You'll want to use the 3/8" spanner for that...

Philip Morgan

(Readin' time: 3m 10s)

I have a confession: I don't have any idea what software my CPA uses to file my taxes.

Shocking, I know.

What would it say about the situation if I did know what kind of software he uses?

It would mean that I've accidentally or intentionally learned about the software CPAs use to file taxes, and since I'm not a CPA myself, it would probably mean I had intentionally learned about the software options for CPAs.

And If I'd intentionally sought out this knowledge, it would mean I have a reason for doing so.

What could those reasons be?

So I can show off my knowledge of the world of accounting at dinner parties, right?! Wrong on two counts. I don't really or get invited to to dinner parties, and second: I'm not that bad at showing off my intellect. I could be better at it, but I'm not so bad at it that knowing about tax filing software seems like a good way to flex.

Anyway, what are the real reasons one might learn about the tools a professional they're hiring uses?

Curiousity: Sure. In some cases, this could explain it. Some people are just exceptionally curious, even if they can't imagine what they'd actually use the stuff they learn for. They just enjoy learning; they enjoy acquiring a richer, broader, and deeper picture of the world. Or perhaps not knowing is a burden they relieve through learning.

Control: Lots of us learn stuff so we can exert control, or enjoy the illusion of control. Maybe if I know about the tools a plumber uses, and I closely oversee the plumber's work, I can avoid the plumber making a mistake that'll cost me. In this scenario, I'm operating from a perception that a casual knowledge of plumbing tools (without the benefit of practice) will help me help my plumber avoid mistakes, a relatively low level of trust in the professional I've hired to do the plumbing work, and a desire to have more control over the situation.

I think that about does it for the core, driving reasons someone might intentionally learn about tools they themselves don't use and don't need to use: curiosity or control.

What about the accidental reasons?

Former life: A career change, promotion, or other changes over time can create a situation where someone has knowledge of the tools you use because of their "former life" as a $WHATEVER. I used to be a "network engineer" (I think the "engineer" part was more flattery than reality) in the 90's, so an ISP tech support person today gets an extra level of scrutiny from me around whatever tools they might be using to troubleshoot things. I've moved on from that job, so my knowledge of the tools of the trade has decayed, which makes me both annoying and somewhat dangerous to those ISP tech support people. :)

Ain't life crazy!: Sometimes weird shit happens, and you learn something. This is the catch-all reason someone might intentionally learn about tools they themselves don't use and don't need to use. In my 20's, a friend thought he might become a real estate agent, so I tagged along to the night class with him because I didn't really have anything better to do. That's why I sound semi-authoritative 20 years later when I say that sunrooms and landscaping improvements are the worst way to improve the sale value of a house, and kitchen and bath improvements are the most reliable way to improve the sale value.

The bottom line: It's a potential warning sign when a client knows about the tools you use. It's worth investigating how they came to acquire this knowledge:

  • If it's because of a former life, inquire how they see themselves being involved in the work you'll be doing. They might have a reflex to involve themselves at a level that's not helpful, and you'll have to manage that.
  • If it's because of a desire for control (not that they'll say this directly, but there are almost always signs you can see if you inquire enough), you are dealing with a situation where trust is lacking and it's going to be difficult to get the elbow room you need to actually get shit done. This is a red flag you need to deal with.

I know you'll handle all this with subtlety and kindness, but also that you'll handle it, and not sweep it under the rug.