The accounting profession has experienced a progressive journey of change over the last several years. The transition to cloud-based technologies and data automation have enabled modern-minded firms to offer clients deeper insight into their financial data. It’s also allowed firms to elevate the client experience and provide advisory services in a proactive manner.
Industry influencer and guest expert on our Scaling Growth webinar series, Geni Whitehouse, CPA.CITP, CSPM, has been a long-time consultant to accounting professionals. In this webinar, she outlines how to offer advisory services that make a difference to clients while enhancing the advisor-client connection.
According to Whitehouse, the time has come to make the shift from compliance to reliance. That is, moving away from traditional, reactive compliance work to focused, higher-value advisory services that clients rely on to help them build profitable, sustainable businesses—and all wrapped within a premium experience.
“If we want to grow ourselves, we need to be partners in helping our clients build successful businesses.”
- Geni Whitehouse, CPA.CITP, CSP
Consultant and influencer
Make 2022 the year you uplevel your advisory services and the client experience! And there’s no better place to start than right here. Read on for proven insights and tips from our expert.
Avoiding random acts of consulting
If firms are going to successfully implement a proactive (vs. reactive) advisory services model, they have to eliminate the random-acts-of-consulting approach. Learning on the fly with clients is the fastest way to fall victim to scope creep and a barrier to building a strong book of business.
According to Whitehouse, this mindset has to end. The key to building a profitable and sustainable advisory-based firm is to master the right technology and apply a structured methodology across your client base.
Whitehouse said: “Today, I can easily apply a festival of insights across a client’s business because I follow a uniform process and go in with a proven and tested technology set.”
For many firms, this can feel unfamiliar and scary. And that brings us to the biggest challenge: Where do you start?
The simple answer: Follow the Level 5 Decision Process model.
Level 1 - Technical foundation
Whitehouse stated that the process starts by asking a different set of questions.
“Consultants and accountants can’t be afraid of the unknown. We can’t expect to be an expert at every level of a client's business. For example, I may understand the basics of accounting for wineries, but that doesn’t mean I know everything about the industry or what’s best for that client.”
“To truly help clients, you have to ask questions about what they do and why they do it. Then apply this knowledge to the financial side of the business.”
- Geni Whitehouse
Consider a few questions you can ask clients right from the start that allow you to dig into their business and identify areas for improvement:
Is the chart of accounts set up correctly? Is it set up in a way that would make it easy to determine the revenues and expenses specific to various products and services? The goal here is to help the client set up the chart of accounts to make it easier for them to see what’s happening in the business. The job of the advisor is to ask the right questions and then arrange data to support the client’s success.
Can flash reports be generated? Once the chart of accounts is set up properly, can you generate simple flash reports to highlight key activities and profit centers of the business? These reports serve as high-level, easy-to-understand checkpoints for clients—offering a “line of sight” into performance.
Does the current structure work for the client? Overall, asking this question ensures that you provide indicators of progress toward long-term business goals.
At Level 1, it’s all about asking these types of questions—questions that lead you to helping clients achieve success based on their unique structure and needs.
Level 2 - Thorough analysis
Level 2 starts with conducting a detailed analysis of the client’s financial data. This is where having the right application in your pocket is critical. For example, Whitehouse uses Fathom to pull key performance indicators (KPIs) and present core metrics and measures to her clients.
It’s important to note that the common issue with KPIs is that clients often don’t understand what the data means. As their advisor, it’s up to you to make sure that clients can translate data with ease. Helping clients achieve a clear understanding of the numbers is your main objective.
Whitehouse uses Fathom, a financial reporting and planning tool, to pull KPIs. More specifically, she uses the solution’s Goalseek feature to break data down into intuitive, digestible blocks of information that foster interactive dialogue with clients.
For example, Whitehouse provides clients with a clear and concise view into cash flow. She shows the current quarter’s cash goal, where the company is to date in meeting that goal, and then the individual factors impacting progress—such as cost of items, units sold and fixed expenses.
