Technology has always been a close ally of the accounting profession. However, cloud connectivity brought with it the potential for a cultural change, as well as improvements to working practices.
If both you and your client are cloud connected, then your relationship has the opportunity to evolve. When you are both freed from basic accounting tasks, your clients may discover they can look to you not only as the service expert but also as an adviser who shares in-depth insights.
We see proof of this in research: The Sage Practice of Now report showed an overwhelming majority of accountants (82%) believe clients expect more from them today in terms of services and resources than they did five years ago, and 73% feel the profession is more competitive.
The path is now clear for practices making a shift into value-added advisory services that will, in theory, enable you to more easily retain existing customers and attract new ones.
Planning your journey in three stages
Shifting your practice to be more focused on advisory services isn’t difficult and simply requires a small investment of time. Here are three steps to initiate the process.
Step 1: Make a list
First, you’ll need to identify the key clients best suited for the kick-off. Start by making a short list. Consider clients who are currently only receiving your traditional services but who you feel could benefit from a bit more. You know your clients and have existing relationships with them, so use this knowledge to your advantage in judging who’s likely to be interested.
In the beginning, it’s best to keep the list short enough to manage. That way, when you start to change the nature of the services you provide to these clients, you’ll be able to properly focus on them and provide them with the best possible experience.
As part of this list-making process, you’ll also need to analyze your key clients’ industries. You can make a good start with this step by looking at industry data reports to determine where the opportunities lie.
Let’s suppose your client is in the property industry. You should source intelligence on the business challenges these kinds of companies are likely to be facing now and over the next 5-10 years. You’re really looking for trends, market opportunities and industry forecasts. Often, it doesn’t take much research to become something of an expert in an industry, or at least to reassure clients that you know enough to be helpful.
Once that’s done, you’ll be in a good position to initiate a discussion between you and your client about what advisory services they need most and how they can move forward.
One more point before we move on to Step 2. You may well be asking: “How will I find the time to do this?” Take a close look at your schedule. The weeks following the end of the hectic tax season often offer scheduling opportunities to start drawing up your list and establishing the momentum you’ll need for the next step. Pay close attention to your client’s schedule as well—a retailer, for instance, is likely to experience a quiet period over the summer months providing an ideal time to make contact.
Step 2: Monitor performance
Setting and monitoring KPIs can help your clients achieve their goals and ideally demonstrates how you can be useful at the heart of their business. Don’t be overwhelmed by this challenge; it’s going to be a lot easier than you might think. As an accounting professional, you have a wealth of financial expertise and already understand different business models and industries. This is valuable knowledge you can use to help existing clients set targets and plan for future growth.
So, what does this look like in practice?
First, you’ll need to set a realistic target that has real purpose. Let’s say you’re working with a client who runs a small computer repair business. Start by helping them set a growth KPI. For the sake of argument, this could be increasing revenues by 5% next quarter over the same period last year.
Once the target has been set, and after reviewing your client’s books, you can recommend practical ways the target can be reached. For example, you could find an easy way for them to upsell an extended repair warranty rather than spending more marketing budget to acquire new customers.
Next, you’ll need to find a way to measure the client’s progress toward meeting these goals and KPIs. Nowadays, by far the easiest way to accomplish this is with the cloud-based software you might already be using and that can accurately store and track vital financial information.
At this point, you can add further value by helping clients invest and grow. With your years of expertise, you could advise them to invest any extra money earned through these efficiencies into business development.
As a valued business partner, you’re now not only helping your clients achieve short-term goals, you’re also setting them up to succeed in the long-term.
Step 3: Work on your own firm’s culture
Moreover, you should also be looking for ways to modernize your firm’s culture and mindset. That’s right—improving your advisory services isn’t just about focusing on clients. Some work might need to be performed closer to home.
It starts by preparing for what you might call an ‘employee evolution’ alongside your technological evolution. You’ll need to make the effort to understand what’s important to existing staff and engage in a frank dialogue. Remember, your model is changing (however subtly), and you and your people will need to adapt.
So, while it won’t be simple to include everyone, gaining a better understanding of employees should be a key objective. It can provide clues as to whether your people are resistant to change or willing to embrace change. This doesn’t mean you’re just going to single out those employees who are already passionate about making a transformation. Others can get there too, it’s just that they’ll need a little more help.
Our key recommendation is to carry this step out by changing the way you measure people and their performance. To be successful, you’ll need to focus on the quality of work and the value derived from it, rather than just the number of hours put into each project. This step might involve using technology to transform operations and internal processes, moving away from the ‘time sheet mindset’ or simply changing the way you interact with clients.
Whichever way you do it, this step may prove to be crucial to making your new advisory-based approach to client services a true success.
Expanding your firm to offer more advisory services can be an exciting step, but one you should take at a pace that suits both you and your clients. Like all good things, this improvement to your business has benefits for everybody involved—you have the opportunity to generate more billable hours, while your client benefits from the expertise you and your colleagues can deliver. Keeping this paramount in your mind will help ensure the experience is positive and produce truly lasting improvements.