When many firms start a Client Advisory Services (CAS) practice, they have a tendency to jump in the same way they might if they were starting a tax or audit practice. Unfortunately, they quickly find that offering CAS services is a different animal, and they fail fast.
In non-CAS practices, the conversation with the client revolves around what’s been done with the information submitted. It’s a helpful, but fact-driven exercise many accountants are comfortable with. The outputs are financial statements that the firm spends a lot of time preparing and the client rarely reads, and a conversation about them doesn't often happen.
Once a firm has taken the step of automating those activities that can be automated (such as bookkeeping) though, that conversation changes drastically.
In a CAS practice, accountants are interpreting the data, making recommendations and suggestions based on the outputs. This is a very different kind of conversation, and because of the interpretive nature of it, it makes many accountants uncomfortable.
But that discomfort is unwarranted. Accountants have a command of the many details of owning and operating a business, and their advice can literally save business owners and their employees from an assortment of missteps, errors and business-ending events.
It’s the kind of service your clients need from you.
A focus on soft skills
For most of their careers, accountants have heard themselves referred to as “trusted advisors,” and relatively few have a full understanding of what that means. I prefer the term “cherished advisor,” however, because it carries with it the sense that clients share a deep connection to their accountant, seeking their counsel for their many needs.
But forging those deep connections isn’t necessarily simple.
One of the keys to running a successful CAS practice is focusing on soft skills. Firms are packed to the gills with accountants who have mastered technical skills, but relatively few who understand how to interact with clients and employees in a way that drives trust.
I like to divide soft skills into six areas that all interact with good communication skills:
1. Being responsive
This is distinct from having or knowing all the answers. No one is an encyclopedia. Knowing where to find the right answer is as valuable as having the answer itself. But accountants need to get comfortable with being confronted with the questions they can’t answer off the cuff; they should understand that an advisory conversation could be filled with questions they don’t have an immediate answer for. And in these cases, it’s a simple matter of making a note and saying, “I’ll get back to you with an answer for that.”
Having a productive and meaningful conversation with a client doesn’t mean dictating services to them. It should begin with talking to them about their needs and how best the firm can deliver on them. Surprisingly, few accountants feel comfortable starting this kind of conversation, but it’s as simple as asking questions and listening to the answers. The first question should be, “what are your pain points?”
Influence is more than just having a commanding title or position. The truth of many client interactions is that oftentimes, the accountant will know the right solution before the client conversation even takes place. But influence is about bringing the client along on that journey, listening to their concerns, and helping them see the answers you already know to be correct. The trick is to do this in a way that respects the expertise and intellect of the client.
4. Problem solving
Again, it’s not about having all the answers. While being able to think on your feet is an important skill, not every problem has to be solved on the spot. Many times, solving a problem means taking time to assess, research, think and then offer a well-thought-out solution.
This applies equally with clients and staff. Leadership is largely by example—how can you share your expertise, which in turn breeds confidence in your ability and a willingness to follow where you take them? Listening to the needs of clients and staff, then responding to those needs using that expertise is how leadership is demonstrated. It’s as much about service to the collective as it is knowing where to take them.
6. Project management
This is simply the ability to initiate, plan, execute, control and complete work in order to help your team and stakeholders, and achieve your goals. Developing good skills in project management also means bringing consistency to the task—successes are repeatable when you identify and institutionalize your best practices.
Designing and building the experience
A good CAS firm changes the mindset from service-directed to client-directed. It’s about capturing the clients’ needs and providing an experience that addresses them. A good place for a firm to start in designing this experience is to start with their “why” and move forward in a natural progression.
Firms should resist templatizing anything they do. Your client personas are something you should know and understand. Once you have them in mind, you can develop a mission statement centered squarely on that understanding. This is the beginning of developing a client-centered experience.
From that mission statement, firms can build a brand promise that checks performance against a more holistic set of criteria than just whether or not the work was done and done correctly. What was the customer service experience like? Were all the questions answered? How does one client persona differ from another? The answers to these questions come more readily with a good understanding of what your firm does and why.
Moving from a cost center to a service center
When firms decide to make a move to a CAS focus, they often don’t understand what they need to do to make it work. It’s a decision firms need to make with intention—just willing your firm into advisory won’t work.
Secure the relationship
When a firm understands its identity and its mission, it can secure relationships with intention. That means offering thought leadership on the topics their client personas want to know about; building strategic partnerships that enhance the services you provide and offer wins for all parties; obtaining referrals that are meaningful in terms of their relevance both to the client and your firm; networking with groups that best suit your purposes, rather than networking more broadly and haphazardly, such as with the chamber of commerce; and hosting events that will attract the client base best served by your unique model.
Discovery is a crucial step in this process. Remember the client isn’t just interviewing your firm, you are also interviewing them to make sure they are a good fit for your practice. To gain an understanding of their needs, ask probing questions to reveal where your firm can help them most. When it comes time to propose services, present back to the client in a way that shows you heard them. Use what you learned in discovery to communicate your firm’s value based on their needs.
At this stage, the firm should also offer and thoroughly explain their letter of engagement. This helps clients understand the scope of services, and how the process for changing that scope works. It keeps all parties honest for payment schedules, meetings, deadlines and the like as well.
Create the advisory relationship
A major consideration in this phase is how the firm onboards its clients. Revisit both the clients’ and the firm’s expectations of the relationship. Make deadlines for getting materials to the firm clear and be sure the client understands them. Additionally, the firm needs to make sure the client has a good understanding of what information, forms or other materials the client needs to bring.
Next is training the client to use the tools the firm provides and make sure they are not going outside that toolbox, delivering on your agreement and supporting the client long-term.
From there, developing the client relies on making human contact—automate what can be automated, freeing you up to have real interactions with the client. That means seeing them, whether over video if remote, or in person when possible.
Make an effort to discuss the work you’ve done—don’t just send it to the client and move along. Speak with stakeholders at the client’s business, explaining why your work looks the way it does. Ask them open-ended questions that can reveal details to help you serve them more effectively, such as “what keeps you up at night?” Ask them to clarify their responses and expand on them when you want to know more. Find out what else the client might want to share to help you gain a better understanding.
Build a lasting relationship
This might seem daunting, but it’s easier than you think. What you’re aiming for is to become a confidant to your client. When you meet, seek to make time not only for your questions and your clients’, but also for personal conversation. Ask about their families or vacations. Forge a connection. Make your communication with your client not just valuable, but also personable. They’ll look forward to it.
When communicating the work you’ve done to your client, don’t just relay numbers and figures. Tell a story that makes the work interesting and memorable—in short, something that will be relatable to someone who is NOT an accountant. This will help them better understand what’s happening with their business and why.
It might help to think of telling the story in three acts. Set the scene and introduce the characters in act 1. Act 2 is about the conflict—where are you seeing issues in the business, and what challenges do they pose? Act 3 is the resolution of the conflict—the suggestions you’re making as their advisor to rise to the challenges those issues pose.
Putting it together
Clients aren’t the only people firms need to impress; firm employees need to be taken along for the journey as well. Transitioning into a CAS firm means introducing new policies, procedures and technologies—the whole firm needs to be on board.
While there are many ways you can prepare the firm staff for a move into CAS, I’ve developed a helpful system that will provide a tried and true roadmap to start or grow your advisory services. It’d be a pleasure to walk you through it!
In the meantime, you’ll want to start freeing up capacity to enable your employees to spend the time they need to with their new advisory clients. That begins with automating tasks like bookkeeping, and taking advantage of the technology that allows you to offer advisory services.