proposition for clients and business.

Getting Started

So what can you do now to begin positioning yourself for success?

“One of the best ways to get started is to sit face-to-face with a client that you really enjoy working with and discuss their situation with them,” said Rigby.

“Now is a great time,” said Pirolli. “Schedule a meeting with a good client and have the agenda be specifically geared to discuss the client’s one- and three-year plans for their business. No taxes or financial statements … just planning.”

Ask clients purposeful questions about what’s going on in their business versus ones simply related to their audit or tax returns such as:

  • What’s new with your business?

  • What primary goals are you working to achieve?

  • What concerns are you facing?

  • Where do you want to be in two to three years?

  • What are your biggest challenges?

In the beginning, it’s critical to make a mental shift so you are always focused on them, not you. This will allow you to be able to win not only their work, but ultimately their trust. This mindset will enable you to do it over and over again.     

“Think of yourself as a business psychiatrist, not a salesperson,” quipped Rigby. “Identify and diagnose problems. Dig deeper to get a sense of the bigger picture. Don’t be quick to offer solutions. You’ll miss opportunities that can make a significant impact, ones that clients will truly value.”

Taking on a more strategic approach with your clients puts you in a stronger position to understand what is going on with them and ultimately offer workable solutions. It’s here that you can provide maximum value by using your know-how to address their specific situation. As a result, you will earn their trust by providing a service that has special meaning to them. Once you have achieved their trust, you can improve your chances for repeated performances, and strengthen your ability to charge higher fees for sought-after guidance. 

Removing Roadblocks

One thing’s for sure: there will be challenges along your journey. Some of the toughest ones can appear early in the process. Lack of time is often among the top contenders. One of the best ways to free up valuable time is to re-evaluate your client base. Do all of them make the grade in the “ideal” category? It’s easy to spend considerable energy on serving clients who drain your energy and rob you of maximum earning potential without even realizing it.

“An efficient way to do this is to grade your clients,” said Rigby. “An ‘A, B, C and D’ will help identify where your priorities should be. It will also pinpoint whether client culling is necessary.” The AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) offers a standard Excel template that is easily adaptable for evaluating a client based on pricing, timing, stress, risk level and overall satisfaction.

“People feel there is no time to push beyond compliance into consulting,” noted Pirolli. “You need to push work away or down if your organization allows it and schedule the activity. Waiting until it comes up is too late.”

Many emerging trusted advisers fall victim to a lack of confidence in their ability serve clients in a new capacity. This can be especially difficult for practitioners who are transitioning from a transactional role. It’s a normal fear, so don’t let it derail you. One solution is to find a mentor as you get started. Consider a colleague or someone in the profession who you look up to and have an existing relationship with. A business coach is another option. Ask colleagues and referrals for recommendations. A third option is to attend the AICPA’s new TBA 2.0 workshop that teaches practitioners how to move from just providing compliance-type services to becoming their clients most trusted business Adviser and identifying opportunities to provide more Advisory/consulting services and get paid for it. 

Keys to Success

  1. Take pride in the potential value of your knowledge. “People really need help, especially in these tough times,” said Rigby. “The key is to take pride in the vast knowledge you have. Then use it to deliver the value that your clients seek.” According to Pirolli, a big key to success here is “to believe you can fill this role as a trusted business adviser.”
  2. Set realistic goals. Adopting a new approach takes time and energy, so start small. Rigby recommended practitioners identify two things to three things they want to accomplish over the next 12 months. For example:

    1. Make a list of five clients you want to meet with to discuss potential needs;
    2. Identify two to three potential clients that may have issues you can help resolve;
    3. Provide two to three new Advisory engagements; and
    4. Stay focused on your goals throughout the year.
  3. Clearly communicate objectives. Once you have identified a specific course of action for a client engagement, it’s essential to communicate your objectives and deliverables clearly. Convey progress toward those objectives regularly throughout the project. A good practice for demonstrating success along the way is to highlight achievements and milestones.
  4. Provide clients with a source of confidence and clarity. “Trust comes by replacing client’s confusion with clarity, and the confidence that goes along with it,” said Rigby. “One of the best ways to emerge as a trusted adviser is to provide your clients with a clear picture of their situation and a pathway to reach their desired destination.”
  5. Learn from mistakes. When you delve into uncharted territory you will make mistakes. When you do, know that it’s not the end of your career, although it is likely to feel that way. When it happens, step back and analyze the situation. Ask three questions:

  6. What went wrong?
  7. What could you have done differently?
  8. What did you learn?


Isn’t it time to seize greater opportunities by strengthening your role as a trusted adviser? Here’s to a brighter future for you, your employees and the clients you serve.  

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Tracy Crevar Warren, founder of The Crevar Group, helps professional services firms win more new business and build more profitable practices. A sought-after consultant, author and coach, she advises clients on practice growth through marketing, sales and client service. With a proven track record and positive high-energy style, she empowers practitioners to do more of the work they love. You can reach her at 336-889-GROW (4769).