Does Flexibility Undermine the Work/Life Balance?
February 17, 2017 | Carrie Steffen

When I was in my late 20s and early 30s I was fortunate enough to work in a company that offered flexibility. What that meant at the time was flexible office hours and a laptop to take home with me if I needed to be there for the repairman to work on our dishwasher. There was still an unwritten expectation that you worked in the office (mostly) unless there was an extenuating circumstance.

Fast forward 15 years, and flexibility now means mobile technology enabling us to adopt an anytime, anywhere approach to work. I’m a big fan of these tools and practices in our workplaces. There is an increase in demand among young professionals to be able to work anywhere they can be productive. As long as the work is getting done, does it matter where the person doing it sits or during what time of day she completes it? Certainly not.

However, I wonder sometimes if this flexibility has started to undermine the idea of work/life balance. On the surface, the two seem complementary in that not having to be in the office from 9-5 creates opportunities to spend time with kids while they are awake, for example. Or to blow off some steam at the gym during those hours when it is a better fit for my day. Or have a phone conversation with a colleague while I’m on a walk. Or even to sit in a coffeehouse collaborating with clients in other locations. I’ll admit to having done all these things. Flexibility is good. And as long as the work is getting done there shouldn’t be an issue, right?

But what happens when this ability to work anytime and anywhere begins to seep into areas of our lives previously unencumbered with professional obligation? Burnout. Burnout happens.

How easy is it to quickly check email on a mobile device on a Saturday morning and get sucked into an hour’s worth of correspondence? How tempting is it to check on a project using your mobile device while sitting at your son’s basketball game and then look up only to discover that you’ve missed half the action? How about sitting in the living room with your son and being so distracted by your laptop that you miss out on the important details of his day?

What started as a great perk and a leading edge way of doing business becomes one more challenge for businesses to overcome. Where does the responsibility fall? It is shared between the individual and the firm.

Boundaries are important in maintaining a balance. We all need certain times of day or activities in our personal lives to be off-limits to work distractions. So, use clear communication to set expectations with co-workers and clients about when you will (and will not) be available or respond. Practice self-discipline for those times when you are committed to personal pursuits. Stay organized and plan ahead to continue to meet deadlines and keep work flowing in a timely way. Apply productivity tools like project management software, calendars, and time management systems to stay on track. Avoid time sucks which are low value, high effort activities – and learn to delegate what you can.

Firms need to accept the boundaries. They also need to have a realistic idea of the expected productivity for employees based on a reasonable number of working hours per week. An open dialog among leaders, managers and professionals is paramount.

Anytime, anywhere work is the future of the profession. Let’s reclaim flexibility as a value driver as opposed to a burnout stimulator with better planning and communication on both sides.

Your Future Firm Starts Now: Success Strategies for Launching New Services – Part 2
October 3, 2016 | The Whetstone Group

We’re continuing our look at a process firms can use to evaluate and develop new services to meet clients’ needs and create new sources of revenue by building a more consulting-based practice. September 21st we introduced steps 1 and 2 Research Market Needs and Evaluate and Prioritize.  In this post we introduce steps 3 and 4 – Define the Scope and Go to Market with Your Service. Check back October 19th as we conclude with step 5 – Tracking Results and Measuring Success (including a downloadable guide for the whole process).

Step 3: Define the scope and “package” your service

Now that you’ve selected the service(s) you want to launch, help ensure your success by defining the scope of the service very specifically and communicating it to the appropriate people in your firm.  “Scope” includes the step-by-step process and tools your service providers will use to deliver the service, what participation is required from the client, the time it will require from both your service providers and the client, and the frequency of delivery of the service.

This step is important for a couple of reasons.  First, it ensures consistency in the quality of your service delivery, which protects your client relationships and helps maintain your brand.  Secondly, this specific scope definition goes a long way to familiarizing your staff with the service so they are comfortable having conversations about it with their clients.

Once that scope is defined, your last step before taking the service to the marketplace is packaging. Packaging includes:

  • The name of the service: Ideally, it’s a good idea to identify a name for the service that will communicate benefit(s) and at the same time be attention-getting and memorable. This isn’t always easy – or even possible – but is worth putting in the time brainstorming and even testing with a client or two.  Many times your opportunity to catch someone’s attention and hold it is fleeting – a good name could really help when you’re trying to generate interest in your new service.
  • The deliverables and benefits: Make sure all your people know what the key deliverables of the service are – what tangible take-aways the client receives.  Clients will want to know this; but even more importantly, define the key benefits of the service – the tangible and intangible improvements for the client.  Communicate these benefits internally so your people can effectively promote the service, and make sure they are incorporated into your web site and marketing materials for the service.  Clients and prospective clients will not take action until they understand “what’s in it for them” – the potential benefits of engaging you for this service.
  • Pricing: Hopefully you have a feel for what clients will be willing to pay for the service from your earlier research.  People prefer to pay a flat fee for a service rather than being quoted an hourly rate and paying for time, so be sure to estimate the time investment and identify a recommended flat fee that  pays you profitably but reasonably given the benefits and value proposition to the client.  It’s not necessary or even recommended that everyone in the firm understand the fee for the service; it’s always a better idea to quote each client individually based on the scope of their needs; the service experts will have the best understanding to do that.

