A recent study quantified the incremental revenue opportunity for advisory services in the small to medium enterprise market at $1m per annum, per three hundred clients. For the average accountant or bookkeeper, this is a highly desirable, significant and achievable target. It also explains why there is so much emphasis at industry conferences, in publications and in our training bodies on shifting practices from compliance to advisory services.
Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you know there is enormous pressure to move away from low margin, compliance work — which is disappearing rapidly with the movement of data to the cloud and the introduction of machine based learning. The change is already upon us… it’s inevitable.
However, the challenge remains —> “how do you shift the focus of your practice towards strategic and advisory services”? The proposed shift makes perfect sense in theory, but it also means that you must learn a whole new way to communicate with and market to your clients.
Therein lies the real dilemma…
Thankfully, in most cases, you are already a trusted advisor. However, there is no denying that you face stiff competition from other parties (who are far less qualified) but much better at marketing themselves as having the answers to important questions such as:
- How do I grow my business?
- How do I get more leads and customers?
- How can I use technology to increase my competitiveness?
In this new, highly competitive world of advisory opportunities, you must find unique and valuable ways to solve the big problems that keep your clients awake at night. But here’s the problem — business owners are already overrun with data and spreadsheets they don’t really understand.
An Inconvenient Truth About The Financial Literacy of Your Clients
Last year, we conducted a study with 5000 business owners and discovered, to our dismay, that 93% of them thought they could safely and successfully run their business off only an income statement and aged receivables report each month. They were unable to answer basic questions about the difference between profit, cash in the bank and cash flow. Most also assumed that more customers and sales was the ONLY and best solution to fix a cash flow issue. This research squarely put into focus the seriousness of the financial literacy problem amongst our clients.
Truth is, at least 90% of the entrepreneurs you interact with each day are financially illiterate. They cannot read their financial statements so creating beautiful graphs, dashboards, forecasts or key performance indicators (KPIs), may not be as useful or helpful as you think.
In addition, neuroscience has proven that the part of the brain that makes decisions and acts, struggles to understand numbers and words. It is primarily a visual beast and is strongly influenced by pictures, video, storytelling, strong contrast, emotions etc. This is a huge challenge for us as a profession because most of us have never been taught how to explain financial concepts to our layperson clients, in the language they can understand.
Your clients desperately need strategies to fix the problems that keep them broke and awake at night. They need to know HOW to provide a better living for their families. And you need to find better, more impactful technologies and training to deliver these insights in a way that your clients can actually grasp, digest, and implement.
In a nutshell — “it doesn’t make sense to sell fruit, when what your clients really crave is chocolate.”
Deciphering the Difference Between Fruit and Chocolate
According to Xero’s Make or Break Report in 2015, 65% of business owners blame financial mismanagement for the failure of their business. Most of your clients are in financial pain and searching for the solution that will fix it now. More often than not, this pain will be directly related to cash flow or working capital deficiencies.
They will pay any price for step-by-step instructions to fix this specific problem, but they will only pay pennies for dashboards, KPIs and graphs. Dashboards only diagnose pain. To successfully shift your practice to high margin, advisory services you must go one step further: You must provide a clear path to curing that pain.
The key to building a successful practice in this new, highly competitive world, is to step back and recognize when you might be trying to sell fruit (i.e. dashboards etc. that are meaningful to you) when your client really wants chocolate (i.e. two-three simple, actionable strategies to unlock cash that is trapped in their business).
How Can You Deliver Two-Three Simple, Actionable Strategies?
Let’s take for example the case of one of our clients Steve, a commercial tradesman, who makes custom cabinets, counter tops and other kitchen installations for businesses in the hospitality industry. When he came to us, his business was experiencing revenue growth of 17.17% and he couldn’t understand why he was struggling to pay his bills each month.
After analyzing his financial statements, here’s what we discovered:
- his total receivables had increased over $36,814 in the six month, year to date period;
- Steve’s customers took on average 29 days to pay;
- while his sales were growing at a rate of 17.17%, his receivables grew at a rate of 131.22%;
- two of Steve’s regular customers were in fact the worst payers; and
- if Steve didn’t make changes immediately to the way he operated his business, his cash balance was going to fall below zero in at least three out of the next twelve months.
Now it would have been easy for us to throw together some beautiful graphs, dashboards and a twelve month cash flow forecast and deliver it to Steve along with our recommendation to “collect your debtors quicker” and “reduce your total outstanding debtors by $36,000 in the next 30 days”.
In fact, the software that we use with all of our clients produces all of these in a matter of seconds.
However, here’s the important point…
If we had done that and simply walked away, there’s a very good chance that Steve would have been in exactly the same position, and possibly even worse off, when we caught up again with him next month. Here’s why…
Steve hates looking at and dealing with his numbers. He often gets the terms receivables and payables mixed up, he is embarrassed to admit that he can’t read the dashboard, and he doesn’t know how to implement the instruction to collect his debt quicker.
