Listening, Learning, Teaching for Profits

April 21, 2011

In the middle of April, after the last tax return (or extension) is filed, many tax partners at CPA firms across the United States shake their head and sigh, “There must be a better way!”  In many cases new ideas to improve the tax preparation processes come to mind.  Some of these processes eventually get documented.  A few improvements are actually implemented.

To reach implementation, the recommendations must be taught to team members who are responsible for actually performing those functions.  Two steps that lead to execution of these improvements are learning and teaching.  In this case a tax partner learned a process improvement based on integrating prior experiences with recent knowledge gained from “opportunity season”.  But this process for improvement is incomplete.  This type of improvement occurs upon injecting top-down knowledge into the firm.  But, what opportunities emerge when a third step contributes to this process?

By adding listening to this process, the firm now benefits from communication up and down the organization. By using good questioning skills and then listening, every professional who interacts with clients can learn about additional service needs to help the client and communicate them up the organization. Because CPAs clearly have clients’ attention during “opportunity season”, this is the ideal time for progressive firms to boost cross-selling activities. 

Next, the partner overseeing the client relationship has to listen to frontline professionals in order to learn about the cross-selling opportunity or process improvements that result from client interactions.  The cycle is complete when the CPA in a leadership position listens to the input from the frontline, learns an improvement to benefit the firm, and teaches other firm professionals so that new knowledge is adopted as a best practice.

Many business consultants and professors who teach executive training programs mirror this process.  They privately confess that they learn from their executive students more information than they teach.  They acquire knowledge from the frontlines, add previous experience, teach the new information to an eager audience, then repeat the process.  For progressive accounting firms to get maximum benefit, the key steps are:
• Frontline team members listen and learn from client interactions in order to share information with leaders.
• Leaders learn these lessons, add prior experiences and incorporate the knowledge into best practices.
• Leaders broadly teach these newly developed best practices so that the firm can effectively introduce new tactics for better performance.

Answers and opportunities appear up and down the organization.  All members throughout the firm must actively listen, learn and teach for performance improvement, productivity gains and ultimately, income growth.

By Glenn Hunter
Director of Member Development, The APA/ Enterprise Worldwide

Mentoring For Better Accounting Firms

April 1, 2011

The new staff accountant is wrapping up the first-day orientation upon starting with her new accounting firm.  After a day of meeting key employees and signing paperwork, the firm’s newest member listens to the administrative partner once again describe the firm’s mentoring program.  Finally, the administrative partner assigns the young CPA to a partner with instructions to meet him first thing in the morning.

Day two, the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed CPA politely knocks on the mentoring partner’s half-opened door early in the morning.  From inside the office a voice growls, “make an appointment with my assistant to talk to me about mentoring!”  Upon returning to her cube, the young CPA emails her mentor’s assistant a meeting request for the following week.  At lunchtime when the CPA is going through her LinkedIn contacts she begins to wonder who in her network is working for a firm that gives good career support and is also hiring.

Mentoring relationships fundamentally involve two people who agree to share professional experiences and insights.  Ideally, the relationship is close and informal.  It features a mature professional contributing industry or organizational wisdom connecting with a younger professional bringing exuberance and energy.  Essentially, mentoring relationships are good for building trust and understanding within different levels of the firm.  The desired benefit is better productivity among the professionals in the relationships.  Unfortunately, firms pursuing that expected outcome often get a stale program that standardizes mentoring relationships throughout the firm.

To maximize the benefit, mentors and mentees require an inherent sense of mutual respect.  They must establish fair and reasonable expectations for each other which they can leverage for mutual benefit.  Mentoring works best when each party earnestly tries to out-give the other.  In accounting firms, mentoring relationships often suffer when they are institutionalized.  Once they are institutionalized, they tend to lack the necessary authenticity to be productive.  The personal connection facilitates the respect for each other’s opinions and the desire for each individual’s improvement.  Then, the relationship intentionally grows toward the desired outcome of building value.

A structured program is a good way to bring both individuals together for a mentoring relationship.  But to be successful, eventually an authentic relationship has to develop.  Without authenticity the experience is merely a scheduled engagement, instead of an exchange of developmental experiences.

A “mentoring program” requires a partner to take a staff accountant on a sales call.  A “mentoring relationship” permits that staff accountant to participate in the sales presentation, then accept honest feedback on the return trip to the office.  Mentoring delivers maximum benefit when focused on individual growth and not necessarily career advancement.   It is not a human resources checklist item.  However, mentoring is a powerful way for a firm to establish working relationships that focus on growing individual contributions and productivity.

