Blog|10 min

Crack the CAS code with advice from 4 accounting leaders

Don Thompson
BILL, Growth Marketing Manager

Client accounting and advisory services (CAS) has been around for a long time, and it’s been deemed the foundational element of a progressive growth model. In fact, a recent benchmark survey found that, “CAS practices reported a median growth rate of 20%–nearly twice the rate reported in 2018–and significantly outgrew other accounting firm practice areas.”

Yet despite its long-term tenure, many firms have yet to crack the code for implementing a highly efficient and potentially lucrative CAS offering.

The good news is that accounting firms can now learn from others’ experiences. A proven CAS blueprint already exists—defined by those who are actively offering advisory services today. These are CAS pioneers that have learned the hard way by doing, testing, enhancing, and, eventually, succeeding.

At the core of the CAS growth model are three things: People, process, and technology. While this framework may seem straightforward, it can be difficult to know where to start as you build or enhance your CAS practice—which is why we created The Mistakes Not to Make When Building a CAS Practice webinar. The webinar, now available for replay, features a panel of CAS experts who will help you understand what foundational areas to focus on first, how to ensure CAS is built with the clients’ needs in mind, and what they would do differently today if they knew then what they know now.

Our all-star panel includes:

  • Kane Polakoff, National Practice Leader, Client Accounting Advisory Services, UHY Advisors (webinar moderator)

  • Sharon Berman, Principal and Business Advisor, Rehmann

  • Jenni Huotari, Partner-in-Charge of Business Outsourcing & Strategy, Eide Bailly LLP

  • Dixie McCurley, Principal, Digital Advisory, CAS Leader, Cherry Bekaert LLP, CPAs & Advisors

These seasoned professionals provide insight on the DOs and DON’Ts of building a CAS practice for today’s modern-minded clientele.

Begin with a CAS plan

It all starts with a plan. Just as you wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, you shouldn’t build (or refine) your CAS practice without a plan.

Your plan serves as the foundation, guiding your progress. As you move forward, you will change course, tweak elements, and refine as needed based on what is best for your firm and its CAS clients This means that your plan is meant to be organic and change as your build evolves.

Dixie McCurley, a seasoned CAS practitioner, is an advocate of proper planning. In the webinar, she stated: “Start by thinking about how many clients you need to hit your revenue target, what technologies you’ll use to handle the number of clients, and what size team is required. Put this all together in a plan and keep modifying as you move forward.”

As firm leaders begin to form their CAS team, they become clear on what technologies are required and how to define processes. Then, a broad plan will start to form.

“This is all part of a changing and evolving business plan,” said McCurley.

Find your people

You can roll out a premium advisory service offering—one fully focused on your clients’ unique needs—but if you don’t have the staff to support it, it simply won’t succeed.

People are at the center of a well-run CAS practice, so it stands to reason that you need both the right mix of expertise and clear expectations outlined for each role. This requires that ample time is dedicated to finding and recruiting staff and then ensuring that they understand what you are offering and your CAS goals.

“It’s hard to know which comes first … people, process, or technology … but for me, it’s the people. Knowing that I had the right mix of staff and leaders on board created a stable foundation for moving forward with the others [process and technology],” Jenni Huotari advised webinar attendees.

Kane Polakoff added: “You not only need to get the right staff on the bus, but they also need to be in the right seats.”

The panelists offered a valuable starter list of tips for finding your people and building your CAS team:

  • Look outside your firm: While it’s tempting to use only existing talent to boost CAS efforts, building a solid team requires more than simply moving chess pieces around.

    Sharon Berman explained, “You can’t just expect people to leave their day jobs to pick up the slack for CAS. You need a dedicated CAS staff who are only focused on delivering those services.”

  • Define roles: To ensure you place the right people in the right seats on the bus, you have to first define each role and then recruit to meet role requirements. You can’t expect staff to effectively perform their jobs if there is not initial clarity on what they are doing and why they are doing it.

  • Upskill current staff: For firms who have existing staff that are a good fit for CAS, invest the time and money to upskill these people and ready them for CAS processes and outputs.

    “Make sure you understand your team members’ individual skills, backgrounds, and interests and then capitalize on these strengths. Team members who are strong in client relationships should lead in this area. Team members who are great at business development should be in this role. Allow people to play to their strengths and work for you,” explained Huotari.

  • Set expectations to attract and maintain staff: When individuals understand what their role is, it positions you for success. Confusion around job expectations is the fastest way to lose qualified professionals.

Accept that process is not perfect

No one comes out of the gate with a flawless process, especially when it comes to launching proactive, high-value advisory services. Processes were meant to evolve, change, and be redefined. Only through change can you continue to improve operations to achieve peak efficiency and deliver a rich client experience.

Over the years, Polakoff, Berman, Huotari, and McCurley have been integral in building a CAS offering within their respective organizations. In this time, each leader has made mistakes and learned from them. And from these mistakes come valuable insight into the process.

Here are key DOs and DON’Ts they shared:

  • Don’t assume you know what clients want and need: Listening to clients is the first step in defining your CAS processes. Start by asking clients their goals and then work from there to figure out the level of required advisory services.

