There are no stupid questions, it’s true. There are, however, questions that you should not waste your client’s time with. Especially when you can easily get the answers yourself. Sometimes I find that consultants ask their clients questions essentially out of laziness. It may well be true that the client has the answer much more quickly than you can find it. Let’s remember, however, that the client hired you to free up their time, not take it up.
There has to be a fair balance of course, between what is a fair question, and what is more of a waste of your client’s time. As a general rule, I try to adopt a policy of not asking, until I have thoroughly researched the issue on my own, unless it’s just not the sort of thing that I could ever know.
In the accounting world, there are oftentimes questions that we ask our clients that they won’t even know the answers to. If anything, that is why they’ve hired us. It’s not that it’s the end of the world if you ask a client a question that you can find out easily on your own. Nor is it horrible, if you ask the client a question, out of haste, which you then realize is something they really hired you to find out. It may just leave the client wondering something like, “isn’t that what I hired you for?”
What I am driving at here, is the different between the client answering your questions and wondering about things, vs the client being left with thoughts along the lines of, “wow, (s)he really has a handle on this. I love that I don’t have to worry about a thing!’
It’s these little, extra details (like not bugging the client about things you can easily get the answers to on your own) that make the difference, between being good, and being great. These are the subtle differences that leave the client with the impression that you have improved the client’s life so profoundly, they couldn’t imagine working with anyone else.
Let’s look at a specific example in the context of a bookkeeping engagement. The video above will illustrate this visually.
Let’s say I am reviewing a clients Profit and Loss statement in QuickBooks Online. I know they have offered discounts, but I don’t see that anywhere on the profit and loss. I can stop there and ask the client where the discounts are. The client will probably agree that it’s a good question. At the same time, the client will just as likely not have a clue as to the answer.
Here’s what I do instead. I want to come to the client with a suggestion, instead of a question. It might look something like this, based on things I’ve actually seen many times before.
Before going to the client, I can double click on the Sales number from the profit and loss. Once there, I will see the negative amounts inside the total. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the discounts were booked directly to the Sales account.
The bookkeeping is right, but it’s not presented well. The client is probably unaware of any of these dynamics and their implications. It’s tempting to just fix it, but don’t. This is where you do want to stop and ask the question, but along with the question you make a suggestion.
On the outside chance that the client does know about this, and they may have a reason for wanting it presented this way, you can’t assume anything.
So you go to the client and explain that the discounts are buried inside the sales number on their profit and loss. You want to carve this out, and show them as a deduction in the income section. This way you can see gross sales, less sales discounts and allowances, then arriving at net sales. This is a much better presentation of the financial position of the company, but before fixing it, you just want to check with the client and be sure they understand what is going on, and what you are doing about it.
Now you’re upgrading the value of the services you’re offering the client, because you’re minimizing the interaction (which allows the client to stay focused) and then when you DO have the interaction, instead of asking questions you’re making suggestions. Win-win all the way around.
Not only this, but the little bit of involvement that the client has now had with you was powerful. It lets the client know about your attention to detail. It lets them know that you are actually thinking about things. In the end, when they review their profit and loss statement, they will see the discounts and allowances, and this can help them gain insights. Is the number too high? Are they giving too much away? Are they having to refund a lot of customers? This could be an indication that something is wrong. A bigger picture problem can now be identified, and rectified. No one would have been able to see this, if you hadn’t paid attention and fixed it.
The goal here is to have amazing communication with the client, but make that communication count. Get the client used to the idea, that when you have something to talk to them about, the interaction will be incredibly valuable.