Step 4: Go to market

Patience will be important for your go-to-market strategy as there are important steps to follow to ensure success:

  1. Beta test
  2. Define target market
  3. Develop messages
  4. Communicate messages to target market
  5. Proactively follow up to generate new business leads

Beta test

If possible, beta test the service with one or two clients to work out delivery issues, identify and resolve problems, make sure the deliverables are on point, and discover if the service works in reality the way it works in theory.  Be candid with your client(s) up front and explain they will be doing you a favor but also receiving service benefits for no or greatly reduced fees.  During the project, check in with the client(s) to find out what questions and concerns they have and incorporate these into the way you deliver the service going forward.  Make sure your clients understand the benefit they received and when it’s over, ask them if they are willing to go on record with a testimonial you can use in future marketing and/or serve as a reference for future clients.

Target market

Based on what you learned in your initial research and your beta test(s), think about who the best targets are for the service.  It’s actually better to focus on a narrow, very specific target market:

  • you can tailor your messages more directly to them;
  • it’s easier to determine the right channels through which to communicate with them;
  • you can communicate to a smaller number of targets more frequently with a given budget.

Think about what type of companies have most need for the service based on industry and even sub-group within industry (e.g. sub-contractors within the construction industry), size (annual revenue, number of employees), ownership (private vs. public, closely-held/family-owned, etc), geographic location (where you can profitably serve them and they will recognize you as a viable provider), situation/circumstances (own vs. lease building, profitability, stage in growth cycle, etc).

For almost every target market, there are sources available to acquire a list of companies that matches your criteria.  If there are variables for which you can’t filter when you purchase it, consider having someone call the companies to ask the appropriate questions to further segment your list.  This can be a good task for an intern or new staff who aren’t yet busy, or you may choose to outsource to companies who provide this service.

Messages and communication

Now that you have a clear picture of who you’re talking to, develop the messages that will get their attention about your new service.  Focus on the benefits of the service as it relates directly to their business, and the potential value proposition of engaging you to provide it.  Make sure you address what differentiates your from competitors providing the same or a similar solution. Answer the question: why are you the best alternative to resolve this issue and/or deliver these benefits?

Below is a list of ways you can get your message to your targets, in the recommended chronological order of implementation:

  • Have face-to-face conversations, starting with your current clients in the target market
  • Incorporate on your web site, in blogs, social media profiles/groups
  • Send direct mail/email
  • Hold seminars and/or webinars
  • Promote the topic to industry groups via speaking engagements and articles

This will require you to develop a variety of materials.  Whenever possible, incorporate the testimonial from your beta test client(s) and continue to add testimonials as you grow the practice and have more satisfied clients.  It is always more powerful to have your clients state the benefits and value proposition.  Tie the materials together with similar content and graphic elements so you build a “brand” for the service that fits with the overall brand for your firm.

Frequency of communication is vital.  We’ve all heard the concept that people need to hear a message multiple times before it resonates.  The number required keeps going up because of the increasing number of competing messages to which people are exposed, through traditional media, social media, email, etc.  Don’t be afraid to make at least quarterly “touches” with your target market regarding your service and the benefits it delivers.  If you’re varying the method of communication (direct mail, invitation to seminar, promotion at industry conference, newsletter article, etc.) it won’t feel like too much to your clients and prospects.

Follow-up

It isn’t enough to simply put your messages out there; we’d all love to believe if we build it they will come, but that’s movie fantasy.  Proactive follow-up is a necessary component of any successful go-to-market effort.  The goal with your follow-up is to get face-to-face with each client or prospect so you can have a needs-based conversation, present the benefits of your service, and move the sales cycle forward. The table below gives you some tips on how to follow-up to each of your communication tactics:

tactic_follow-up_approach

Unlock Professionals’ Potential by Redefining Your Firm’s Training Approach
July 19, 2016 | The Whetstone Group

For so long, firms have searched far and wide for solutions to their business development challenges. Young, and not-so-young professionals have participated in what I would, by no scientific means, guess is millions of hours of business development training programs. These programs are touted as creating superstar rainmakers in order to solve the firm’s new business needs and fill the sales pipeline with opportunities. Participants learn tools and techniques to generate leads and close the big sale.