While the graphs, KPIs, dashboards and forecasts make perfect sense to you or I, they mean little or nothing to most of your clients. I discovered this the hard way, when I became a business coach eight years ago, after having practiced as a lawyer and chartered accountant for many years. Like most of you, I just assumed that if I simplified the numbers, put them into some sort of context and packaged them up in a way that looked colorful and beautiful, our clients “would surely grasp the insights” and be able to implement strategies to fix the problems.
Truth be told, if we are going to be effective and make a difference, we must do a whole lot more than that. We must not only deliver the “nuggets of chocolate gold” hidden in the numbers, but also present clear strategies and step-by-step instructions so that they can take purposeful action that boosts their bottom line and cash flow.
How Can You Deliver Chocolate & Ensure It’s Still Nutritious?
In the case of Steve, we had to do a whole lot more than just present the KPIs, graphs, and forecasts. In order to make the insights accessible and actionable, we first stripped out all the accounting jargon and showed him in plain language which two or three strategies would have the biggest impact on his cash flow in the next 30 days.
Here is an example of an expert tip and step-by-step instructions that we delivered to Steve. In addition to explaining what the problem was in numerical terms, we gave him a clear explanation that he could refer back to at any time, 4 simple steps to take, and 2 additional coaching resources that he could refer to for guidance on how to implement. These supplemental resources link directly to video training, webinars, photos and case studies which clearly communicate concepts in a way that our clients can grasp.
The key to empowering your clients to take purposeful action often comes down to two simple factors (1) leverage and (2) focus. The quickest way to gain leverage is to quantify the size of the problem and put the cost of continuing to ignore it into perspective. Rather than just instructing your clients to collect debt quicker, you must find new and innovative ways to show them how much they are wasting by continuing to let people get away without paying on time. Similarly, we achieve focus by only presenting the two or three strategies that will have the biggest impact. We avoid overwhelm by pairing back what we share – which in turns allows the client to focus on what is urgent today.
That is the sole focus of our approach – it goes beyond just sharing numbers and metrics and into the realm of coaching and supporting them to fix the financial pain and build businesses that have strong systems and strategies in place to grow safely and profitably.
While the numbers often highlight challenges and opportunities, the solutions are not always limited to the realm of accounting and finance. As our industry evolves, you will no doubt find yourself increasingly asked for advice and support around pricing, technology, systems, sales, marketing and leadership. These are not disciplines which have been traditionally taught to accounting students but the new frontier we find ourselves in, will increasingly demand it of us if we are to remain relevant and valued.
When In Doubt, Find and Sell the Chocolate
Remember, if you client is in financial pain, and most of them are, they will only listen to and pay for insights they can understand and implement immediately. This makes it imperative for you to get to the point quickly and ensure you are delivering only the information (in layman’s terms) that they need to act and cure their pain.
While it’s easy for you to fall in love with beautiful graphs and dashboards, it’s important to remember that they are desperate for clear, simple instructions and tangible strategies that will boost their bottom line and cash flow quickly, cheaply, and easily.
When you take a step back and identify the chocolate each client is desperately searching for, it will also become a whole lot easier to attract more ideal clients, accelerate your growth and profitability, and command a premium price for your advisory services!
For more content on this topic see also Have You Hit This Common Stumbling Block Trying To Shift to Advisory?
While many accounting firms are attempting to offer advisory services, many still aren’t hitting the nail on the head, according to a business coach.
Speaking to Accountants Daily, Businest managing director Rhondalynn Korolak said that accountants are still failing to understand what it is that their clients want. “There’s a common misconception or mistake in the industry where everyone thinks that we have to give dashboards and KPIs to our small business clients. Many simply misinterpret the definition of what advisory services really is (or means).
However, it has statistically been proven that at least 87 per cent of our small business clients are financially illiterate,” she said.
“That’s a huge stumbling block that I think a lot of accountants have to come to grips with. If their clients are financially illiterate, they can’t read their financial statements, so it doesn’t matter how good the graphs look or how beautiful the dashboards and KPIs are. If someone can’t read their financial statements, they can’t read those either.”
Because of this misconception, Ms Korolak said one of the biggest issues plaguing the accounting industry at the moment is that firms aren’t delivering on their clients’ needs.
“The biggest mistake that I see accounting firms making, and even just sole practitioners, is they’re trying to sell fruit to their customers, when what the clients really crave is chocolate,” Ms Korolak said. They attempt to sell their advisory services instead of focusing on helping their clients cure the pain points that keep them up at night worrying.
“Accountants are perfectly poised, they’re perfectly positioned to actually help small businesses, but we can’t do it if we keep trying to teach people accounting. The small businesses owners don’t want to learn it. They want us to take all the accounting jargon out and give them a clear roadmap with step-by-step instructions of how they’re going to fix their problems.”
Ms Korolak believes this comes down to a skill gap created by universities still teaching outdated skills and a lack of training opportunities.
