“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.
“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 make better decisions.”
― Paraphrasing Walter Meigs’ “Accounting: The Basis for Business Decisions,” excerpt from Next Level Accounting, 2016
Strategic Advising is the ability to help a client translate their goals into an achievable plan, and then to provide the analysis, review, and advice on the plan versus business performance at regular intervals.
Strategic Advising is not a compliance-based service. In the spectrum of accounting services, it’s considered a level 3 service, because it’s something a client both needs, and more importantly wants—and it is in fact the fastest-growing service offering in accounting today.
At the heart of Strategic Advising are the interactions you have with your clients—the communication and listening. Ineffective client interactions can be a major roadblock to delivering good advising service.
Small business clients don’t always know how to articulate specific requests—they just know they need help with insights and advice to grow their business, and they expect their accountant to be able to provide those insights. Strategic Advising therefore requires creativity in communication. Much of the work is simply the ability to listen, source and apply the appropriate data for the problem, and help a client translate their worries or confusion into goals that can be planned, tracked, and measured.
For some advisors, this comes naturally, but for many others, especially accountants who are more familiar with traditional, compliance-based work, these necessary client interactions can feel new and unfamiliar.
To solve this problem, we can look to the traditional compliance-based services for some help. Services like tax, audit, bookkeeping, and month-end procedures are based on rules and structure. The rules help you move through your work and deliver a complete and compliant product.
Strategic Advising work can be structured and managed too. A structure will ensure not only complete work, but also the right kind of effective client interactions—the kind that lead to productive engagement.
These are the components of effective client interactions and engagement for Strategic Advising services:
- Standard process
- Meaningful deliverables
- Mindful, personal communication
- Value-based billing
Have a standard process
We don’t begin the list where you might expect. We start with the practical—at the foundation.
Strategic Advising does not have defined rules like compliance-based services, but you should implement a standard, scalable process for delivering your advisory service. We developed the LivePlan Method for this purpose, but any set of processes that allows for standardization and scalability will work.
The broad purpose of an advisory process is to ensure your advisory services are complete, efficient, and profitable. The process accomplishes this in many ways: one by ensuring you do not spend more time than necessary on various work, and also by assigning the right roles and responsibilities to each task. But another very key component is building in engagement with your client at critical times in the process, and in ways that are purposeful to the work.
“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
A well-designed process should have built into it a meeting structure with agendas, and even certain questions that spark the kind of conversations necessary to support the work, be it planning or analyzing results, or helping the client make decisions and implement changes to affect their growth.
The process is something you use behind the scenes. It has a standardized structure so your clients know what to expect, and your employees know what to do.
Your client won’t necessarily see that you are running a process, but they will know that each month, they can expect certain things to happen, primarily a helpful financial review with you, their advisor.
Done correctly, this type of structured process provides a framework for the Strategic Advising relationship, where it can reside and flourish. The structure gives you the ability to focus on personalizing the things that matter for each client. If you know what step comes next in the process, you can focus on tailoring a step for a particular client’s need, but also having the knowledge that no matter what, you and your employees know what comes next is very helpful to everyone involved.
Provide meaningful deliverables
Provide reports that speak to your client. Make the reporting simple for your client—very simple! The reports should be simple, in order to allow your insights to shine, because that’s where the real value is being delivered. The value is not in the reports—it’s in your insights and guided questions.
Using key performance indicators instead of standard month-end reports is the best way to convey strategic financial information 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 performance review.
“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. Each data point you speak about should tie back to a specific operational function. Talking about the performance of the various operational functions is at the heart of what the meetings are intended to accomplish. The data is there to reveal the performance.
Don’t forget that your input can sometimes just be in the form of questions: “I see that sales have dipped in this strategic area. Do you feel that in your business (store, etc)? Is this something beyond seasonality? Do you have any thoughts about that?” Your job as advisor is not always to have the answers—it’s to bring the data, ask the right questions, and spark a conversation with the client that helps them uncover the problems.
Small business owners often have trouble using financial data to see problems and opportunities for growth in their businesses. They are counting on their Strategic Advisor to guide that experience.
And that brings us to the heart of it:
Lead with mindful and personal communication
In other words, if you want client engagement, be engaging yourself! And make that engagement meaningful and purposeful.
- 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! Slow down, and connect with your client in the moment. Where is their head today, right now, in this meeting? What are they worried about? What are they optimistic about? Make sure you know them, and that they feel heard. That will help build the trust you need to offer the answers you might already know, and have those answers be heard.
“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 value-based billing
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, address your advisory business process (covered in the first section of this article). Establish your advisory process to make yourself efficient and ensure you have all the resources necessary to perform the work. These resources include staff knowledge as well as software and other tools.
Ultimately, your entire client relationship should be predicated by Strategic Advising, and if you offer tax, that can be fitted into the overall advisory relationship. If you’re meeting with your clients regularly, helping them make financial plans and analyzing their monthly KPIs, it will make their tax work go much faster. All the planning will have been done. And that type of work fits perfectly in a monthly, value-based scenario—see this 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!
It’s easy to say that effective client engagement comes from simply being connected to your clients. We know that. But the pieces that must be in place to allow for “connection” are very tactical. You have to be purposeful about knowing what is is you want to offer your clients, implementing a process to do that, with deliverables that ensure complete work, and then packaging it in a way that allows the client to select the things they value.
That foundation will allow for the real work of advisory services, and the meaningful conversations that are at the heart of it.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2017 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.