Happy team, happy clients: One firm’s approach to people-centric accounting
When it comes to succeeding in the unpredictable digital era, Acute Business Services has found the solution: people. With an enormous focus on people, it’s no surprise the firm was a standout in the Key client servicing and relationship management department. In profiling the firm, we investigated what exactly a people-centric accounting firm looks like.
In case you were wondering, that’s the leadership of the firm, not a miniature dictatorship.
With two equity partners (who are also directors), one senior manager and three managers, the firm has a clear team structure. Partners frequently meet informally, and meet formally every quarter (at a minimum). Partner-level decisions are made jointly after consultation with one another, and management are consulted before the decision is made final.
Formal strategic planning is carried out annually and the plan is monitored and modified on an ongoing basis – that way, it doesn’t get forgotten or ignored – it’s always relevant. Managers are involved in planning when required.
Growth, profitability and sustainability are the primary goals of the firm. With these goals in mind, they review, analyse and identify the KPIs. There are measured and reported against on an ongoing basis. The frequency of this reporting is dependent on the type of KPIs. Here are some of the objectives the firm set for the last financial year and the steps taken to achieve them:
1. Improving the quality of the existing client base
Managing client expectations by clearly communicating the firm’s policies and procedures.
2. Improving quality control systems
Reviewing and updating the Quality Control Manual (this involved updating and improving internal control documents).
3. Improving the workplace environment
Purchasing an adjoining office and expanding the work area (as well as car parking).
4. Increasing training and development
Internal training seminars held monthly (or more). All team members attending external training seminars on an ongoing basis. The firm is a member of numerous professional bodies (CPA, NTAA and IPA) and professional networks.
Here are some of the objectives the firm set for this financial year:
1. Acquiring new cornerstone clients;
2. Continuing to add value to existing client base;
3. Improving productivity;
4. Continuously improving the firm’s culture; and
5. Improving the work environment.
The firm’s ideal client profile (or target customer) are high net worth individuals who are in business and require accounting, taxation and financial services. It is important too that these target clients value the services the firm provides. The firm targeted this kind of client in the hope of building mutually beneficial and rewarding relationships between accountant and client. Most of these relationships have been founded through actively seeking referrals from their existing (ideal) clients.
Compliance vs. Non-Compliance
Tax and compliance are core components of Acute’s service offering, and therefore a major priority for the firm. However, they aren’t ignoring the need for the highly topical accounting advisory services. They focus on educating their clients to make them aware of the additional value-added services they provide.
What are these, exactly? The firm provides any services in which they have the expertise and experience to handle the matter on behalf of the client. Their main service lines are:
– High-level tax planning;
– Management reporting and performance monitoring; and
– Corporate finance.
Recognising the rapid commoditisation of compliance work and realising that efficiency and price competitiveness will come to define the compliance sector, the firm are already seeing some clients putting their compliance work out to tender, however, these types of clients are not seeking any additional services.
Best Practice Engagement
With best practice engagement being of high importance to the firm, deadlines are discussed and confirmed and the fee agreed before a job is commenced, with engagement letters refining the scope of the job. Checklists are in place to ensure the relevant and complete information is gathered. The work is completed with a completion checklist which is reviewed that signed off by the accountant, then the manager, and then the partner. Now, the work is presented to the client. According to the firm, a thorough and comprehensive engagement is crucial to achieving efficiency and avoiding potential write-offs or disputes with the client.
Acute’s approach to managing workflow is to give managers responsibility and accountability for all client engagements, job allocations and quality control. Managers constantly review WIP, lodgement reports, productivity reports and job flow for their relevant clients. Understanding the importance of technology for increasing accuracy and productivity, the firm use:
– Jobflow Manager for tracking progress for a particular job;
– Time & Billing for WIP and productivity reports; and
– ATO Lodgement Reports for review deadlines.
The firm have a number of tried and tested suggestions for managing debtors and cash flow. Firstly, upfront engagement letters that define scope and fee, along with payment terms and conditions are crucial for educating and remaining on positive terms with clients. Fixed fee arrangements, whether monthly, quarterly or annually eliminates the accounting bill surprise (a client’s worst nightmare). Having an internal accounts person responsible for reviewing AR and following up debtors on an ongoing basis and ensuring partners and managers constantly monitor debtor reports means cash flow is no longer an area of concern for the firm.
To ensure high productivity levels are maintained across the firm, job budgets are set by partners and managers and communicated to the accountants. WIP reports are monitored on an ongoing basis, and accountants are responsible for meeting the budgets and to communicate any change in job scope to the managers.
Technology is also key for the firm’s efficiency; they use programs like BGL for SMSFs and Castaway for three-way forecasting. Their standardised templates and workpapers have also been crucial for streamlining their processes. Constant reviewing and refining of these documents, a process the whole team is involved in, is essential for their ongoing productivity.
Over the past twelve months, knowledge and competency of the team members have increased, and as a result the firm has seen a rise in productivity levels. There is however room for improvement in using the firm’s resources more effectively, according to the partners.
Their plans to increase productivity in the new financial year include better management of workflow, clearer lines of responsibilities, setting of KPI targets and better communication between the team.
Cloud Computing and the Paperless Office
Though the firm aren’t actively promoting cloud computing to their clients, if clients choose to utilise cloud computing then they are fully supportive and embrace the change.
At present, cloud computing doesn’t seem to be the most cost-effective option due to higher cloud subscription fees and the lesser need for mobility. However, as cloud services become more commodities the cost will reduce and the return on investment will outweigh the non-cloud computing systems.
Their “practically paperless” office has benefited from the following results:
– Reduced office space;
– Ease of retrieving and sharing information and documents;
– Reduced storage costs; and
– Increased security.
When asked the key to their high results, the firm explains that building and nurturing a high-performing team has enabled them to provide quality support to their clients, whom they value highly. It’s clear that Acute are embodying the notion that people are the real future of the digital age.
You can see Acute Business Services’ website here, or find out more about high-performing firms like them here.