I often talk about the rapid pace of change in business today. But, sometimes, it is also true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And I think this is the case when it comes to considering what exactly it is that an accounting firm’s clients want, and how we, as accountants, can expand our services to drive more revenue for ourselves and to become an even more valued service provider to our clients.
The reality is that clients still want good, accurate, trustworthy financial support and advice from their accountants. This is unlikely to change. Sure, the details might evolve – ESG reporting, for instance, and we should be the people the client turns to for help here as well. But new requirements aside, there is an ongoing conversation about how accountants can launch new, improved services to add value to existing clients. And, in so doing, entrench themselves as a strategic partner, instead of being merely a fungible bookkeeping service.
More time, not more things
I have an alternative suggestion. If you are doing a good job as an accountant already, what your client doesn’t need is a fancier version of the same service. What they really need is time. (Who doesn’t today?) No one has enough time in the day or month, and your clients are paying more attention to how they use their time to drive increased focus, productivity and better work-life balance.
The way accountants used to work revolved around the monthly, face-to-face meeting, where they walked their clients through the numbers they have prepared. This is where concerns are flagged, context is provided, and decisions are made. Now put yourself in the shoes of a small business owner or entrepreneur. Is this really the best use of their time? And, something I keep coming back to, is this monthly moment-in-time check-in the most effective way to keep a finger on the pulse of the budget and business and to empower your non-financially minded business owner. Or would their time be better spent focussing on revenue-generating activities?
That is not to say that the financials aren’t important. Of course they are! But I’m wondering if this monthly, synchronous way of communicating the numbers is still valid and helpful today. Or is there a better way to work with your clients that both improves your engagement with them and better supports their business goals?
We’ve all become more familiar with the concepts of synchronous and asynchronous communication thanks to hybrid working and remote teams that might span several time zones. Currently, most accounting communication falls into the synchronous category, as I described above. But I’d argue we’d serve our clients better if we made it more asynchronous.
This means providing a self-service platform that the business owner or entrepreneur can use to access their numbers at a time and place that suits them. Maybe this is while they are commuting, or later in the evening after family time, or even first thing in the morning if they are a member of the 5 am club.
For this to work, you need to provide the information in a way that is easy to use and understand, without your client needing to be a financial expert. It needs to be straightforward for your client to see what their financial status is at a glance, as well as drill down into the details. There needs to be the ability to provide feedback and ask questions – in other words to have an asynchronous conversation about the numbers.
You don’t need a spreadsheet
In summary, you don’t achieve this level of asynchronous visibility, transparency and collaboration with spreadsheets displaying income statements and balance sheets, with lengthy accounts as backup.
Instead, you need to give your clients interactive dashboards and visuals that they can tap on to see more details and the underlying transactions. Alerts that flag critical areas of concern (and even when targets are reached and exceeded) help sort through the noise and highlight important issues. The numbers need to be contextualised in time: cash flow might be looking very solid the day before salaries are paid, but then look very different 24 hours later. Comparisons with previous months, year-on-year and company targets also make sense of the data and current performance.
Ideally, your client should be able to comment in the same tool, triggering messages back to you requesting clarification. From the client’s perspective, they can devote time to this when it suits them, which has got to be a big win. Time is money, as I’m sure your client will tell you.
The bonus about this situation is that not only does your client gain time back every month, but so do you. Now, instead of a series of in-person monthly meetings, including a commute and chit-chat over biscuits and coffee, eating into your and your team’s time, you only need to meet with clients every quarter, or every half. This frees you up to take on more clients, increasing your revenue while also providing an improved service to your customers – you’re taking up less of their time, giving them more visibility over their finances and working with them in a way and at a time that they prefer to work.
The next time you sit down to discuss how you can boost your accounting firm’s growth, and consider what it is that clients really want, don’t get locked into thinking about doing more and which new services you should launch. Rather think about what your clients really want and need, and how you can change how you work and the tools you use to deliver that.
The results might surprise you when you experience the same time gains in return.
As published in AccountingWeb - June 2023