“Your first job is to gather data and then present it accurately. However, your second and most important job is to present it clearly and succinctly and help your client/management team make better decisions.” ― Paraphrasing Walter Meigs’ “Accounting: The Basis for Business Decisions,” excerpt from Next Level Accounting, 2016
“My clients don’t want this.”
This is what I hear from many accountants when I talk to them about Strategic Advising.
“I wish my accountant would explain things better.”
This is what I hear from small businesses owners—even my artist friend who I saw last week. We were catching up and I began talking about Strategic Advising. “What?!” He said. “I would love it if my accountant would provide that kind of help!”
Somewhere there is a disconnect.
Client engagement can be a roadblock to a good strategic advising relationship, especially when the accountant’s usual content of conversation is month end reports or tax advice. Those are compliance-based services. They have rules that can be memorized by a professional (you), and translated to your client. Boxes checked. Deadline met.
Strategic Advising is much different. It’s not a compliance based service. It’s considered a Level 3 service, because it’s something a client both needs and more importantly, wants. And is in fact the fastest growing service offering in accounting today.
Good strategic advising requires well-managed client engagement. These are the main components of good client engagement:
- Standard process
- Meaningful deliverables
- Connection with the client
- Fixed fee billing
Have a standard process
We don’t start the list where you might expect. We start with the practical—at the foundation.
Strategic Advising does not have hard and fast rules like compliance based services, but it can have a standard method. That method allows a framework for the strategic advising relationship to live within.
“Future-ready firms examine every step of the process of providing a service to clients, and they streamline or automate as much as possible.”
― Jody Padar, “Becoming a Future Ready Firm,” Next Level Accounting 2016
An advising method used by you behind the scenes, with standard procedures and deliverables, will allow breathing room to get creative with your client on the things that really matter. Your client won’t necessarily see that you are running a process, but they will know that each month they can expect a helpful financial review with you, their advisor.
We’ve developed the LivePlan Method for this purpose, but any set of processes that allows for standardization and scalability will work.
A standard process also ensures the accountant does not spend more time than their margin will allow on each client. If the accountant knows what steps are involved, and approximately how much time each step should take, they will become efficient in the work. These efficiencies are where extra margin lives when charging a fixed price. You will, of course, spend the time necessary to manage the relationship, but in general you’ll know your monthly benchmark to maximize your margin.
Provide meaningful deliverables
Provide reports that speak to your client. Make the data simple—very simple!
Using key performance indicators instead of standard month end reports is the best way to convey strategic financial information in a way that your client will understand and find valuable.
The standard six financial KPIs—revenue, expense, gross margin, AR, AP, cash (net and burn)—are enough to manage business performance. Presenting each one on its own, in the context of forecast, versus actual, versus last period, is the best way to present useful information for business planning.
“How much your audience trusts both you and your information starts with having people understand what the information is.”
― Randall Bolton, “3 Ways Trusted Advisors Communicate Numbers Effectively,” Next Level Accounting, 2016
Don’t just show the report and let the client review it. Start a conversation about what you’ve seen and give some feedback. Have at least two pieces of input for each key performance indicator.
Don’t forget that your input is sometimes just questions: “I see that sales have dipped in this strategic area. Do you feel that in your store? Is this something beyond seasonality? Do you have any thoughts about that?”
And that brings us to the heart of it.
Connect with your client on a personal level
In other words, if you want client engagement, be engaging yourself!
- Do you know what your clients are worried about?
- Do you know what their hopes are?
- Do you seem engaged yourself—in their business, not just their numbers?
Client engagement doesn’t begin with your client. It begins with you.
If you want your clients to seem engaged and act engaged, then bring them the advisor who makes them want to listen—makes them want to attend the meeting with you and want to talk to you.
Don’t rush in with a bunch of answers, even if you have them! Connect with your client. Make sure you know them, and they feel heard. That will create the trust you need to offer the answers you might have.
“We have this temptation to solve the problem, to come up with the answer and to drive toward a solution, and the sooner we can give it, the better. The unfortunate fact is that’s not how people work.”
― Charles Green, “Want a Firm Full of Trusted Advisors?” Next Level Accounting 2016
In fact, I believe that having monthly review meetings in the client’s place of business is best. You’ll get to know the feel of the place they live and breathe. You’ll get to meet their employees, and say hi to their kids if they’re in the office. Get to know them!
How much better an advisor will you be for your small business client if you know what their business feels like?
On the flip side, you can successfully manage a strategic advising relationship remotely, never meeting with your client face-to-face even once. However, you will want to have good systems in place for mimicking the face-to-face feel, like video chats and well-written monthly summaries. Just like setting up any remote business, it’s possible if you are mindful of the differences.
Either way, if you bring your clients that kind of personal attention and the insights to help grow their business, they will pay well for it and they will not leave. Which brings us to the final piece.
Use fixed fee billing
A good strategic advising relationship is best done through fixed fee billing for myriad reasons. One reason that is often overlooked is client engagement.
Here’s the rub with hourly billing in an advising relationship: Clients who know that every hour is billed are less likely to pick up the phone when they have a problem, and that’s when you most want them to! Clients will pay well for a great strategic advising relationship that helps them grow their business and meet their financial goals.
“When another accounting firm calls me up and says they can do a cheaper audit or tax return, I’m not moving for $10,000; I’m probably not moving even if it’s $20,000 less, because I value the trusted advisor relationship that I have with my CPA firm and I don’t know that I can get that business coaching and advice elsewhere."
― Allan Koltin, Next Level Accounting 2016
If you’re concerned about spending too much time to do a good job with each client, go back to your business processes. Getting your processes in place to make yourself efficient will solve the problem of scope creep in your relationship and help maximize your margin. Not only that, recognizing that there’s work you already do that can fit into your regular strategic advising process will help you to become efficient.
Ultimately, your entire client relationship should be predicated by the strategic advising. If you’re meeting with your clients regularly, helping them make financial plans and analyzing their monthly KPIs, it will make the tax work go much faster. All the planning will have been done. And that type of work fits perfectly in a monthly fixed fee scenario—see last month’s blog post for more information on productizing.
Let your strategic advising service offering finally free you from the billable hour, and set you up for the best client relationship possible!