Your Clients Need Business Advisors

Now more than ever your clients need a business advisor. They need more than someone to complete their tax return or PPP form. They need more than someone to pass along updates and FAQ documents and to inform them of changing deadlines. They need someone who understands their business, the rules and opportunities and helps them figure out a path forward amid uncertainty and change.

The current pandemic has brought defining “business advisor” to the forefront of the profession.

What is a Business Advisor?

In reading some of what has been written on the topic of business advisors, it seems the accounting profession still lacks a clear sense of the term. Some people use business advisor to describe individuals who advise clients on a number of issues on a regular basis. Others use advisor or advisory to describe a team of consultants who perform specialty services for clients. At times we’ve seen both definitions included in descriptions of what a team of business advisors should look like for a firm.

The lack of clarity in the term business advisor leads to two things. 1. Continuation of the status quo. 2. Lower performance than what is hoped for. Many CPA firms have experienced both as they have moved to become less reliant on traditional services. And now, compliance deadlines are being shifted and audit work is being deferred AND your clients need help. Mobilizing your team to become advisors to clients is critical.

Firms that are most successful in developing the non-compliance side of their business make a distinction between business advisors and consultants – yet recognize the relationship between the two.

Business Advisors vs Consultants

On one hand, firms have a group of consultants who have specialized skills in a variety of disciplines – specialized tax services, business valuations, IT systems and security, etc. On the other hand, business advisors are not necessarily the subject matter experts, and in many cases will not perform the services that clients need. But they are highly skilled at exploring a variety of non-audit and tax topics relevant to their clients’ businesses. Business advisors are needs assessors who should be continually looking for additional ways the firm can help clients. Advisors are adept at helping their clients understand their challenges and engaging in conversations about solutions. The best business advisors have deep relationships with their clients, instill confidence and ultimately feed work to the firm’s team of consultants.

Advisor Consultant
Frequent and continuous Less frequent, more discrete
Strategic, high-level Operational in nature
Predictive, forward looking Present issue(s) focused
Relationship based Expertise based

Business advisors go beyond simply being available and responding when clients call. Good business advisors are future-oriented. They identify opportunities and make suggestions for improvements that go well beyond identifying problems or dealing with historical information.

Attributes of Business Advisors

Look for the following attributes to help you identify individuals in your firm that will make good business advisors:

  • They have a passion to be an advisor vs. just a passion for compliance work
  • They are trustworthy – understanding and practicing the behaviors of trust such as being straightforward and following through
  • They apply both questioning and listening skills
  • They are willing to learn, to practice new skills and then master them over time
  • They have excellent communication skills, both in clarity, frequency and choosing the right “method” for the situation
  • They not only get the numbers right but are able to understand what the numbers mean, how the future will be impacted, giving them the opportunity to offer solutions to clients vs. telling history
  • They are willing to specialize – spending the majority of their time serving 2-3 different industries
  • They are driven by curiosity
  • They are ok with ambiguity and not always knowing the answer, but are committed to finding it (or introducing someone else who knows it)
  • They are confident enough in their relationships with clients that they aren’t threatened by introducing another “expert”

Firms that do this right have a competitive advantage now and in the future that is identifiable and easy to talk about in marketing and business development activities. They also have the ability to create loyal clients who are less vulnerable to being courted by competitors.

Take the First Step

Start by bringing internal leaders (current and future) together to create a vision for the firm’s future and the role of business advisors. Agree to a very specific list of service attributes you expect business advisors to deliver as well as two to three behaviors for each attribute that will lead to the accomplishment of the vision. Begin to name the practitioners in the firm who are best suited for the role and identify training opportunities to develop the right skills and processes to fulfill it. Create performance standards that tie to the firm’s evaluation and reward system.

An outside facilitator can help make the process of defining the vision, attributes and behaviors easier. If you would like us to help, send us an email at info@thewhetstonegroup.com.

 

It’s Time to Embrace Virtual Learning

If you’re one of the thousands of people who has recently transitioned to a remote work environment in the past month or so, hopefully you’re beginning to find your rhythm. The current pandemic has forced some professionals to adopt work from home (WFH) protocols, and some firms to support it perhaps before being “ready”. There is no doubt that the accounting profession has been transformed. It remains to be seen how much of this transformation will remain after the pandemic, but it’s likely that some of the remote tools and processes adopted are here to stay.

Clients too have been disrupted, limiting your access to them. And with most deadlines now pushed into summer you may discover your engagement timelines have shifted to later in the year leaving you in need of new ways to stay engaged, connected and on track with your educational requirements.

We are all operating differently from the norm – both personally and professionally. But as we start to normalize remote work and become comfortable with the associated technologies a new opportunity emerges. Now is the perfect time to explore remote learning options. Not only can learning be a great way to stay engaged professionally, but it also benefits mental well-being in times of stress or anxiousness.

With all that said, there has never been a better time to embrace virtual learning.

Four advantages of virtual learning

1. It’s convenient. Virtual learning opportunities are really convenient. There are many on-demand options that are there when you are ready. Look for offerings from recognized professional training organizations that offer their content digitally. Not only can you work around your schedule, you can also work around your needs—being specific and intentional about which topics/courses are most important to you.

