Tax & accounting firms should consider switching to a specialization-focused service model to more fully leverage their talent and avoid burnout
Context-switching is changing from one task to the next and is a term used in computer coding. For those who code, frequent context switching reduces productivity, decreases energy and creativity, and can negatively impact the quality of work. In the tax & accounting industry, specifically among smaller firms, context-switching also exists. Among client accounting services (CAS) professionals, a single bookkeeper or accountant may handle all accounts receivable (A/R), accounts payable (A/P), and payroll tasks for several clients, often jumping from task to task in an ad hoc manner.
And these activities don’t include the time they need to spend on-boarding new clients, which can involve everything from gathering and analyzing years of financial statements to accommodating log-ins for each clients’ myriad banking and accounting systems.
Not surprisingly, this service model in the tax & accounting industry isn’t well suited for assessing cost-efficiency, especially since many accounting firms are moving to fixed monthly pricing. Accountants and bookkeepers are far too busy jumping among multiple tasks to record how much time they spend on specific activities, making it more difficult for firms to accurately track their costs. In addition, this way of working also leads to more rapid burnout among these professionals.
To solve this context-switching malaise, tax & accounting firms should consider switching to a service model that’s commonly used in many other industries: specialization. In many high-tech firms, for example, developers are no longer jacks-of-all-trades; instead, they’re assigned to specific tasks. Some code all day, some build prototypes, some are quality assurance specialists, and others focus solely on deployment. And coordinating all these activities is a project manager, who is responsible for implementing workflows and making sure that all tasks are completed accurately and on time.
And it’s not just software development companies that are using this model. Many larger tax & accounting firms have adopted this approach, and it’s one that smaller firms may want to consider as well.
Moving from generalists to specialists
For example, I work with a small accounting firm with a six-member CAS team, each of whom had to deal with the daily grind of doing everything for five assigned retail clients. Frustrations from this level of context-switching led to burnout and drove dissatisfaction that caused attrition among team members.
To solve this problem, the partners reorganized the CAS team into specialized groups. Each team now handles a specific set of accounting tasks for all 30 clients, including updating their assigned areas of each client’s general ledger. Here is how they assigned specific tasks to the CAS team:
- two members were assigned to an accounts receivable team and performed all A/R-related tasks;
- two members handled A/P only;
- one member handled clients’ payroll, working with each firm’s HR manager; and
- the most senior experienced member served as controller and account manager, including the task of on-boarding new clients.
Since the firm implemented this specialization model more than a year ago, productivity and efficiency have significantly increased. Also, context-switching fatigue is no longer an issue, and specialists complete more tasks in less time. Job satisfaction has risen, and attrition has ceased. And with the firm expecting to add more than a dozen new clients every year, they’re actively looking to add additional headcount.
Implementing a specialization model in your firm
Depending on the size of your firm and the types of everyday activities conducted most often for clients you might want to consider other ways of moving to a specialized service model. For example, one person may be solely responsible for reconciling sales and booking revenue properly. Another might process invoices and bills, while another pays them. A junior member might start by doing nothing but analyze bank feeds, matching outgoing payments and incoming deposits to make sure everything balances. And a tech-savvy member might become the in-house on-boarding expert.
This last point on technical ability is important because a critical element of any successful transition from generalists to specialists is the quality of the accounting tools they have at their disposal. Right now, for example, your CAS team may be using their clients’ A/R, A/P, and payroll systems, which may not be the same ones your firm has chosen for in-house use. This places a significant burden on your accountants and bookkeepers, since they have to learn new systems every time a new client is brought on board. However, many accounting firms are choosing their own cloud-based accounting tools and requiring all new clients to migrate their information and records to these in-house systems.
As an added benefit, many of these accounting tools employ automation to streamline as many routine tasks as possible. For example, A/R-focused software can automatically download, analyze, enter, and reconcile sales transactions from most leading e-commerce and digital payment systems used by retailers and restaurants.
On the A/P side, automated accounts payable platforms can instantly capture and record each client’s paper and digital invoices and bills, categorize expenditures, approve funding requests and schedule one-time or recurring payments from one or more bank accounts.
And most online payroll platforms allow employees to enter their own regular, overtime, holiday, and vacation hours and then make automated payments to their bank accounts, accurately adjusted for taxes, healthcare insurance premiums, retirement contributions, and other pre-tax and after-tax deductions. These systems also track information needed for year-end tax reporting.
The best accounting automation tools can turbo-charge productivity among your accountants and bookkeepers, resulting in reduced stress and greater job satisfaction.
Making a successful transition
Whichever reorganization strategy your firm may choose, the key to implementing it successfully is convincing your generalists that becoming specialists is in their best interests.
There may be resistance at first, because even though they’re overworked, many of them take pride in owning the entire client relationship. Or, they may have concerns about having to double their client load.
Look for ways to emphasize the benefits of transitioning to a new specialist model. Consider bringing all of your accounting tools in-house, selecting systems that make it easier and faster for your team members to complete their assigned tasks for a larger number of clients. And sweeten the pot by letting them choose their preferred specialty area and the clients with whom they want to work.
Over time, offer your team members the opportunity to switch specialties and clients so they can deepen their expertise. If your firm is on a path toward adding headcount, offer a career track for those who want to become controllers.
Most of all, both during and after the transition, make sure you provide the support, resources, and incentives that your team members will need to flourish in their new roles.