Time to Train

In today's tight labor market, more firms are investing in training.


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New hires at Capital Business Solutions have to study Government 101 - and not-for-profit 101, as well. They are not going back to school at a university. Newly employed consultants must take several classes, including Not-for-Profit and Government 101, that focus on reporting because Capital believes its active use of training is a big differentiating factor when competing in the not-for-profit market.

"Our consultants are on the front line, and we want them to be familiar with Capital's mission and the product line. In this business, it's all about relationships, and training helps us build trust with our customers. By becoming experts, it lets the customers know you're looking out for their best interests," says Robbie Pollock, one of three partners of the Raleigh, N.C.-based software reseller.

Pollock attributes an upsurge in the firm's profitability to its ability to increase its consultants' expertise in the not-for-profit market. In fact, the 14-person firm has seen continued growth over the last few years and has added offices in Charleston, S.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Chicago. Founded in 1998, Capital with annual revenue of $1.9 million, has been named Blackbaud's National Reseller of the Year for three straight years.

Partner Insights

New employees usually have strong accounting and consulting backgrounds, but the firm wants to put them in touch with its marketplace. The new-hire training program is a combination of market trends, in-house training, hands-on training, and Blackbaud software certification.

The first two one-day courses are followed by eight hours of self-study. After taking another half-day class, Selling for the Non Sales Person, consultants spend a half-day shadowing a sales-person. "This helps consultants recognize sales opportunities when working with clients," says Robert Schilling.

The firm's three partners, Pollock, Schilling, and Peter Saul, continue not only to educate themselves, but also strongly support the ongoing education of their staff. They back that up with their pocketbooks: The firm allots $10,000 per year for certified consultants. There are seven currently on staff.

But training is not reserved for the professionals-all employees receive training, from the administrative person to the sales people.

"The most important aspect of training for us is to prepare our people to work with our customer base. It helps us with profitability because the more our consultants know, the more satisfied the customer is, and the more focused we are on our mission," says Pollock.

Saul teaches a course about Conflict Management, important for consultants who deal with customers that often have complex business relationships among the different users within their organizations.

Developing A Training Culture

To implement an effective training program, firms must go beyond simply establishing a list of courses. They must make training a part of the firm's culture.

"When firms begin thinking about attracting and retaining quality people, a positive training and learning culture is a must," says Gary Boomer, CPA and owner of Manhattan, Kan.-based Boomer Consulting. Culture goes beyond simply providing classes, continues Boomer, who advises CPA firms in many practice areas.

"The skills needed to be successful aren't developed in one class or a day-long seminar. Firms must develop a structured training environment. Then, they can hire for attitude and train for aptitude," adds Boomer.

There are several keys to a successful training program. Many agree that firms must do the following:

*Approve a training and learning budget. Many firms budget about two percent of annual revenue to training.

*Offer options. Options range from hands-on training to Web-based seminars. "Web-based training is becoming more available and is cost- effective, but we've found it works best if it's building on the knowledge an employee already has. My staff still prefers classroom training because of the body language and interaction," say Lissa Eilers Johnsen, president of Business Technology Solutions.

*Provide soft skills training. "There is still a gap when it comes to developing employees' skills such as presentation and communication skills," says Jennifer Wilson, co-owner of Convergence Consulting.

*Train to retain. Dale Potter, president of Premier Computing Technologies, a Microsoft Business Solutions reseller, says, "The main reason people enjoy their jobs, and stay with an organization is because they like learning all the time."

"We are often putting in different systems for customers with multiple departments, and these departments didn't interact much in the past. We want to teach our consultants the best way to work with them," he says. The class also assists consultants in understanding how software features can meet clients' needs.

After completing training and achieving Blackbaud certification, new consultants are teamed with a seasoned consultant for approximately two months.

"You can only learn so much in a classroom setting. Accounting software is never the same set-up in an organization. The only way a consultant can complete training is to be out in the field," say Pollock.

Once the fieldwork is completed, the seasoned consultant fills out an evaluation form for the new consultant for the partners' review. Pollock says this process is one reason Capital has a low turnover rate.

"Although we don't have the statistics on how training affects retention, we feel providing employees with a structured learning program reduces their level of frustration," adds Pollock.

Training Pays

Capital Business Solutions isn't the only firm that has found an active training program helps attract and retain quality people in today's tight labor market. There is also no doubt in the minds of some experts that training produces a return that can be measured.

A survey by the Gartner Group in 2000 found that every one hour of training provided in professional services firms produces five additional hours of billable time. Also, more than just bringing in more revenue, training helps retain staff, which reduces the cost of filling job vacancies.

"It's simple: A firm without great training and learning programs will not be able to attract and retain quality people," says Gary Boomer, owner of Boomer Consulting of Manhattan, Kan. "Your goal should be to develop a program where clients and competitive firms say, 'I will always hire someone who has worked for that firm.'"

"Training our team members on software and our firm's business processes allows us to accelerate the integration and experience level of our team. One of the trends you will see is that employees will not stay with organizations that do not invest in their improvement," says Gregory Price, director of Houston, Texas-based Pannell Kerr Forster Texas. "Life-long learning is a trait of firms of the future."

PKF Texas, which has more than 100 employees, spends about $2,500 per year per employee on work-related education; not including in-house training that can add that much again, and more, per person.

Because many employees spend much of their time out of the office, the firm also offers monthly instruction through PKF University.

Each practice group sets its training requirements and goals. For example, the Consulting Solutions Group publishes guidelines to ensure its members maintain certification in Microsoft's Navision software, coordinating its course offerings with Microsoft.

Courses are also offered in GAAP and GAAS for auditors, tax law changes and new IRS regulations, process improvement ideas, and marketing.

The University includes quarterly "Eye on the Marketplace" sessions that reinforce business development efforts, improve networking skills, and provide updates on the firm's recent success stories and client testimonials. Overall, the training helps CPAs meet their state requirements of 20 hours of continuing education annually, or 120 hours over a three-year period.

In addition, the firm provides training on both CCH Engagement for the audit and consulting practices, and the CCH Practice management system.

"Our team members know that our willingness to invest in them indicates our faith in them. Profitability increases because of their higher self-esteem and a higher degree of confidence in their ability to serve our clients and produce a quality product. Clients are impressed that we have programs of this caliber, which equates to happier PKF members servicing clients' accounts. The training dollars invested yield a return through accelerating the learning curve," adds Price.

The Whole Picture

Firms need to consider each individual's role when choosing what kind of training to provide.

"This should include the person's duties, responsibilities, and the types of skills they need to do their jobs well," says Jennifer Wilson, co-owner of Convergence Consulting, a Bellevue, Neb.-based firm that provides consulting services to CPA and reselling firms.

"If there are gaps, invest in training to fill those gaps, and if there aren't any gaps, establish what it takes to move that person to the next level," Wilson continues. "Good leaders need to get their people to the next level, and they need to know what training will make them better in their position or in the next level of competency."

That's just what CPA Lissa Eilers Johnsen of Business Technology Solutions, is doing.

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