Many years ago a young man entered my office wanting to see me. He had a fan folder filled with documents and needed his tax return prepared. In a weak moment I allowed him a meeting without an appointment. As I always do with a new client, I started to ask questions. It is my firm belief that you must know your client before you can help him.
Opening a file for a new client requires their Social Security Number. He questioned my need for this information. I explained how I cannot even open a file for him without the SSN. He grudgingly provided the number. As I continued asking questions to understand my new client I was met by a wall of resistance. Finally, the young man had had enough of my questions. He informed me I was on a need to know basis, to which I replied, “You need to know you need to leave.”
The IRS sends agents to accounting offices periodically to test accountants, practices and procedures. After digesting the meeting with the young man I came to the conclusion he was an IRS plant there to test me. Accountants under pressure to build a client base may succumb to temptation. The IRS wants to know which tax professionals are willing to step over the line when pressured by a client.
For some reason I do not feel pressured to cheat on taxes. The tax code is filled with too many opportunities to reduce your tax load without cheating. Savers also have less incentive to cheat as they are treated preferentially by the tax code. I am only interested in the correct answer, not a certain result. If you owe money, you owe money. We can work on ideas to lower your tax bill going forward, but what is past, is past.
Attorneys, doctors, and accountants all need to know their client before prescribing.
Keith’s Rule # 14: Prescription before diagnosis is malpractice.
Knowing the client takes more time in the beginning than the actual preparation work. Some of the learning takes place by undertaking a deep review of the paperwork provided. Most details about a client, however, is gathered by questions. My files are filed with copious notes on clients. Before I prepare a tax return I review notes from past years.
Why is it so important to know your client? It may seem obvious for a doctor. Can’t a tax pro just plug the numbers and go? Sure, if you are a data processor. My clients want more from me and I provide it.
There is a more important question, however. If knowing my client is important, how much more important is it for you to know yourself? The questions I ask are vital in helping me prepare an accurate tax return and provide appropriate advice. You need to have an equally intense Q&A with yourself to understand what you really want in life. Without a full examination of your personal goals and values you will never get the results you want.
The questions I have when meeting with you will be different than the ones you will need answered by yourself. You need to ask and answer certain questions only you can answer. By answering these questions you will gain a deeper understanding of what is really important to you. Here are a few sample questions:
- When do I want to retire?
- How much do I need to retire?
- What will I do in retirement?
- What really makes me happy?
- How much stuff is enough?
- Family? How can I have an awesome family life?
- What interests me most?
The above questions are only a starter. The questions you ask will lead to other, different questions. Maybe you want to reunite with your children or spend more time with a significant other. Others will be focused on early retirement or travelling. For the same reason I ask my clients different sets of questions after I get the basics down, you will also have questions unique to you. Allow your mind to go where it wants. Don’t force it. By having a productive self-talk you will gain a better insight into your personal beliefs, interests, and passions.
Real Life Example
I have always been lucky. Things always seem to turn out right for me. A seeming disaster turns into a wealth of new knowledge I can use to better my life and gain more happiness. You can experience the same luck I have.
Growing up on a farm in rural Wisconsin is not a recipe for financial wealth, especially when the farm entered receivership the year I graduated from high school. Talk about plans going down the drain. It turned out to be a massive blessing. My life took a ninety degree turn the same time I entered adulthood. Without the family farm going under it is unlikely I would have ever entered the tax field. I would have missed all the great people I met along the way, including writing this blog.
Questions were very important to the young man I once was. A few years later I met Mrs. Accountant and married her at age 23. I asked serious questions of myself back then and also of my new bride. We discovered our values when it came to work, children, spending, and retirement.
By age 30 Mrs. Accountant fully retired. Our first child entered the world. It was important for mom to raise our daughter. It was through questions that we understood our values regarding children. Both my daughters spent the majority of their time with their parents rather than a daycare provider.
My values regarding my children were different from Mrs. Accountant. I enjoyed the kids much more when they got older. Eat, shit, and repeat never appealed to me. Cute never offset the reality. Still, I bonded with my girls. I held them, talked to them, and even changed the occasional diaper. Once the girls started walking I was all-in. Now we can play games and communicate! I kiss my girls, all three of them, every day and tell them I love them. My values differed from Mrs. Accountant, but were still of the same thought when it came to loving our children.
The same conversation early in our marriage revealed another value. Whereas, Mrs. Accountant is totally content at home with the girls, reading, playing in the garden, etcetera, I am not. For twenty years now I have promised I am going to retire, a real retirement where you sit around all day. I can’t stand it! I tried. I really did. It got so bad I started countdown clocks to help me prepare for the day I lost my work family. It did not work.
I gave up on countdown clocks. Questions allowed me to understand who I really am. I am a father, husband, and business owner. I am also the happiest person I know. Every breath is a pleasure. There are probably groups out there for sick people like me. I imagine the first meeting would go something like this:
I stand: “Hello, my name is Keith and I am a workaholic.”
The group in unison: “Hello, Keith.”
I continue: “Sitting around in this room jawboning is irritating. So, if any of you have a tax issue, or a business idea, or an investment question, I will stay as long as necessary to help you solve the issue.”
I sit. The room face palms while shaking their heads.
Was it something I said?