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There are generally two kinds of articles about client accounting services: The first marvels at their explosive growth as a service line over the past several years, and the second aims to explain what, exactly, CAS is.

That the fastest-growing accounting firm service in decades should also be a bit of a mystery may seem odd, it’s easily explained by the fact that CAS is different for every firm that offers it. And that is one of its most attractive features.

At base, of course, the relatively simple definition of modern CAS is using cloud-based accounting software to collaborate on a client’s financials and be able to offer them decision-useful advice. It offers accountants an opportunity both to gain intimate insights into the state of a client’s business in real time, and to offer useful — often invaluable — advice based on those insights. But one of the underappreciated beauties of CAS is the flexibility it offers firms to calibrate their level of service to what they’re ready to offer, and to adjust as they go.

If you ask 10 firms to describe their CAS offerings, you’re likely to hear 10 variations on the CAS menu. Perhaps more important, you’ll find similar variation in how explicit firms are about the level and type of advisory services they include. Some have a half-hour conversation with their clients every month, while others actually de-emphasize the compliance services and place the strategic planning, consulting and business advice front and center, so clients know that’s what they’re really paying for.

All of these services are valuable to clients, but the ability to mix and match them as a firm likes in CAS is a godsend for accounting firms looking to make the all-important move up the value chain to advisory services. Many firms are finding it difficult to wrap their heads around this, even as they see their compliance work automated away by advancing technology. To start, pinning down what, exactly, “advisory services” are is hard enough; after that, firms have to figure out how to productize, market, staff and charge for them. Most of all, firms need to convince themselves that their advice is just as valuable as their compliance work — if not more so.

The easiest path, then, might be to launch a CAS practice with a focus, both in terms of the work the firm does and how it’s positioned for clients, on compliance. The access to real-time data and online collaboration offered by cloud-based accounting systems will make this work easier than ever, and some firms may actually want to stop here, leveraging the technology to serve lots of new clients this way.

The best long-term approach, however, is to take advantage of the time savings and the new insights available from constant access to client systems to both formalize and increase the amount of consultative, advisory value the firm is offering. Most accountants are already advising their clients and helping them with business decisions, but they’re not necessarily putting it front and center. A CAS practice allows a firm to switch the primary emphasis from compliance work to advisory over time — going from the casual advice disbursed on the fly, for instance, to a regularly scheduled consultative call to discuss major issues, and then adding a strategic planning meeting at regular intervals. This will let the accountant get used to offering advice as a valuable product in its own right, and, if the firm is using subscription pricing, it will get the client comfortable with calling for advice without having to worry if they’re being billed for it.

Remember, CAS can be literally whatever you make of it — and you can make an awful lot of it, if you choose.

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