5 advisory traits to succeed at consulting

Firms must first develop a truly advisory culture before making the leap into providing clients with expert advice in specialized areas.
By Jennifer Wilson

With all the talk of disintermediation and the potential decline of compliance services, CPA firm leaders are exploring consulting services like never before. I believe this is premature in many cases, because most firms have yet to master the art of truly advising clients. So, before you acquire a cybersecurity firm or recruit a forensic litigation support expert, you would be wise to develop an advisory culture throughout your firm. And if you already have consulting services in place, they will gain traction far faster when you instill advisory skills in all of your client-facing professionals.

First, let's explore the difference between advisory and consulting. I define advisory as a mindset that service providers practice when providing any service to clients — compliance or consulting. It is a more holistic, relational, inquisitive, and solutions-oriented approach to serving a client. Consulting is providing clients with expert advice in a specialized area for a fee. To me, advisory is your approach — the "how" — and consulting is the service you offer — the "what." I don't know how a firm can be good at providing consulting services without developing a truly advisory approach to clients.

Some leaders at larger firms plan to solve this problem by hiring consultants or acquiring a consultancy practice and letting those people be the firm's advisers. This works fine if everyone wants the consulting group to operate as a "bolt on" and continue to source business outside of the CPA firm as the primary means of growth. Many consulting groups are frustrated after joining a CPA firm because they have to go outside the practice to find clients just as they did before they joined. The compliance providers don't uncover consulting opportunities because they don't understand their clients' circumstances well enough to identify new needs..

To truly offer solutions to the firm's compliance-client base, the firm must develop an advisory mindset within and teach advisory skills to its compliance service providers.

So, what skills should leaders at firms of all sizes teach and seek as they build an entire firm of advisers? A true adviser is …

Caring. Advisers want to make a positive difference for their clients — a genuine and lasting impact on their lives and their businesses. They want to know and understand their clients' hopes, dreams, and fears; to understand their motivators and drivers; and to develop a deep relationship with each client based on mutual respect and trust. To achieve this, advisers must spend real time with their clients, allocating much more than the obligatory one-hour annual tax appointment or the midweek audit lunch with the CFO. Advisers invest in relationship time outside of the service cycle. They remember what they learn, and they continue to deepen their bonds with their clients over time. Because of this, true advisers know that they cannot truly know and serve their clients and also serve a mammoth "book of business" themselves. Thus, the clients they do serve must value their advisory approach and be willing to pay premium fees to support it.

Curious. Advisers don't just focus on the problem that the client brings to them initially. For instance, consider a situation where a firm leader approaches us to ask for help with partner compensation. We could share a bunch of information about how we approach partner compensation engagements, or stories of comp engagements we've done that illustrate our expertise. But in almost all cases, compensation is not the client's real issue. Instead, firm leaders in this scenario are usually trying to solve for something else. They may have a rising star that they're afraid will leave. They may have a selfish partner who is taking more than his or her contribution warrants. As an adviser, I have to understand the "whole client" — not just the small piece that pertains to a particular service the client requests or that we may provide. Advisers invest the time to ask a lot of open-ended questions, to gather data, and to conduct research. Then they make connections with the data, draw conclusions, and make recommendations based on the information that they gather.

Unselfish. A skilled adviser is not just trying to sell a service. In fact, great advisers uncover needs that they cannot meet themselves and happily refer their clients to others who can provide the right solution — inside or outside the firm. My husband, who has a successful new construction real estate business, always says, "When I'm working with a client, no matter what I'm doing, I make sure it's for their reasons and not my own."

Worldly. Great advisers look beyond their own four walls and bring ideas from the broader world to their clients. They read trade publications and blogs and pay attention to social media in their field. They attend conferences and association meetings to educate themselves about trends and new techniques. They network with other advisers to learn their outlooks and how they approach the market. They are humble enough to know that they can learn new tricks and teach those to their clients.

Courageous. Advisers have to be willing to go "off road" with their clients. To identify and name problems the client has that the client may not see or have been willing to discuss until now. For instance, in a family business, it is almost inevitable that familial relationship issues have to be addressed and resolved to maintain the business's health. Advisers raise subjects that are uncomfortable. They suggest solutions they've never provided before. They gather experts together to solve the client's core challenges. They are willing to take relationship risks because they are so committed to their clients' well-being.

I believe that Next Gen clients will expect these attributes from their accounting and consulting services providers. And not all of your people will be able to shift their mindset and behaviors to be truly caring, curious, unselfish, worldly, and courageous. In an advisory firm, those less "advisory" people may still have a place, but you will certainly need fewer of them. It will be important to shift your hiring practices first to seek people who exhibit these attributes more naturally. And you'll want to develop ongoing learning programs for all partners and staff to develop their new advisory habits over time.

Once you've laid your advisory groundwork, you'll be ready to more successfully deliver consulting services to your clients.

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at

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