Geni Whitehouse [LinkedIn] shares how her CPA firm carved out a niche serving the wine industry — not just with marketing mumbo jumbo but with a proprietary industry scorecard that created real value for her clients.
We discuss what's holding firms back from offering more consulting services, and how to build confidence as a public speaker when you're natural nerdy and shy.
Finally, we all complain about how public accounting holds back junior staff from developing communication skills by keeping them away from clients, and why that's a bad thing.
Cloud Accounting Podcast E27: Geni Whitehouse on niching for the wine industry & building confidence as a public speaker
: Well, that's the passion that drove me to start speaking, this desire to have the profession communicate what we do in a way that we get the recognition we're due. I feel bad for the really good technical people, who aren't recognized, because they are so lousy at the communication part.
: I wanted to help elevate those other folks, and also help them see that there's a lot more out there than what they're currently doing, if they're sitting in a back office, doing something transactional-, or compliance-focused.
: Welcome to The Cloud Accounting Podcast, a show for accountants using technology to make their jobs more strategic, and impactful. I'm Blake Oliver-
: And I'm David Leary.
: We have a special guest today. Her name is Geni Whitehouse. There's so much to say about Geni, I don't know where to begin. We're so excited to have you on the podcast.
: Geni has been named one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting, by Accounting Today. She is one of the most powerful women in accounting, and one of the 25 thought leaders in the accounting profession. CPA, CITP, CSPM; has all the acronyms, and is a public speaker. Geni, thank you for joining us today.
: It's wonderful to be here. Thank you so much, Blake, and David.
: I know that you're up in wine country. Are you okay? Are the fires nearby?
: They are. I'm actually in two different places. Sometimes, I'm in wine country, in Napa, which is currently okay. We had some fires around us, but not directly in Napa, again. Then, on the weekends, I'm up closer to the Sierras. I'm in an area, Nevada City area, which is close to some other fires that are going on, right now. Pretty much, there's fires everywhere in California, but safe, at this point, and not too close. Just worried about all of the other folks in California, who are in danger.
: Our thought, and prayers are with them, and we hope you stay safe, as well, Geni. Let's talk about something a little more fun, at least it's fun for me, anyway, as an accountant.
: I'd like to go back to the last time I heard you speak, which was a few years ago, at ExpensiCon. I attended your session, and I don't remember what it was called, but you spoke ... You gave an example of something that you did in your accounting firm that I thought was really neat, which is, given that you're in wine country, you all specialize in wine production, and wineries, and that sort of thing. Would you mind sharing with our listeners how you folks differentiate yourself, as a specialist in that area?
: Yeah. Love to talk about that. Always fun to talk about wine. Almost as much fun it as it is to drink it. I'm with a CPA firm that built this niche, as we call it, where I come from. I'm originally from South Carolina, so that's part of the fun, as well, to be in wine country, and be a redneck from South Carolina.
: This firm had a specialty already focused on the wine industry, and they really hadn't gotten the word out very well. They had a secret marketing campaign that they told each other what they did, and nobody else knew it.
: They brought me on board to help them get the word out. I discovered they had a lot of great things going on. This scorecard is actually one of the tools they already had in place, and they found that anybody that wanted to go further ... They would present it as part of your tax-planning project.
: As your tax-return service, they would say, "You can have this basic service, or this high-level VIP service, which includes a scorecard. The scorecard is going to include benchmarking data of your peers." This is peers in Napa Valley, so it's our other clients that are also wineries. It does two things. One, it lets them benchmark, but it also says, "We work with a bunch of other people just like you." It gives them some comfort that we even have that many clients that are also wineries.
: We find that the majority of people really want that scorecard, more so than the tax return, and they're calling us ... "Is it ready, yet? Is it ready, yet? Is it ready, yet?" It's a real attention-getter; it's valuable information; it's presented in a way that's very visual, so they really respond to that. This is particularly business owners who don't want ... They don't wanna read a black-and-white financial statement. They don't wanna dig through a bunch of detail stuff. They want a picture of what's working, what's not, and what's in the warning zone.
