Alpa Patel, CPA
‘People want us to listen …’
Understanding the client side: I’ve been doing this for 22 years, most of which was in public accounting. However, I started my career in accounting for RTM Restaurant Group here in Atlanta. I was there a little over a year, and it was really my first look at entrepreneurship. These are the companies that I now serve. What was important to me back then was the monthly close — the stuff that’s going on in the present. Because of that, I know that our clients aren’t living and breathing by our schedule. It gave me perspective to put myself in the client’s position. I believe that public accounting is very technical, but it’s also a people business. Having that self-awareness and empathy regarding what’s important to clients is extremely helpful in building relationships and becoming a trusted adviser.
Serving clients, big and small: I have a diverse client base, from small to large companies. No matter the size of the company, the key to remember is that people want us to listen and appreciate their needs. Their needs can certainly vary. Generally speaking, my larger clients have internal tax and accounting employees. When working with them, we ask to look at something, and their team will pull information. Whereas with my small to midsize clients, my team and I are really helping fill a broader and more extensive role. We’re learning the business. I find it very rewarding.
Balancing consulting and compliance: There’s a great amount of value that CPAs can provide to companies related to tax planning and other consulting projects. There’s an increased emphasis on critical thinking and communication skills. I do think compliance has become more automated, but all the great planning and strategizing that we do when it comes to consulting is all for nothing if it doesn’t get executed correctly on the tax filing. While automation is great, I still find there’s a very human element to compliance work.
Knowing when to ask for help: There is so much complexity in tax law, it’s impossible to know everything. When you know your limits, you can go to others in the profession, whether that’s within your firm if you have the resources internally or by partnering with another professional or firm. Your client is the No. 1 priority. You can’t go in thinking another professional is going to be critical of you or think less of your technical abilities if you ask for help. When I say I’m not the best person for a task, and introduce the client to someone else, the client appreciates that.
— As told to Lea Hart, a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, a JofA editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.
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