“This brings information to light for business owners in a way that no written conversation can ever do.”
- Geni Whitehouse
Once high-level data is reviewed, you can then advise clients on how to meet cash flow goals. Whitehouse offered the example of implementing Bill.com to automate and streamline receivables. Cash flow issues can be corrected by leveraging such system features as automatic late payment reminders, alternative pay options, and invoice consolidation.
Level 3 - Future focus
The next level of service is to focus on the future. The first step is to take stock of where the client is currently and from there offer a vision of where they can go.
“Accountants tend not to go here. It’s easier to count up stuff that’s already happened and just provide the numbers. It’s scarier to move into forecasting. It’s a leap, but it’s also a major opportunity to be far more relevant and help clients on a larger scale,” stated Whitehouse.
Forecasting is more relevant than ever, especially when you consider the chaos brought on by a world-wide pandemic. This has put clients in a “what do we do now” state of mind. As advisors, we need to answer that call and help clients plan for the future.
Whitehouse outlined the SCOPE scorecard (yet another helpful advisory tool) to support firms with discovery and future-focused planning for clients. SCOPE offers a SWOT-like grid that allows you to look across the five key areas of a business—financial, customers, operations, people, and end in mind—and evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, and ideal outcomes within each.
For example, during COVID, many businesses were hit hard in the area of operations. Supply chain breakdowns and other anomalies up-ended operational processes. Clients required help fixing broken processes and getting back to higher levels of efficiency. Whitehouse offered the example of implementing Bill.com and Divvy to automate operational functions including payables, receivables, and expense reporting. This not only helps to streamline these functions, but also provides clients real-time access to and full transparency into their financial data.
Level 4 - Link to performance
This is the level where you start connecting the dots based on the work performed in previous levels. It’s where you link people and the actions required for change.
Whitehouse highlighted yet another tool: The profit equation planner. Using this tool, you can present the client with specific actions that can improve business performance. For example, within the planner you list current data on business volume (i.e., days open, volume of visitors, number of visitors who make a purchase per day) and pricing (i.e., price of wine per case, price of wine per bottle). From there, you can input new “what-if” data that shows the possible increase in cash flow if volume and price are altered.
“You want to clearly show clients the drivers of revenue and how to move the needle quickly. This is when clients really see what is possible in terms of meeting or even exceeding goals.”
- Geni Whitehouse
Level 5 - Continuous improvement
At the final level, you will continue to connect with clients—ensuring that they stay on track. This is the point when you take part in regular management meetings. As their trusted advisor, your role is to interpret the KPIs you’ve created and pinpoint where progress has been made and areas still in need of improvement.
Whitehouse explained, “Using the tools in your toolkit, like the profit equation planner, you can clearly show clients the items that impact revenue. And then show them the ways they can improve performance.”
The SCOPE grid can also be applied at this phase. Again, the goal being to detail the strengths, weaknesses, and ideal outcomes across business functions over time. Consistently covering this information in management meetings further motivates clients to stay on track to meet goals.
“This is how we really show clients that we are more than the historians who track the numbers. We are true advisors that can help them shape the future.”
- Geni Whitehouse
Uplevel your advisory services and capture ideal clients by following a proven structure
Upleveling your advisory services is no longer a nice-to-do—it’s a must-do in today’s competitive market. Firms leaders who understand that advisory is the key to exponential growth (for both the firm and their clients) are those who have a long and profitable business life ahead of them.
When you apply the Level 5 decision process method— including technical foundation, thorough analysis, future focus, link to performance, and continuous improvement—your firm is best positioned to capture new clients and maintain existing clients for the long term.
With this new knowledge in hand, it’s time to transition from the traditional model of accounting to the Level 5 mindset. And with advanced technology at the core, you’ll be able to provide clients with the insights and advice they require and crave.
Ready to grow your firm for the new era? Follow our Scaling Growth webinar series to hear from today’s industry thought leaders who have been there, done that, and are sharing what they've learned along the way.