The challenge most professionals have implementing the skills from business development training is twofold: First there is a natural aversion to “sales” the way many professionals think about it—which is going out into the market, telling everyone you meet about all your firm’s services and asking them to hire you. Second, in this context business development becomes an “add-on” skill set, or worse, an added set of responsibilities and tasks on top of what professionals see as their primary job.

When professionals view growth as a secondary responsibility and they have a natural aversion to what they think is required of course the result will be less than ideal. Current partners may perceive this as apathy or a sense of entitlement among the next generation. Young professionals may perceive this as an unrealistic expectation and outdated way of doing business.

The result is often a lack of engagement in activities that lead to organic growth as well as a lack of success in attracting high quality clients. It may cause young professionals to leave the firm, or the profession altogether. It puts pressure on the firm’s ability to fund partner retirements. It may cause a firm’s culture to become production oriented vs value driven.

So rather than as something “extra” let’s look at business development training curriculums for professionals in a new way. Train young professionals to practice their profession in a way that leads to new opportunities—namely the behaviors of becoming a trusted advisor with clients. Start early when young professionals (millennials) are energized, ready to make a contribution and eager to take on responsibility for adding value to clients. Give partners a system for looking at client relationships, expanding opportunities and getting younger folks involved in conversations about clients to share a new perspective based on what they’ve learned in working with the client.

Think about some of the skills that are important to being good at developing new business: relationship development, understanding needs, communication, questioning, problem solving, and trust building. All of these skills apply directly to the process of client service. Teaching these soft skills in the context of working with clients enables young professionals to practice and gain confidence with the skills that will make them great at cultivating new business. At the same time, they are deepening client relationships and creating a more satisfying practice for themselves.

If the firm’s goal is to increase young professional engagement and grow the firm, developing the behaviors of client service that lead to opportunities should be a central component of the firm’s training curriculum.

Firms wrestling with the issue of employee engagement will find that teaching young professionals skills which can be integrated into their core function will reinforce the behaviors sooner—becoming a natural part of the way they practice. The result is professionals who have deeper, more trusted relationships with their clients, create more fulfilling relationships, add more value and derive more satisfaction from their careers. Often this leads to improved retention of rising stars.

Client Loyalty
May 6, 2016 | The Whetstone Group

CPA firms of all shapes and sizes are taking a long look at their client service process. And it’s no wonder, considering that client service is THE differentiator among CPA firms and is the linchpin in client loyalty.

CPA firms often rely on revenue numbers, realization and chargeable hours to determine how business is going. But by giving your clients a voice, you’ll learn what you can be doing better, how to sustain high performance, and how you can more effectively grow your firm’s top line.

Consider this: a study to quantify the impact of client loyalty on revenue by InfoQuest found that a “totally satisfied” customer contributes 2.6 time more revenue than a “somewhat satisfied” customer, and 14 times more revenue than a “somewhat dissatisfied” customer. If we assume that customers who rate themselves as “totally satisfied” are loyal, it’s clear that loyalty plays a significant role in how much revenue a client generates for your business. Not only that, improving the lifetime value of your client base by increasing client retention levels significantly impacts your firm’s ability to grow its top-line because you aren’t constantly replacing revenue from clients who are leaving the firm.

Not only that, totally satisfied clients will refer business to you and serve as a reference if you ask…making it easier to attract new relationships as well.

Beyond the revenue impact, though, is the fact that working with loyal clients who recognize the value of the relationship with your firm, seek your counsel, are fun to serve and take your advice create for a very fulfilling practice. They create interesting professional opportunities and an enjoyable atmosphere. Who wouldn’t want to practice public accounting in an environment like that?

Satisfaction vs Loyalty

Satisfaction and loyalty are related, but not the same. Satisfaction is often tied to a project or engagement. Loyalty is tied to the relationship. Both are important – you can’t have loyalty without satisfaction first. But loyalty helps to insulate the relationship from brief periods of dissatisfaction. If I’m a loyal client, I’ll allow you the opportunity to fix a satisfaction issue. I may even become more loyal if the issue is resolved quickly and to my liking. However, if I’m merely satisfied, and then become dissatisfied I’m more likely to look for an alternative service provider because there is nothing else tethering me to the firm.

So ask yourself, “what are the proactive measures we are taking as a firm to measure and improve client loyalty?” If the answer is “not much” or “I’m not sure” you may want to consider starting at the beginning by understanding what your clients value in a relationship, and how you’re doing delivering in those key areas.

How do You Know What Clients Value? Ask!