: It's been highly successful for us, and it leads to - as we walk them through what each of these different metrics mean - it leads to other consulting opportunities, and discussions. It's a really simple thing to do, and highly effective.
: That's awesome. It's such a great example of something simple that you can do that really differentiates you, and makes you special. Not just marketing talk, right?
: Not just putting on your website, "We work with this industry," but you actually have a takeaway for them that they hunger for, every month, or every quarter, or whatever it is.
: That's a very unusual thing for us accountants, to have people hungering for something that we do, so it's really fun.
: It's really a testament to doing niche, because if you ... You can't build a scorecard like that, if you're not only focused on a niche.
: That's right, and that's the way I'm supposed to be saying it, David? Niche [neesh], and not niche [nitch], like I say?
: I've compromised. In this interview, I will say niche [neesh], and in the [inaudible], I will say niches [nitches], cuz niches are in the niches.
: I think that's cheating.
: We want to be global, now, right? We wanna be global, so I have to be sensitive to our Canadian, and UK friends.
: That's right. Yeah, you need to start saying process, David, if we're gonna worry about the Canadians. They could never understand me, when I was up there speaking-
: What's that about?
The other thing, though, about that, Blake, the scary part about doing something like that, you're putting yourself out on a limb by having this scorecard, because what you've done now for that client is expose different areas that they might need to work on. The danger, and the fear for most of us in accounting is if I show them something that's off, or that needs improvement, that they come back to me now, and say, "What do I do about it?" and I'm not gonna know what to say.
: We're afraid to present this sort of insight, because we're afraid of our own inability to help them solve, or address that problem. That's where you need to have a consulting methodology that you can then fall back on. That's one of things that I'm really passionate about is that we need a toolkit that gave us permission, or comfort to have a discussion that sort of outside of the box from what we normally do as accountants.
: Let's talk about that, and this is something that has always intrigued me, as somebody who aspires to get into that, eventually, higher-level consultant-type CFO role, business-partner role. I started as a bookkeeper; I'd love to work my way up to that point, at some point. How do I actually do consulting? What does that mean? Everyone talks about it, but, what is it?
: It's a really exciting time for me, because I've been talking about it since early 2000. I left a CPA firm in Atlanta as a partner. I was doing tax, and I was really disenchanted. I didn't wanna do that for the rest of my life. As soon as I made partner, I kinda ran away, and said, "This is not what I wanna commit to, at this point."
: I had seen the computer-consulting work as the part that I really enjoyed. When you're doing computer consulting in a client's office, you are doing real consulting, because you're helping them look at their payroll. You're helping them understand how to optimize their payment process, as you're looking at their inventory. You're really in the weeds, and the heart of the business in a way you're not, when you're sitting back in a CPA firm, doing a tax return, once a year.
: I already knew that that was more engaging to me, but at that time, there was nothing going on in the profession about consulting. There was a lot of ... There was a few people that were talking about it, but there weren't methodologies, or tools, or any place really to go. It was when I got on the speaker circuit that I discovered that methodologies existed, that there were people like me, that we were all sort of united in trying to get people to do it, but we still didn't really know what to tell them to do, if they wanted to get started.
: The nice thing, today, is that a bunch of people are putting together tool kits around different pieces of software, for example. There's a lot of stuff around Fathom HQ, one of the tools that we use. People from all disciplines are coming together, and realizing we have got to do this now. The cloud accounting is enabling that in a way that the old technologies never did. You need a process for whatever we do, especially as accountants. We're very process-driven, so without it, I think we're afraid to do anything.
: That's why we stick with the tax returns, and the bookkeeping work, because there's a defined process that's been around for hundreds of years around it. We know exactly what we do.
: That's right, and you can reconcile to something. That's why I love to do business tax returns. There's this Schedule M1 that was my favorite schedule, because you could tie everything back out, and at that balance, you were like, "Okay, I'm done." It didn't mean the tax liability was right, but, in my mind, if it a balanced, then I had done my work, and I could pass it on to the next person. Yeah, we want some evidence, or something to shore us up, when we go out in some direction that we're not normally comfortable.
