Growth is important to CPAs and their firms because it provides additional capabilities, opportunities, revenue and profit. Growth can be organic or from mergers and acquisitions. Many firms are doing both, but growth requires planning, people and processes. Growth doesn't just happen because the partners in your firm decide they need to grow by 10 percent annually in order to maintain partner income. The focus of this article is on five strategies that will help your firm grow organically. They all require thinking, planning and execution, and accountability. The past two years have been challenging for all firms. The ability to grow will be even more important in the future than it has been in the past.
Over the past 15 years, I, along with others at Boomer Consulting, have had the good fortune to participate in Dan Sullivan's Strategic Coach Program for entrepreneurs (www.strategiccoach.com). We have learned about many strategies that apply to our consulting business as well as to the CPA profession.
One of the most important lessons is that every industry goes through what is known as an industry life cycle, where an emerging industry grows into a growth industry to a status industry and finally a depleted industry, at which point an industry bypass takes place and the cycle repeats itself. The cycle can take many years, but the trend is toward faster life cycles. Industry transformers are those leaders who can take their firms from the depleted to the emerging stage.
Financial services and accounting have both been impacted by technological, scientific, economic, social, cultural and political change. How firms deal with this change is the key to growth and success. Some of the more prominent characteristics of a depleted industry are:
Commoditization - fee pressures;
Increased complexity of the business model; and,
Unique processes and branding become extremely important.
The challenge for firms of all sizes is how to transform themselves into the new emerging and growth industries. This requires vision, leadership, discipline, risk management, and a set of core values that foster innovation, growth, trusted relationships, integrity, teamwork and accountability. This is by no means an easy task, as the gravity of the past is typically stronger than the potential of the future for many CPAs and their firms. This requires that firm management continue to manage the current firm while leadership is developing the future firm. These are not sequential, but rather simultaneous events that require time and capital.
While there are numerous strategies that firms can implement, the following five transformational strategies have proven to provide value to firms and their clients.
1. Listen to your clients.
2. Identify, name and package your unique processes.
3. Move to fixed-price agreements and change orders.
4. Leverage technology.
5. Move up the value chain - information, knowledge and wisdom.
I will further define and summarize each strategy, with specific examples and action steps you can implement in your firm.
LISTEN TO YOUR CLIENTS
Dan Sullivan calls this the "D.O.S. conversation" (for dangers, opportunities and strengths) where the accountant simply asks questions of the client and listens. Clients will readily provide you with answers concerning their greatest dangers, opportunities and strengths. Your job is to help them focus on reducing or eliminating their three greatest dangers, focus on opportunities and leverage their strengths. Often this is a just a matter of increasing their confidence to act. You and your firm can often provide the necessary resources and tools.
This type of session is focused on building the client relationship and not on charge time, a common mistake made in many firms. This is a huge differentiator and will also assist in the process of moving up the value chain. Investing a few hours to gain or retain a profitable client makes good business sense. This also demonstrates that you value the relationship and will often produce referrals. D.O.S. conversations allow you to develop and package new services that meet the needs of your clients.
Every firm has multiple processes, but few firms take the time to identify, name and package their best processes. By doing so, they foster best practices, reduce redundancies and document the processes so less expensive labor and technology can perform the processes.
This is all part of Six Sigma and attempting to drive out errors at the lowest cost. The real value comes in the naming and packaging. If you name the process, you own it. Clients and prospective clients are impressed when CPAs name their processes and graphically display them. Written text or speech is not nearly as powerful as a graphic and a name in the sales process. The naming process can be a bit tricky and time-consuming until you have mastered the technique. Marketing professionals have generally had training in this area, while CPAs have not. A few quick tips I learned from Strategic Coach:
1. Use "The" to demonstrate exclusivity. "The" is much more powerful than "A".
2. Use a name to identify the process, e.g., "CIO."
3. Use a technological word such as "advantage."
As an example, one of our programs is named "The CIO Advantage." This is a program for CIOs to share best practices and develop the skills for innovation and increasing revenues. You can then use a graphic to assist in defining the process. The BKN is the Boomer Knowledge Network, our social media and community Web site. ThinkPlanGrow.net is our blog. Naming and packaging allow you to connect the dots of your processes in a way that is understandable to clients.
FIXED PRICES AND CHANGE ORDERS
This is where the gravity of the past can destroy the margins of the future. Accountants are trained that time is money, but clients are in the results economy and not the effort economy. This is an area that firms must address and move to fixed-price agreements that define the scope of the work, terms of payment and client responsibilities. A change order clause should also be included, e.g., "Services outside the scope of this agreement may be contracted for with the use of a change order approved prior to doing the work and additional fees for change orders are due 50 percent at signing and 50 percent upon completion."