Coordinated efforts to improve client service can yield some of the greatest returns on investment of any growth activity. To be most effective, any effort related to improving client service should germinate from feedback from your best clients. Often when firms measure satisfaction, they focus on engagement satisfaction. How satisfied were they with the outcome? How did they enjoy the experience of working with your team? What could you do differently? How would they rate the deliverables? While important, these surveys don’t adequately measure the satisfaction with the relationship—which is what drives loyalty.

Consider a formalized program to learn the following from your clients:

  • What attributes of service do they associate with your firm?
  • What attributes of service are most important to them in hiring a CPA?
  • How satisfied are they with your firm’s delivery of the attributes that are most important?

Understanding your clients’ perspective enables you to define the behaviors of client service that will enhance loyalty. You can then train everyone in the firm on the behaviors for consistent delivery. Clients will begin to see and feel the difference between your firm and others in the market.

To learn more about how The Whetstone Group can help you learn what attributes of service will lead to client loyalty for your firm, contact us today!

A Physical Therapist’s Guide to filling your CPA Firm’s Pipeline
September 8, 2015 | The Whetstone Group

If I created a list of Frequently Asked Questions from among my clients at the top of the list would be this: “What’s the most effective way to fill my pipeline with opportunities?” Everyone wants to know the secret.

The secret is—there is no secret. There is no one best-practice, one-size-fits-all, guaranteed to work solution. Be leery of anyone who tells you otherwise.

It’s probably not the answer you were hoping for.

My husband is a physical therapist. In his practice patients often come to him looking for a quick fix to their aches, pains and injuries. Most of these issues have developed over time—through repetitive use or as a result of bad habits or poor judgment in overexerting during exercise in order to make up for a lack of activity in the prior months. Sometimes the pain is systemic – meaning it’s derived from an entire system that isn’t functioning the way it should.

Regardless of the issue 80% of the patients he treats are looking for the shortest path back to wellness. In most cases, their expectation of treatment isn’t realistic. Rather than a pill or a cure to their problem, the prescribed treatment often involves guidance from a physical therapy professional, diligent adherence to a set of exercises and likely some instruction to be patient and lay off some of the activities they may have put them in his care in the first place.

It may also involve a little discomfort.

I know that look of disappointment he receives when he delivers the news, “Stick with this program for the next 12 weeks and you’ll start to see results”. Oh the incredulity. I’ve GIVEN him that look when he’s talked me through the process of rehabbing my knee due to a running related injury.

It’s the same look I receive when I talk with CPA firm clients about the process involved with filling their pipeline. They expect to be able to turn the hose on full force and create a flood of opportunities after little to no activity up to that point. The fact is the pipeline isn’t filled overnight. And a lack of opportunities in the pipeline isn’t created overnight. It’s a long-term issue that has developed over time. It may be systemic. It probably requires some patience and diligence (and maybe some discomfort) to fix it.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Evaluate what’s already working. Think through your firm’s last five good proposal opportunities. How did they originate? How can you replicate the situation from which they originated? Do more of what’s already working.
  2. Analyze your firm’s top 20% of existing clients. What do they have in common (size, industry, ownership structure, business stage)? Are there similar issues/challenges among them you have helped solve? Do you have other clients you can help with the same issue? Can you ask them for referrals to their peers to help solve the issue?
  3. Examine your firm’s communication strategy to the market. Have you defined your key target market opportunities? Is there a plan in place and communicated internally so everyone in the firm knows what kind of opportunities you’re looking for? Are you communicating with a message to the market frequently (monthly) and consistently (using the same branding messages)?
  4. If the answer to #3 is yes, the time may be right to proactively reach out to the market. Make phone calls (or hire someone to make them on your behalf) or engage in networking events to schedule some face-to-face meetings to do needs assessments. Do you know the right questions to ask to help figure out how you can help your prospects?
  5. Cultivate referral sources. Do you have relationships with referral sources you can cultivate? If not, you need a plan to develop those trusted relationships. When was the last time you met with key referral sources? Make sure you’ve articulated the types of opportunities you’re looking for. Do you have a list of your top 10 prospects? Share that list with your best referral sources to see if they can help with an introduction.
  6. Deal with systemic issues in your business development process. Do you need additional training to be better at business development? Does your staff know what’s expected of them in their contribution to the firm’s growth? Think about your firm’s approach to client service—do you have a consistent client service process that fosters client loyalty? Develop in internal communication strategy to make the business case for filling the pipeline and growing the top-line to everyone in the firm. Determine if any culling is needed to make room for better, more profitable clients.

It takes a combination of activities, implemented over time to improve your firm’s pipeline wellness. How much time? Stick with this program for the next 12 weeks and you’ll start to see results. Better yet, seek help from a professional to guide you.

Contact The Whetstone Group at 319.447.6400 or info@thewhetstonegroup.com to learn how our professionals can help.