By Glenn Hunter
Director of Member Development, Enterprise Worldwide/ The APA

If Leader’s Don’t…Others Won’t

March 17, 2011

The very best firms build a culture for accountability and stay committed to seeing their plans through . Many accounting firms that struggle holding people accountable are much like the person with 15 pounds to lose in January who goes to the gym CONSISTENTLY…..for two weeks. They lack the commitment to seeing it through.

Accounting firm leaders often assign people benchmarks, mentors, coaches, and produce balanced scorecards ad nausea, yet at some point in the process a Partner skips a mentoring meeting with a staff member and then another and another until the mentor program that was established no longer exists. Best practices like balanced scorecards, coaching and mentoring programs, and training programs work in good firms when they apply true commitment to the process.

Accounting firms that want to produce long lasting results toward accountability will first get the Partner team on board. They will define what success looks like in their firm and put benchmarks in place that equate to that success. The picture of success should be defined at the service level (e.g. how do we communicate internally and externally with clients, how often, when do we follow up, how often, etc…) and at the business development level (how many meetings will a partner have, how much business will a partner obtain, how many referrals will they receive). The Partners then must walk the talk and set an example for others to follow. If leaders don’t… others won’t.

Getting staff to commit to their own performance needs to involve receiving their buy in to what they are agreeing to do. When there is mutual agreement it becomes easier to have people follow through as long as there is a system in place for follow up or accountability for each staff member. People that know they are going to have the questions asked at a regular check in meeting they will be more likely to work hard to perform to meet expectations. However, if follow up is lackadaisical then the performance will be too.

There is no formula that will work without follow through. The magic to the formula is staying committed, often at times when it would be very easy to skip that part.

 

Regards,

Patrick Pruett

Enterprise Worldwide

 

Stop Complaining and Network!

March 15, 2011

As professional services providers, certified public accountants are uniquely positioned to solve very complex and personal challenges for their clients.  CPAs must stay up-to-date on the latest developments within their specialty areas, as well as cultivate an environment for innovation.  What client really wants their CPA solving today’s problems with ten year old solutions? 

The two primary tools at a CPAs disposal for cutting-edge knowledge are continuing professional education (CPE) requirements and individual networking.  The structured education is a condition of a CPAs license, but the networking is where true learning is acquired.  Having trusted colleagues with whom you can ask “the dumb question”, or get an expert opinion on a recent development is a critical weapon to service clients who demand great answers to their individual issue.  For obtaining answers, relationships with trusted colleagues save time which equates to more profitable client interactions.

But, where does a busy accountant find these trusted colleagues?  Accounting associations are great places to start.  Progressive associations are often comprised of firms with similar philosophies.  Some associations even target accountants who specialize in specific niches.  In nearly all cases, associations are full of accountants seeking to engage other accountants to exchange ideas and improve their individual practices.  Conferences, members-only email lists, and conference calls provide proven vehicles to nurture these valuable relationships and share intelligent solutions among professionals who can quickly satisfy clients.

Unfortunately, these gatherings sometimes become gripe sessions.  While an accountant’s role involves pressure and high expectations resulting from demanding clients and exacting firm leaders, a kindred spirit from the same profession can be a sympathetic ear.  Nevertheless, using your fellow association members to whine and complain is like using a Ferrari to teach a teenager how to drive.  It can serve that purpose, but is that really how you want to use such a highly prized asset?

Associations and professional groups maximize accountants’ success when used properly.  All interactions should begin with a plan.  Prepare in advance any specific business issues to discuss during interactions with fellow members.  Whether in person, or on conference calls, respect your colleague’s time and talent by plainly stating that you seek guidance and that you value their insight.  Dedicated time for networking needs to be spent intentionally building relationships.  The discussion does not have to be all business, but the tone needs to be supportive and reassuring that the group’s resources can solve problems.  Networking does not occur exclusively at the cocktail reception any more than every hour at a conference is dedicated to CPE.  However, CPAs that build leading practices have relationships in place to continue strengthening their practices and satisfying clients.  Connect with other accountants who share your appetite for superior performance and be ready to exchange your best ideas.  Let you competitors get together and spend their time whining about how you continue to kick their butts in the marketplace!