Staff should be trained to recognize opportunities and see that change orders are utilized. This can be part of staff and partners' balanced scorecard or performance plans. The construction industry profits significantly from change orders and firms can do so as well.
By defining processes and scope, firms reduce their risk and increase their chances of winning the contract. Clients do not like agreements with "hours times dollars" clauses. They feel they are taking all of the risk and there is no reward for efficiency.
Another method of pricing that works is "matrix pricing," where certain criteria - e.g., size in revenue, number of employees, or locations - determine the fixed price. Some firms offer a menu of services to include in the fixed-price agreement where the client selects and pays monthly (often in advance). Clients view this process favorably, as it limits their expense to a known amount prior to the engagement. Change orders protect both parties by not increasing price to account for the unknown or increasing the price for inclusive services that may not be required. The key is discussing pricing up front and using a well-defined fixed-price agreement.
Technology is the performance accelerator. Often a gap exists between IT professionals and business owners. The CPA's position as "trusted business advisor" can provide extreme value in bridging this gap. Owners need to understand how technology can benefit them and IT professionals need to understand the company's vision. We call this bridging the gap. The rapid growth of "cloud computing" is changing the rules of the game. Practice partners need to understand that technology is a strategic asset and a differentiator. Clients expect the CPA/trusted advisor to be knowledgeable in the area of technology. This knowledge should generally come from a team approach.
Futurist and friend Rick Richardson uses the analogy of a room with a wall down the center. Most people and firms are currently on the right side of the wall and cloud computing is on the left side of the wall. Over the next three years companies are going to have to learn the new rules and capabilities of technology as they transition from the right side of the wall to the left side. Firms that take advantage of the cloud's capability can provide value-added services from the transactional level to the trusted advisor level. The choice is yours.
You must learn and implement the technology as you name, package and price these value-added services. The accounting firm will have the opportunity to own the system and processes, rather than work with multiple systems owned by the clients and often managed by poorly trained or incompetent personnel. The American Institute of CPAs, through CPA2Biz, and other vendors such as AccountantsWorld, Thomson Reuters and CCH are all at various stages of providing firms with these capabilities.
Virtualization and ubiquitous bandwidth will enable firms and clients (the community) to share resources and expand capabilities. This requires a different type of IT leadership, one that focuses on innovation, increased revenue and improved communications. Firms must also grow their people through additional IT and soft skills - a training/learning culture.
MOVE UP THE VALUE CHAIN
The first four strategies will allow you to move up the value chain, while continuing to provide clients with value at increasing margins. Process improvement, packaging, naming and pricing are all strategies that impact margins. Technology and change orders provide efficiency and protect margins. Moving up the value chain from payroll, write-up and tax return preparation to controllership and CFO functions such as budgeting and business planning are certainly within the reach of the majority of firms. These services are typically valued higher by the client than are the compliance-based services.
Clients can generally source these services at rates that are favorable to both the firm and the client. The cloud allows much of this work to be done from anywhere at any time, so it provides another favorable dimension. Increasing value and innovation requires different thinking, along with planning, processes and people to execute. Today's economy and emerging technology put the CPA in an enviable position as the most trusted business adviser to capitalize on this opportunity. Pricing these services at a fixed monthly fee with a provision for change orders is an attractive business proposition to most small and midsized companies.
You must simply ensure you have the capabilities and match those capabilities with the opportunities. Your Web site can be a valuable asset in creating a client-friendly community utilizing portals, aggregation of information and resources. To date, most firms have only focused on portals as storage sites for documents. The real value comes from the aggregation of information at the start of the project. This can often be automated with triggers that automate notices, and improve workflow and project management.
These strategies should be part of the firm's strategic plan. A strategy is nothing more than a set of hypotheses about how a firm expects to achieve its desired results. Next you will need champions who are willing to be held accountable. This requires resource allocation and the authority to go along with the responsibility.
A team effort and buy-in to the firm's vision are critical. As Jim Collins states in Good to Great, you must get the wrong people off the bus, the right people on the bus and in the right seats. If this is a problem in your firm, utilize the resources and tools to quickly determine the players that are in the wrong positions or need to be traded.
Deal with the issues and don't procrastinate.
Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.
Register or login for access to this item and much more
All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.
Community members receive:
- All recent and archived articles
- Conference offers and updates
- A full menu of enewsletter options
- Web seminars, white papers, ebooks
Already have an account? Log In
Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access