For Finance Experts: Rethinking Client Communication and 3 Customer Desires
The Financial Services Expertise Series: This training article is for financial professionals.
We covered in last month’s blog the disconnect where financial professionals talk about things our clients did not ask us to address. We concluded we could close the gap when we offer our clients proactive advice, provide dashboards, and anticipate their pain points. This article will cover rethinking client communication, what that looks like, and three things clients desire.
Rethinking Client Communication
We all know and hear about how workforce generations communicate uniquely. It’s the difference between how we use Snapchat versus text messaging, versus Facebook, versus Twitter. We know that communication has evolved, but what we are seeing is uncertainty in how to respond to this new evolution. The answer is to open up and provide multiple forms of communication through your financial firm. Don’t do away with email, but do leverage Skype or LinkedIn (or whatever tool is most relevant) for business messaging.
If you are providing real-time insights and control, you have a better way to communicate. These communication tools help facilitate internal communications as well. Sage Intacct has built Salesforce Chatter into their platform allowing users to interact with each other, bridging the real-time gap between the front and the back of the house. This new Collaborate stores communication inside the transactions instead of losing it outside of the system of engagement.
Staying knowledgeable about technology for your client’s industry is crucial. It is no longer enough just to know the accounting solution that’s going to meet the needs, because the proactive advice clients want is oriented around industry-specific need.
You must leverage a best-of-breed cloud technology stack of solutions that complement the industry-specific services you are providing. Some are agnostic like the general ledger, expense management, and CRM; other solutions are more specific including an e-commerce client. Maybe your e-commerce client needs a front-end shopping cart or an e-commerce solution and inventory on the back end for order fulfillment and tracking. That key non-financial information
should will flow through the general ledger. This fosters one single system of record with spokes.
When you can become an expert in a given industry, you deepen the value you provide clients. The advice is not just about general accounting software setup anymore; it is about setting up an industry-specific solution.
Three Things Clients Want
Throughout my career, I have seen that there are three things that clients want. Help, meaning, and knowledge. Let’s explore the first and why it matters.
1 – Clients Want Help
Clients do not have the time or ability to properly leverage their technology. If they could easily research which technology is best and connect their systems, they would all do it. There are already do-it-yourselfers with Quickbooks and Bill.com, but companies need help. Technology has come so far that an implementation that might cost $25K today and 4 weeks to implement, 10 years ago it would have cost $2M and 18 months to implement. There is no doubt or question that technology has come a very long way.
On the flip side, the way we provide services to clients has not evolved. Our first mission at Trusted CFO Solutions is to help our clients grow their business. We find money, eliminate wasted time, and guide decision making. We are an innovative firm, and we use technology to effectively execute.
In recent history, we could give clients a report, and they had an abundance of information to read every single day. It is no longer enough to provide only a dashboard or a report. Deliverables for our clients used to include a tax return, compilation, or an audit. We’ve gotten into that routine as accountants to continue to give them a deliverable and to let them do with it what they like. But clients want help. They don’t want us to just give them the narrative or a report. They want to be able to understand it, know what we think, and they want our insights.
Within four weeks of bringing a professional services client on board, we were able to save them over $45K of waste in their organization.
Their implementation only cost them $5K with us. They pay us a fixed fee monthly, and we do not itemize bill.com, Sage Intacct, Microsoft 365, or SharePoint server costs to deliver their automated reports. We provide help and insights in a meaningful way to them. While the help is invited and great, it must also be meaningful.
2 – Clients Want Meaning
Customers want meaning. With this fantastic technology, we could give clients 25 graphs to explain what we see. We could supply them reports, notices, and alerts. Receiving an email alert on your phone every day for the first few weeks of having email alerts seems excellent. However, in our experience, as you continue with the technology, it becomes too much for our clients. So, we have to make it meaningful. Over and over we accountants tell clients in our verbiage what it is we think they want to hear. It sounds like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
The example of, “here’s a tax return and we are so excited about that, we finished that tax return, and here it is. Now, here is your compilation.” Moreover, they hear blah, blah, blah, the bank needs that, okay, we have got it. We communicate the tax return so it provides the customer with a meaningful takeaway and actions.
How could your clients leverage a tax return for growing their business? Has your client been excited about using their tax return to build their business? What about compilations? What deliverables do you offer in services today that clients could use to grow their business?
Here is one example of providing meaningful information, data, and insights.
We have a trucking company, and they have never been able before to have the technology in place that equates a driver hour to a billable hour. What do you think the drivers are going to do when they submit payroll? Do you think they are going to leave off the hours that they worked?