    As McCurley explained in the webinar, “Remember also that firms are the source of all a client’s data. This combined with client feedback positions firms to support their clients with what they need to be financially successful … assuming I knew what my clients needed from the start would be the one big thing I would change from the past.”

  • Don’t try to boil the ocean: It’s nearly impossible to do everything for everyone and do it well. Taking any client who walks through the door has long been a common practice in the accounting profession, but this does not work well when building a CAS practice.

    “It’s important to narrow your focus to specific verticals rather than trying to support every client that comes to you,” said Huotari. “There’s more value to getting great at serving a few niches and then expanding that expertise into the next vertical … Having recognized this early on would have saved us a lot of frustrations and setbacks.”

  • Ensure vertical expertise: Scaling your practice requires expertise beyond CAS operations and outputs. Substantial growth requires firms to expand into multiple markets, and that requires vertical expertise.

    “You have to have people on your team that have experience in relevant verticals. This is key to growing your practice,” said Berman.

    “Industry verticalizations should be the #1 goal. You become the expert in specific niches. It’s how you can handle more clients and scale,” added McCurley.

  • Make time for innovation: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has never been so out of place than when applied to building a CAS practice. Today, firms must make time for innovation. This means investing in staff training (like technology certifications), development, and life-long learning (such as the AICPA’s CAS certification) to continually enhance team skills and evolve services. This allows firms to capitalize on their team’s talent.

  • Be frequent with communication: The pace of growth is often rapid, which makes it even more important to communicate with both clients and staff on a regular basis. For clients, this builds connection and ensures accuracy of deliverables. For staff, it ensures clarity around role expectations and provides ongoing learning to better support clients.

    “We follow a consistent communication process with each client that includes onboarding, training, and regular follow-up. Clients don’t like to feel like they’ve been forgotten. We budget for consistent communication within the process,” shared Berman. “I learned the importance of frequent communication the hard way.”

    McCurley added: “We have to be proactive with communicating. Firms need to make this integral to the process. CAS clients, unlike compliance clients, require connection all year round.”

  • Ask for feedback: Because clients’ needs are ever evolving, ask for feedback on a regular basis. You can double-down by also conducting a client survey annually. Getting in the minds of your clients is key to keeping services current and relevant.

    “You can have the best people, processes, and technology, but if you don’t listen to your clients, you can’t expect to stay aligned with their expectations,” said Polakoff.

Tackle technology

Finding the best technologies to support client accounting and advisory services is not as hard as you think. In fact, with so many firms offering a full roster of advisory services, many have “been there and done that.” This means that there is no shortage of influencers and seasoned pros to help guide you through building a CAS-friendly tech stack.

The webinar panelists offered the following tips on building an appropriate and powerful CAS tech stack:

  • Focus on one application at a time: It’s okay to focus on one solution at a time. This allows time to master it, standardize versions across clients, maximize features to best support the service, and then move on. Berman followed this approach with great success.

    “Over a few years, we just focused on QuickBooks. We standardized across our client base, converted people from Desktop to QBO, and then started to integrate other apps, like Gusto, to support payroll. We’ve been slow and methodical with our tech adoption.”

    Focusing on one application at a time also allowed Berman’s firm to set up a go-to tech team. This team served as solution experts—dedicated to handling implementations, onboarding, and answering questions about apps within the firm’s tech ecosystem.

  • Standardize your tech stack: It’s critical that everyone works within a uniform technology ecosystem. This supports standardization across the board and allows staff to focus on serving clients, not learning various programs and multiple solution versions.

  • Talk to your peers: There’s a wealth of knowledge available through accounting colleagues. Network with peers who can provide guidance on the best technologies for CAS. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to attend professional conferences and meetings—something the experts wholeheartedly endorse.

    “Being part of the professional community has been very helpful to me over the years in terms of identifying technologies,” said Berman.

  • Look to the AICPA: The AICPA offers workshops and thought leadership, complete with real-world scenarios, that can help firms define the right tech stack to support a lucrative CAS practice.

What’s your first step?

More and more firms are committing to CAS—building practices that produce year-round revenue and a list of loyal, long-term clients. You can do the same.

It all starts with solid planning—identifying who you want to serve, what services you want to offer, and how to deliver them. In other words, it boils down to three key elements: People, processes and technology. Which element you start with is up to you.

You can choose to first build a dedicated CAS team—define roles, set expectations, identify candidates (both in and outside of your firm). You can choose to start with technology, carefully researching and identifying the right applications to support operations and deliver a superior client experience. Or you can opt to map out your CAS processes and then build your tech stack and team around them.

The journey will be different for every firm, but the core elements remain the same. Following the DOs and DON’Ts here is a great place to start as you roll out your unique CAS plan. Once you do, you’ll find new, effective ways to create and grow your CAS practice.

Ready to launch or evolve your CAS practice? Learn more about the foundational elements of a successful CAS program and the pitfalls to avoid by watching our on-demand webinar: The Mistakes Not to Make When Building a CAS Practice. Also, be sure to bookmark our Scaling Growth webinar series to hear from today’s industry thought leaders on what it takes to grow your CAS practice.