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Building a more Rewarding Practice Means Overcoming the Three Barriers to Specialization

For years, decades even, accountants have talked about specialization. Building a niche practice has been the subject of articles, conference agendas, podcasts, and discussion among practitioners since what seems like forever. But the discussion is coming to a head as firms continue to struggle with capacity and staying on top of all the changes affecting the profession. A combined strategy of focusing on specific types of clients along with transitioning clients that don’t fit (we call it right-sizing your client base) is the key to solving some of the profession’s greatest current challenges ensuring its future health.

There are three common barriers practitioners and firms must overcome to embrace the opportunities specialization affords. In this post we identify and offer strategies to overcome them.

Barrier 1: perception of boredom

There’s a paradigm accountants must unlearn which is when you specialize it means you only do the same thing over and over. One of the most frequent objections I hear from practitioners at every stage their careers is “I like the variety of (or the idea of) working with lots of different types of clients.” Or put another way “I would get bored only working with one type of client.” The implication is that when you choose to serve only a certain types of clients that every engagement will be the same.

The first step in overcoming this barrier is to acknowledge a fallacy that two businesses, even competitors or those in the same industry, can be the same. The fact is every client is different because you serve people. And people have different views, experiences, personalities, stories, priorities, communication styles and thousands of other attributes that make us unique. The challenges and opportunities they face may be similar, but your approach to solving the issues and your relationships will be different.

The second step to overcoming this barrier is shifting your mindset. What if instead of doing the same thing for every client, becoming a deeply experienced professional means more creative flex? When you start to see a client’s operating environment from different angles because you spend a LOT of time in that space your experience lends itself to more inventive and innovative solutions. Focusing on fewer clients also creates time for deep thinking vs being so bogged down with work that you focus primarily on tasks and keeping you head above water. What if all this enables you to solve more issues and offer more proactive ideas to your clients?

Saying no to the clients and projects that don’t fit frees you to say yes to more challenging, interesting and inspiring work. It creates opportunities to provide solutions to challenges your clients may never have thought you could solve.

In summary: focus is the key to a more diverse practice.

Barrier 2: anticipated negative effect on revenue

It feels counterintuitive that fewer clients leads to more revenue, and that carving off and transitioning a chunk of our practice will ultimately increase top-line revenue and bottom line profits. First, as we already discussed, freeing time and space to do more for our existing clients enables us to bill our clients more. Second, specializing creates an opportunity to market yourself and your firms in a way that makes you more relevant to those prospects that need you than other firms. As you increase your relevance you decrease (or possibly eliminate) your competitors—which means winning a higher percentage of engagements.

Not only that, when prospects recognize the lack of alternatives to your firm the balance of power in the proposal process shifts to you. Pricing is non-negotiable, without scope modifications. You don’t feel pressured to give away pieces of your service or knowledge in order to win the business. You can become more steadfast in your terms of service and timing. You can stop wasting time responding to RFPs that don’t make sense. The entire process becomes more straightforward, with less gamesmanship.

Think about how refreshing that would be. Not only do you win a higher percentage of engagements, you will win with higher fees, fewer write-offs and greater realization.

Simply put: specialization increases revenue and profitability.

Barrier 3: failing to define the specialty

There are two options when it comes to specializing: reactive specializing in which you see what others are doing and seize whatever segment is left or proactive specializing to make your own space. Often firms think about specialization in terms of industry, which has lots of advantages, but there are lots of ways to define it. Region or location can be a specialization if you’re very well connected and articulate the value your local roots and connections bring to clients. You can specialize in a service model, like remote/tech enabled. You could be the firm that only meets at the client’s site or that works with family-owned businesses.

Most people start to define their niche on the basis of where they are today. They look to where they have concentrations of clients or their existing skills. This can be a good approach if you have passion for serving those kinds of clients, but you should be be wary of being held captive to the opportunities you have already had. You may find greater joy and satisfaction from diving in to something completely new, as long as you have the patience to recognize that diversification like this is a longer-term strategy than expanding an existing area. There’s no right or wrong way to start—as long as you start. A lot of folks “dabble” in one area or another. Dabbling is the enemy of specialization and gets you nowhere.

Regardless of where you start, follow these steps:

  1. Choose a focus
  2. Articulate the expertise frequently, consistently among your target clients (both current and prospective)
  3. Continue to work to add the missing skills, capabilities and processes to support your positioning

Often accountants make the mistake of switching steps 2 and 3—feeling that they can’t start talking about their specialization until they know everything. Let’s unlearn the definition that “specialize” means you have to know all the answers. Instead re-frame the definition to mean being dedicated to and connected enough to help find all the answers. It’s the epitome of what it means to be an advisor to clients.

The takeaway: if you don’t decide, you won’t specialize.

If your professional goal is to do more for fewer clients, explore some level of specialization. Like most things, specialization is a continuous learning journey. Be ready to not have all the answers. However if you’re committed to finding them, limitless possibilities await.

Learning to Unlearn

Hold an Unlearning Summit to Find Your Way Forward

This is the time of year when many firms shift their focus from working IN their business (delivering services) to working ON their business (strategy and professional/business development) during a firm or partner retreat. It’s the perfect time for leaders to contemplate what they need to unlearn in order to move the firm forward. In the next three months, ask yourself and your leaders – what critical areas do we need to unlearn?

