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Business owner first! Accountant second.

Luan gets the opportunity to talk about one of the principles he firmly believes in. Also fundamental to the way we interact with our clients. The principle of being a business owner first before putting on his accountant hat.

 

We’ve always had the approach, that whatever we implement or consult on, first needs to make operational sense for the client. Only thereafter do we bring that up to code with accounting and tax regulations.

During past experiences we have consulted on – and taken over so many clients where it was evident that their previous accountants, had only one hat to wear. The business and accounting processes were immaculate (not always 🙂 ), but in most cases made no operational sense. This was massively frustrating for the business owners and I suspect was partly why they were seeking new advise.

 

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I feel as an accounting fraternity, we need to pay attention to the constant “two-hats” that we need to wear. Only wearing the accounting hat, adds no value to the client relationship if you don’t marry that with business principles as well.

I am quite fortunate to be very entrepreneurial and has always found the business side of things way more exciting than the debits and credits.

I recently had the opportunity to share my experience with our good friends over at Spotlight Reporting.

 

Your background is in Audits. What inspired you to move into Practice and away from compliance into Business Development?

Well, even though I found the actual audit process quite interesting, my real kick came from the discussions I had with clients as a result of the actual audit itself…

My realisation that clients needed more from their accountants throughout the year lucky for me coincided with a publication in our professional body’s monthly magazine, speaking of the role the “future” accountant will have to fulfil.

Clients were starting to look to us for better tax management throughout the year, better business performance management and advising on financial processes that weren’t running as efficiently as they could. More importantly, most of them didn’t speak “Accounting”, so our biggest role was translating this into a language they could understand and implement.

So by the time I started Calypso, I was very clear on what it is that we would be bringing to the market and my very 1st client I signed up at the beginning of 2008 had two elements already built into their service

  • One being management accounts being discussed with them each month, and
  • That they were on a fixed monthly retainer fee

I must admit though that the way we delivered on these has drastically changed over the years , particularly over the last 4 years as we fully migrated to cloud accounting and rolled out amazing tools such as Spotlight.

 

What was it that made you change direction with Calypso from compliance to Advisory and Business Development? How were you able to facilitate the necessary changes within your firm?

WOW! This is one of the things I am still kicking myself over but at the same time, was part of our journey and many great things came about as a result.

So to start off with, as I mentioned in the previous question, my very 1st client already had a level of advisory built into our core service and we were clear from day one, we were never only going to be data capturers.

But then 4 years ago we adopted Xero and in hindsight, it is clear as daylight that we went into a typical teenage identity crisis!

Somehow advisory became secondary and the fact that we’re now these super cool “cloud accountants” become our value driver… but imagine our confusion and frustration when we had zero interest from the market…to be fair to the clients also, there are so many cloud accountants to choose from, nobody could blame them for no longer noticing us as we placed ourselves back on the “compliance only” shelve.

Our identity all of a sudden was associated with the tool we used, and no longer the value added services we used to offer. This was a difficult period for us, as growth was non-existent but also our biggest learning curve.

Our real revelation came about when we pulled out some of our older desktop reporting we gave to clients and we realised that we’ve been trusted advisors all along, but that we could only have meaningful conversations if their compliance was actually up to date…

We immediately thereafter stopped talking about tools to prospective clients, but much rather the services and value add they were after.

So in essence we never really changed direction, we just swopped out our older dusty tools for some slick, new modern ones. Which in turn has just reaffirmed our initial objectives of being an advisory – and not simply a bookkeeping firm.

 

What advisory services do you offer?
How do you package and price them?

Well, we’re trying to keep it simple and I know for a fact that we are nowhere close to have perfected this suite of services. We spend a lot of time investigating and asking our clients for feedback on their biggest pain points. I reckon our approach here has been more one of ask your customer what they would like to see on your shelves, then simply stocking them with shiny objects and praying that they sell.

At the moment the biggest demand from clients are not particularly for management accounts only, but more so a monthly discussion with one of our team members. We’ve found that a lot of business decisions are sound boarded during these sessions and we build tremendous relationships as a result.

Cash flow forecasting and management, business budgeting, tax forecasting and management and business performance management are pretty much the biggest sellers in our practice.

We’ve always seen our services more as products and try and package them as something you could pick up off the shelve and take with you… so most of these services has templates and how-to’s included. Seeing that we work off clearly designed templates and pre-defined processes, we’re able to fairly accurately cost a fixed price for each of these products ahead of the client purchase happening.

