Dithering accountants

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It may have occurred to one or two readers of this blog that the accusation has occasionally been made that I am opinionated. Too true I am, especially when it comes to accountancy practice. In fact, I'm of the opinion that an accountancy practitioner has to be very opinionated indeed. The reason is simple. That's exactly what the client wants.

Now I'm not making a trite point here. I'm actually getting to the very heart of my business philosophy as an accountancy practitioner. To explain I will go back a long way. I was trained in tax by Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co (now KPMG) London. I was in what was, in large part, a consultancy department and I was taught a particular way to write letters. This basically required you to send a letter to a client offering at least three options they might choose on any issue and by the merest of hints of inflection of grammatical style suggest that they might wish to choose (b) without ever being so explicit that the firm might accept liability for what was said. In exchange for this obfuscation considerable fees were charged.

I hated that style of working. I believed the accountant failed in their professional duty in that situation. Put simply they did not profess. That's not good enough. And charging considerable sums for this failure to advise stuck in my gullet. It was one of the many reasons why I decided to quit. When, soon after, I decided to set up on my own at an age I'd now consider reckless I was determined to do things a lot better. Put simply I wanted to use my intellect to offer unambiguous advice on which a client could act with confidence, and I'd accept the consequences.

I can assure you, clients liked it. The firm grew fast, so fast we (for it soon became a partnership) decided to concentrate on quality not quantity as time went by, but there were still 800 clients when we all moved on 15 years after I started the operation. And most were successful. I genuinely think we could claim some credit for that because the emphatic nature of the advice we gave provided people with confidence on issues on which they felt sufficiently insecure to pay for help.

So it's annoyed me considerably to see the 'great and good' sitting on their hands with regard to the UK's 'tax amnesty'. In comments I've received about the advice for practitioners I published a couple of days ago I have, for example, been accused of 'rushing in' when delay could be tolerated, and of being emphatic when it is uncertain just how this disclosure scheme will pan out.

Well, I'll be unambiguous about those comments. I think they represent a dereliction of duty by those responsible for them to their clients who do at this time need advice, because contrary to the bleatings of the profession the vast majority of those who will need to know about the disclosure scheme probably do so already from the press, or will when their bank writes to them in the near future. In that case they need advice now. So why have the Institutes suggested accountants abandon their responsibility their duty to their clients at this moment? I'll be straightforward. I think it's because:

a) They have no sense of duty to their clients. Sorry, I think that's true. I certainly think I have a duty to my profession, myself and society at large before any one client, but that still means I have an enormous responsibility to those who help provide me with a livelihood. But those who think they put profit first put clients second, always. That's not being professional. They're dithering now because they see risk in this and that they identify that with harm to profit and as such they're not talking to clients. That's wrong.

b) They're cowards. What else can such running away from both risk and uncertainty represent? The two are, of course, different but both are part of the realities of life, and are always present when supplying client service. So, you embrace them and advise on the basis of best judgement in the face of that reality. That, after all is exactly what to be a professional person requires, and is exactly what the client expects. Clients know there's no such thing as certainty. It's only accountants who appear to retain this quaint notion that as a result debilitates the profession and leaves it in this amazing situation where all it can do is complain. Until accountants embrace uncertainty this will continue to be the case.

c) They have no moral compass on which to base their advice and as such are clueless as to what to say to help people. That's a big charge, but I think it's true. Put simply, if your only goal is to help a client save tax then you're living a grey area where there is no guide bar a profit motive matched by an even greater fear of client litigation. But if, alternatively you have the clear objective to ensure a client complies with tax law and so pays the right amount of tax and no more in the right place at the right time then you've got a framework on which to offer advice, which the client can understand (and appreciate, because they know it means they can sleep at night, at least when it comes to this issue) and which provides an unambiguous basis for decision making.

So where it appears others are dithering I've acted. Nothing I've said has exposed me to risk. All that I've done so far is:

- be timely, which is an enormous commercial differentiator in the eyes of the client, which they value greatly;

- shown clients I'm on the ball;

- reassured them I can meet their need, if there is one, if only by referring them on in some cases;

- given myself more time to deal with any issues, if thy do arise (although, I'll be honest, I'm not expecting that outcome).

I call that professional. I call it creating competitive advantage. I call it client service. And I think most clients would think their own accountants are dithering. As exam questions used to say in my day: compare and contrast. I know what the punter would prefer.