Whenever an accountant offers advice or knowledge that benefits their client, or goes the extra mile in helping them achieve their own individual success, they’re creating value.
And in these times of increasing automation in firms and the business landscape as a whole, value may be the most important client service moving forward.
Accounting Today sat down with a few experts on the topic to discuss why it may be time for firms to start considering more value-added services in their practices, and how professionals can approach this new way of thinking.
It’s vital for firms and professionals to define what exactly “value” means before they can create it. According to our experts, value happens when the firm makes their clients’ business their business, equipped with the thought and care that goes beyond the standard billable hours.
“Value is an experience for the client that is different than what they have experienced before with other accounting firms,” said Amy Vetter, CEO of the B3 Method Institute and former head of the accounting partner channel at Xero.
“The little extra … attention to [client] needs without being nickel and dimed,” she said. “This is so they feel comfortable calling you when they are in their greatest need and not fearful to because they will get charged.”
“Many of the new service lines we see in firms today (technology consulting, human resources consulting, etc.) would all be considered value-added because they are not traditional compliance work,” said Amanda Wilkie, a consultant at Boomer Consulting. “Firms are starting to incorporate such non-accounting services into their core service offering as we continue to see technology and outsourcing automate or eliminate the compliance work our profession has delivered for quite some time. Value-added service now includes finding ways to provide the client more than they expect through the typical course of completing a core service. For instance, what additional insight can you provide the client while doing their tax return, preparing their financial statements, or their audit?”
“Value is defined not by us, but by our clients,” echoed Geni Whitehouse, a consultant at accounting advisory firm Mentor Plus. “In order to be valuable to them, the services we accountants deliver must be relevant, meaningful and actionable by organizational leaders and their teams. Value-added services are built upon a new type of relationship with clients — one in which we ask new questions and help them identify root problems that lead to real solutions.”
“The mission of the ‘value-first’ firm is to impact the businesses and lives of its clients,” said Rick Solomon, CEO at the Center for Enlightened Business. “Such a firm utilizes its accounting and analytical skills and thinking, along with its experience, to help business owners more intelligently and more effectively manage their business. By bringing their financial expertise to the table, they will help business owners better understand the financial implications of decisions to improve profits, and build the value of their business.”
“Like beauty, value is in the eye of the beholder,” Solomon added. “From the [firm] owner’s perspective, value is helping [clients] produce a better business result, increasing the value of their business, and freeing up their time so they can enjoy a better quality of life.”
Why value matters
Another question for firms not currently focused on value is to ask themselves why it’s important.
After all, firms are busy and time is money. But as our experts note, a continuous, value-focused mindset, integrated into the pre-existing firm services, makes creating value an easier process than one might think.
“These [value services] would be services year-round, rather than only meeting with your client at tax time,” said Vetter. “When you are meeting with your client year-round, you find out about issues they are encountering in their business real-time that are often upsell opportunities for other services they need in the firm.”
“Rapidly advancing technology is further commoditizing the traditional services that we provide … but beyond that, expectations of customers across the board, not just for accounting services, have shifted considerably,” said Solomon. “Today’s consumers of all products and services want value and results for their money. Firms that continue to remain focused solely on more traditional services will continue to compete on price, trade hours for dollars, and not have much of a future.”
Of course, there are always the financial benefits to providing value as well.
“Firms that understand the nature of value, and are determined to learn how to deliver it, can also learn how to get paid for that value,” Solomon added. “The ultimate aim of value-added services is to positively impact business results and, in the process, enhance the lives of its owners. As many accountants who are now doing this report, not only is it more lucrative; it’s also incredibly rewarding. This is where the market is headed, and the only choice is whether or not you want to be a part of it.”
“Our clients need us to apply our incredible skills on their behalf,” said Whitehouse. “Businesses are struggling to manage the day-to-day demands of their business, which go way beyond the financial aspects. Owners and business leaders must find and serve customers, create and manage systems and processes, hire and retain employees, and do all of this in pursuit of their own personal and business goals. We accountants are experts at inquiry, analysis, systematizing our own processes — it’s time we leverage these skills in new ways. We are, after all, a profession of servants. We thrive when we can help our clients.”
“Technology will never completely replace accountants — never,” said Wilkie. “However, technology continues to change the way we complete compliance services. With much being automated, the time and effort it takes to deliver these services has been greatly reduced. We don’t want to reduce our fees though … [and] we don’t have to. The key is finding additional value you can bring to your clients. You have to offer your clients more or they will find a firm that provides more such client accounting services or marketing consulting.”
If your firm is looking to add more value to your services, the first step is to take stock of your clients and their needs. Next, education and self-evaluation are key if you and your peers are to be seen as trusted advisors by your clients.
