Thinking Advisory: What CPAs Need to Consider

by Dr. Sean Stein Smith, CPA, Lehman College – August 1, 2019
Thinking Advisory: What CPAs Need to Consider

It’s been stated time and time again: CPAs need to evolve into strategic advisors and become business partners to clients. While this concept may sound cliché, what often goes unaddressed are the concrete steps firms and individuals can take to turn this idea into a reality.

Organizations are different and change over time, and the individuals employed at these firms change even more often, but there are several core traits and ideas that can be used to help prepare CPAs and other accounting professionals for the transition to strategic advisor. Instead of being optional or a nice idea, this shift is quickly becoming a requirement for every practitioner wanting to expand or develop new business lines. Tax returns, audit, attestation engagements and other traditional accounting services are not going away or being rendered irrelevant. Rather, the opposite is true; as data and understanding data becomes more important to organiza­tional success, CPAs have the skill sets and competencies clients and customers are going to be looking for moving forward.

Trends to Consider 

Before diving right into the mindset shifts or specific changes that should be factored into organizational training and development, it is appropriate to point out what specific trends are forming the focus of this push to advisory. Not meant to be all inclu­sive, this listing should be used as a starting point for further discussion and analysis.

  1. Data-driven analytics. The terminol­ogy associated with big data and data analytics may seem like old news, but it is important to remember that many client organizations may have not embraced data and the insights that are available from it. Specifically, accounting professionals — already well versed in collecting and analyzing information — should continue to drill down into data that is being produced in larger quantities than ever before.
  2. Cybersecurity. It might not seem like an incredibly exciting or lucrative area, especially since CPAs have heard about cybersecurity for decades, but this is certainly an area that practitioners need to focus on. Emerging technologies, including blockchain, robotic process automation, artificial intelligence and automation at large are increasing the speed and volume with which data can be transferred and analyzed. On the flip side, these same benefits also provide opportunities for CPAs to address client needs and concerns related to just how secure this data is.
  3. Emerging technologies. Speaking of those emerging technologies, these tools represent both opportunities and challenges for practitioners. Automation, increased security and the growing availability of information mean that there is more data to analyze than ever before. This also means, however, that other non-CPA technical experts and firms can enter the market and begin to offer advisory services connected to these tools.

Making the Shift

CPAs need to be proactive and stake out market positions connected to these emerging trends, but simply approaching these emerging areas with a traditional focus will not be sufficient. In order to truly move into the advisory services space, and do so successfully, practitioners and firms need to use some new approaches and viewpoints, such as the following:

  1. Bring solution options, not just news. One of the most common complaints from clients to CPAs is that the deliv­erables that are produced only focus on events and news that have already occurred. While certainly valuable from a compliance and reporting purpose, simply focusing on what has already occurred does not add value to the en­terprise going forward. In order to offer solutions and advice moving forward, CPAs need to understand how the busi­ness actually operates, leading us to the second point.
  2. Understand the business itself. Accountants and CPAs have a reputa­tion, deserved or not, of sometimes not quite understanding the operational side of every client business. Clients and cus­tomers hire CPAs to assist with financial matters, so it makes sense that is where the focus has been. In order, however, to be able to become that strategic advisor and business partner, firms and prac­titioners want to evolve into, a deeper understanding is necessary. It is not crucial to become an operational expert, but in order to increase understanding about the client’s business, CPAs should consider attending a client industry training session and/or working on-site at client locations on periodic basis, and not just at audit or tax time.
  3. Serve as a technology and strategy expert. This is the proverbial bucket of gold that practitioners often want to evolve or change into, but in order to do that CPAs need to both understand the emerging technology tools and be able to explain them in a manner that is understandable and useful to clients. Making it understandable also means that practitioners need to be able to link to business issues and problems that the client is experiencing (see point #2).

Despite all of the discussion about how important it is for CPAs to make the pivot to advisory services and become more of a strategic business partner and advisor, it can be difficult for firms and practitioners to identify just what specific steps should be taken to turn this concept into reality. Emerging technologies, changing client needs and expectations, and the different mindset necessary to transition from traditional roles to more advisory roles can challenge this transition and shift. That said, and hopefully incorporating some of the ideas contained in this article, it should be becoming clearer that this shift is indeed possible. Delivering increased value to clients, getting compensated at the appropriate rates and being a more engaged professional — the shift to advisory is a win-win all around. 


Sean D. Stein Smith

Sean D. Stein Smith

Sean Stein Smith is a professor at the City University of New York – Lehman College. Sean also is the chairperson of the NJCPA's Emerging Technologies Interest Group (#NJCPATech). He serves on the Advisory Board of the Wall Street Blockchain Alliance, where he co-chairs the Accounting Work Group. Sean is on the Advisory Board of Gilded, a TechStars ’19 company. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the American Institute of Economic Research.

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This article appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.