Accountants, Client Advisory Success, & How it (Maybe) Works

Picture of Matt Skinner

What kind of people grow up to be accountants? Is it weird, abacus-loving, bookworms? Is it the know-it-alls with pocket protectors and ‘favorite calculators’? Is it the kids who were always pulling out the instructions during board games and pointing to the most esoteric rule and asking if you realized you actually, technically rolled twice on that turn and now instantly lose by default? Was it the goth kids in the back row who secretly made straight A’s and wrecked the curve for everyone else?

I mean, yes. It was. All of them.

But more crucially, there’s another trait they all share – accountants like to help people succeed. There’s a constant discussion of what’s an “Advisor” but I’m not sure the label is the important part. What matters is the spirit – the part of the relationship that goes beyond audit and assurance and compliance and compilations and is instead about being a business’ biggest advocate, most constructive critic, and consistently reliable teammate.

In a way, it’s what most accountants are already doing – when someone asks “how do I retain more revenue / hire more people / expand to an international superpower?” they always ask their accountant first. As well they should, (particularly about consolidating international political powers). But this level of care isn’t built into a classic engagement for compliance or bookkeeping – it requires a lot of time and effort and energy and the way that most gigs are structured, there just isn’t enough bandwidth for it.

It can be a struggle to systematize advisory services. The innate mind of an accountant is to start counting hours, numbers of transactions, quantity of bank accounts – I mean, you remember the kid with the abacus. Maybe you were the kid with the abacus. What else are they going to do except start counting?

But when you look at what makes up a quality advisory engagement – goal setting, key performance indicators, reporting and dashboards built for a specific client’s specific needs – its not something you can always measure in increments of an hour. It’s more about value provided than time served.

And these are tools you already have access to – I think the Statement of Cash Flows is a woefully underutilized, misunderstood, castaway to the island of misfit QuickBooks Online financial reports. Why? Because all accruals and accounts receivable and accounts payable aside, a lot of business owners need a way to understand their financials the way they understand the bedrock that is their bank account. Having something like that built into the platform, automatically generated and balanced each month is a perfect resource.

Our other secret weapon within QuickBooks Online – and please hold all derisive giggles until the end – is the Modern View Journal report. No one ever asks just one question (even if it literally is just one question). When someone says “am I spending more on payroll this year?”, they’re asking about prior years, they’re asking about benefits, they’re asking about head count, they’re asking about that expense as a percentage of revenue. Sure, you could build five or six custom reports or dump eight billion lines of data into a spreadsheet and work from there – or you could built a quick pivot in Modern View and turn it into a custom chart. Suddenly, you’re the one with all the answers (and a cute little chart, to boot). It’s crucial to have a platform like QuickBooks Online to be able to reliably generate these things, regularly and on the fly.

We provide our clients financial statements every month – it’s the only real “recurring deliverable” and it’s also the least valuable part of our service. What’s more important to a business owner? A PDF balance sheet from last month, or knowing that they can call us anytime with a question? Or that we will help them parse bank documents, or argue with vendors, or bring them new ideas about automation and simplification of processes? Those things are harder to quantify but they’re infinitely more valuable than a reminder they spent $45 on office supplies last month.

To that end, advisory services requires a built-in buffer. Some months you might talk to a client three times a week – the next month, maybe half that. Maybe twice that. We work on a retainer basis for that reason – we don’t want businesses to “save up” questions or even pause if they think they want to talk to our team. We want them to feel comfortable grabbing their phone and shooting off a quick message to us asking for help. And we want to ensure we’re available for those urgent, fire drill items that business owners fight every week.

It’s a different model than a lot of historical accounting work. But it’s about making sure you have bandwidth and availability for clients when they need you. The value isn’t the deliverable. The value is having an ally – clients knowing that when they have a question or need a report or just wonder how much they paid a contractor three years ago they can kick it over to our team and we can answer quickly, accurately, and with the context that moves it from a number to something actionable. “You paid Contractor $5,000 last year” is a very different answer than “You paid Contractor $5,000 last year – so far this year, you’ve paid only $1,000 but that’s because you hired a full-time staffer to tend to your wild peacock farm.”

So, if an accountant likes to help people, likes to help people succeed, then offering advisory services is a natural extension of that. I think firms struggle with the how to offer advisory to their clients. First, it’s crucial to understand that, to some extent, you’re already doing it, every day, when you talk to any client about their business. Okay, maybe you can’t monetize your check-in calls necessarily, but this is about the skills you already have. Before you worry about vocabulary words and dashboards and automation and presentations to the Board, it’s about turning data (financial and non-financial) into bellwethers the business health. That isn’t half as scary as it sounds; imagine you have a restaurant client who wants to start patio dining. I’m confident you can think of three non-financial variables that would immediately affect the day’s business. By way of example,

  1. Outside average temperature
  2. Wind speed and it’s effect on drink coasters
  3. Proximity to local garbage dump

Congratulations, you’re now an advisor. Well, you’re on your way. At least, you can see the benefits of advisory services – you get to use your expertise to help a business you care about. Maybe they’ll end up opening the patio anyway, regardless of it being downwind from six thousand tons of burning tires – but that would just be another round of excitement for you and the team.

We like win-win-win engagements – a win for the Firm in terms of a great client, a win for the team in terms of getting to use their skills to help someone find the success they’re looking for, and a win for the client where they feel like our team is their team and we’re all moving towards the goal. It’s very cosmic, sure – but, really, aren’t we all in it together?

Learn more about Matt Skinner and schedule an introductory call to learn more about Beaird Harris’s business advisory services.

This is a paid partnership with Intuit.

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