No, what do people care about first? It is money in my pocket and compensation for the employees, every time.
We have information, but accountants likely have an account receivables clerk that doesn’t submit the payroll. So these tend to be disconnected. Technology today allows us to share with our clients how a payroll hour is connected to a billable hour and that has meaning for their business. If we say, yesterday you paid 5 hours in payroll that did not get billed. This insight is something clients want to know. They want us to use the technology to give them meaning, meaningful reports, and meaningful advice.
Technology helps people learn in two different ways, verbal and visual. Technology facilitates this accounting learning and coaching. Historically, we’d dumped data into excel spreadsheets and create reports and graphs through an exhaustive amount of time. Now, these steps are automated. But even with automated data collection and reporting, we must make it relevant to the client. Provide meaning in a visual and verbal way and customize it for each client. These personalized dashboards give them the information they need with the access to drill down into the data to find answers to their questions, and it cuts out all the blah, blah, blah they don’t want to hear.
3 – Clients Want Knowledge
Clients are students, and they want to learn what we know. They want to see you and meet with you. They trust you, and they want to witness your thoughts about their business and to hear your message. Only conveying your message is not good enough. Whether in reports, dashboards, or technology, such as, “here is your technology bundle, do with it what you would a compilation report,” is not good enough anymore. Clients want to witness your knowledge and your thoughts. Work with your clients to create actions to help grow their business in a meaningful way that teaches them the knowledge on how to be successful.
We have to do a better job as accountants to help them absorb our insights. And the moment that they ask the advanced question, “What’s the current ratio, how do I calculate it, how much money does that put in my pocket; that’s when I know what they want and how we can help them. Clients want to count driver and payroll hours and never let bills go unpaid. We can help convey our knowledge and our expertise. Technology advancements are so disruptive in the accounting services, it’s not enough to stand behind the technology anymore.
My partner Steve Gross and I operate in an advisory capacity, and can’t stand hiding behind technology. That’s where firms fail. With CPA.com, I teach a 2-day workshop called, Roadmap To Profitability – for Your Client Accounting Services Practice. A high number of the audience in those sessions had the mindset, “we just have to get onto a great technology.” The disruptive technology has us think we can do better but it’s a lot like a chef’s knife. It doesn’t matter which one you choose, you must have the experience of the entire restaurant to run it well.
The technology is a way for us to convey our knowledge and expertise to the client. How do you grow vertically, how do you enhance your own knowledge?
Usually, your clients know their business. In the last few years, I ask them what is meaningful to them and then use the technology to provide reports that matter most. When our restaurant clients in our industry niche are overrun by the industry standards on food costs (should it be 26% or are they at 31%?), and occupancy costs (should it be 5% or are they at 10%), are they going to fail in two years or run out of cash if they continue that way? That’s what we want in front of them to help them make better decisions.
The heartbeat metrics of their business convey our expertise. When I meet with a potential restaurant client in the $2M space, I immediately know what services I can provide, usually what their issues are, how many Excel reports they have, their food costs, how their build-out is on their rent –maybe their rent is not supported by their sales growth or how it is supported by their sales growth, and I’m enhancing my expertise in each one of those industries by using advanced technology. But we have to do it in a way where we are thinking about it, giving insight and presenting it to them. Having those soft skills are where we are going to grow as a profession. We must become trusted business advisors, not only bookkeepers.
Most examples we’ve covered are with assumptions that the numbers are correct. What do you do when you find they are not?
In the CPA.com Road Map To Profitability – Moving Your Client Accounting Services Package To The Cloud 2-day workshop we teach knowing our target client.
Large Company Cleanup Project
A target client that has a clean-up disaster, that needs a lot of help, doesn’t mean we can’t help them. We’d want to qualify and ensure the money is there to renovate the business before moving forward. We don’t simply want to do a cleanup, we want to construct a whole new environment that will quickly and rapidly move the business forward. This is a separate clean-up engagement outside of the scope of our normal engagement letter for our monthly routine of accounting services. Our goal is to get them up and running as quickly as possible to the monthly routine accounting services. It doesn’t mean they don’t always have special projects that we bill separately.