: You obviously talked about, "Hey, I got on the speaker circuit," but one of the things you've talked a lot about is you just weren't born a speaker. You had to work your way up to this, and learn how to become a public speaker. You've trained people in public speaking.
: People can catch that ... You've done that talk so many times. I'm sure it's online; everybody can catch that. I don't want to ask you to go through that spiel, but I think, two weeks ago, or so, I think you posted something on Facebook, where you were doing a webinar, and somebody, like a troll, kinda hammered you about your Southern drawl, or something like that, and you ... It affected you.
: Even though you're a public speaker, and it affected you in that way, could you talk about that? A little bit of the story, and how you handled the hecklers, the trolls that are out there, when you are on stage, or in those situations. I think that's something, when you're teaching somebody to do public speaking, you may not tell them about those negative parts that you have to learn to deal with.
: Yeah, well, I was born a nerd, David. That's why my business is called Even a Nerd. I was shy; I was a nerd; I was a math person. I never spoke up. Public speaking was the farthest thing from my mind, at that point.
: In fact, at my high school graduation, I was second in my class, or something, and they had ... There were three of us tied for second, and one of us had to speak. They said, "Who wants to speak?" Two of us stepped back, and the other poor person had to do the presentation at the graduation. I was absolutely terrified, and wouldn't have done it for anything.
: What I did that that changed the world, for me, was I took standup-comedy training, when I realized I wanted to do this in a big way. That helped me overcome how to deal with hecklers; how to communicate in a way that's structured, and organized; how to embrace your own native whatever-you-got-to-work-with stuff, and all of that.
: That helps, to have some level ... Again, I had the process to fall back on, and it came from the comedy training, but you don't have to go that route. You can get there other ways, but I don't think ... If you're a true artist, and I think we're all artists in some area of the work that we do, whether you're publishing a podcast, or writing an article, or standing up for five minutes, and talking about something ...
: What holds us back is the fear of judgment. We're afraid if we put something out there, that somebody's not gonna like it, that somebody's not gonna like us; that somebody's gonna say, "Well you shouldn't 'a said this ..." or something like that. As a result, we avoid ever getting out there.
: Part of the reason that I posted that, other than just feeling like I was in a whiny mood that day, and really taking it to heart, was that I want other people to realize that nobody's immune to this. We're all ... Anytime you put yourself out there, whether it's one tweet, and you have two followers, one of those two followers can decide they don't like what you say.
: Part of this engaged world that we live in is that we have to be willing to accept that risk, and to be passionate enough about whatever it is we're saying that we're willing to take those spears, and arrows, or whatever gets cast at us, and overcome them. We still have to realize that we are human, that we still don't want people to not like us. We have to be willing to do it anyway.
: When you get to that point, it makes a difference. The bad thing about webinars is that you have that little chat box sitting there, and you see stuff pop up. This guy popped up three things in a row, and they were all attack kinda stuff, and I was just ... In the middle of your spiel that you have, it sorta just throws off your rhythm. I was able to recoup enough, but then, when I got off, I just obsessed about it the rest of the day, and by writing it out, it cleared it out of my mind. Then, I was amazed at how many people came in, and commented.
: On webinars, it's sort of a double-edged sword to have that chat open. Sometimes, it's better just to keep it closed, and do your thing, and not worry. What's great is if you can build some sort of back-and-forth rapport with people, on the webinar, that's great. You have to take that risk, in order to get that reward. I'll admit, I've done dozens, hundreds of webinars, at this point, and I still get nervous before all of them.
: I'm nervous before everything. Podcasts ... It doesn't matter, you're still ... You wanna present well, and you wanna say something that matters to people. I think if you're not nervous, you just don't care that much, so I think it's not a bad thing.
: What you have to learn, though, with practice, and 18 years of doing it, is I can survive the fear. I can also survive the bomb on stage. If, in the event I get up there, and nobody likes it, I can still survive that, too, because, of course, I've done that, as well. You get more comfortable with the fear. That's the best advice I can give to somebody who wants to do it.
