How do partners share their knowledge so they can free their time?

Many practitioners in smaller practices face the challenge of how to plan for retirement and how do they set about passing on and sharing the knowledge and experience they have gained over decades.

Even if you are not contemplating retiring it is even more important in this economic climate for partners to work on what only they should be working on, such as client service levels and business development, and not getting bogged down in basic compliance work.

Until such knowledge can be 'downloaded' and shared with other key team members then the practitioner often can find themselves trapped in working long hours, doing basic technical compliance work with no time to work on business strategy and development let alone thinking about the day when you want to leave the practice and retire.

During my time in public practice I worked hard to develop simple systems that enabled me to free up my time and share knowledge with the team so they could develop and be relied upon to ultimately take over my job.

Of course, we must not lose sight of the fact that clients buy personality and not technical knowledge. Clients will take it as a 'given' that any good accountancy firm will be technically competent and it is often the rapport or personality of the partner they are actually buying into when they become a client. This point aside, there are still many ways in which a partner can look to share knowledge with the team so others can service many of the clients needs whilst the partners time is made free for the more 'valuable' aspects of client meetings and developing their own business.

I would recommend that even the smallest of firms has a marketing plan that includes running events and seminars and details how you will keep existing clients happy whilst detailing how you will win new clients.

Every firm should also put together 'A Top 100 target list' of contacts and firms who they want to have as clients. The majority of any marketing effort should then be focused on these people and it is this list you want to come to your events.

Here are some top tips on how to set about sharing knowledge within a firm:

  • Write out a job role for yourself and list everything you do in an average month.You will be amazed and surprised I am sure!
  • Take this list and highlight tasks which could truly be done by someone else and ask if there is training required to show someone else how to do these tasks.
  • Identify which team member is keen to vary their role and learn more.Book time in both your diaries to train on the tasks you have highlighted and show them what to do.
  • Think about developing basic systems so that each repetitive task and procedure within your firm is done the same way time and time again on each and every client. This way of thinking applies to the simplest of tasks such as 'How do we answer the phone here' to 'How do we plan and finalise an audit and bill clients'.
  • When I talk about systems I am really saying that you want to ensure each and every client experiences the same high level of service each and every time they have contact with your firm.To ensure this level of client service can be delivered you have to have systems in place.
  • Systems will also free up partner time and help build a business with a greater value as it is not so dependent on the owner and would be an attractive buy to a successor.
  • Systems are also an easy way to capture knowledge that needs to be shared firm wide; whether it be technical knowledge or the fact you have a new client.
  • Set up a knowledge library; one place where course notes and technical information is kept as a point of reference. Remember, much technical information is not kept on our PCs.I suggest one of your admin team update your internal 'library list' and circulate it firmwide by e-mail on a quarterly basis. This way, everyone knows what resources are available and where to find them.This in itself will stop people asking you questions once they know where to find the answers themselves.
  • Every time someone attends a course ask them to e-mail the team with a summary of what the course was about and any highlights. Just a brief paragraph to keep everyone up to date and share the knowledge by letting them know who to talk to if they want or need to learn more.
  • 'People systems' means a way of sharing the knowledge of how you do things in your firm. People Systems includes Interviewing,Recruitment,Induction and ongoing career development. I am always amazed to find even in larger firms that there is no consistent system in place to deal with these things. As a result you have new team members joining that not everyone knows about. I have even seen cases where a new person starts and arrives to have no induction training planned and nowhere to sit ! Without basic systems to deal with recruitment (including interviewing candidates) then you are far less likely to attract the right people to your business and you will waste recruitment fees and costs by making mistakes. This does little for your reputation and client service levels.By putting systems in place you can share 'your way' of interviewing,recruiting,training and developing and show other people how to follow the same process every time.
  • Financial systems are also important to ensure billing and cashflow are managed as they should be.Partners need to document and explain to managers how they quote for work,agree fees and the payment policy etc.Share this knowledge by putting systems in place and you can free up some partner admin time and also improve your lockup and cashflow.Each and every client should be subject to the same policy with regard quotes for work,fixed fees and payment.
  • Administrative systems cover everything from how clients are meeted and greeted to how post gets sent out everyday. I see many partners complaining about how their admin team makes basic mistakes,don't greet clients warmly and even offer a cup of tea,answer the phone in a grumpy way and let it ring for too long,arrive late with post to be signed daily and even send out the wrong enclosures or forget to send out enclosures at all ! My response is to say that all these things are due to the partner not explaining consistently how things are to be done and documenting such systems so every admin person can be shown time and time again into the future. This is particularly relevant where you have part-timers and temporary staff.
  • Operational systems and knowledge sharing are largely driven by Audit Regulation and Professional Body membership requirements. Accounting software also helps practitioners fulfill this regulatory function.It is still important to document and systematise how you plan your work and the internal processes to ensure work is delivered on time and to the highest standard with an optimal gross margin recovery rate on your fee.
  • Partners themselves also need to consider having team members 'shadow' them in client meetings. This is an invaluable training excercise and wil help make better managers and future partners by allowing them to see and hear how you deal with clients yourself.
  • It is important that partners look upon themselves as being mentors to their team.They have to lead by example and make themselves available so others can train and learn the softer skills on how to deal with clients.These are things that can't be documented or sytematised and the only way to share this kind of knowledge is to show people.
  • Every good practice should have a 'Roles and Responsibilities' booklet where each team member has listed what they do in their role and what they like doing best along with any areas of expertise.This booklet ( to include partners too!) should be updated regularly and circulated firm wide.This can be done electronically.Such resources allows everyone to share their knowledge,appreciate who does what in the firm ,why everyone is important in the role they fulfill within the firm and who to ask if there is a specific issue which somene else has the skills needed to deal with it.

In reality Partners do not have the time to keep repeating the same thing to team members time and time again.On a good day you may have time to explain how to process post out or sen dout a quote for new work.On a bad day you leave it to common sense and chance as you haven't the time to explain and hope someone else has ! By having systems in place means that you no longer leave things to chance and hope but save your time by being able to say 'Here- this is the way we do this here.Read it and tell me you are happy and understand.'

Finally...

I have seen practices that write their own systems on an intranet and this works well.Other firms buy in software and resources to help them do this and save the partner investment time required in working on these kind of systems and knowledge management. Practitioners need to decide what is best for them.Whatever route is best for you, as long as you are taking some action then you are on your way to building a practice which will attract a premium for valuation purposes, be more profitable and give you more free time to spend as you wish. As always, I am happy to answer any specific questions by e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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