There is a ritual the accounting profession goes through every autumn. Eager tax professionals attend continuing education programs to hear all the latest tax law changes with interpretation. Large hotel venues fill with CPAs, enrolled agents, and even attorneys eager to learn. The room is filled with tax professionals all from within a hundred miles.
It amazes me how small the accounting profession is. Tax professionals are an even smaller crowd. A handful of conferences draw nearly the entire industry in each geographic region of the country. Smaller programs abound, but the annual refresher courses with tax law updates bring out the vast majority of the industry.
The same people attend year after year. We know each other. Sometimes personally, sometimes we are only aware of each other’s existence. Many times we talk and share ideas, talking taxes, clients and business management. There is respect in the air. We have something in common and feel comfortable together. Some of us worked in the same office or worked together on a client’s file. Few members of the crowd feel we are competition.
A Long Way from Home
Back in 1993 I was still wet behind the ears. I went full-time in the tax field a few years prior and the ink on my enrolled agent license smudged to the touch. Mrs. Accountant worked in the office which was my remodeled basement at the time. (Ah, the good ‘ol days when I worked from home.) Always eager for a good tax deal, Mrs. A and I planned a tax deductible trip to New Orleans. The National Association of Tax Practitioners (NATP) had a tax class I was interested in at a Baton Rough venue. The plan was to swing past New Orleans on the way back home. (Not on the way home, exactly, so a few miles were not deductible.)
Anticipation of attending a tax seminar with people I never met before would be an experience. My goal was to learn something new. Tax preparers from so far away should be willing to share their ideas with a tax office well outside their circle of practice.
As I picked up my materials the instructor came to the table outside the conference room. Our eyes met. Both our faces lit up in recognition instantly. Renee Otto (since retired) was the instructor. Her tax office is about a mile from mine in Wisconsin. We had a wonderful talk before class started as we reminisced on how small the tax industry is.
I traveled a thousand miles for a new experience and ended up getting training from a local tax professional. Life is strange.
Who Did Your Taxes Last Year?
When new clients walk in the door the first thing I ask is who did their taxes the prior year. It sounds unimportant, but it is information I must have. The firm and the preparer in the firm tells me a lot about the quality of work performed in the past. It also tells me approximately how much you paid for tax preparation in the past.
Sometimes people are sheepish about sharing the information. Since I require a copy of the previous tax return I will find out soon enough anyway. People worry I might use the information to determine price. I do. Not that I charge more if you paid more in the past, but if the past quality was low I will have more work verifying and fixing past problems.
Kick’em in the Knees
There is a tendency for the new tax professionals (and the less savory) to bash other tax professionals to get new clients. (Hint: It doesn’t attract the kind of clients you want.) In my office that behavior is frowned upon. Even if we know the previous accountant overcharged or did poor tax work, I demand professionalism from my team. It’s hard sometimes. I get it. But it has to be that way. Remember, we all see each other in a few months as we refresh our skills and review the new tax laws.
What gets said comes round. Bad-mouthing people reflects badly on the person bad-mouthing, not the person being bad-mouthed. Even if the person deserved the bad-mouthing. As Clint Eastwood said in The Unforgiven, “We all have it com’in.”
Talking nice when it is undeserved takes time to master. You will burn more bridges than you can imagine learning the skill. People make mistakes. So do you. Gutting them for being human only sets you up for loss later. People talk. People remember. Every profession, every group, every genre gathers frequently to share a common love. You don’t want your name running rampant as someone not to work with.
The Art of the Bad Review
Many years ago when I was still learning to push nouns up against verbs in a way people would read, I discovered bad reviews sold well. At least they were read more often and pageviews turn ad revenues. Content farms, like HubPages, were the perfect place to hone writing skills. I could try different styles of writing and experiment with multiple ways of increasing traffic and increasing Google or Amazon revenues.
Product hubs did best before the Google slap (the Panda update) of seven or eight years ago. In less than six months I generated north of a thousand bucks a month on HubPages with revenue rocketing higher fast. This could turn into real money if Google didn’t change their algorithm.
Product hubs sold lots of stuff on Amazon, but product reviews were awesome. Bad reviews generated more traffic, however. While my compadres were busy writing hubs selling piles of Amazon products, I started steering away from the crowded field and into negative product reviews. Since negative reviews drew more readers, my traffic was significantly higher than other writers on HubPages trying to sell Amazon products. I still sold Amazon merchandise, but I also made a killing from Google, and later the HubPages Ad Program. Then Google took my toy away by changing the rules. But the lessons were learned.
Or were they? I have since removed most negative product reviews. It sent the wrong message. Sure, I made money. But I had to be an ass to earn it. My goal was to find everything wrong about a product or service. People read those articles, clicked through to my business website and sometimes became clients. And they were the wrong kind of client for me.