: Do you ever get over it? I don't. I can't eat anything before I speak. I'm always in the back, going, "Oh, my god, how can I escape? I am an idiot for doing this. What was I thinking?" Then, as soon as I get onstage, I don't know what happens, but it just goes away, as soon as I start. As soon as I feel the connection with the audience, I'm immediately put at ease. It's a very strange thing for me. Once that happens, it kinda calms, and then, I can let go of that clenching that's going on in my brain, and let my thoughts form, and flow, so, it works like that.
: Do you think some of your public speaking changed how you interact with ... When you're advising your clients, or even having value conversations with your clients? Has it affected those conversations positively? Negatively? Do you just have more confidence, when you have those conversations, those advising conversations, or do you think there's no impact?
: You mean in terms of having the skills to do public speaking, or the fact that I'm out there, and that people know me? Which ...?
: I think more having the skills. How does that trickle down into your client interactions?
: I think communication confidence impacts every single area of your life. In fact, when I was at Deloitte ... When I started at Deloitte, right outta college, in tax, I will never forget the review that I had at Deloitte, where they ... The partner pulled out a list of all these ... Had one of those pre-printed forms, with all the things you're supposed to do well on. I had gotten an F in every single grade. He said, "All of this is because of your poor communication skills," and he said, "It influences every single aspect of the work that you do," which I think is so ironic, today.
: I had so little confidence in my own abilities, and part of that was because every time I would do something as a CPA, I would get a list back of everything that I'd screwed up. We'd get review notes. All day long, you're getting, "This is wrong; that's bad; that's wrong; that's upside down; you left out that comma; the double underlines aren't done the right way," whatever.
: When you start out, and all the feedback you get is negative, your confidence starts to drop, and you start coming into the room with a kind of "Eee, I'm here, but I'm afraid you're gonna yell at me" voice, but you also don't wanna call clients, because you're not sure that you know anything.
: This whole confidence-communication thing does impact every single thing that we do. Yes, when I'm confident that I can communicate clearly, and that I can get my points across in a way that I think will resonate with people, it affects every aspect of the work that I do. I think it's true for everybody.
: That's a great point about public accounting, and the culture of public accounting not really helping people become good public speakers. I was at a conference, yesterday, or the day before, and Jody Padar was talking about how, when she got her first job in public, as a staff accountant, she wasn't allowed to talk to anyone for three years.
: That's true. That's the way it works.
: How are you supposed to, as an accountant, build public-speaking skills, even just one-on-one client interaction skills, if you can't talk to the client?
: It's ridiculous. That's part of what's wrong with the profession, and the education that we get. Nobody teaches us how to communicate. We don't even talk about writing skills-
: I don't even think they do business writing in most accounting programs.
: I don't think anybody writes anymore. We can use voice recording, we don't have to write, but still ... Yeah, it's crazy. We-
: Just send an emoji.
: That's right. A calculator emoji, or an abacus. That's all we need. It's a missing scale, and I think it's a real shame. It's true, you don't let staff do it, because you don't trust them to communicate. How awful is that?
: Yeah, and then, suddenly they become a senior, or a manager, and they're supposed to go out, and talk to clients, and sell, but they've got no training doing it.
: Yeah, they're supposed to become the world's best networker, the world's best salesperson, and keep track of all the technical stuff at the same time, and they have no basis for any of those skills.
: Then they go ... They make manager, and they follow that traditional career path, and they get into industry. They move over to be comptrollers, or VP of finance, or whatever and they've got the technical skills, but they've got no experience communicating with the other C-suite people, right?
: That's right.
: How do you tell the story about the business, and numbers, if you can't talk them through? They're not gonna read the financials.
: That's the passion that drove me to start speaking, this desire to have the profession communicate what we do in a way that we get the recognition we're due. I feel bad for the really good technical people, who aren't recognized, because they are so lousy at the communication part.
: That's really what drove me to get good at communicating, because, I guess, having been in a firm, having made it to partner, and realizing how good these folks were, and the valuable work they were doing, but they were doing it in a closet, and nobody knew what was going on. Nobody saw the value in what they did.
: Whereas, I was out there speaking, and not really knowing what I was doing all that much, but I was sitting down with these clients, working on their technology. I was able to form these really deep relationships with people, because they could see what we were doing, when you're sitting at their desk, and reconnecting the payroll, or changing some inventory problem that they have.
