Accounting dilemmas: 4 Expansion advice

It is always great to be approached for new business, but what if your services don’t quite match what the client is looking for?

AAT’s head of professional standards Adam Williamson focuses on when it is right – and wrong – to accept new work.

We often want to expand our skill set in order to improve the breadth of services we can offer our clients. But equally, it’s good to specialise, and ideally to be able to refer clients to other specialists if we can’t do the job ourselves.

So what happens if a client believes we are better placed to offer advice than we do?

The scenario

A long-term client has asked you to provide some strategic advice on her digital marketing business, with a mind to possible expansion and diversification.

This type of advisory service is something you have been increasingly looking to involve yourself in. However, you have limited experience to date.

You do have some experience in offering informal advice to a friend, who runs a company offering similar products and services to your client in the local area.

You previously advised that friend when they were setting up their business and recommended an accountant to them – another friend of yours who specialises in digital businesses.

Before accepting your client’s request, what action might you need to take?

Considerations and actions

There are plenty of ethical pitfalls in this scenario of which you will need to be aware.

Firstly, your level of professional competence. By your own admission, your experience is limited in the area that the client is looking for. Therefore, you must consider whether you have the suitable and appropriate expertise to offer the advice requested.

Do you fully understand their business? How about the marketplace they are operating in? And are you up to speed with all the compliance issues around their industry?

You also should consider your objectivity, as there is a potential conflict of interest given your friend’s business. If you’d like to proceed with the job, you should at least highlight this to the client and seek their consent to continue, given that the conflict of interest, in this case, is limited. You have no direct involvement in your friend’s business, so it could be that a colleague checks work to ensure there is no unconscious bias taking place.

Finally, there’s the issue of confidentiality. If you decide to go ahead and provide advice on a one-off or regular basis, it is vital that you don’t discuss specifics with your friend. Will you be in a position to do this successfully?

In Summary

A lot of what has been outlined above has no concrete rules set in place to govern it. However, as more firms are asked to become trusted advisors to their clients’ businesses this type of scenario will become increasingly common, and it is vital to exercise caution, discretion and above all common sense when approaching them.

For more ethical accounting dilemmas:

Adam Williamson is AAT's Head of Professional Standards.

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