PracticeConsultingFinding the hidden agenda

Finding the hidden agenda

Having just ended a 15-year stage in my career as a partner in general practice, it seems wise to reflect on what I have learned.

I hope I am a better accountant. I have had to forget at least as much tax as I now know. But that seems almost irrelevant when compared with what I learned about people. Nothing prepared me for some of the questions I was asked.

I will never know what qualified me to counsel a client on whether to have an abortion. Or to advise whether a client should marry or not. I imagine that these people had never bared their souls as much as when declaring their income- so I was a person they trusted.

However, the biggest lesson took the longest to learn. This was that clients rarely knew what they needed. Gradually I realised people don’t, and often can’t, come to the point. Most people had three questions. The first was usually irrelevant, such as ‘what’s my NI number’. The second was useful, but could usually have been easily answered elsewhere. It was the third question that counted.

What struck me over the years was how rarely this question made sense. Don’t get me wrong. Most clients weren’t stupid. It’s just that when they asked their real question they frequently presented a solution at the same time. On the whole the problem was that they could not reconcile the two. My main challenge was to reconcile the irreconcilable.

People know the price of tax, accounts and audits. But they don’t know the price for solving their riddles. That’s where the general practitioner adds value. I think I finally solved the problem of that too. Clients always wanted their solution, not mine. It made them feel better about themselves, and so most willing to pay my fee.

If I asked them ‘if you solved this problem what could you do’ I always found the hidden agenda. If they knew the answer, we cut out the navel gazing. We moved straight to an action plan. As I am better at action than philosophy I was then on home territory. It was a simple matter of giving them what they wanted by reframing the desire inherent in their question towards something achievable inherent in their solution. I saved myself agony, the client got a solution, and I got a value added fee.

Of course, sometimes they didn’t know the answer to my question. Which, put simply meant that there was nothing they wanted to do, so the problem wasn’t worth solving. That helped me too. It’s always worth getting rid of the time-wasters. By and large they don’t pay.

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