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3 reasons why prospect urgency will drive service agility

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The age of online purchasing is creating a new sense of urgency driven by prospects and clients. Timing is the differentiator, and accounting firms that can demonstrate knowledge and answer clients faster could rise to the top.

Some signs of this new urgency include quick-turnaround proposal requests, clients who research an issue independently and call their accountant for decision-making guidance, as well as expectations for proactive alerts and just-in-time services to supplement reporting and compliance.

A 2019 report by Sage Group found through a survey of 3,000 accountants worldwide that firms will evolve with this urgency in two ways: through investments in automated processes and cloud technologies; and through the recruitment of diverse practitioners from other industries. Automation leads to improved monetizing of services, while highly skilled practitioners deliver higher perceived client value, according to the report.

Discussions with BKR International firm leaders revealed the value of industry or service specialization to keep pace with client demands and to reduce training costs. Leaders also recognize the need for investment in technologies that minimize manual steps and streamline data analysis. The intent is to get clients the answers they need potentially before they ask. Beyond that, firm leaders emphasized personalization and the true definition of advisory services that are supported by technology, but not dictated by it.

Here are three reasons why prospect (and client) urgency will drive accounting firms to improve their technology and service agility.

Urgency is reactive

Receiving an email, voicemail or text from someone who requests an immediate answer puts the recipient in a reactive mode. As requests become more urgent, firm leaders are focusing on communication protocols and processes that put them back in the driver’s seat.

“A response beyond 24 hours is no longer acceptable in today’s world,” said Elaine Nelson, principal at DS+B CPAs and Business Advisors in Minneapolis. “We have a firm standard to be accessible, which means we provide a response to our clients and prospects within 24 hours, but we also emphasize to our teams the importance of exceeding expectations on communication practices. The response should first acknowledge the individual’s question or concern the same day, but also give the professional enough time to deliver accurate information.”

“If I get a call or email with a request, I will respond as soon as I can to say something like, ‘This is an issue for which I have a good deal of knowledge, but to give you the most thorough, accurate answer that you deserve, is it okay if I get back to you tomorrow by 3 p.m. with that answer?’" Nelson added. "I give them a defined time to respond, which is important, and then I keep my word. It’s a clear process that eliminates reactive responses and works for most requests.”

As CRMs and communication tools evolve, advisors can set up more advanced initial responses like Nelson’s example through digital assistants and scheduling tools. Voice-enabled assistance and scheduling tools are already available, and they may free up time in the future for leaders to plan for more high-touch advisory conversations.

Urgency assumes knowledge

Clients and prospects who contact a firm assume that the firm and its advisors have appropriate knowledge to handle a request. Otherwise, they wouldn’t call. Professionals need access to data quickly that streamlines requests and assists them with proactive communications.

“You need to build a better mousetrap,” said Scott Bates, managing partner at Cornwell Jackson in Dallas-Fort Worth. Whether his team is engaged in outsourced accounting and payroll services or in business advisory services for restaurants and auto dealers, much of the financial reporting and processing can be automated so that advisors can quickly access reports and provide clients with guidance.

For example, Bates said he is exploring strategies in services specialization as opposed to industry specialization, much of which can be automated. The value comes from his advisors interpreting the data for clients once their accounting and financial data is set up in the cloud.

“This takes a higher level accountant to do it, and unfortunately I have had to transition my staffing from 20-year bookkeepers to more experienced accountants to handle the clients’ diverse accounting systems, onboarding and transitioning of accounts,” he said. “Once everything is set up, I only get a client call for more complex matters.”

Urgency is personal

Bates also said that his firm’s approach to urgency is definitely market driven. He is seeking a balance between addressing prospect and client requests while also monetizing services appropriately. Some prospects are not the right fit because their current systems are too time consuming to adapt to an automated process. At the same time, he has recruited interns to set up some client accounts. They often manage the technical onboarding and identify shortcuts faster than seasoned accountants.

“We have a very competitive market in Dallas-Fort Worth, and I can lose those younger accountants to corporations after a few years, but by that time, our systems are in place to transition the account,” Bates said.

Team management is definitely part of addressing urgency, agreed Nelson at DS+B CPAs. She says she makes a point to monitor team member communications and discuss improvements in client business etiquette during one-on-one professional development coaching.

“We talk about ways to create a more succinct email or clarify exactly what the client wants before responding with, ‘Yes, I can do that,’” Nelson said. “If my team knows what to do and what’s expected, then the client benefits. The client gets that personal response when and how they desire it.”

The intersection of automated reporting and timely communication leads to agility, according to our interviewees. While they agree that their firms are always evolving as better solutions come along, the end goal is still the same — anticipate needs and serve the client.

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