Learning is adding new skills or knowledge on top of what we already know. Learning is an adaptation or enhancement that doesn’t fundamentally change an existing model. Unlearning is stepping outside of the current model or paradigm to choose a different model, and then relearning under that model. People sometimes shy away from the idea of unlearning because they feel like they failed somehow or that they’ve been “doing it wrong”. But that isn’t the case. We unlearn not because we were wrong before, but because there is new information or thinking that drives a need for change. In every aspect of business there are models that have become outdated. Unlearning is critical to fundamental and lasting change because it not only addresses the ideas that hold us back it also helps to create space in our brain for the relearning that needs to occur.

As you plan your firm’s retreat or firmwide strategy session, consider an Unlearning Summit. The agenda of the Unlearning Summit goes something like this:

  1. Discuss the baseline of where the firm is today in the following buckets: physical locations/ presence, financial performance, specialization, people, and technology and client service.
  2. Ask each leader for his/her input on what they want the firm to look like three years—in terms of the buckets above. How big, in terms of revenue? How many locations? What areas of specialization? Etc.? You can gather this input via a survey ahead of time to encourage honest feedback. Compile a summary of the information along with outlying perspectives. This will give everyone insight into how aligned leaders are on the vision for the firm.
  3. Have participants rate where the firm is today on a scale of 1-10—with 10 being the ideal. Average the scores and then discuss how do you move from where you are today up to the next level (so if your firm is a 7 today, what will it take to become an 8 in the next year).
  4. Now, the fun part. Often this kind of exercise leads to the follow up discuss of what we need to add or change. Instead, pose this question: What do we need to unlearn to make it happen? What mindsets are getting in the way? What processes are working against the vision? What do we need to stop doing and replace with something else?
  5. Make a list of the items and prioritize using the following matrix:

 

 

 

 

 

You can then prioritize and decide which area to tackle first. Answer the following:

    • Who should lead the unlearning?
    • What specifically needs to be unlearned?
    • What (if anything) will replace the thing we are unlearning?
    • What’s in it for our people to unlearn and then re-learn in this area?
    • What will be our new measures of success?
    • What should be the timeline?

Institute an innovation committee to take the idea and explore ways to address the issue. Make this a multi-generational, multi-discipline group and give them the leeway to try some alternatives to existing models. Leaders too must champion the effort and learn to publicly support failure. Maybe you have to unlearn the mindset that being wrong is a negative. This can be hard for CPAs who make a career of accuracy. Henry Ford once said: “failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” We can all benefit from adopting that philosophy as a guiding principle.

Working with someone outside the firm in an unlearning endeavor can be really valuable. You can hire a consultant or ask a leader from another CPA firms in your network/association. You can even ask a client with which you have a deep relationship to facilitate the discussion. Outsiders can challenge the status quo, know what questions to ask and have no personal stake in the existing model.

Areas that May Warrant Unlearning

Here are a few examples of areas in which unlearning exploration may be important (note: don’t limit your thinking to only these areas…they are just to get you started):

  1. Performance evaluation systems: In recent years lots of firms have made efforts to update their systems using technology and even more frequent, real-time feedback vs the old way of doing annual evaluations. Firms learned a new process, timeline and software. Fundamentally, though, they didn’t change their performance evaluation system. They changed how they evaluate. In some instances firms need to unlearn an evaluation system that is based on an outdated view of what is important – letting go of emphasis on technical aspects in favor of more social or communication aspects of their people’s work. For meaningful change to occur the firm may have unlearn what it means to work for the firm – and maybe even unlearn what accounting is – to embrace a new definition.
  2. Advisory: The old model of advice is to answer clients’ questions or to do what they needed when they call. It’s predicated on the practitioner having all the answers. Accountants need to unlearn this model of advisory that entails telling clients what to do (or doing it for them) in favor of a new definition which is bringing ideas to clients before they ask and collaborating with them to make them successful, even if it means the CPA isn’t the one with all the answers. In the future it’s likely there will be more unlearning fundamental to what accounting is and who accountants are.
  3. Client service: As we look back on sheltering in place and social distancing firms are beginning to unlearn the definition of client service. Previously most CPAs thought about client service as all the activities outlined in the engagement letter. But as we all have come to value relationships more. We’re using new tools to communicate. Some firms are unlearning their pragmatic definition of service. They are relearning a definition which includes a more holistic approach to checking on clients’ needs. Practitioners are asking more questions about how clients are getting along mentally: is the client and the client’s family physically well, how else the practitioner can help the client be successful. The profession is unlearning the transactional model of client service in favor of a more relationship-oriented model.
  4. DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion). Many firms are taking a hard look at what biases and hiring processes they need to “unlearn” to take an important step forward in DEI. Beyond simply crafting a statement, they are doing the work to identify how to make meaningful systemic changes.
  5. Remote work. Almost every firm embraced some level of remote work in the past year-and-a-half. There is a significant difference between those that learned how to have employees work from home, and those that have unlearned a definition of “work” that limits where and how it can be done. Probably the most striking difference is a shift from managing processes of work to managing outcomes from work. Firms that manage to outcomes will create tremendous growth opportunities for the people they attract. The value they deliver and the levels of client loyalty the firm achieves will surpass levels of those that did not unlearn the old mindset.

Some of the things your firm needs to unlearn to move forward may be even more difficult because they are less well defined and less linear. They feel uncomfortable because they challenge people to re-think what they have always been taught or what they believe. The profession has spent decades learning and refining the current systems. But the landscape has changed and it’s time to unlearn some of those ideas that may now keep the profession from moving forward. This year use your firm retreat to evaluate what you should unlearn. Don’t try to tackle all the unlearning at once. In the next three months instead of focusing on what you need to add or learn in your firm, identify what must be unlearned in order to make space for relearning.

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.