As Strategic Advisor, you’re a critical partner for your small business owner clients. The work you do and the expertise you offer helps your clients establish business goals, and guides their growth.
Your work should cover questions such as these:
“If you could change one thing about your business today, what would it be?
Of all the things you sell, which ones are profitable and which ones aren’t?
Are you on track to be able to give yourself a raise next year, or to hire additional staff?”
Small business owners are hungry for your expertise, and they especially value the outsourced nature of your work because it is affordable for their business. Most cannot afford a full time financial manager.
Your goal, then, is to assist small businesses in establishing a financial plan (or forecast) for their business, and then use that plan as a roadmap to guide business operations and growth.
The advisory meeting is where it all comes together—where the strategic advisor and the small business owner review results, discuss strategy, and plan for the following month.
For both you and clients to get the most value, establishing a monthly cadence to your client meetings is ideal, though you may find it more convenient to meet virtually through a video meeting than to meet in person. It’s through this meeting that you deliver measurable value, and your relationship with your client grows.
The strategic advising monthly meeting is the last step in a cycle of work that should occur monthly, because it directs all the work and decisions for the coming month.
You can think about the monthly meeting as its own process, in two parts: the work to prepare for the meeting, and the meeting itself. Here’s how to prepare and deliver a strategic advising meeting, in two parts, with steps.
Part 1: How to prepare for the monthly strategic advising meeting
1.1 The financial forecast
Preparing for the meeting requires a completed and updated financial forecast. A full financial forecast is in three parts: profit and loss, cash flow, and balance sheet.
Building a forecast can sound intimidating, but really it’s just a process of making educated guesses about a business’s sales every month, over a period of time (18 months is ideal), as well as related cost of goods, expenses, and assumptions about cash collection and payment. It helps to use a software product built for this purpose—one that will guide the work, and model calculations.
Preparing the business’s first forecast takes some time initially, but as you use it each month, you learn more about the business from seeing the monthly accounting results, so the ongoing monthly work of maintaining the forecast becomes straightforward and quick. You can learn more about forecasting in this article.
1.2 Month end close
The advisory meeting will rely on the business’s accounting results. You’ll use the month-end data to compare to the forecast, so you need to be sure the month’s transactions are accurate, and ideally that the month is closed.
1.3 Simple analysis: find the gaps
The final preparation step involves some simple analysis. The major financial metrics from your three forecasts: the P&L, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow, are all you need to analyze the business’s performance.
Each financial metric represents a unique operational area of the business, and comparing the period-end accounting data against the forecast plan will reveal performance in these individual areas. It’s a way of thinking about business performance not just through numbers, but in actual operational work.
This is an important distinction to make between simply showing the financial statements at month end––leaving it to a review of the numbers alone. Once you tie a metric to the operational areas the metric reflects, you can bring about a true impact on performance. The key is to look at the metrics individually—to isolate them.
|Total Revenue||Sales performance, strategic partnerships, new products or services, PR, marketing|
|Cost of Goods||Vendor relationships and contract rates|
|Expense Items||Spending policies and budgets, payroll and HR policies, vendor contracts, and rates|
|Net Profit||Besides profitability, can highlight a running trend of seasonality|
|AR/AP Days||Efficiency of collections and the power of purchasing policies|
|Total AR/AP||Same as above, plus future cash.|
Compare the financial forecast for these metrics to the accounting results for the month, and look for gaps, or differences, between forecast and actual. These gaps (differences) are the key to the business’s performance.
Big differences represent areas where that piece of the business’s operation is under or over performing. Narrow differences are areas where the business is meeting its goals. But they also represent areas where the business could possibly push its goals farther.
1.4 Prepare questions
Once you find the gaps, be they big or small, prepare this information in a summary with observations and questions. Your role is NOT to come to the meeting with every answer.
Your role is to come to the meeting with evidence and questions. Because you are not at the business’s location daily, you should not expect to have all the answers.
Your strength is in your ability to understand and analyze accounting data—that’s your area of expertise. And especially if you have prepared the month end close, you will have a good understanding of the accounting details. Bring that evidence and your questions to the meeting.
Your ability to deliver the questions in an orderly manner, showing data at each step, will deliver immense value to your small business client. In contrast to you, your client is at the location daily, and will likely have instincts about their general business problems, but they don’t necessarily know what’s causing them.
Without your evidence and structure, the meeting could break down in a sea of the business owner’s questions, and leave you running behind the conversation trying to catch up. Have you ever found yourself in that situation? It’s frustrating.
Your ability to review the forecast versus actuals beforehand, notice the differences, and prepare the questions, will put you in control of the advisory meeting.
1.5 Bonus preparation: benchmarks
Use industry Benchmarks to add another dimension to your review. Benchmarks will show how others in the industry are performing on key metrics. Adding this layer will give your small business owner even more information. You can use these metrics strategically, showing them only when needed, to give deeper insights.
Now that you’re fully prepared for your meeting, it’s time to look at your meeting agenda.
