[IMGCAP(1)]Cristina Garza is a real-life accounting super hero. Going against the stereotype of accountants, she cares more about the people than the money. After experiencing “big business” working for a mortgage finance firm before the subprime bust in 2008, Garza realized that she could find more value in her job by dedicating her time to working with and consulting small business owners. Through her work at Accountingprose, she has learned how much good can be done with just a little more time and efficiency.

Imagine what would happen if you eliminated every needless, manual process in your daily practice. That hour driving to and from client meetings? Gone. The 45 minutes you spend reviewing work each day? Gone. The two to three hours focused on administrative tasks, data entry and chasing timesheets all over the place? Gone, gone and gone. Suddenly, you’ve got an extra four or five hours in your day to spend on more important things – like attracting new business, creating client advisory services that go beyond accounting, or maybe even leaving early to go for an afternoon sail on the lake.

Sounds great, right? It’s an example of what can happen when you become a Connected Advisor. What does that mean? Well, it means that every manual process in your organization has been eliminated. It’s all automated. Everything in your organization – people, processes and data – is connected through cloud accounting software.

No doubt you’re thinking, “that’s too much for me to chew on right now,” or “that’s gotta be expensive.” And you would be right—if you did it all at once. But becoming a Connected Advisor isn’t something you accomplish overnight. It’s a journey. You start out small. Focus on a niche market with a few willing clients. Then expand at your own pace. As more parts of your practice become interconnected, you will see gradual improvements in business processes and start reaping rewards from having shaken up your status quo.

Now, as with any journey, you will want to map and track your progress. You’ve got to know your starting point and milestones along the way to reach your desired destination.  Here are the 5 Stages of Becoming a Connected Advisor. Where are you on your journey?

Stage One: Traditional

Old-school accountants tend to be stuck at this stage. The warning signs? Still using Microsoft XP might be one of them. Desktop accounting software could be another. There’s probably a filing cabinet in the corner full of paper records from the last few weeks, months or even years. The practice is focused on time-based billing. It has almost no marketing and offers few (if any) value-added services because its principals are way too busy. Most concerning of all, the practice’s client base is static or declining.

Stage Two: Online Presence

If you’re still reading this article, chances are you’re at this stage. You are like most progressive accounting practices that are interested in cloud computing as a tool for growing and competing in an increasingly connected world. In fact, 62 percent of small businesses that participated in a Wakefield Research survey said they are already dabbling in cloud computing. Does this sound like you? Are you still doing time-based billing? Maybe a little marketing on your newly designed website—but not much with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social sites? If so, you’re not alone. Most practices are in the Online Presence stage.

Stage Three: Cloud Journey

Reaching this stage means your practice has a more enlightened and sophisticated approach to business and technology. It is using cloud accounting software, enabling employees, outside accountants and customers to communicate and collaborate 24/7 from any connected device around the world. Your practice is spending more time on marketing, adding real-time advisory services and expanding the web and social media presence. And at this point, the practice is also offering more flexible pricing options, including fixed fees for compliance. So it’s no big surprise that the client base is starting to expand – as well as its reputation with small businesses.

Stage Four: Introducing Automation

At this stage, the goal of becoming a Connected Advisor is well within your sights. You’ve transitioned most of your existing clients to cloud accounting. And you’re diligent about starting every new client out that way. The practice is 90 percent paperless. While you enjoy meeting with clients, it’s not necessary if time and distance are obstacles. Instead, you’re interacting online through your cloud accounting program or unified communications system, such as Lync or Google+ Hangouts. If you’ve reached this stage, you’re also pretty technically savvy with your marketing. You probably have an interactive website that includes tools, such as video and chat, for providing real-time service and support to client. Naturally, clients appreciate your innovative efforts and are now sending many new clients your way.

Stage Five: Connected Advisor

If you’ve reached this stage, congratulations! You did it! Becoming a Connected Advisor is no small feat. Your practice is officially 100 percent cloud-based and almost entirely paperless. You are integrally involved in helping your clients’ businesses grow (as opposed to just crunching their numbers). As such, you offer an amazing array of additional accounting and advisory services. These services most likely include: strategic planning; cash-flow management; collaborative bookkeeping; forecasting and budgeting; process improvement; virtual chief financial officer (CFO); and business reporting. Your practice is a model for success, and of course you will continue to evolve that model over time, drawing in new technology, ideas and best practices.

So listen.  I’m not saying you have to bust out, go beyond accounting and become a Connected Advisor overnight. I mean, hey, if you have read this article in its entirety and are now pondering the possibilities, well then, you’ve already taken the first step.  From here, you just have to keep walking. Take it step-by-step. And like any great destination worth the journey, you’ll get there all in good time.

Amy Vetter is the global vice president of education and head of accounting, USA, for Xero.

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