A strong financial forecast is at the heart of any successful Strategic Advising relationship. Many people assume that reporting is the most important, but the forecast provides the roadmap, and therefore the basis for advisory services.
Reports and key performance indicators (KPIs) do provide useful information, but a rock-solid forecast provides the plan. Measuring it is how you can help your clients make better decisions.
By comparing the forecast to the accounting actuals, and understanding the variance, you can help your clients identify problems in their business, which is what productive advisory services and strategic forecasting are all about.
What is strategic financial forecasting?
A financial forecast is any component of profits, cash or equity, projected forward. Pretty straightforward. A full financial forecast, sometimes called a three-way forecast, is the profit and loss, cash flow, and balance sheet forecast for at least one year, and sometimes up to 3 or even 5 years.
The level of need and scope or size of a business usually determine the duration of its forecast. A longer forecast (3+ years) is typical for investors or other financiers. A shorter forecast (12 - 24 months) is typical for management needs. The 12 - 24 month version is the length you should expect to build for strategic advising.
Due to the unique business projections made in a forecast, it is by its very nature strategic. It becomes more strategic the more the individual business model is applied, and the more thought is put into the projections. Ideally a combination of human estimates mixed with historical data, and business rules are used to build a strategic financial forecast.
As a strategic advisor, this is where your expertise and guidance come into play. You will help your clients make sense of their historical financial information, develop more accurate predictions, and apply their business rules to the model.
Building a forecast requires balance
I truly love building forecasts! Not only are they a means of strategic planning, but the work is fun. It’s one part creativity, one part structure. There’s nothing quite like producing this roadmap for a business based on its historical performance, its needs, and its goals while adding a dash of hope (or guts, as some would say). All of that together becomes the strategy.
Let’s take a closer look at each part of the forecasting equation.
To create a great forecast, you have to start with the building blocks — the structure. The structure of a forecast is comprised of basic financial components you’re likely familiar with:
- Direct costs
- Fixed and variable expenses
- AR and AP timing
- Debt servicing
- Other assets and liabilities
The components of the profit and loss statement are usually completed first, and then if possible the cash flow and balance sheet. You can do this manually, but utilizing a cloud-based software application to sync with your accounting data and assist you with the forecasting calculations will make your job easier.
In order to properly forecast those primary components, you must understand the goals of your small business owner client, as well as what is reasonable for their business, based on its own history and normalized industry-standard benchmarks.
Those two things are distinct and important, and understanding them will allow you to make smart assumptions. Always remember, at its core, a forecast is about assumptions, combined with business rules. It’s not accounting, and it’s not budgeting in the traditional sense.
Forecasting is making educated guesses about what is reasonably possible and using financial modeling, and the business rules to turn the guesses into projections.
The creative process
The creative process of forecasting is the work of balancing the customer’s needs with their goals, in order to apply useful assumptions. This part is just as critical as structure, and is often overlooked. It’s also what makes the work so fun!
You work within a framework of the client’s business model, but you also add your own financial instinct and know-how. Can the business grow their profitability? If so, how? Can they build cash reserves over time. Again, how?
Sometimes, your drive can push a business beyond where they thought they could go, and also help an owner understand the financial potential in their business.
It’s what makes forecasting uniquely different from budgeting. Budgeting is usually very conservative, and it’s much more granular. Forecasting is about potential. What’s possible? And how can we get there?
The business model and rules
Every business has its own way of producing, pricing and selling, as well as collecting and paying. The combination of these is the business model. Businesses are also operating with standards, or rules about their business model that affect their bottom line — rules such as individual pricing, fixed costs, staffing, collection and payment terms, and so on.
These rules are used in a strategic forecast to give a more accurate and specific picture of that business. This is also what makes a forecast extra useful for day to day management, because it’s a true reflection of that particular business.
How do you create a financial forecast for your clients?
You may be asking — how do I get started on this work? It’s a reasonable question, because the work can feel big, but it really isn’t. As an accountant, you are already armed with so much knowledge. Use these 4 steps as your general guide, and see the 6 tips below for even more information.
1. Understand the business owner’s goals
Your client’s goals are determined during the planning stage—your “getting to know the business” stage.
Have a conversation with your client about their goals for the business. The goals include the obvious ones, like revenue and profit, but they also include their notion of the business opportunity, the value proposition, and the sales and marketing plan to support it. Those pieces will have a direct impact on the revenue potential for the business.
2. Keep the forecast reasonable through benchmarks and history
A business’s financial history and industry benchmarks set a baseline for what it should reasonably be able to achieve.
Using 12 to 36 months of history, the Strategic Advisor should determine the business’s unique patterns for revenue, gross margin, net profit, and ratios for major expense items to revenue, and then compare those to industry-standard benchmarks for the same data.
The objective here is to qualify the business owner’s goals with real, historical data in order to arrive at reasonable projections. Seasonality is a particular trend to watch, as well as any other trends that form patterns.