Part 2: The agenda for running a monthly Strategic Advising meeting
Running the monthly strategic advising meeting is rather straightforward with all the preparation in place, but you want to have a very purposeful agenda. And for strategic reasons you want to start with a conversation.
2.1 Start the meeting with a conversation: review of sales
It’s been a month (or maybe even a quarter if you only meet quarterly), so it’s been a while since you’ve seen your client. They probably have questions of their own and you need to establish a rapport and cadence that will invite conversation, but keep you in control of the meeting.
Start the meeting by asking about sales. It’s a great way to warm up a meeting with a small business owner. Of all their metrics, sales are the one they likely understand the best, and so it’s a great way to get them talking about challenges and successes during the last month, but on a subject that is contained.
You don’t want them to begin covering every success or challenge during the last month, because you’ll never get through your content––and you’ve got some great things to share! Lead the conversation by keeping the scope limited to sales, but still allowing space for the owner to share their success and worry.
2.2 Review metrics and Q&A
Next you can get into your numbers. Show them all the metrics and their gaps, but only talk about the ones for which you developed questions. Lead the meeting by asking your questions.
- Revenues are down. Is there an issue with sales?
- Gross Margin is up. Why? Were they more efficient in labor, or did cost of materials drop? Was there a timing issue?
- Total AR is higher. Did collections go poorly? Or were sales up? (AR can be tricky.)
- AP days are higher. Great! Or is it great? What happened differently in purchasing last month?
As you ask questions and hear answers, help the business owner discover what’s going on in their business operation that they need to address. Dig in. Ask more than what is happening—ask why it’s happening.
This, over all else, is the biggest value a strategic advisor can bring: holding the time and space during the meeting to ask well prepared questions, and allow the answers to come.
2.3 Make decisions about performance
In areas where the goals are being met, help establish new goals to push the business further. In areas where the goals are not being met (statistical gaps are always present), help the business owner establish realistic goals, ones their business can meet.
- Sales are continuously up over plan. Can they set higher sales goals?
- AR days are always higher than plan. Can they work on collections?
- Gross Margin is down in a particular area. Is it because revenue was forecast too high, or because the direct costs were off?
- Can you tell if seasonality is affecting any metric?
These are all examples of questions that can help you make decisions about performance.
2.4 Update the forecast
The next step of each monthly advisory meeting is to update the forecast for the next 6-12 months after the closed month, based on the decisions you’ve made during the meeting.
Financial forecasts are are meant to be updated. They are a living, working resource, and the only way they continue to act as a roadmap is if they are updated on a regular basis. Course correction is the key to meeting goals.
Update the elements of the profit and loss first: revenues, cogs, expenses, and staffing; and then move to cash assumptions. Items like debt and financing can be addressed here too, and this is also the best place to discuss tax planning if that’s part of your service.
It will often make sense to have more than one forecast, called forecast scenarios. They can be especially helpful when a business owner is considering big things, like capital purchases, new locations, or big changes to staffing. This is another area where you want to rely on the power of your software. Use it to develop and hold forecast scenarios, and don’t forget to set your pricing accordingly––forecast scenarios are valuable!
2.5 Determine next month’s spending plan
The overriding purpose of all of this work is to guide your client to smart business decisions, and the financial forecast is the foundation. With all the elements of the financial forecast updated, you now have a very accurate forecast to use for making spending decisions and communicating sales goals.
Use the forecasted P&L as a working budget, and the forecasted cash to determine what to do and spend in each month. Encourage your client to never stray from the forecast plan. It’s their guide to every fiscal decision they need to make for that month.
Remind your client they should be relieved there’s a forecast to help them through these tough decisions––that they are not flying blind.
2.6 Schedule next meeting
Don’t forget to schedule the next meeting. That said, your small business client will likely beg you for the next meeting by this point!
After the meeting, it’s a good idea to send a written summary of the findings you made together and the decisions taken. This summary is a nice deliverable, and a chance to remind your client about next month’s meeting. Send a follow up email with a written summary, and a link to schedule the next meeting.
This will nicely set the stage for next month’s agenda, because whatever items you put on the plan to do for this next month, will be at the top of the agenda to ask about in the next meeting.
Accountants have the advantage in Strategic Advising
The role of a good strategic advisor cannot be understated. It’s necessary for the small business client, it’s where the accounting industry is headed, and it’s a very profitable space for the right person with the right method.
The only challenge is overcoming the confusion about what the work looks like, which can lead to an inability to get started. And sometimes even fear of the unknown. But as an accountant, you are armed with the two most important things for the role of strategic advisor: the trust of the client, and the knowledge of the data. Use them to your advantage and change the game for your small business clients!
Kathy Gregory has over 20 years of experience in business development, including: financial forecasting, strategic planning, process development, project management, and mergers and acquisitions. She has worked in public and private, small to mid-size organizations doing business development, and strategic planning and implementation, working with executives, boards and their investors. At LivePlan Kathy runs the specialized program for Strategic Advisors. She is a graduate of the University of Oregon.