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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 that there is a 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 client’s proactive advice, provide dashboards, and anticipate their pain pointsThis 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 in real-time. These technology 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.

Staying knowledgeable about technology for your client’s industry is crucial. I mentioned the accounting system set-up on the what side. 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 information should will flow through the general ledger. This fosters one single system of record with spokes.

When you can become an expert, you deepen the value you provide clients. The advice is not just about accounting software setup anymore; it is about setting up an industry-specific solution. 

Explore Flag Sign

Three Things Clients Want

Throughout my career, I have seen that there are three things that clients want. Help, meaning, and knowledgeLet’s explore the first.

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 could have 4 weeks ago, cost me 2M dollars and 18 months time to implement. There is no doubt or question that technology has come a very long way.

On the flipside, the way we provide services to clients has not evolved. It is our first mission at Trusted CFO Solutions is to help our clients to 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 autoanalysis. We’ve gotten into that routine as accountants to continue to give them a deliverable and to let them do with it what they would 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.

Mountain Experience

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. To me, it sounds like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

I will use the example again of, “here’s a tax return and we are so excited about that, we finished that tax return, we ran up to it finished it, and here it is. 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 to growing their business? Has your client been excited about using their tax return to build their business? What about compilations? What deliverables do you do 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 my 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. 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 meaningful to the client. Don’t just launch these technology offerings to your clients, make sure you make it meaningful to them because when you share an insight with one customer, it may not be relevant to the next one.

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. 

Stack of old books

3 – Clients Want Knowledge

Clients are students, wand to learn what we know. They want to see you and meet with you. They trust you, and they want 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 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, Road Map To Profitably –  Moving Your Client Accounting Services Package To The Cloud. 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 using 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%?), are they going to fail in two years if they continue that way? That’s what we want in front of them.

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 –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 an 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.

Most examples we’ve covered are with assumptions that the numbers are correct. What do you do when you find they are not?

Road to the mountain

In the Road Map To Profitably – Moving Your Client Accounting Services Package To The Cloud 2-day workshop we teach with CPA.com 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 ant to construct a whole new environment that will quickly and rapidly move the business forward. This is a separate engagement outside of the scope of our normal engagement letter for our monthly routine of accounting services. Our goal is to get them as quickly as possible to the monthly routine accounting services. It doesn’t mean they don’t always have special projects that we bill.

What happens if we do cleanup, 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. 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 tax returns.  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 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. 

Questions

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 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 why I want to target twenty-five similar clients that can use the tool that I built 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 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.

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 is 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.

Have to 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. There are a lot of other aspects around it and how many clients are local, regional or geographical. It matters then which tool you use, and how much it costs becomes very relevant.

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 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 overpay 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.

Pillars holding up over water

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, a monthly bill like you are 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.

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