By Glenn Hunter
Director of Member Development, Enterprise Worldwide

ME. Inc!…Beyond the Baseline

March 9, 2011

Creating a brand in the marketplace is often thought of as the realm for big business. A place for McDonalds, Coca Cola, and Disney. Everyone connects to these compamies and the things they offer. Brands such as these create a position in the marketplace that says they are the experts, they are better than competitive proucts, and they make a connection with people that builds trust.

Consider for a moment the power of your individual brand in the marketplace, the power of ME.Inc. Your name can be synonymous with expertise in the field, impeccable client service, and a genuine concern for clients’ welfare. In fact your brand can deliver in ways that most companies around the world can’t match because you are dealing in a space that others do not. Many businesses are working one dimensionally with people. They deal in wants: I want a Coke, a hamburger, a pleasurable experience. As an accountant and trusted business advisor, you are dealing at two dimensions. You focus on helping people to succeed so they can get things they want and then you work at a higher level dealing with peoples’ need to deliver security for themselves, their family, and their staff.

Branding yourself as the accounting professional who can deliver at two dimensions is powerful.  The question becomes how?

Many accountants I have seen develop a powerful image in their local market and even nationally do several things. First they deliver first class service and they leverage the capabilities of people around them to assist clients. Doing these things provides the baseline for being known as someone to turn to for help. However, launching your brand so that your name becomes synonomous with a specific expertise and gets you at the table whenever someone needs that expertise requires going beyond the baseline. Beyond the baseline is where really successful people gravitate over time.

High achievers develop high competency in specialty areas and then get the word out in ways that other accountants are reluctant or neglect to do. They join industry associations, they serve on the board of the association in positions that place them in regular company with the key drivers of business, they cultivate relationships, they are constantly learning from others, AND are open to exploring new ideas and alternatives. Successfully branding your name in the market also involves getting out there to speak regularly to industry groups about issues most critical to their businesses. It requires joining online discussion groups and contributing quality insights to the discussion.

When I was a boy I asked my dad “how that guy got to be better than everybody else”? He said the reason was because they were willing to do things that others weren’t and that made them different.

 

Patrick Pruett

Enterprise Worldwide

 

Success Is A Verb

February 12, 2011

When I was ten years old I could only think of a few things I wanted to do when I grew up. Right at the top of the list was to be a professional baseball player. What happened between those thoughts and the reality of life gets somewhat blurred and the reason I never became a baseball player was surely due to a combination of factors, not the least of which is a lack of being proficient at hitting, catching, and throwing a baseball. Connected to this lack of baseball ability was inactivity or not enough time spent in the act of doing the things that would help me be successful at the upper levels of baseball.  I would go to practice, play in games, and outside of that there was not much baseball activity in my life.

Recent conversations with accounting firms around the country  have generally been positive with people feeling more excitement at the prospect of firm growth in 2011. The mindset in general has changed from what it has been in the previous two years. Still, going from the thought of  “I want to grow the firm by 10% or more” to the reality of actually making this happen will take more than excitement, desire or want.

Thinking of success as a verb places an emphasis on action and follow through. Whenever I ask about the initiatives that a firm has in place to achieve 10% growth there are a range of answers however the typical response lists 2-3 initiatives that the firm is planning for the year.  When questioned further as to who the champion of each initiative is the conversation slows up as often there is no one in place to drive the activity being planned hence if it gets done at all the results will likely be minimal to sporadic. The conversation then stalls further when I ask how much new business, specifically, will come from each of the initiatives, and who is following up on the clients and prospects that attended the firm seminar if that is something in the works.

A good question to ask yourself about any marketing or business development activity is simply what will success look like if you achieve all you want to with this activity? Will it be 1 new client, 3 new prospects, or 1 additional project with an existing client?

As a follow up to this line of thinking you should decide what has to be done, physically, to make success happen and who is in the best position from a skill set to own the project and drive others to help. Then give that person everything they need to make it happen including the time, resources, and personal support and encouragement. Using this process puts success in its proper context as something that is active and tangible instead of a nice thought or feeling….in other words it makes success the verb that it truly is.

Regards,

Patrick Pruett

Enterprise Worldwide

Coordinate Your Team for Healthy Construction Projects

February 7, 2011

Business headlines scream about the US economy’s ongoing struggles in the real estate markets.  Despite the financial, economic and social factors that drive the insanity, the resultant impact on the construction industry is inextricably linked to the challenges.  For the construction industry, times are tough.  For business people who entered the business because it seemed easy, now is probably a good time to get out.  Lending is tight.  Subcontractors and material vendors continue to have a hard time keeping their doors open.  Construction has always been a tough industry for hardnosed business people.  Now it is getting harder!