At some point, when we have greater flexibility in leaving our homes, virtual learning can happen in whatever place is convenient, inspiring or comfortable for you. That may be your home office, your back deck, your local coffee house, your library – or any other location you choose.

2. It’s economical. In addition to saving the out-of-pocket expenses associated with traveling to conferences or classes, you can save that road time. This means more time home with friends, family, pets, or whatever communities are important to you. Learning without having to be away for days at a time may help you keep your work-life balance in check.

The convenience and cost effectiveness of virtual learning means you may not have to be so concerned with leveraging your investment to ensure you’re getting necessary CPE credits. For a lower investment of time and money you can explore all kinds of soft-skills without worrying about diverting resources away from technical learning. It can open an entirely new world of content!

3. It’s adaptable to your pace. There are lots of terrific remote learning options that allow you to go at your own pace. These self-study courses can offer opportunities to earn continuing professional education credits not only on a schedule that works for you, but gives you control over how quickly or slowly you engage with the material. Struggling to understand a concept? You can take extra time to review, practice and research it. Ready to move on? You can do that too.

4. It’s JIT. Virtual learning can be done in small, highly relevant bits. If you’re struggling with a specific skill, you can find a 50-60 minute course with a few tips or ideas to practice and immediately apply those to your situation. You may even start with a 10-15 minute podcast to get a fresh perspective. This opportunity for just-in-time (JIT) learning is not only practical but encourages greater retention of the material. As soon as your course is finished, ask yourself what you can apply immediately and what you need to stow away for later.

Making the most of your virtual learning

  1. Make a plan. Like many things, your learning journey will be more effective if you have a plan. Take time to map out what skills you want to develop. Consider where you are now, who you are, and where you are headed and develop a curriculum that meets your needs. If your firm has a formalized career path use that as a guide. In particular, think about what skills you need to become a business advisor to your clients: critical thinking, questioning skills, industry knowledge, etc. You can also work with a coach, mentor or other career advisor to help map this. Then begin to research opportunities to support your learning plan.
  2. Be holistic in your approach. A benefit of virtual learning is the ease and cost effectiveness with which you can explore ideas and skills. Don’t ignore the soft skills in your plan. Consider those skills that will make you well rounded and what you need to move to the next level of your career (i.e. business development, delegation, relationship development, communication, etc.).
  3. Build a “learning community”. One of the perceived downsides of virtual learning is not being able to interact with other participants. Be creative and deliberate about building your own learning community. Use tools like Zoom or Teams to connect with others in your firm who may be on a similar learning path. Also, look to your peers outside your firm. Build a small network of folks you can interact with regularly to discuss what you’re learning. Many “soft skills” are applicable to other professionals, so learning along with those individuals and discussing how to practice what you’ve learned with folks outside your firm can be valuable. Use social media tools like LinkedIn or Twitter to connect with a community of other professionals. Just because you are engaged in more independent learning doesn’t mean you can’t reap the benefits of collaboration.
  4. Utilize a variety of learning resources in your portfolio. Webinars and self-study courses are good options for virtual learning, but there are a many other formats that cater to different styles of learning. Consider podcast subscriptions (you can usually download podcasts and listen to them while you are exercising, cooking, riding public transportation (when we’re back to that), or in any other number of situations. Blogs and other online publications are another alternative. Mix and match your sources to not only keep it interesting but offer the greatest amount flexibility. Even social media platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter offer content originated by sources like accounting publications, the AICPA and your state societies.
  5. Start small – pick a few. The sheer number of options can seem overwhelming, so start small. If you’re new to virtual learning, select a 50-60 minute course and try it. Subscribe to one blog and see if it delivers value. Explore a podcast or two and see how the content fits with your need. Evaluate. Ditch anything that doesn’t seem to work. Hint: like adapting to remote work, you may have to give yourself a bit of time to adapt to the format. Don’t give up after one or two tries.

Virtual learning resources

If you need resources to get you started, check out this list of ideas:

Journal of Accountancy, offers a free podcast created to talk about key issues the accounting profession faces
Big Ideas Podcast, is a free podcast series by the CPA Consultants’ Alliance about important issues that the accounting profession is currently facing.
CPA Academy, is national provider of high-quality, online and self-study CPE.
The Whetstone Growth Academy, a web-based, over-your-career professional development training series for accounting professionals.
#TaxTwitter, if you’re on Twitter follow this hashtag. You’ll learn a wealth of information and build a community of tax experts who are collaborative, generous, smart and funny. It’s also one of the best examples of a virtual learning community. So even if tax isn’t your thing use it as a model for building your own community.

Finding what works for you may take some trial and error. Don’t put off learning until it’s convenient or when, if ever, we’re back to “business as usual”. Embrace this opportunity. Harness the power of virtual learning as a tool to continue personal growth both now and in the future.

Securing Client Loyalty in Uncertain Times

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty. In addition to our daily routines being thrown into disorder, the accounting profession is uniquely affected in so many ways. Deadlines are shifting. Rules are changing. Even that which seemed straightforward is open to interpretation (like payroll costs!). There is comfort and security in routine, and now that has been disrupted. But, now is a perfect opportunity to strengthen client relationships and secure their loyalty. After taking care of your employees and mobilizing for their safety and well-being, your next focus should be clients. Here are some practical actions to take sooner, rather than later.

