Keeping up with the rise in consulting

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More and more firms are exploring advisory and consulting services, but they require some important adjustments, according to the industry experts at the CPA Consultants’ Alliance.

In “Growth of Consulting Services in Accounting,” one of the CPACA’s “Issues and Answers” video series, the members of the alliance first explored some of the drivers in the growth of these value-added services: “A lot of the compliance work is being automated by technology, so there’s a huge need to not be just a compliance provider,” explained Rainmaker Companies president Angie Grissom. “We have to get out there and work with clients in more of an advisory role.”

Added Carrie Steffen, president of the Whetstone Group, “CPA firms are looking for new opportunities to grow their top line, and consulting services lend themselves very well to growing a firm’s top line, because they open up opportunities to serve existing clients.”

But to make the most of that opportunity, firms need to take some important steps.

“There are some passionate champions of these services within firms today,” said Boomer Consulting president Sandra Wiley, “and if we would just unleash them and let them dive in and innovate within their niche or service line, I think we’d see some amazing things coming out of firms.”

Finding those champions is critical, but the necessary changes will affect everyone in the firm, Wiley said: “If you’re going to take on this challenge, you have to make the decision to change your business model. … You’ll need to learn new skills in order to make this happen – consultative skills, pricing skills, how to name the product, how to ask the right questions and be a really good listener, how to build new services.”

Jennifer Wilson, founder of ConvergenceCoaching, warned accountants who are interested in consulting services to not be stuck with old models: “A lot of firms mess up and try to manage the consulting practice the same as the compliance practice. … Stop thinking you’re going to run your consulting practice as if it were a traditional compliance practice. Stop picturing that you’re going to use the same KPIs, the same constructs, the same time-entry expectations, the same hiring profiles, the same marketing and sales investments … . Don’t expect that you’re going to run this thing like you’ve always run it.”

Apart from deep technical knowledge, strong communication and interpretive skills, and agreement among the partner group, building a successful consulting practice will also take time.

“Firms do need to be patient with this” to develop the necessary consensus and develop the right skills and approaches, Stephen said. “You also need patience when you move outside your existing client base, because those services may not be associated with your firm’s brand yet. You want to move in that direction, but it may take the market a little time to get there.”

On the positive side, Grissom noted that many firms are already of performing ad hoc consulting services along with their traditional compliance work: “You’re probably already doing it, but you need to look for ways to package it.”

And Wilson made the point that no practice is too small to start exploring these kinds of services: “Start by asking more questions of your clients, being more interested in what’s going on in their lives and their businesses … Think beyond the checklist and the traditional compliance deliverable, and begin to be more consultative. … Don’t think you have to have a consulting practice to be consultative.”

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