This also provides a lot of guidance to the Thrive CFO team on how to deliver on the final work product and clearly manage the client expectation along the journey.

 

With different clients having different needs, do you focus on MRR or Annual retainers?

Oh look, we’ve been back and forth on this so many times but again we’re trying to keep it simple.

We see ourselves as a boutique consultancy and every client in our office goes through a proper scoping process to identify their actual needs. We’ll then propose a fixed monthly recurring fee to them which we’ll then proceed to collect via direct debit each month.

We monitor our MRR each month and look out for major variances from the previous periods…this also enables us to ensure that we maintain a healthy annual churn rate as we continue to throw out the dead wood clients.

In my opinion there is very little room still left for the typical old, time-and-material billing style. This is a very reactive way to try and build relationship with a client…nobody likes surprise bills they haven’t anticipated and you simply end up trying to defend and justify the fees you have charged.

Our model makes sense to us and the clients as we are able to give them comfort of the fees they can anticipate over the next couple of months but also enables us to monitor any potential scope creep on a continuous basis – For instance,  we review any non-compliance related work such as the bookkeeping, on a monthly basis.

Internal processes are key to delivery.
Which ones were your core focus to have nailed first to support advisory?

This again has been a great journey for us in arriving at that sweet spot of efficiency, where everything just “works”. And because most advisory and associated reporting is quite deadline driven, it was imperative we get the internal processes on par with the client expectation.

For us this was two-fold

  • One, ensuring that our compliance related tasks are running as efficiently and accurately as humanly [or robotly] as possible (I had to give the machines a little bit of credit here), and
  • Having each client’s reporting set up in template format so that we can run the management reports much more consistent and efficiently

Most of the advisory road blocks we encounter stem from bookkeeping delays. So we spend a lot of time each week communicating incomplete data to the clients and monitor tools such as Receipt Bank and the Xero bank feed religiously. By ensuring these obstacles are removed as they occur, we leave sufficient time for proper strategic work with the client.

We’ve also found, that this sort of regular contact with the client embeds a lot of trust as they can now 1st hand experience the amount of time you spend in their data even prior to the advisory component becoming relevant.

How did you approach securing new business and selling advisory services to your clients?

This is a peculiar one to answer as I don’t think we do something specific that we have a repeatable action plan for… for us this is a much bigger picture concept which I guess is pretty much the reason we’re having this session today.

Our main approach in everything we do, is to try and place ourselves in the clients shoes. I’ve spoken to so many accounting firms and practitioners and for some strange reason so many of them don’t see their own practices as businesses also…they simply wear their accountants hat day in and day out.

I suspect part [if not all] of our success stems from the fact that we ultimately run a business, that just happens to sell accounting and advisory services. This mindset enables to meet the client at their level – that of being a business owner and understanding all the challenges they face each day whilst trying to be successful… This is nothing different from the challenges we face in our practice each day.

Once we’ve connected with them at that level and have demonstrated that we “get” their challenges, the discussion around proposing our services as a solution, almost becomes a non-event.

This has removed a lot of the pressures of trying to sell our services to prospective clients and most of us know how great we accountants are at marketing and selling!

 

 

Have you run into any resistance or issues in executing your brand vision and advisory strategy and how have you overcome them?

Oh yes, a lot of them actually. Some of them a little more abstract than others though.

One of the biggest abstract hurdles we’ve had to overcome was to ensure that we were talking advisory to the right crowd and that we understood that a client who’s accounts are a few years behind is not interested in all the bells and whistles from day one…Their value add at that point is being able to sleep soundly at night, knowing their compliance is up to date. Only then will we re-engage them for advisory services.

The more direct challenges we’ve had were running into capacity constraints internally. Initially in those early adoption years, this posed a major challenge. But we’ve come to realise this is actually a very good internal alarm bell for you to stop with what you’re doing and evaluate your client base.

Every time we’ve ran into capacity constraints, one of the following happened

  • staff were spending time on work outside of the scope of the fee agreement, in which case we realigned the monthly fee to now include those services. Most clients agreed to the higher fees which increased our monthly revenue for further hires. Those that didn’t left and freed up new capacity as a result.
  • Clients weren’t using the full functionality of their software in which case we simply got them back in for more training, and
  • We’ve managed to find software to replace even more manual input.

Over the last four years we’ve managed to scale down from 10 production staff members to only 3 production and 2 support staff members, whilst servicing more clients. This has had a major impact on our bottom line as you can imagine.

 

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