PART IV: Best Practices for Accountants and their Business Clients

The Discovery Process

In this month’s segment, we’ll touch on a critical early step as you begin to provide business consulting services to your clients: The Discovery Process.

Many consultants make the mistake of thinking they will get all the discovery information they need from traditional financial statements. And, while it’s true these statements can tell you quite a lot about a business, you should bear in mind that everything in them is in what I like to call the “rear vision mirror.” It’s all happened already.

Of course, the discovery process must eventually take historical financials into account but this should not be the first step. Looking at a P&L for last year, for example, can only tell you that something happened, not why it happened.

Clients come to you because they feel things are getting out of control or they don’t have the intellectual capital to address a need. They want improvement but they don’t know exactly how to make it happen.

With this invariably being the case, the first step in the discovery process is to ask a lot of questions. You need to get them talking. You need to know who they are, where they are and how they got there.

Time after time, you will be amazed by what you hear. It runs the gamut from “I am a failure” to “it’s all my employees’ fault” to “the universe hates me.” I once had a client make all three of these statements to me in the same discovery meeting.

The client’s emotional state accounts for about 80 percent of everything in consulting. You must connect with them personally or you won’t connect with them professionally. It’s a trust thing and trust is earned.

Find out what they want to accomplish and why they think things are the way they are. You don’t need to solve all their problems on the first “date.” Take your time. Let them vent. Let them feel. Let them know that you are a sympathetic ear.

There’s an old saying that I believe is applicable here: “You cannot have someone’s hands until you have their heart.” Discovery is about having their heart. Once you have the heart you can easily have their business because trust has been earned.

Your questions should be about having them tell you the parameters of their story. Questions like: “In your perfect world what happens in this situation? How does it resolve? What are the outcomes and how do think this could be achieved? What is stopping you from achieving the desired outcome?”

It’s called collaboration and you want them to enter into it with you. If you get answers to these questions, you will be on your way to engaging that client in addition to being better informed as you start to go through historical financials.

Goals and Objectives

Telling a client that you can help them with their financials is one thing. Telling them you can also help them discover their goals and objectives and then provide the necessary analysis to achieve those goals is a holy grail. Here’s a checklist I used to find helpful during the discovery period:

  1. Ask them what they think is important
  2. Ask them what they want to accomplish
  3. Ask them why things are the way they are
  4. Ask them what their perfect outcomes would be
  5. Ask them if they have thought of solutions that might work
  6. Ask them what they have tried so far
  7. Ask them what worked really well
  8. Ask, ask and keep asking

Notice a trend here? At the end of discovery – which may take more than one meeting depending on the size and complexity of the client – you’ll have a really good idea of what solutions they will want to buy to solve for their particular set of circumstances.

During discovery, the one thing you want to make sure you get across from your side is that you are an expert in putting solutions together to provide for a client’s needs. Clients want answers to their situations. They are starving for it. They want solutions and the best way to find them is by taking a comprehensive approach to discovery that provides context for all the numbers you’ll be looking at.