“Advisory services aren’t about dashboards and it isn’t about giving people reports and all that kind of stuff. It’s about two things: getting leverage on the client and getting them to take action,” she said.
“The skills that most advisors would need to be able to pull that off and do it well are in many ways the exact opposite of skills that we were trained in school.”
This article originally appeared in the Accountants Daily on May 1, 2017
It’s impossible to pick up an industry publication without encountering headlines that scream “automation will eliminate most of what you do in your practice in the next decade”.
The concern is a very real and global one – it affects every industry, not just accounting. Proof in point, a 2013 research study estimates that nearly half of employment in America is at high risk of becoming automated in 10 to 20 years, with the accounting profession ranking in the top six of the most automatable occupations.
According to an Australian research paper released by the Centre for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), “in the next decade there is a high probability that occupations such as accountants, estate agents and even economists will not exist or will be significantly depleted.”
The researchers even go so far as to hypothesise that 94 per cent of what you do right now as an accountant or bookkeeper will be replaced by machine learning and artificial intelligence by 2030.
That is only 13 years from now.
And it’s precisely why thought leaders, industry bodies, and training organisations are urging you to focus on making the shift to advisory.
While some would have you believe that talk of jobs and revenue lost is just simple fear mongering, many firms are right now seeking to move away from backward-looking compliance work (work that describes what has happened in the past and present) which is increasingly being automated by cloud accounting packages and apps. These firms are exploring new value-added advisory services that are not so easily automated and are forward-looking (helping the client to anticipate and deal with change, challenges and opportunities).
These advisory services, can help accounting and bookkeeping firms to future-proof their practices and create faster-growing, recurring, or high-margin revenue streams that make it easier to let go of compliance work.
So, it begs the question, if the future of our industry is cloudy, how many firms are already providing advisory services and what is real the outlook/potential for our industry?
A recent survey by Sageworks found that while many practitioners would like for a large share of their revenue to come from advisory services, the reality is that for many, very little revenue is actually derived from strategic, consultative or advisory work.
Participants of this survey were asked two questions:
- what percentage of firm revenue comes from advisory/consulting work? and
- what percentage would they like to come from advisory work?.
The graph showing the responses to each question are virtual mirror images of each other. While many would like to offer advisory services, most are in fact not doing so today.
Surprisingly, nearly half of respondents said less than 10 per cent of revenue comes from advisory/consulting work, and more than two-thirds put the estimate at less than 20 per cent of revenue. Only 13 per cent said 40 per cent or more of revenue is advisory/consulting.
As for the first question – how much they’d like to come from consulting/advisory work – nearly half of respondents said 40 per cent of revenue. The majority of the respondents said they’d like at least 30 per cent to come from strategic, consulting, and/or advisory.
Unfortunately, our industry and the way we educate and train new recruits is focused on technical skills, legislative changes, and GAAP processes. These establish you as an expert but they are not enough to elevate you into the realm of coaching, consulting or advisory. When you sit down to advise your clients, it’s just too easy to fall into the trap of “explaining accounting” and focusing on ‘what’, as opposed to focusing on the specific steps and strategies your client must implement to grow safely and profitably.
Compounding this, there is very little training in university, on the job, or in our industry bodies to show you how to make the shift into advisory. Contrary to popular belief, advisory is not about selling dashboards, forecasts or apps. It’s about connecting with your clients and communicating in a way that gains leverage and influences them to take action to improve their results.
Right now you are facing a cloudy and uncertain future. Doing nothing is no longer an option.
In order to evolve and remain relevant, you must acquire a new set of tools, talents, and thought processes that complement the financial acumen you already have. The skills, focus, and mindset required to excel in the fields of audit, tax, and compliance are vastly different from those required to excel in the disciplines of strategy, advisory services, and coaching/consulting. The core distinction lies in the difference between whether you are seen to be an expert, or to have expertise and insight.
The client will always pay more money for expertise and insight because their perceived value to the business is much higher.
As an accountant or bookkeeper, you are already a deep subject matter expert in all things financial. However, most of what you do for your clients is focused on the numbers that describe the past and present of the business. These compliance tasks are highly price-sensitive, the scope of work is limited, and it is almost impossible to leverage them to create influence with your client.
In order to create influence, you must move into the domains of ‘why’ and ‘how’ — these hold the key to helping your clients move forward. Coaching and advisory services are the gateways to ‘why’ and ‘how’, respectively. Figure 1 sets out the three gateways and illustrates the path from accountant/bookkeeper to coach and trusted advisor.
Both ‘why’ and ‘how’ require a future-based, big-picture focus as well as a broad, inter-disciplinary approach. While all three dimensions require deep subject matter expertise, only the trusted advisor possesses the key set of skills, focus, and mindset that leverages their specialized knowledge in a way that is impactful and influential.
*This article originally appeared in the Aug 18, 2017 edition of Public Accountant magazine.
Rhondalynn is also the co-founder of the world’s first advisory mastermind for accountants and bookkeepers Make The SHIFT