The following is a list of the building block numbers every solid financial forecast needs:
- Quarterly revenue targets
- Quarterly gross margin targets
- Expense to revenue ratios for major expense categories like sales, general and administrative, and indirect labor
- Major fixed expenses like rent or debt servicing
- Quarterly net profit targets
- AR and AP average terms
With this knowledge, the Strategic Advisor should have all the information they need to develop a smart, and strategic financial forecast. Start with profit and loss, specifically the sales or revenue numbers, add direct costs, and then expenses (fixed first, then variable). The whole time you should be monitoring net profit, and be sure to adjust the P&L where necessary to keep the net profit on target.
For most small businesses, a monthly forecast for 24 to 36 months is typical. Beyond 36 months, a yearly or quarterly look is perfectly fine.
3. Recognize that forecasts evolve over time
Once the initial forecast is built, the real fun actually begins! No forecast is complete on the initial working. The gross margin and net profit probably won’t represent the ideal, desired growth plan for the business.
With a basic forecast in place, the Strategic Advisor works with the numbers, shifting expenses, direct costs, and maybe even revenue where necessary, to model the ideal growth plan for the business. The growth plan should be one that represents the business owner’s goals, their value proposition, their sales, and marketing plan, and can support a positive or neutral cash flow.
Depending on the business, it could take 3 to 6 months of shifting, and comparing forecast to month-end accounting data, to arrive at a solid plan. And even then, by design, the financial forecast should evolve as the business grows and changes.
4. Use the forecast to grow the business
The end result is a true roadmap for the business. Management decisions should tumble out of the forecast as tasks ready to act upon.
Is it time to place the inventory order for the new revenue stream? Time to hire a new salesperson? Time to purchase that new piece of equipment? The financial forecast will tell you. All the answers are there. It’s not a report about past performance or a static baseline budget. It’s a plan and should be used as such.
I often liken this process to solving a mystery. And who doesn’t love a good mystery?! You have facts, clues, and evidence in the building blocks you’ve established by understanding your client’s goals and doing the benchmark research.
It’s actually a fun process to methodically work through the pile of information, building one bit at a time, asking the next logical question of the data set (and your client), until you have arrived at the best possible scenario: a financial forecast for this business. Not just any business, but this business.
6 tips for better financial forecasting
Just like your relationships with clients grow overtime, your ability to successfully build actionable strategic forecasts will as well. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give yourself a head start by keeping these tips in mind.
1. Remember, forecasting isn’t budgeting!
Forecasting and budgeting are two different things.
Budgeting is about setting limits on spending, usually at a granular level. Budgets are also for a shorter time span, typically yearly or half-yearly, and are not meant to be updated based on what is actually occurring in real-time.
Financial forecasts are meant to be strategic, so they cover broad categories. Forecasts are meant to be updated regularly based on new information about the business.
Regularly communicate with the business owner
In fact, my rule is—The business owner owns the sales forecast (often called the “top line”), and I own the expenses.
As much as possible, let the business owner predict and own their sales (revenue) goals, and then you help to ensure the expense side is realistic, using all the historical accounting data and benchmarks as a basis.
It’s their forecast, after all—it should reflect their goals. If their goals don’t pencil out, you’ll need to work with them on a version that does, but you have to flesh out their goals with them.
3. Always have a baseline
Know what they have the ability to do based on historical performance. Know what others in their industry do. Know industry standards like gross margins, burden rates, and ratios for major expense categories to revenue.
For instance, what is the ideal rate for SG&A expenses as a percentage of revenue in their industry? A good forecast is always grounded in reality.
4. Don’t forget about hidden costs associated with the growth
This is where your expertise from your profession and your intimate knowledge with their books really comes in. Use that expertise and that knowledge together to be sure everything is thought through.
If the client decides to take on a new revenue stream, be sure you help them think through all the new types of costs associated with it, and anything that might be unique for their business. Also, be sure you think about their resources and partners—who and what they rely on to run their business. Those add huge depth to a good strategic plan, adding revenue or saving expense sometimes if leveraged correctly.
5. Know when it’s time to update, and when you shouldn’t
This is crucial, and a skill developed over time, and with your clients. Know when it’s time to make an adjustment to the forecast, versus providing feedback and working with your client to change their business process.
For instance, if a revenue goal isn’t being met, be sure to work through all the reasons why before deciding it is unrealistic. If gross margins are off, dig into why. That’s where the advising part comes in.
6. Be mindful of price and value to your client
Be sure you’re setting up your tiered pricing to take into account the value of forecasting to your clients. Your firm can be profitable with this work for sure, but you have to charge for it, and be sure your clients understand the value it will bring them.
Forecasting is the foundation of successful strategic advising
Forecasting is vital for developing strategy. Without it, you’re simply reporting the numbers instead of using them to make predictions. And your expertise with compiling, analyzing and reporting accounting data, makes your ability to build insightful and actionable financial forecasts an invaluable service.
It’s the backbone of strategic advising. It helps you build even more integral relationships with your clients and guide them toward success.
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This post was originally published in September 2018 and has been completely revamped and updated for comprehensiveness.
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.