: I wanted to help elevate those other folks, and also help them see that there's a lot more out there than what they're currently doing, if they're sitting in a back office, doing something transactional- or compliance-focused.
: Geni, I think that's about all the time we've got today. Thank you so much for joining us. If our listeners, and I'm sure they will, want to follow up, and find out more about what you're up to, where can they connect with you online? Where should they go to learn more about Geni Whitehouse?
: Multiple options, but I would say go to EvenANerd.com. That's my Web site. I'm also working with MentorPlus.com. That's an organization that teaches accountants how to provide consulting services. Either of those are great places to find me.
: David, if folks want to ask to be a guest on the show, send us an article, where should they reach you?
: The easiest is gonna be on Twitter. I'm @DavidLeary.
: Same for me. I'm @BlakeTOliver. David, Geni, thanks for chatting, and David, I'll see you again next week.
: My pleasure. Thank you.
: Bye, everybody.
: All right, so here's my story from wine country. Remember, I'm a redneck from South Carolina. I moved to California from Atlanta. I leave. I actually moved out here with Sage. Sage Software hired me to take on one of their products, and transferred me and my family, from Atlanta to California.
: I left Sage, and I connected with this CPA firm that does wineries. It was a part-time relationship, and I've been doing it ever since. I start out with them, and in order to get some context, cuz here I am with no wine knowledge, or experience, or anything ... I'm going, "Okay, I've gotta get really smart on wine," so I reached out to some friends of mine that had some winery connections, and actually ended up going to this little bitty winery, and helping them harvest grapes from their little bitty vineyard.
: My husband, and I went out there, and I kept telling him, "Don't embarrass me. Do not hurt yourself, or do anything untoward in this vineyard, because this is my first experience. I wanna get it right. I wanna do all this right stuff." We got on this vineyard, and they hand us these plier/scissor things, and we have to go trim the grapes off of these vines. We spend this afternoon picking these things ...
: Not five minutes into it, do I not proceed to cut my own finger with the little scissor thing. Then, I bend down in the vineyard, because of grapes are fairly low on the trellis ... I bend down; I can't stand up. My knee goes out, so I'm like crippled, and bleeding [crosstalk] ... My husband, who's older than I am, which is why I gave him all this grief, is perfectly fine, had no problem, didn't embarrass us at all. I'm limping, and dripping blood into the sink, where they feed us all to thank us for helping them with this little vineyard.
: That was the first story about ... That was my first experience in wine country. Then, we go from there ... They take us all the way through their process. They take us to their processing facility, where they take the grapes, and they put them in these big tanks.
Then, they have their winemaker come out, and talk to us about what we'd just done. This winemaker was an accountant in a former life. He went through details, and science, and used this terminology. By the time he was finished, I had absolutely no desire to ever drink the stuff again.
: It was the most ... It sounded like something that was in a test tube. It sounded horrible. It was like malolactic fermentation. It was just this, and that, and this ... All this stuff in the leaves, and all this complete jargon. I was just sitting there going, "This is the worst thing I've ever seen. Do not let that guy be in front of people that are gonna buy wine."
: Well, from that experience, I was able to leverage a connection between the way people talk about wine, and the way we accountants talk about the work that we do, and I use that now, every time I speak to wineries. I talk about how, "Y'all use this terminology, and it scares us rednecks. We accountants use terminology like Section 179, and balance sheet, and debits, and credits, and we do the same thing to you. We intimidate you with our knowledge, just like you intimidate us with your old hifalutin wine knowledge ..."
: It's become a great way for me to bridge the understanding gap. It all started with me hurting my knee, and cutting my finger off, and then, listening to a boring old winery guy/winemaker talking about wine.
: That happens to me whenever I go outside, too, so don't feel bad.
: You hurt yourself?
: Yeah, that's why I stick to the accounting, and the podcast.
: Yeah. My poor husband ... I mean, I kept going, "You better not hurt yourself. You better not fall down. You better not do anything," and immediately, of course, karma.
: That's great.
: Walking around, limping, and in pain, and bleeding. That vintage has my blood in it.
: Great story.