The final 'Ask Finola' of the year!

'Whether you are a sole practitioner or a partner in a larger firm, every accountant and advisor faces challenges in how to keep clients happy and provide advice to help their clients' often struggling businesses. Clients welcome all the support they can get but of course getting paid for that advice can prove difficult if you don't go about it in the right way.

Every practitioner and partner also has to have their eye on the clock and somehow find the time to provide this level of support to clients when they already have a heavy workload to deal with themselves in practice.This is increasingly relevant as we approach the dreaded tax return deadline season and suffer a shortfall in resources at the peak flu season!

The words 'business advice' also seems to frighten many accountants who are trained to be technically competent yet feel uncomfortable with the concept of 'selling' business advice and finding a way whereby others in their firms can deliver such advice.Business advisory skills tend to be associated with partners or accountancy practice owners.There is a perceived gap in knowledge in passing down these skills and training other members of the team to deliver this service to clients.Partners can only do so much themselves with limited hours in the day so it is essential that they find a way to deliver high value support and services to clients and free up their own time to work on their own practices.

Based on my personal experience of over 20 years in practice and more recently, with the work I do with practice owners,there are some practical tips in helping accountants support their clients businesses and increase their practice revenue at the same time.As always, my advice is based on the simple stuff that has been proven to work and doesn't involve a huge investement of partner time.Many of the points listed below can be delegated to your team members.This will mean the burden is shared by someone in the firm other than just partners.For those of you who are sole practitioners my advice is to go for the 'quick wins' and book out 3 hours a week in your diary to work your way through the recommendations in a consistent step by step manner.This is how results are achieved-bite sized chunks and one step at a time;

