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?
There are only a small number of issues that are really urgent: IRS letter, inheritance/death, purchasing a home, divorce (you would be surprised how many people I know who came this close to getting divorce papers and didn’t), and either buying or selling a business or major asset. Periodically something new shows up, but 95% of urgent calls fall into the above mentioned categories. Today we have a client purchasing a business.
Accountants are called “deal busters” for good reason. Whereas, the buyer has already convinced himself how great the deal it is, the accountant points out all the things that can go wrong and several things that are wrong with the deal. The accountant’s math is slightly different from the buyers. The accountant knows he will see this account a lot in the future if the business is purchased. A failing business makes for the worst clients (extra work and difficulty collecting fees). On the other hand, business clients are high margin accounts. Good accountants will pass on a lucrative account to avoid the problem clients.
Sellers are noted for exaggerating the value of their company. Buyers tend to believe what they are told and are easily distracted from damning numbers in the financial statements and tax returns. Good accountants ground their clients in facts. I personally work hard to take the shine off the business purchase. This is not a new toy or cash cow; it is hard work and commitment. I know I have done my job when the clients says, “It can’t be done.”
Once the client sees all the warts, it is time to bring him back from the helplessness of “can’t”. Can’t is a place of powerlessness. When you say you can’t do something you are removing all possibility of success even if you try.
Keith’s Rule # 12: Whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right.
I do not believe in can’t. Can’t is a four letter word never used by polite people. Can’t destroys dreams; can’t destroys all hope of any future. People ask my advice on so many issues that boil down to one deadly word: can’t. How many of these “can’ts” do you fall for?
- I can’t fix my marriage
- I can’t spend less
- I can’t save or save more for retirement
- I can’t find a job
- I can’t start/run a business
- I can’t find a quality mate
- I can’t eat better
The list goes on ad nauseam. Once you convince yourself you can’t, what else is left to do. Can’t in a marriage equals divorce; can’t in business equals bankruptcy; can’t in retirement planning equals living paycheck to paycheck until your body gives out.
Breaking Through the Impossible
Our excited future business owner above watches me systematically explain all the problems with the business he is interested in buying. I watch as he slumps deeper and deeper into his chair as I deflate his dreams.
Keith’s Rule # 13: Be a problem solver; a solutions guy.
The process I use to point out issues in the target business need to be used daily in an ongoing enterprise. When I point out problems I don’t feel they can’t be fixed. Most problems are fixable. By pointing out issues, my client can negotiate a better deal on the purchase. It is all a mind game.
Every success starts with a game plan. A long-lasting marriage didn’t just happen. The marriage was worked every day and nurtured. Microsoft did not just happen by accident. Bill Gates had a plan. He managed his company and continually tested and modified his plans. In a few a decades Microsoft went from startup to one of the largest and most profitable companies on the planet.
Pointing out problems is not a “can’t” issue. Clients come to me with problems all day long. Rapid fire, I provide one solution after another. When not in front of clients I read voraciously in a wide variety of fields. My reservoir of knowledge grows and grows. I may not have the perfect answer or preferred solution, but I have ideas. In my mind there in nothing I can’t do. (Pun intended.)
So many people have tax problems. There are answers to every tax issue. You may not like the answer, but it is a solution. When you do not like my answer it is because you say you “can’t” do what I suggest. Give me enough time and I will lower anyone’s taxes. Digging a hole with the IRS takes time to work out of, but it can be done.
The Death of Can’t
Doctors, attorneys, and accountants see a lot of things we sometimes wish we did not. As an accountant with over 30 years of experience, I have seen people with more different problems than I care to recall. In the first minute of our first meeting I already know if you will succeed or not with only a rare miss. When Goodwill Industries (FISC) sends me a client with significant tax problems it is easy to tell if the problems will be resolved. Here is how I can tell: if the clients want me to enable their behavior rather than change, they will fail. Major tax problems require drastic actions; not all of them will be fun.
Your entire life is the same. A failing marriage needs a dose of something different than what it has been getting. A failing business or rental property owner needs to consider alternatives, not double down on the same failed policies. No matter how good you are you need to reevaluate frequently. Things change, so do people. Mrs. Accountant and I are different people than we were the day we married. We evolved together. It was a conscious effort. Running a successful tax practice for 30+ years means the company evolved and was transformed many times over the decades. What I did 30 years ago to start my practice will not work today; it takes a different approach now. It can be done.
Change Your Words, Change Your Life
Words are powerful. The words we use when we talk to ourselves are even more powerful. Listen to your self-talk. If you find negative tones cropping up, it is time to quash them. The word can’t is a dead giveaway your thinking needs reworking. If the Egyptians could build the pyramids 5,000 years ago, if we can announce and then land a man on the moon in less than a decade, if we can travel to any corner of the planet in less than a day, you can solve any problem you have. Man has cured disease, lives longer, produces more food, lives better, and has more luxuries than ever before. You are blessed (and lucky) to live in such an awesome period in time.
Optimism is my default. Sure, I take it on the chin now and again. That is life; suck it up. Words can build my confidence or destroy all I hold dear. You must, as I do, remain vigilant in monitoring the words you use. People judge you by what you say and what you do. The right words can land your dream job or destroy any chance of getting hired. The relationship you share with your ideal mate is predicated upon the words you use with and to each other. Heck, the right words got you the relationship. If you are not with your ideal mate it might be time to examine the words you use with people who are most attractive and mentally, emotionally, and spiritually fulfilling to you.
In the Bible (for the religious readers) God created everything with words. In the Gospel of John we are told before the universe began there was the Word. In ancient times people believed your name had powerful influence over the people who held it. We don’t believe names have as powerful an influence today, but we all know examples where a name made a difference.
Always use powerful uplifting words when you talk to yourself. It makes a difference. People tell me they love to hear me speak. I have no special claim to fame. I do choose my words carefully. I tend toward powerful, positive words. People do not want to hear about how it can’t be done. Most people are drawn to passionate people. Enthusiasm in a speaker makes the whole crowd feel awesome so I give all I have so the people I speak to can have that feeling every time they hear me.
You can do it! Problems are solvable. You can have the man/woman of your dreams. You can retire early or work at a job/business you love. Be a great friend and you will have great friends. As for me: what you see is what you get. People wonder if I am the way I write or like I am in front of a crowd. Yes! All the time. Granted, I am not always turned on. As the great motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, said, “Someone who is on all the time is one something and it is going to kill him.” But I am always optimistic. I have enjoyed an awesome life. You can’t (another intended pun) imagine how great my life has been and is. My wife and children (beyond awesome); my business (living the dream); my home (living in a way very few can); my body (my health is excellent and I am fit); my mind (I have dreamed dreams you would not believe, read books, expanded my mind, experienced a thousand universes).
And you can, too.