By treating your accounting firm's advisory services as a product, you could make in-roads with current and new clients that may be seeking these customized services
Client accounting advisory services (CAS) grew at a median rate of 20% during the pandemic which was one-third more growth than forecasted in 2019, according to the CPA.com’s 2020 CAS Benchmark Survey.
“Client Advisory Services have become an increasingly strategic component of CPA firm’ offerings,” says Erik Asgeirsson, president and CEO of CPA.com. “We see new opportunities in business forecasting, business funding, and other categories that will drive growth and provide greater value for clients.”
Given this growing demand and opportunities, it is time for the tax & accounting profession to “productize” its highest value service — advisory.
Tax & accounting professionals that fulfilled the role of an advisor offered additional services to their clients, including establishing budget processes, managing billing and accounts receivable, projecting cashflow, and supporting business model shifts. Their clients communicated a need in these areas, and these professionals found a way to provide a solution. More mature CAS practices had the business model already in place to seamlessly scope and charge for these services.
In other firms, the influx of CAS work added to the overwhelming workload of their staff. As in many other industries, capacity challenges are plaguing the accounting profession which has many professionals viewing these pandemic-related add-on services as non-sustainable, simply because they already have too much work.
Indeed, many accounting firm clients have had to take a hard look at their businesses and determine what products and services were going to carry them forward. Tax & accounting firm leaders should be doing the same. It is time to assess which services are the most viable and relevant going forward.
The objective in productizing is to make the service scalable and profitable while maintaining quality control. To achieve these objectives, firm leaders will need to define certain criteria, such as:
- The problem the service is solving.
- Defining the service it is delivering.
- The standardized processes to deliver that service.
- The pricing and marketing strategy.
We can explore each of these criteria separately.
Defining the problem
Developing an advisory offering can feel quite nebulous. Productizing allows you to make a service or idea into a product that can be sold. Scoping the boundaries of advisory services often seems blurry and customized to each client. To begin designing a service or product, you first need to clarify the problems your service will solve for the client. This can be hard to do when your clients are in various industries.
By having a narrow niche, you still can clearly define the major pain points and needs of your target client. Then, define the scope of your offering from there. By clearly identifying the problems that the service will solve makes it is easier to identify when the engagement begins to go out of scope and add-on services need to be considered and sold. This strategy protects your staff from being over-committed and underpriced for their work.
Designing the product
Often, we think of advisory services as one-to-one communications or interactions; however, the specialized knowledge that tax & accounting professionals can be packaged and sold in one-to-many scenarios as well. Consider some of the strategies the profession employed during the pandemic. There were webinars communicating updates on complex issues such as Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans or the Employee Retention Credit (ERC). As more tax and regulatory information came out, the profession had to find ways to communicate this knowledge en masse to keep everyone informed.
Consider how else you can develop a solution that can be built once and sold to many clients. Explore additional ways to monetize the skills and knowledge that you and your colleagues have.
For example, consider how your firm helped clients shift their business models and adapt to rapidly changing circumstance during the pandemic. Use that information to develop a playbook that you could sell to clients or prospects. If your playbook can demonstrate that you are able to provide guidance on considerations and steps to take based on common pivots that their industry faced, clients would eagerly seek that product. And when they need further input beyond the playbook, you can sell them add-on services that meet those deeper needs.
Standardizing the process
When it comes to compliance work, standardizing procedures and the tech stack needed to accomplish that are commonplace. The same can be said for advisory. Standardization can be applied to every aspect of the process — starting with the sales call. As you define the procedures, identify what could be automated. Automation augments the ability of your team and enables them to leverage technology even further.
Although your internal procedures will be the same, when you engage with the client you still want the process to feel customized to them. This can be accomplished by being fully present and engaged in the conversation with your client. For example, give your team a list of questions to ask the client, but encourage them not to just stick to that list. Listening and responding to what clients are saying is important to them will provide the customized feel that clients expect.
Determining pricing — not billing
Once you have clarity on both the client you are serving and the pains you can solve, you then can quantify the value of your services more accurately. In place of billing for the work after the fact, offer your clients a price for the defined scope of work, which can often alleviate additional billing challenges.
Across the tax & accounting profession, advisory services are delivering higher margins for those firms that pursue them. Take the time to work on your business and develop your advisory services as a leading product to sell, and allow your compliance work to be a secondary support for the advisory work your firm provides.