Outsourced accounting services isn’t a new concept. Years ago, accounting firms began recognizing opportunities to deliver greater value to their clients by expanding their scope of services from the functions they had traditionally provided. By offering more day-to-day and back-office accounting functions, firms become less transactional service providers and more true business partners, instrumental in helping their clients achieve both their short- and long-term goals.
But with new technology came new ways for accounting firms to expand services. The cloud opened up an entirely new means of delivering a host of services in an efficient and affordable way for clients. Progressive firms began offering cloud-based client accounting services a few years ago, but today, more firms can take advantage of the lessons learned from those early adopters to start their own client accounting services (CAS) programs.
Wiss & Company is an audit and tax accounting and consulting firm with about 200 employees in our New York and New Jersey offices. We began offering outsourced accounting services in 2014, and continue to grow the CAS program we’ve since branded FWRD. When the cloud became a viable option to host a variety of back-office services, our firm prioritized the ability to provide clients a more full-service offering. This wasn’t without some challenges, but a few key ingredients came together to form our recipe for success.
Below are some tips to help your firm launch a CAS program, based on what we did well and some things we’ve learned along the way.
Tip 1: Get support from firm leadership
Having an executive to champion the firm’s initiative to create a CAS offering isn’t the number 1 tip by accident. It’s first because it is without question the most important factor in determining the program’s success or failure. Every area of the firm needs to not only be on board, but embrace a significant shift in service delivery like CAS. Without leadership to set a tone for why it’s important and a clear example of how to welcome and support an endeavor like this, it would be unrealistic to assume the rest of the firm will have a positive attitude and work toward its success.
Our firm’s CAS initiative had the full support of executive leadership from day one. Their enthusiasm and support permeated the firm as we rolled out the program, which helped accountants and support staff alike understand that it was a priority.
Tip 2: Carve out a niche
Over time, many accounting firms develop some degree of expertise supporting clients in one or more industries. Whether by design or by chance, firms inevitably have multiple clients in a single market segment or maybe just one or two that happen to be among the firm’s largest clients. This affords both accountants and their staff to accumulate a great deal of experience and knowledge about those industries, making them ideal niche areas on which to focus when launching a new offering such as CAS.
By leaning on your firm’s expertise supporting clients in a niche industry, you can narrow the scope of your initial CAS offering and thus make it more scalable than if you try to cast a wider net across many industries. This also allows the firm to more quickly develop a CAS team that has the necessary background to provide clients value and become the trusted advisors they’re looking for.
Tip 3: Leverage technology and tech-savvy staff
Technology functions best when it aligns with the true goal of CAS — service. Figure out what your service offering is first, and then determine what software is necessary to support that offering.
Once the firm has established an offering around client accounting services, it’s time to research what technology will best help you deliver those services. Modern tools and platforms are key to launching and maintaining a successful CAS program, because they are so much a part of the overall value proposition. The second article in this series, Fast-Tracking CAS: Technology tips, by Pete Potsos, CPA of Bill.com, outlined some important strategies to consider in this regard.
Our firm talked to several software companies we found to be helpful resources, as they know what other firms are offering with respect to CAS. We also turned to outside experts including Jim Boomer and CPA.com for some assistance in this area. As part of our FWRD program, Wiss offers a technology suite which includes the Bill.com platform, Intacct, and Expensify, all endorsed by CPA.com, as well as QuickBooks Online, FloQast and Hubdoc.
In addition to identifying the tech stack that works best for your firm, be sure to hire people who understand and embrace technology. Early adopters and those who enjoy learning new skills are assets within your firm, as they help minimize the pushback some firms feel from staff who are faced with learning new programs and working through product upgrades that aren’t always easy.
Tip 4: Find your low-hanging fruit
Once you’ve established your service offering based on industry expertise and the tools you’ll use to deliver those services, it’s time to identify strong candidates to offer your CAS. The best place to start is with your firm’s rainmakers. Once your sales leaders understand the value of the CAS offering, they will be instrumental in getting it off the ground by selling it.
Again, focus on clients in the niche industries where you firm has established some expertise. Some may be asking for additional services or new technology suggestions to improve efficiency. Others may be less aware of the option to outsource a greater portion of their accounting needs. Consider offering them a business process review, wherein recommendations can be made around outsourcing services to achieve greater efficiency and, in most cases, greater profitability.
An important component around establishing a CAS offering is ROI — both for the firm and for your clients. CAS isn’t a commodity, but rather a value proposition. And because no two firms and no two clients are exactly the same, there is no single package that works for everyone and no one-size-fits-all formula for success. But by leveraging your own firm’s leadership, niche industry experience and unique client relationships, you can develop a strong program that delivers ROI.
By positioning your CAS offering as part of a strategic solution, you can highlight for your clients how the firm is more than just an accounting service provider. CAS can help you reset their expectations to view your firm as a trusted advisor and an indispensable partner on which they rely to achieve their business goals.