As I drove to the airport this afternoon, there was a certain feeling in the air that fall is officially here. There was a nice crispness to the air, bright sun and some trees starting to show off their fall colors. With the start of fall also comes another season that you and your firm are very familiar with…campus recruiting season. I couldn’t help but notice on social media last week, whether I was looking at LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, that many of my clients and friends are out visiting their local colleges and universities to try and find next year’s stellar class.
And I noticed something else with these pictures and tweets/posts last week – call it a trend in the messaging. I must have seen a handful of booth signs and pop-ups that mentioned something about how that firm “was not your typical CPA firm” and not your “everyday CPAs.” Huh. Then, I started to think: I like the messaging, but I don’t necessarily like how it seems we once again descended into a follow-the-herd mentality. I’m sure that’s the same message these aspiring future CPAs and professionals are hearing from many other firms.
So, the big question. What truly makes your firm unique? Why are you different? What makes you the one-in-a-million that all top college prospects will want to choose?
Hopefully, your firm is one that is actually practicing what you preach! If you are, you’ll know that the following five qualities differentiate your firm from your competition. (I know there are more, but for brevity purposes, I cut the list to five.)
Consistent tone at the top
There’s nothing more frustrating to new and rising leaders in your organization than inconsistent messaging and emphasis on what’s important. Old school leaders and managing partners like to focus on what I describe as historical metrics – realization and utilization – and everything revolves around one or both of those metrics. The problem that has been pointed out countless times in hundreds of CPA firms over the years is that those metrics alone 1) don’t paint the whole picture and 2) lead to some negative behavior occurring inside your firm.
Your people are smart. If they hear the message they need to be more chargeable, that’s what you’ll get. And profitability, as measured by realization, will suffer. If you don’t like realization being low, focus on realization. You’ll discover your jobs appear to take less time, but now billable hours are down.
Why don’t we focus on a more balanced approach that actually promotes the right behavior? The best of the best firms closely monitor, message, and reward new metrics like output/throughput, leverage improvement and growth in new business during busy seasons. Your firm isn’t unique if it’s the same old tired metrics year after year.
Transformation from compliance to advisory
You’ve been living in a cave if you haven’t heard the mantra the past few years about the need to evolve from just a compliance-based organization to one that is more consultative and less beholden to compliance revenue. Technology and process optimization are changing the game. As the compliance work continues to become partially to fully automated, the margins will continue to shrink. It’s a commodity. Some firms may be able to scale that model and ride that wave to some – probably short-term – profitability. Most will need to differentiate and transform.
One of the key questions I’m getting from partners week in and week out is how do we train and re-train our workforce to be more consultative? The days of just having the vast majority of your professional staff good at tax and audit and a tiny percentage of professionals who can actually advise are over. If your firm is truly embracing the future, and trying to be unique and different, you know they’re investing heavily in training new skillsets and toolsets in the consulting arena. And by the way, advisory is not just automating bookkeeping work. It’s anything and everything that isn’t tax, audit and accounting service compliance work.
If your firm is at the forefront of transformation from compliance to consultative, you’re well aware that you need a model of deployment for new consulting/vertical segments you’re going after. We’re seeing some of the top 100 firms create the role of a Chief Innovation Officer for help managing this change. The identification, pursuit, growth and launch of new services should be a well-oiled process that connects marketing, business development and innovation teams inside your organization.
Without some organization and planning, you may just be creating small one-off silos that won’t lead to transformation.
Not “if” but “when” regarding change
Change is a topic near and dear to my heart. My elevator pitch has become very simple over the past two years. When people ask what I do, I tell them “I make your firm comfortable with change.” Sounds simple, right? Hardly. And I have new gray hair to show for it!
One way the top firms I go into today differentiate is that they have leaders who openly understand and embrace the mindset that change is inevitable, so let’s deal with it and move forward. In many cases, it still takes someone like me to give them the confidence not to slide off the track. But make no mistake: if leadership isn’t on board with continuous change, your firm is falling fast. The days of a few select partners “silo-ing” their way to retirement is no longer sustainable. The market is too competitive. The rate of change too fast. Leadership in the best firms doesn’t cater to status quo.
Well-rounded and Effective Training Culture
Assuming your firm is on the path to success with those first four differentiators, make sure you don’t send mixed signals to your new hires with an ineffective onboarding and training process. Practice what you preach. Give them opportunities in a variety of areas. Not all at once, but in a rotational type of format where they can actually digest a little bit of audit for three to four months, a little bit of tax for several months, some advisory work that may include shadowing, etc.
The accountant of tomorrow is going to have to be a great client advisor. Technology will take care of a lot of the compliance. Your people need to be getting trained to be more consultative and relationship-oriented. That is where the value has been, is and will continue to be.
Are you training toward a new consultative firm?
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Reprinted with permission from Boomer Consulting, Inc.