The clients I attracted complained and whined insistently. They focused on the negative in every facet of their life. They were miserable and sharing the misery with me!
Today I sometimes still write critical reviews. I make an effort to tone down the negative. After several million published words I would like to think the edge has been moderated. It is a fine line to walk. It is possible to be critical without being an ass. Pointing out a flaw is acceptable; character assignations are not. It also speaks volumes about you.
A few years ago my business was turned upside down from a surge in new traffic. I was unprepared for the force the internet could assert against a small firm like mine. My business is a service which takes time for each client served. If I sold a product, ramping production would be easier. But training people to meet new demand takes time and people are rarely patient. That is why doctors knock you out when you go in for surgery. It’s not a good idea to have a patient demanding you hurry up while doing bypass surgery.
I started getting a few negative reviews online. Most people complained I was slow. I was. Too much work and I needed to learn the word “no” better. Just because I can do something, doesn’t mean I should.
If someone tells me about a negative review I rarely seek out the review. Why bother. It only ruins a good day. I was getting a taste of my own medicine. Many reviewers did not have my desire to improve communications skills so they went straight for the ax and started swinging.
Some businesses work hard to hide, remove or cover up negative reviews. I don’t. If someone posted a derogatory comment on this blog about me I would let it publish. Unless a comment exposes personal information on someone (think: Social Security numbers, et cetera), is hate speech, or would encourage violence, the comment stands. Think hard before pushing the “Post” button. Once published, it stays. Even if it shows me in a less than awesome light.
Free speech is most powerful when we think about what we intend to communicate before we publish. Of course, a blog writer would hold freedom of speech in high regard. Self-censorship is also important. It’s not encouraging less freedom of speech; it’s called editing.
A Bloggers World
There are a gazillion blogs out there. Probably more. The blogs with real traffic is small however. Take the personal finance genre. PF bloggers are everywhere. But we all read each other’s stuff. We visit at conferences. We communicate behind the scenes. When you bad-mouth a blogger to another blogger, you might want to be careful. You never know the relationship between the blogger you are speaking with and the one you are complaining about. And they might know more than you do about the subject you are so upset about.
Let’s take two examples. Kevin Clack attended a conference in Florida earlier this year. Pete (aka, Mr. Money Mustache) asked Kevin to do some work on his blog’s forum. Taking my cue, I asked Kevin to do some work on this blog. (Kevin has since taken over most of the work on The Wealthy Accountant.) Kevin later asked me if I would give a testimonial for his business. I agreed. Reading the other testimonials surprised me. Kevin also did work for Joel over at Financial 180. I did a consult with Joel and his wife at Camp Mustache SE.
It really is a small world when you think of it. We talk about six degrees of separation. In most fields, anyone you talk to is one or two degrees of separation only from every other person in the field. Three at most. What you say will get around. And remember, negative reviews reflect far more on the reviewer than the reviewed. It all comes full circle.
Final story. A few posts back I mentioned why I refused to buy Jim Collins’ book. Once I finally read the book I confessed how good it actually was. What caused me to hold back was I didn’t want to read another PF self-published book. And the picture of Jim struck me wrong. We have all been there. But I kept my flap shut and never said a word. Good thing, too.
Once I read The Simple Path to Wealth I discovered it was one of the best of the genre! Mister Collins promptly contacted me about my comment. Can you imagine if I would have flapped my lips before I knew anything about Jim or his book? Over a picture? And because I didn’t want another book on my to-do list?
The great news is Jim found the comments funny and entertaining. I found a way to air my thoughts without ruining a potential relationship. I think Jim likes the idea I gave his book a high-five. If I didn’t have high remarks for his work I would have said nothing publically. After all these year, I may have matured some.
Would you be surprised if I told you Jim Collins and I email now, planning a get-together in May or June? In a small world it is good to have friends. The ideas we will share, the knowledge I will gain by keeping my mouth shut and listening, is something I look forward to.
Jim has a powerful PF blog of his own. His traffic exceeds mine by a good margin. It is an awesome feeling to have the relationship with the influential PF bloggers I do. In a small word people communicate. Accountants communicate with other accountants and bloggers talk with other bloggers. The same people keep showing up at all the finance conferences.
There is nothing wrong with having an opinion. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing. Doing so in a professional manner increases the odds you will be an accepted member of the community. There is an old saying around these parts: If you see a turtle on top of a fence post you know he had some help getting there. Good accountants got that way by working with other accounting professionals. Sometimes you travel a thousand miles to find a teacher living a mile from your office. And successful bloggers didn’t get there without a little help from other very successful bloggers, either.
Always talk nice. You never know who your best friends will be two years down the road.