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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 In every aspect of business there are models that have become outdated.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.

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.