The standard for success keeps rising and successful players in the construction industry must better understand their business.  Financial IQ is no longer a luxury.  The numbers no longer “just work themselves out”.  The winners pay attention to accounting details and are willing to learn what really is “the new normal”.  That education comes from having a professional team in place purposely attending to every element of construction deals.  Accountants, bankers, attorneys, insurance agents all must come together for the success of a construction business and its projects.  For construction leaders who don’t have the skill set to manage this three ring circus of degrees, certifications and specialists, your construction industry-specific CPA is a great place to start.

In looking at winning bids and initiating new projects, bonding is more critical and elusive than it has been in distant memory.  How do construction companies communicate their capability to perform the proposed project?  The winners equip their CPAs to produce the necessary financial reports that speak directly to the needs and concerns of the bonding agent.  Likewise, the CPA does the same for bankers.  Without the internal capacity to manage relationships with the other parties, as well as produce meaningful financial documents to their specific satisfaction, construction business owners are wildly guessing and unknowingly wasting a lot of time.  In this environment, no one has time to waste!

Furthermore, experienced CPAs can deliver tactics to improve the construction companies’ financial position in anticipation of bonding and banking needs.  While all accounting maneuvers have trade-offs, in certain circumstances the benefits have significant paybacks.  For example, reclassifying short-term debt from a related party into long-term debt with a subordination agreement may improve debt ratios so that the business’ financials now reflect less risk and funding is more attractive.  As appealing as it is that the possibility of implementing a few reporting changes will create new opportunities, the reality reveals that hard work, strategic planning and time will be necessary to significantly improve the entity’s health in many cases.  But to reiterate, professionals who entered this business because it seemed easy probably need to get out.

In essence, the construction industry now operates under a new paradigm.  A strategic game plan featuring tactical relationships is imperative for success.  A CPA with a successful track record working with construction bankers, in addition to having earned credibility with bonding agents, will help position new bids and projects for success.  Submitting printed financial statements from a contractor’s internal bookkeeping software is likely to yield as much success as using asbestos for a fire retardant.

The economic facts are that the construction industry is presently full of fear.  Throughout the value chain: funding, bonding, subcontractors, materials and legal advice, all providers are fearful in this environment.  Consequently, relationships are more critical than ever.

Contractors can individually cower in fear, holding onto antiquated business practices, until greed dominates again.  Or, they can find comfort in uniting with service providers who communally want to face the fear with a game plan, discussion, facts and intentional consideration of each other’s interests.  To conduct business in construction, winners now come together with a plan.  Start with bringing an experienced, well-connected CPA who is fluent in the language of money which can get all parties’ attention.  Information and communication alleviate fear.  Less fear leads to more strategic clarity, then more trust.  Construction companies that coordinate their financial efforts through experienced, well-connected, construction CPAs will realize that doing business just got easier.

By

Jim Laubinger, CPA
Principal – Corbett, Duncan & Hubly P.C.
and
Glenn Hunter
Director of Member Development – Enterprise Worldwide

Effective Leadership in 2011

January 26, 2011

Last week was the 2011 Enterprise Worldwide Leadership Forum in fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.  “Invigorated” is the best word I can use to describe how I feel after this meeting.  Not only was it nice to escape the bitter cold for a few days (someone please remind me why I moved to Boston!), but the speakers were absolutely phenomenal and the topics relevant to the New Year.  One of my goals for the New Year is to be a better leader, both professionally and personally, and these subjects were essentially the theme of this meeting.

One of my biggest takeaways was the simple fact that being a leader means being a mentor and a coach.  In our personal lives, we all aspire to be wonderful parents, loving spouses and upstanding citizens.  But what does that really mean?  It is one thing to love someone, but it is something totally different to LEAD someone.  The fact of the matter is, both ingredients are necessary if you plan to leave a legacy.  And it is no different professionally.  Think about it – you might be a wonderful person, easy to get along with, etc. but are you really helping your people if you’re not teaching them?

Busy season is upon us and during this stressful time it becomes easy for us to shut our doors and focus on the task at hand.  While it’s still important to get the job done, resist the urge to be ordinary.  As leaders, it is equally important that we take the extraordinary step to open our doors in order to mentor and coach those around us. That way we can each invigorate ourselves and others!

If you missed the Leadership Forum, please visit our website and take a look at the session materials.  Let’s all make effective leadership a goal in 2011.

