“Forget everything you thought you knew about public practice. A rapid transformation has begun – powered by cloud technology and market forces – that will redefine accounting firms forever.” [ICAA Charter Magazine, April 2013]
The way accounting firms go about their business is changing rapidly. A key element in this change is the increasing interest in business advisory services. However, many firms struggle to get leverage in a predominantly compliance-based culture.
In this article, we’ll outline the key steps to establish a viable business advisory platform for your firm. These steps are based on my practical experience working with many accounting firms to create a stronger advisory culture.
Step 1 – PLAN – Develop your business advisory platform
Most accounting firms have a list of services that they are able to offer their business clients. However, in most cases, these services are provided in an ad hoc manner in response to client queries. Ideally, your business advisory platform should resemble your compliance platform in its commitment to structure, systems and processes.
Firstly, identify the core business services you will provide to your clients. You may start with a simple quarterly review incorporating financial analysis. Out of this may come a more strategic focus, with financial forecasting and ongoing advice. Special projects based around business structuring, operations and marketing may develop. Establish your business advisory services team. In most firms, I find that there are one or two people who are really committed to driving business services. These people are the project champions and help to ensure that the firm places a consistently high priority on developing stronger relationships with business clients.
Then identify the software tools that will help in the delivery of these services. There are many tools available to assist your firm in engaging with business clients. To get these tools ‘off the shelf,’ you must develop internal procedures supported by performance measures.
In most accounting firms, there will be a consistent focus on compliance production. It’s critically important that staff understand the value of engaging with business clients.
Step 2 – MARKET – Implement a lead generation and development process that works
The process of ‘discovering’ opportunities to add value can be a challenging one for accountants who are more used to a responsive relationship with their clients. Essentially, the focus must move from delivery of accounts to a thinking process that encourages accountants to consider ‘why’ and ‘what if?’.
I have found that the best ‘discovery’ processes are those that are intrinsically integrated with compliance activities. For example, a critical review of client needs and opportunities should take place as financial statements are completed. This review should incorporate relevant checklists. Ideally, there should be a sharing of ideas and information within the firm rather than accountants and teams working in isolation to each other.
An active listening culture encourages your accountants to focus on more than just providing solutions. Active listening is asking questions to get a better understanding of client issues and needs. Some simple powerful questions to open up conversations may include:
– How is business going for you?
– When you say that, what do you mean?
– What have you thought about doing to deal with that?
Put in place a process to track all the opportunities and leads that you and your team identify. Ideally, you should have a Client Relationship Management (CRM) system in place. Not only will this identify which leads you are working on, it will ensure that you follow them up in a timely manner.
Step 3 – SELL – Turn your accountants into business advisors
Accountants often get squeamish when the word ‘sell’ is used in relation to business development activities. The truth is that we sell every day as we deliver services to clients. In engaging with clients, we are making a real effort to understand their needs and issues. We are providing solutions to address these needs. That’s relationship selling!
The personal skills required to develop a strong business advisory focus include:
1. Strong active listening skills;
2. Ability to inform and persuade;
3. Ability to coach and direct clients to achieve results; and
4. A good understanding of business strategy and operations.
Obviously, not all accountants within your firm will have these skills, nor will all your accountants necessarily want to become ‘business advisors.’ However, they should all be able to ask the right questions to better understand client needs.
Once you understand your business clients’ needs, the next step is to show them how you can help them achieve their goals. A simple mistake many accountants make is trying to persuade clients of a course of action before the client really understands its value to them. Try to engage the client in a discussion about their goals and get them interested and excited about the outcome. It’s then a lot easier to show them ‘how I can help you.’
Step 4 – DELIVER – Develop strong business advisory relationships with your clients
You’ve managed to get the client to sign on the dotted line for your business advisory project. Perhaps the client has agreed to quarterly or monthly meetings and reporting with a fixed fee for service. Everyone is happy – you, because you have persuaded the client that you can provide ‘added value’ to his or her business – and your client, because they know that you will help them to grow their business.
There are a few key issues that you need to be aware of as you begin your advisory project:
1. You will probably find yourself spending more time upfront than you expected to get the project moving, especially in relation to collection of data.
2. It may be difficult to get the client to move forward on agreed actions within the timeframe you have initially established.
3. By about the 3 month stage, the client will possibly ask themselves ‘this was a good idea at the time, but am I really getting the value I expected out of this project?’
The key to a successful business advisory relationship is ongoing, proactive communication with clients. This means that you need to contact the client on a regular basis, even if it’s simply a 5 minute phone call once a week to ask ‘how’s it going?’ Take control, don’t give them the opportunity to convince themselves that they’re not getting the support they expected.
Your leadership team should be aware that the greatest challenge in this implementation process will be behavioural. Not all partners, managers and accountants will make the transition from technician to advisor, but all should be prepared to put effort into really engaging with their business clients through active listening.
Dale Crosby has been working actively with accounting firms for the past 14 years to drive change and achieve great results. With a strong sales and business consulting background, he is ideally placed to advise accounting firms on how they can better service their business clients. He runs both on-site and on-line programs for accounting firms interested in developing a stronger business advisory platform. Contact Dale on 1300 883 789 or visit www.bizaptitude.com.au and www.trainingbeyondaccounting.com.au.
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