Use this formula to build trust with clients

By Dawn Wotapka

Clients sometimes view CPAs simply as compliance, tax, audit, or assurance professionals. But there are benefits to having clients see you as a partner and guide instead.

The “trusted adviser role” in an accountant’s career is more critical than ever, according to Angie Grissom, owner and chief relationship officer at The Rainmaker Companies in Nashville, Tenn., who has almost two decades of experience helping accountants and consultants become better communicators and leaders.

“In every market in the last year, firm leaders had to adapt and change in the way they recruit, lead, nurture, and develop their people, or they would risk losing them. It is the same with clients,” said Grissom, who will be speaking about earning clients’ trust, along with other topics such as agility and change management, during a July 29 session at AICPA & CIMA ENGAGE 2021.

CPAs can position themselves so that they are the ones clients call for advice when making financial or business decisions — and, in doing so, become more valuable.

To become that go-to professional, CPAs need to build a connection and then a relationship with clients, Grissom said. That can prevent clients from jumping ship to a firm offering a lower price or to someone who feels “new and shiny,” she said.

One way to develop a deeper relationship with clients, Grissom said, is by working through the “trust equation” outlined in the classic book The Trusted Advisor, by David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford. The trust equation appears as follows:

Trust = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy

In Grissom’s experience, here’s how accountants and financial professionals can interpret each area of the equation:

  • Credibility comes from the knowledge earned from degrees, continuing education, and professional activities. To increase credibility, professionals can get more involved in industry niches or certified in different areas. For example, a CPA specializing in manufacturing could attend manufacturing industry events and read trade materials, Grissom said.
  • Reliability means more than just doing what you say you’re going to do, showing up on time, and being professional. Instead, it should include offering clients crucial and critical insight and information, while proactively bringing them ideas and solutions. “When professionals are able to understand their clients’ and prospects’ businesses in a way where they can anticipate needs, it establishes them as being more reliable,” she said.
  • Intimacy is the area where accountants, who are generally more focused on the technical aspects of their job, typically struggle the most, Grissom said. It involves getting to know someone else as a human and getting them to open up enough to have real conversations that bring out answers beyond what the numbers tell you. “Intimacy is about building the relationship beyond just the focus on the business over time,” she said. “It allows you to understand holistically what the client is dealing with.”
  • Reduce self-interest by showing up with a focus on the client’s needs and interests, Grissom said. They must know you are focused on their success, not just meeting a quota or checking a box. Ask probing questions that may require outside expertise, and then offer to help find the solution. “That’s showing the client that you’re all about them and not just about a sale,” she said.

The trust equation is used to help professionals shape how they want clients, co-workers, and members of their community to view them, Grissom said. “Every person has an opportunity to determine how they want to be known,” she said. “Many are never asked this question in their careers, especially early on.”

By thinking through how they can improve on each element of the equation, CPAs can build an action plan for improving their relationships with others. The equation applies to professionals at any level of their career because “each relationship can be improved,” Grissom said. “There’s always work to be done.”

ENGAGE 2021, AICPA & CIMA’s premier conference for accountants and finance professionals, will be held both online and in-person this year. Join us at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas or remotely July 26–29 for keynotes and sessions on accounting and auditing; tax; technology; leadership; personal financial planning; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and more.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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