Adelaide Ness
International Director
Enterprise Worldwide

Make The Leap To Thought Leadership

January 23, 2011

Accounting firms often struggle with finding ways to send a clear message to the marketplace about what makes them different and relevant. Those of you in this situation need to use all the tools at your disposal and talk with your clients and prospects to position yourself and the firm as the expert with resources in many service areas, lines of business, and internationally.

The good news is that in today’s world you have more opportunity than ever before to get your message out to your target market (and beyond) with no investment other than sweat equity. Online publishing tools allow you to become a thought leader in an industry, service, or specialty area and reach more segments of a given population by using the knowledge you have inside the firm and turning it loose through internet channels such as your website, webinars, a firm blog, LinkedIn groups, Facebook, and dozens of other online information outlets.

I can hear you say ‘all this sounds like an ideal plan yet far too difficult for my firm, we don’t understand how it works, and it takes too much time’. In reality it isn’t so impossible or hard as it may seem if you become very strategic and leverage the content you produce. The internet offers unlimited potential to distribute your name and content directly to the target market you are trying to reach while at the same time placing you at the forefront of thought leadership in the industry.

How?

Lets say someone in your firm writes an article for a set of your clients. Many accountants would simply place it in their firm newsletter and stop there. Yet what if you take it several steps further and leverage that piece of thought leadership across the internet and other ways. First, distribute the article through various online tools: send out a client email, post it to a firm blog, place it on LinkedIn and Facebook, send a short message out on Twitter, and use any other online site you have access to (all of these posts and messages can be done very quickly). Then to cap it off why not create a webinar and/or seminar from the article for clients and prospects.

The most difficult piece is creating the article. After that, your article distribution is relatively easy and even creating the webinar and seminar can be straightforward.  Obviously it takes some time yet certainly there is an awesome amount of potential.

Moving from where you are to this type of  thought leadership strategy is certainly a leap from traditional  marketing however it is worth the sweat equity investment that can help you and your firm jump to the next level.

Patrick Pruett

The Alliance of Professional Associations

One Hot Idea To Generate Revenue For Accounting Firms

January 12, 2011

Last week I attended a conference in Cancun and in addition to some incredibly nice weather, a gorgeous resort (Live Aqua), and terrific networking  I came away with  information to share with accounting firms.

During a keynote address from Troy Waugh, founder of The Rainmaker Academy and CEO of FiveStar 3, the question was raised about the amount of NEW business that is required each year for an accounting firm to stay level with the previous year. After several quiet moments one person said that in his firm they must bring in at a minimum 30% of last year’s revenue to stay even. Initially it sounded high however when you take into account one off projects, consulting work, lost clients etc. the number made more sense. Others chimed in and agreed their firm was similar.

Business development is obviously the lifeblood of your firm and you need to be actively engaged in the process of getting the work into your office. So where do you go to find the business?

One place to begin is by looking at the marketplace to see what is taking place and how you can leverage your firm to take advantage of the current and future environment. Following is an idea to consider. I was talking recently with a Merger and Acquisition firm when I learned that more capital is sitting on the sidelines than at any point in our history. Obviously, through the recession no one has been willing to take a chance on any sector so little to nothing has happened including return on capital. However, managers of the capital were given the money with explicit instructions to “get a return for my investment”. Given that 2 years plus have passed with no activity these capital managers now have a short window to make something happen. As a result, the prediction is that over the next 3-4 years there will be a tidal wave of mergers and acquisitions taking place.

This is the revenue generation opportunity for you to pay attention to. Are you prepared for your clients who will come to you for advice? Are you out looking for opportunities to leverage your firm in this environment?

Many accountants shy away from mergers talk with clients as they worry about losing a good client through a takeover. However, if you don’t work with them it is likely that someone else will step into your shoes to fill a void in advice. You are best to be proactive and offer solutions that make sense for the clients that will really help them make a good, sound decision. You are their most trusted advisor. AND you can generate substantial fees for the effort. One Enterprise Worldwide firm a few years ago generated over a hundred thousand dollars in revenue by helping his client through a transaction.

Take a look at your client base and judge whether you have a candidate(s) for a merger or acquisition. Many of your small business clients haven’t planned well so have no succession plan other than the dim hope that one of their children may want to take over the family business. In many cases these family members are not ‘realistically’ the best choice to leave a legacy with. They should probably sell the business to another capable business owner. Your role, if you choose to make a client impact, will be critical to making sure your client conduct the transaction the right way and ends up with the best deal.

 

Patrick Pruett


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