A Lifeline in Uncharted Waters

Your clients are your firm’s lifeline and will continue to be through the months ahead. And in many ways you are theirs as well.  When there is uncertainty people will turn to people they know for help as opposed to seeking out new relationships. They will count on those they trust most – like you.  So if you haven’t already been checking in on your clients’ well-being it’s time to start. Do not put it off until you think the economic picture is clearer or the “unknowns” become certain (which is likely to take a very long time). Instead call, or better yet video-conference, with your clients to see how they are faring. Ask how their families, friends and coworkers are doing. Be prepared for them to vent if needed—and let them.

If you create a stronger dialogue with your clients, you’ll be in a better position to offer relevant help and support as they navigate their way through the uncharted waters ahead. And the more they appreciate your support; the more loyal they’ll be to you. They may even recommend other clients to you who are not having the same experience.

Here are some other ways to support clients in the weeks and months ahead:

  1. Talk with them – your clients probably won’t know the full impact of the pandemic yet, but they probably will have a sense of the immediate repercussions and/or opportunities. Find out what these are. How can you help? Even if you don’t have the expertise to help, can you connect them with a resource? Can you provide information that will help them access the help they need elsewhere?
  2. Focus on certainty in the short-term – the world is still turning and people will still need certain products and services. Some of your client may be offering these products and services – so help them understand how the current environment affects their demand. There are also some opportunities to help clients navigate government relief packages in the short term. Finally, help your clients think differently about their business and be a resource to them as they pivot. For example, are there decisions clients can make now to enable them to move forward down a certain path (maybe without all the information, but with enough) vs taking a “wait and see” approach for everything?
  3. Support their longer-term scenario and contingency planning – your clients will want to reduce risk as much as possible and having a course of action for various scenarios helps. It’s likely there are many ways your firm can help: re-forecasting, cash management, financial statement preparation and other CAS and advisory services will be at the forefront ways you can help. The CARES act also offers opportunities for specialty services such as cost segregation, nexus consulting and planning, SALT and R&D credits which may also be useful to your clients based on their situation. During the last recession there was an increased demand for insolvency and bankruptcy consulting. It will be important to find ways to involve less experienced staff as much as possible so think about what you can delegate to your team members.
  4. Continue to stay on top of the issues which will affect them – these could be state-based, industry, organizational or even personal issues. Be alert to how the latest developments may impact on them and offer timely, relevant advice or support when it’s needed. The more you understand about your clients, the more relevant issues you’ll spot. Make everyone on your team part of the effort by encouraging knowledge share internally and defining a process for how/when/where it occurs. Better yet, let your younger staff define and communicate the process!
  5. Be accessible – if it’s difficult to get hold of you and your team, clients may lose some faith in you. Although you may not have all the answers to their questions, being available and listening to them is important. Especially if your people are working in an environment (remote) which is different from the norm, it’s critical to make sure clients know how to reach their primary contact(s). A word of warning, this does not mean you must offer 24/7 access. As your people adjust to working from home it’s tempting to blur the boundary between home time and work time. Allow your people to set their “office hours”— those times in which they commit to taking calls. Establish and communicate (or reiterate) to clients and your employees your firm’s responsiveness policy. Your people are stressed and worried enough so don’t pile on by making them feel like they are constantly on call.
  6. Do what you say you’ll do, when you said you’d do it – accountability is one of the pillars of trust. Now more than ever clients want to be able to count on something…and that something is you. Minimize client turnover by ensuring you continue delivering a high-quality service they have come to know from you. This is the time to ask your clients what they need from the relationship (not the services they need, but attributes of the service like accessibility, being proactive, candidness, etc.). If your definition of what you think they need and their definition of what they thing they need are not the same they may be disappointed with their experience and seek an alternative.
  7. Think about alternative payment terms – If your firm has practiced some kind of prepayment strategy for services your firm is likely in a better cash situation than firms that have not. However, before clients start asking for fee reductions, identify the “A” clients you want to invest in so you know which clients you should be willing to make fee concessions for if the issue comes up. Be ready with a plan to talk with these clients so you are not taken by surprise if they ask. You don’t want to discount the fees of a “D” client in bad times and perpetuate the pain going forward. So as difficult as it may seem when you are managing cash flow, be willing to let some of those clients go.

We recommend when a client asks about reduced fees, first explore changes in scope that can impact the total fee. For example:

  • Will a review be okay for a year or two vs. an audit?
  • Can we do a collateral only audit vs. a full scope engagement?
  • Can we arrange a term payment plan for the fees to make it easier?

Most importantly, be willing to talk with clients about fees. Don’t hesitate, or act angry that they asked or assume the client wants a reduction. Empathize. Strategize. If you have to invest in a client, make sure they know it is a temporary situation and you are willing to do it because they are an important client of the firm and you want to help.

Doubling down on client loyalty will help steady your firm during this time of transition and enable you to deliver the kind of value that ensures clients for life.