If smaller CPA firms hope to thrive in this new professional landscape they will have to transition from their more traditional role as static service providers into the new personification of CPA as strategic advisor.
By now, the case for revising the role of “trusted advisor” has already been firmly established yet, for all the talk surrounding this shift, many firms still struggle to identify the nagging issues that vex their clients and translate these day-to-day challenges into consulting opportunities that are valuable to both the client and the firm.
Too often, as Jacquelyn H. Tracy, CPA, CGMA, MST, partner, Mandel & Tracy, LLC, told an audience at the recent AICPA Women’s Global Leadership Summit, CPA firms, in a rush to pitch new “value-added” services to their clients, never stop to consider who they want to be as strategic advisors, and what singular services they are best equipped to offer.
“The place I see most firms stumble when they first take on the role of strategic advisor is in the lack of planning,” Tracy says. “They don’t take the time to step back and assess what it truly means to be a strategic advisor, and they’re not making a plan that reflects that mindset, so when they meet with clients they want to fall back on their old ways and comfortable solutions, instead of offering new solutions that provide better value”.
Tracy believes, to paraphrase, that small CPA firms venturing into the new waters of strategic counseling should practice a sort of advisory mis-en-place–everything “in its place” before they start pitching new services to clients.
Assessing Your Expertise
That prep work should begin, she says, with three critical assessments: a personal assessment to define your own strengths and preferences; a firm assessment to delineate your assets and weaknesses as a team; and a tactical assessment of your client base to determine what type of work you are currently doing.
Start with the personal self-assessment, she says, because this analysis will help you determine your individual niche. Your strength, your “flow,” call it what you will, your niche is essentially the sweet spot where you do your best work.
“I think looking at what makes us happy and where we excel is a good place to start. These become areas where we can really spend our time in our area of strength,” Tracy says. Ask yourself questions like: Who do I like to work with? Where is my time best spent? How do I like to work? Where do I have a hard time? And, where do I need to grow?
To get a more impartial opinion, she says ask others to answer these same questions about you. Ideally co-workers are the best audience, but if you work in a smaller firm, or are a sole proprietor, CPA peers outside of your office, someone in a related field, or your personal board of directors can also serve as a sounding board.
The firm assessment, however, should be done as a group exercise, Tracy says. You are not only trying to unearth the team’s hidden talents–who is best at client relations, who is the research guru, etc.– but also trying to assess the firms’ resources, true expertise and potential growth areas.
Questions may include: What is our firm’s identity? Our capacity? Why should our clients do business with us? How do we differ from our competitors?
The final assessment, Tracy says, should be an internal assessment of your client base. Again, this assessment is done within the firm, before you actually engage with clients to determine their needs.
“To develop your specialty as a strategic advisor you need to understand t your current client base. If you don’t know how your clients are interconnected, you won’t see what your niche already is,” Tracy says.
Determine who your A/B/C/D clients are, she says. Ask when do clients refer others to your firm? Where are your clients in their business life cycle? How profitable is each client for you? Questions like these can help you identify your expertise and narrow your client base to those who are the right fit for your firm.
There may be difficult choices. “If you only have one non-profit on your books, for example, you may need to make an honest decision as to what to do with that client,” Tracy says.
But pinpointing your high value clients essentially opens the door to your new advising possibilities. Now, Tracy says, you can hone in on one or two that may need more help and prepare the questions that will eventually help you determine the nexus of their unmet needs and your strategic counseling.
Changing Your Mindset
Once you’ve completed the legwork of understanding yourself and your clients better, you can begin to think beyond core accounting services to consider holistic, strategic, and proactive advice and ideas you might like to offer.
But before you approach any client, Tracy cautions, you or your firm should formally define your mission as a strategic advisor, and underscore the principles that will keep your clients’ best interests at heart. You also need to communicate with and include staff.
Tracy believes it’s particularly important for smaller firms to delineate from the outset which services they can and want to tackle, those which fall within their manageable scope, and those they need to outsource to other experts–lawyers, investment advisors, or peer accountants with a different area of expertise than their firm.
“You need a good network in your back pocket to handle things outside of your realm. For instance if I’m talking to business client and they have succession issues, I can refer them to an estate attorney. In fact, I can recommend two or three of them but I still quarterback the process,” Tracy says.
The new role of strategic advisor will also likely require you to rethink your approach to client service, whether that means moving beyond the billable hour, asking clients more questions (if you only ask about taxes that’s the only work you’ll get), or building broader client relationships learning more about client’s families, their future plans, life circumstances, historical background, etc.
No doubt, there will be challenges as you shift your mindset into this new mode–making time for the transition and changing your clients’ perception of CPAs and their value to name just two–but those who do the prep work up front stand to reap lasting rewards.
“CPAs who carefully plan their transition to strategic advisor not only build more natural and enjoyable client relationships, they also create a real ‘stickiness’ with the client because they’re not just selling a product, they’re offering the client real insight into their business”.