  • First things first....how well do you know your clients? Grade them and sort them into A,B and C clients. Initially focus on the A and B clients as these will be the ones most in need of support and advice and are more likely to be receptive and want to pay for that additional support.
  • There are many simple good tools and checklists available to help you grade clients.A good grading system will take no more than 5 minutes per client to complete and will cover qualitative issues as well as the size of the client or what fee they pay annually.The grading process can be done by your team and they can feedback summary results for you to look over-this will save you time and get others involved in what you are doing and why.
  • Grading clients in itself is a sensible exercise as it wil make you focus on what clients you actually have, what you would ideally like to have and put a plan in place to move clients up a grade where possible.This plan in itself will undoubtedly increase your revenue and profitability whilst ensuring you improve contact and service levels with clients.Supporting your clients business always starts with having more regular contact with them in the first place.
  • Once your clients are graded, perpare a simple 'Menu of Services' detailing all the things you can do as a firm.You will be surprised to see how many 'business advice' services you are already able to offer and indeed already talk to clients about albeit in a random and informal way.
  • Set up a speadsheet or similar, with clients down the side and each service you can provide along the top.Tick the boxes where you know clients are already buying these services from you.What you are interested in here is to look at where the blank boxes are.These are where your opportunities lie.
  • What you have done here is to set up and identify your 'Windows of Opportunity' for the firm.Based on personal experience, this exercise will generate on average a minimum of 10% increase in your GRF when you consistently use it and follow up the results.
  • Now call each client to say 'I have been thinking of you....I see you use us for x services but did you know that we also can help you with x,y,z, etc. Shall we have a brief meeting to see how we can help your business further.I am happy to give you an hour of my time for free just to make sure we are giving you all the support you need.'
  • Of course clients will always be delighted to have a free meeting with you.In reality this is good 'marketing' time for you and gives you the opportunity to listen to their needs and offer your additional services to support them.
  • Some accountancy firms get invaluable feedback from clients during this process.It may be the case that a client did actually know what you can do but doesn't trust you to do it and uses someone else ! This again is a fantastic opportunity to address the negative feedback and solve the serivce problem.It costs nothing to apologise and acknowledge poor service in the past.Most clients will be impressed by the fact you care and are trying to do something about it.At best, you know have the opportunity to try again as most clients will be prepared to give you a second chance.At worst, you have dealt with feedback and a service issue which means you are more likely to keep that client for a few more years to come.The clients that are at risk of going elsewhere are the ones that feel they don't have enough contact with you and you don't ask whether they are happy with what you do !
  • Clients themselves may be uneducated as to what support and business advice they actually need.I recall one new client of mine many years ago saying ' I know I need help and support but because I don't know what exactly it is I need I therefore don't know the right questions to ask !' This is common. What you can offer here is a free meeting with a client at the end of which you will ask the client whether they found it valuable and if it is something they would like to repeat on a regular basis. You then ask then what their budget is for such ongoing meetings and agree an extra fee.Assure the client they can canel the arrangement at any time and they only pay (preferably by standing order) after each advisory meeting and when they are happy that they have recived value for money.
  • Package up your 'Boardroom' style advisory meetings to include a written agenda.Takes notes at the meeting,agree an action plan and e-mail it to them the day after each meeting.This provides focus and structure and a clear 'how to' plan for the client to follow up on and see results from your advice between wach meeting.
  • If you are looking for items to put on an agenda you can ask the client to list the top 3 challenges they are currently facing. You then have your focus on what to suggest and discuss.The is the type of business advice you have been giving all alone but now you have made it more tangible,transparent and is something which the client will perceive as having real value.
  • It is amazing to think that an informal banter with your client where you talk about all these things, at say the annual accounts meeting, seems to go unnoticed.Yet when you 'parcel' it up as a separate service the client seems more interested and is even happy to pay extra for this support! I have tried and tested this approach many times over during my time in practice and with my current accountancy firm clients, and believe me it works.
  • So far I have talked about the business advisor role being led by a partner in the firm.Your question will be 'How do I train others to do this as I haven't got the time to see each client regularly myself who wants this level of support?' Ask your team who is interested in learning some business advisory skills to offer clients.It is much easier training people who want to be trained in the first place!
  • Next, take your team member along to an advisory meeting for them to shadow you.Explain to the client that this is part of their training.You will often find that a bright team member will seize the opportunity and gain the confidence to deliver this support to clients themselves.I would suggest they start with offering this kind of support to the lower end B and C clients in the first instance.You can coach them on how toi prepare the agenda, you can review their follow up notes and action plan before they go to the client.This way you keep control,dekegate effectively,increase the level of client service you are delivering and increasing your billing into the process.
  • You will also find that you are more likely to retain a good team member in offering this kind of development and variety of work.This in itself is a real benefit as we all know how difficult it is to retain good people if you are a smaller firm and can't always offer the same career development opportunities that a larget firm can.Think of the saved recruitment fees !
  • Introducing these regular advisory meetings with clients will also give you a free marketing opportunity to softly promote your other services.For instance, if a client struggles to plan for the future because they don't have the right format of management and financial information on a regular basis or don't know how to read it, then here is your opportunity to offer a management accounts service tailored to what they need and can understand.
  • Management accounts in themselves are a form of business advice that are often not maximized to full potentail. I know of many firm who prepare management accounts for clients yet do not do anything with them for the client and they often go unread,unused and are seen as a necessary evil just to keep the bank happy! It doesn't have to be a partner who can sit down with a client to explain what the number mean and which numbers need to be focused on.Do this, agree a fee and here you have the platform for providing something that the client actually will value and use to help their business.
  • Where clients are having to provide regualr management accounts to the bank, make sure you offer a service where you can write a summary of what the results mean and offer to attend any meeting with the client and bank manager to explain not just the numbers but the future plan of action.This may seem obvious but I have met many accountants and clients who do not receive this level of basic service and it is one which Clients would be happy to pay for.Similarly, bank managers will be impressed by your proactice approach and are more likely to refer new business clients to you.Here we have a win/win situation whilst your fee base continues to grow as well.
  • There are various software tools,resources and checkilsts available on the market which can really help you to develop your business advisory function.My advice would be to research these and see what is best for your firm.Whilst the software tools and checklists are a real help they won't do the job for you and you need to be committed to spending a little time in making them work for your business.
  • When you look at your 'Menu of Services' what gaps do you see ? You will probably be aware that there are services you could be offering but are not able to do so because of the size of your firm or internal resources. Should this be the case then consider outsourcing these functions.Examples are; tax planning, financial services,accounting labour itself etc.I have come accross many good providers of these services and used them in the past to real effect whilst ensuring clients see that they are getting the support they need.
  • The most simple way to support your clients and their businesses is often just to listen.It is a given that you should have contact with each and every client at least monthly.A brief 5 minute call from you just to check in and listen is often all a client needs to ensure they feel valued and cared for.As their advisor you have vast experience to share with all your clients.Listening to your clients experiences will in itself provide you with your own research and business advice stories to share with other clients.

Conclusion

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg here! The purpose of this article was to give you 'Top Tips' which can be put into practice very easily and make a real difference not only to your clients but to your own business as well.

On first reading you may think there is too much to do in order to get started....the secret is to just to allow a small amount of time regularly to work on these things.One step at a time, little by little and you will be guaranteed success. Remember, if all you do is nothing then you know with certainty what you will achieve-nothing!

Finally, I am happy to answer any specific questions you may have on any of the points I raise or any other practice development challenges you are facing.Just e-mail me at address This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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