What happens if we do clean-up, walk away for 12 months, and when we come back it’s a mess again? For several years in my career, that’s what we did and that’s how I knew how to bill, by the hour. That’s also why we formed Trusted CFO Solutions, so we could change how this was done. In the old model, I didn’t want to get out of bed, go to work to clean up a set of books that I knew would be terrible in 12 months. It wasn’t a rewarding endeavor. We can’t accept this approach in our profession. Billing by the hour on those types of things is zero value to the clients. Clients don’t want clean-up. Clients say, “No, no, just give me a dashboard, I’ll pay you $10K for that, but by the hour cleanup, please don’t do it.”
That was my first few clients and career for many years. It doesn’t work anymore, so we’ve got to change how we do it or our profession will slowly die. They can simply hire an internal person to handle their bookkeeping. Clean up work is a necessary evil, but it has nothing to do with the bread and butter for a healthy accounting services practice. The ongoing continuous improvement and optimization is the future and how we must convey our knowledge in a meaningful way.
Help clients get cleaned up and provide meaningful answers. Share your expertise and your knowledge as you help your clients.
During the AICPA Trusted CFO Solutions Tech Workshop participants asked the following questions.
What tools do you use to provide client dashboards?
Is that relevant? As a professional, we could do it on a paper napkin, we could draw it one time and it could be very meaningful to the client, and I could use that as a tool. Excel is a quick option, too. I could dump their data, re-chart it, and give it to them. But, the reason why we use Sage Intacct technology is that I can take that one time action and do it for that client industry, do it to a standard, to a template, and then deploy it across the next twenty-five similar clients. That’s value to the client they can’t get in-house. That’s why I want to target twenty-five similar clients that can use the tool that I design and build once. We use Sage Intacct, Bill.com, and Excel until we get the automation going.
Sometimes the best way to automate a process is to do it manually first many times. We can do it on paper, draw it, brainstorm, create the right set, put it into Excel, get it working a few times and then automate or semi-automate the process. We make it smarter over time.
What’s the one thing you don’t do to the accounts payable account?
Don’t ever make a journal entry to accounts payable. Why not? The sub-ledger and the aging will not tie to the trial balance. I’m ashamed to admit how many hours I’ve spent in my career tying out the aging to the trial balance. We have the ability to be more efficient so that we can provide these insights, guidance, and meaningful knowledge and expertise that our clients want. We can now get an alert exactly when it goes out of balance; that’s smart technology.
What do wineries want from assurance services?
The client needs to know how much their production costs are, what their inventory is, what the cost of inventory is, and if inventory has a longer life. This is a perfect example of providing deep knowledge and expertise to provide what “I” think they want. How will you know what ratios you can automate to show them their inventory terms, and how they compare to standards. Many do this in excel, but when you start to grow and scale your services, you’re going to need to evaluate those documents. We use Sage Intacct because we want to know more about accounting software than our client. Since they know more about their business, we want to know more about the software and customize a solution perfect for them.
You must have a good business plan. What services, what targeted client, how many can we get, what value is that to our firm, and that’s the whole business model and business planning session that we talk about in our two-day workshop. How many clients are local, regional or geographical? It matters then which tool you use, and how much it costs becomes irrelevant.
How many of you reading this prepare tax returns?
How many of you who prepare tax returns, have clients who know what software you use? Not one! So you are the expert in tax return software. That’s my point. If you are providing accounting services, you are the expert in which one to choose for them, whether it’s Quickbooks or Sage Intacct. For our business model, we want to do high-level advisory on complex businesses that are either multi-entity, have other needs, deferred revenue, etc. I can’t do any of that in QB, which means I always have to do it in Excel which is not scalable. That is why we choose to possibly over-build on one client but the next client that it’s the right fit for, it more than compensates for that. That’s why we don’t line item what software we use to provide those services to clients.
Building a Strong Foundation.
We’ve worked with many thought leaders and they’ve helped us answer many of the questions surrounding client accounting services changes taking place.
Get back to aligning with why your firm is in business. Windows 10 now as a subscription service is truly a stake in the ground in terms of this pivot toward the utilization of computing. It’s what Nicholas Carr talks about in the book, the Big Switch. During the industrial revolution companies no longer had to create their own power because they now had a grid they could plug into. If we see that transition happening with computing power and go pay a utility subscription, instead of an automated monthly bill like your electric bill for your operating system, I think that speaks to exactly the switch we see that’s setting the stage and where this is happening.
And, when is it happening? Back to digitization, virtualization, and transformation. Some of it’s already happening. Most are in some way, shape, or form beyond the digitization process. This will continue to happen. The future is fast and you want a firm in motion because the future is now. Smartphones are changing the way we are interacting and the way we are answering questions. The answer to when is right now.