“Start small and test so you can get the conversation down,” advised Vetter. “Go out with an online survey to your clients or schedule lunches or phone calls with select clients to ask three simple questions: What do they wish you would keep doing, what do they wish you would do differently, and what should be offered as additional services to help them in their business? Armed with that data, the partner team can determine which new services to develop and launch.”
To get clients involved, Vetter also advises utilizing firm resources to show them how and why you’re helping them grow.
“Load high-level data in your online accounting software,” she said. “Invite them to meet with you personally to go over their return. Show them their data in the dashboard and go over key KPIs and trends. Then, see if they would want to meet more regularly throughout the year to go over the results of their business so the information can be real-time.”
“Value starts with listening to your clients.” advised Wilkie. “The best way to understand what your clients need and what they will value is to ask. [And] they may not be able to tell you what they need. You must be an anticipatory advisor turning what your clients want - what will allow them to provide more value to their customers - into the services and insights your firm offers.”
“Then, if your firm isn’t ready to jump off in the deep end, look for opportunities to partner with service providers,” she added. “Done right, a partnership with the right organization allows all parties to add services [and] value, without the pain of building them from the ground up.”
Our experts also stress that a little education can go a long way towards becoming a more trusted advisor.
“I strongly encourage [firms] to get coaching in this area because you are entering new territory,” added Solomon. “With the right coaching support and guidance, you can become that valued advisor and start winning profitable engagements in a lot less time, and with much greater ease. Your chances for success increase exponentially with a seasoned coach who knows the way. As a CPA, you are in the perfect position to transform your practice and significantly increase your earnings, work fewer hours, and have the satisfaction of knowing you’re making a bigger difference in the lives of your clients.”
“Find a methodology that works for you,” advised Whitehouse. “Try to avoid what we at Mentor Plus call ‘random acts of consulting,’ in which you are figuring out everything from scratch when a client asks for help with a specific problem.”
“Make a consultant’s perspective a part of the way you do business,” she continued. “Don’t expect everyone on your team to wake up one morning ready to turn magically into a proactive consultant; they need tools but they should also have a desire to work differently. Seek out the mavericks, the client communicators, the entrepreneurial members of your team that want to make a real impact with clients.”
A firm built on value
In order to ensure its success in a rapidly changing environment, the accounting profession will need to start thinking about adding services and mindsets that make them stand out to clients. As automation and technology place some doubts on what the profession will soon look like, these worries can be lessened significantly by focusing on value, a commodity that can only be provided by a trusted professional.
“We’ve all heard the ‘sky is falling’ message before … but the time has finally come,” advised Whitehouse. “We are at a crossroad in the accounting profession. Our clients want more. They are no longer trying to capture transactions and worry as much about reconciling and coding them — we have AI solutions for that.”
“Now they need help in understanding and improving the underlying processes that drive the numbers,” Whitehouse continued. “They want insights and collaboration — not a printed historical document they rarely understand. Firms that aren’t proactive about providing a new level of service will ultimately be forced to do so by their clients and by their teams.”
“A ‘value-first’ firm focuses on the entire customer experience,” said Vetter. “It’s a focus from each job in the firm, from billing and administrative staff, support team, to partner. It’s thinking through all the touchpoints a client will have with your firm and making sure that experience delights them. You know you are providing that true value to a client when they consider you a cherished advisor and can’t imagine running their business without you or your firm.”
“When looking for opportunities to add value to their traditional accounting services, [firm] leaders must change their mindset, develop new skill sets with the firm, and provide a new toolset,” said Wilkie. “Leaders need to understand [that] trying new things will add value. When adding new service lines, firm leaders must acknowledge that non-accounting services can’t be marketed, sold, delivered, or managed like traditional accounting services. [They] need to have an open mind, be willing to do things differently, and trust the experts they put in charge of these new services.”
“A [value-focused] firm is continually improving its use of financial analytical tools and resources to deepen their understanding of how the business is performing and where improvements can be made,” said Solomon. “This allows them to direct clients’ attention to those areas and helps shape effective actions to make those improvements. The professionals in such a firm will learn how to go beyond simply preparing financial reports, to understanding what those numbers mean, and how they can utilize the information within them to help business owners improve their results, solve problems, and make more informed decisions.”
“While there is a tremendous opportunity for those who … step into the valued advisor role, it takes some real work,” Solomon added. “It requires developing some new skills, [and] identifying the right technology that can do a lot of the analytical work for you. Most significantly, it requires a shift in mindset. This means seeing yourself, your role, your value from a completely different perspective. We must first make that shift, if we expect our clients to see us as that valued advisor.”
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