Practice Management Small Business

Owning Your Brand — Quirks and All

Written by Geni Whitehouse

As accountants, we strive to present an air of professionalism in everything we do. We measure ourselves against this invisible standard on a daily basis. We are expected to be ethical, independent, honest, knowledgeable and accurate. We had better be accurate. And we are supposed to have answers. All of the answers. To every question—even the hypothetical ones. And we need to be fast, especially if we are billing by the hour. And while we are busy acting all professional, we have to look the part.

But we accountants have this secret, other side. You see, many of us, in fact nearly all of the accountants I know, are people, too. (Have you heard about KPMG teaming up with IBM’s Watson? That might be the exception.) That means that, in addition to this whole professional thing we’ve got going on, we have human problems: babies who don’t sleep through the night, bills that pile up faster than our paychecks, pets that die on us, ageing parents who need our help.

Integrate Your Professional and Human Sides

We’ve also got personalities, quirks, and even hobbies (when it’s not tax season). Some of us, the brave younger ones, even have tattoos (Byron Patrick sports a CPA tattoo, while Greg Kyte, CPA, has a tattoo of his wife’s name). Others of us like to wear bow ties, flip flops, or Converse sneakers to work.

So, what happens when we accountants try to integrate these two sides of ourselves? Many of us try to suppress our humanness. We present that professional image at work and then save the people stuff for home. We shut down parts of ourselves to portray the image we think we have to represent. I like to imagine groups of accountants retreating to their cars at the end of a long day and peeling off those masks of pristine perfection.

But here’s the thing. It turns out our clients are people, and that makes them mostly human, too. Do you think they would rather be around some cardboard cutout version of a human being or someone who is real, alive, and three-dimensional? And who wants to network with some uptight, controlled, buttoned-up character of a person who says what they think you want to hear? We’ve all met that person at a chamber mixer. Yikes. Get me outa there. Fast.

Lose the Flat, Bland Image

Yes, we need to be professional. But we don’t have to be perfect or wear an expensive suit all the time. We need to show our clients that they can trust us. We need to be well trained and smart. That’s a given. But we are allowed to have a sense of humor. These things are not mutually exclusive. If we spend all of our energy worrying about how we appear in the eyes of our clients and devote half of our energy to hiding our true selves, we aren’t going to have enough energy left to really help them. And we aren’t going to be able to form lasting connections with potential new ones if we present a flat, bland image to the world.

The most important thing we can do in our role as advisor is to make our clients feel smart. That means we have to first put them at ease. Our dress should mirror the client’s style of dress. Yes, we should appear to be “put together,” but maybe we can forgo the tie on days when we will be walking around their farm. If they wear jeans to work, why would we show up in a three-piece suit? And if purple Converse sneakers are our shoe of choice, why wouldn’t we wear them to visit our clients?

Define the Kind of Client You Want to Attract

One of the most important things we can do as business owners is to determine what kinds of clients we want to attract. In my case, I decided early on that I only wanted to work with clients who had a sense of humor. I created my website with the intention of eliminating any potential clients who took themselves too seriously. When you visit a site called “Even a Nerd Can Be Heard,” you hopefully get the message right off the bat.

I am what I am. When you hire me, you get the same voice that you read on my website. You’ll also probably get grits, mentions of basset hounds, and some aw shucks references to my ignorance of wine. But because we have already agreed on who I am and what I believe, I am free to use all of my energy to help you. That is very liberating. I tell it like it is and I get to have fun doing it. My passion grows and the quality of my work improves at the same time.

Let (at Least Some of) Your Personality Out

And this is the weird part. The more attention I devote to putting you at ease, the more you value any insights that I might come up with. As my client, you might not even want me to have all of the answers. You might actually prefer that I ask new questions, even the “dumb” ones. Have you noticed how many “dumb” questions end up being the most insightful?

So let some of that personality of yours out. Wear purple once in a while. You have my permission. Tweet and post photos of your salt cellar collection. Share your love of “The Mountain Goats” band. Openly admit to that Poutine obsession of yours (that’s for my Canadian friends). It is those connections, the ones we make on a personal level, that eventually lead us to the kinds of relationships that turn into our best clients.

About the author

Geni Whitehouse

Geni divides her time between working as a winery consultant at Brotemarkle, Davis & Co in the Napa Valley and writing, speaking, and tweeting about what some might consider nerdy subjects. She is a co-founder of Solve Services, which provides remote bookkeeping services to companies in the wine industry. As a former partner in a CPA firm, two-time software company executive, and recent CMO of a tech startup, she has a passion for applying technology to solving business problems. She has been named a Top 100 Influencer by Accounting Today, one of 25 Thought Leaders in Accounting, and one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Accounting by CPA Practice Advisor. She is a member of the TEDxNapaValley organizing committee and was the first speaker at their first TEDx event in 2011. Geni is the author of “How to Make a Boring Subject Interesting : 52 ways even a nerd can be heard” which is available on Amazon.com.

6 Comments

  • I’ll remember this advice as a Top 100 ProAdvisor when I get in my “gas-guzzling” Prius to make house calls as “Dr. Quick (with the) Books” to help out my clients in “always sunny” Seattle while thinking about a possible steam train ride or historical museum visit this weekend.

    • You go Keith!! I bet you will you make more connections by sharing that steam train passion than you will ever make by gushing over the new trial balance feature in QBOnline. But, now that I mentioned it, isn’t it cool???

  • Love the points you make at the end! Putting people at ease changes the game and the outcomes. And thanks for the “younger” mention. On the cliff of 40 I’m glad I’m not old yet 😉

  • I could not agree more.

    I would add that it’s so much more FUN working when you don’t have to worry about whether you’re making the right impression. And when you can just be yourself, your tribe will flock to you… if for no other reason than just your sheer you-ness.