A business plan is a powerful tool to keep a company on track. With a business plan, companies are better equipped to proactively make decisions to meet their goals.

As an accountant, you have a really unique view of an organization’s ability to execute its business plan, perhaps more so than any other professional. You understand the pulse of your client’s business and what makes it tick. Did sales increase? Does the client have enough operating capital? Is it time to seek additional funding? Are they making strategic decisions?

While you may not be involved in day-to-day decision-making, your insight gives you the innate ability to offer advice that may make a huge difference in the success of your client’s business — especially if you see it veering off track.

If your clients do not have business plans, you can certainly help convince them they should. Regardless, there are several red flags that clearly indicate the client needs help with their plan.

1. Cash flow problems. I don’t have to tell you that cash is king. While having a strong balance sheet is admirable, companies need cash on hand to pay staff and creditors. Knowing how much cash is required to run the business is essential. When a company starts showing signs of cash flow issues, even with a positive P&L, you can step in and help the company solve the problems that could have jeopardized the viability of the business. A full financial forecast is the only way for you to help your client understand the implications of how the business will use cash, and how much cash it may need to grow or sustain its current business.

2. Radical shifts in sales. Most company financial departments are keenly aware of how decreases in sales impact company health, but it is equally important to notice increases in sales and fluctuations. Growing too quickly without a plan to sustain growth has led to the failure of many companies. There are very few times in a business’ life cycle when growth does not require cold hard cash. Your insight in either scenario can make a huge difference.

3. High turnover. Every organization experiences turnover, but more-than-normal resignations indicates that there are other problems as well. Even though you aren’t in the client’s offices to see box-laden employees leaving, their impact on the bottom line should be apparent.

 

BACK TO THE BUSINESS PLAN

When you see these three warning signs, reach out to see what’s going on, then recommend that the client go back to its business plan (or create one) to resolve the issues. Focus on the following:

  • Objectively look at the business in terms of success and failure.
  • Clarify goals and objectives. Make sure the goals are as concrete and measurable as possible.
  • Develop stronger tactics for sales and marketing.
  • Seek additional funding and staffing, as dictated by the financial forecast and business plan.
  • Determine how to attract better employees and business partners by understanding the business’ strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats.
  • Refocus activities so the client is in line with their goals.

Keep in mind that you may be met with some resistance; most owners, or anyone else who could work on the plan, are busy and may tell you they don’t have the time to do this. Be firm; business plans should be living documents that help companies adjust their behaviors, strategically, to address the trends their businesses face.
 

BE A PARTNER

More than anything else, think beyond the numbers. Be a provider of advice and counsel that strengthens your role as your clients’ primary advisor.

Schedule regular conversations, where you’ll find out about a lot more than you first thought, including whether they need help with their business plans. These conversations make it easier to keep in the loop of your client’s company, and to help it stay on top. Look at finances in real time, and compare the actual results to the plan. Help interpret reports to help the client understand what the numbers represent, discuss what’s working and what’s not working in order to identify changes, and focus on the future by using the business plan as a roadmap. 

Sabrina Parsons is the CEO of Palo Alto Software, makers of LivePlan, business planning software for small businesses and startups. Reach her at sabrina@paloalto.com.

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