The disturbing matter of workflow control and accountant responsibility.

Leverage of resources has never been a more important issue for accounting and financial advisory firms.  The leaders of firms recognise the importance of providing clients with a stronger strategic and advisory focus. However, without effective leverage of both client relationships and workflow, it’s likely that the people most equipped to add value to clients simply run out of time.

And partners resist taking on more advisory work because they can’t get their heads around how this work can be leveraged. Over recent years, we’ve learnt that whilst technology can help in streamlining systems and processes, the real process of adding value has to start (and end) with client communication at a proactive level. No wonder so many attempts at business (and financial) advisory services end in ‘failure to launch.’

Benchmark reports have demonstrated for years that the effective delegation of workflow and client relationship responsibility is the key to freeing up time to focus on client communication. Firms that have achieved growth have used technology to streamline the collection and processing of data, even taking this function away from the firm where appropriate. They have partners who are happy to delegate, knowing that whilst it won’t always work out, the key to real client satisfaction lies in freeing up time to engage at a deeper level. And good clients will pay for this, they see the value.

So, your firm is looking to become more advisory in focus but your partners and senior managers still spend a lot of their time on compliance-driven activities. What steps can you take in 2018 to free up time and capacity?

Step 1 – Delegate responsibility for client relationships at a compliance level

Hopefully, you’ve already done this. If not, what’s stopping you? Go through your client lists and ensure that every client is allocated to an accountant or manager at a compliance level (depending on scope of work and capabilities). Then ensure that your clients also understand the nature of teamwork in your firm. Don’t be afraid of communicating this clearly and succinctly to clients. It will open up conversations about the nature of workflow that clients need to understand.

Step 2 – Give your accountants direct responsibility for their annual workflow

The old days of conveyor belt mentality are well past. People with thrive and grow if they have a sense of responsibility and authority for their work. So, tell your accountants what you expect of them and steer the conversation away from a focus on production (chargeable time) and towards outputs (these could be invoicing, WIP or lodgement targets.)

Step 3 – Give your accountants direct responsibility for job budgets and scope of work

There’s no point in delegating responsibility for workflow and then not engaging your accountants in discussions about job budgets and scope of work. These should be clearly communicated to the staff doing the work, up front.  A job budget should incoporate the time required to complete the work (by all team members) as well as the timing of completion (turnaround). Time spent up front planning is well worth the effort.

Step 4 – Set monthly targets, report and ask for feedback regularly

Sure, I know you talk with your accountants every day and address issues in a timely manner. Do you feel that your accountants truly have control over their workflow? The best way to do this is to give them specific monthly targets (fees, WIP or lodgement targets) and ask them to report formally in relation to progress at the end of each month. This way, you can work with them to address planning and logistical issues and also give them a sense of responsibility for their work.

Step 5 – Delegate responsibility for workflow and client relationships, but centralise the monitoring and reporting process.

The only way the leaders of that leveraged firms can be confident they have workflow in hand is to ensure that everyone reports back in the same way. That means that everyone provides timely feedback through a centralised CRM system on progress with clients and workflow. At a glance, your senior staff should be able to see where the issues and roadblocks exist, so that they can reallocate resources or develop skills as required.

There’s nothing new with these 5 steps. However, even in 2018, when we’d think that we have this all sorted out, the majority of accounting firms still struggle with effective leverage. All sorts of excuses including lack of capable staff, demanding clients and poor use of technology are provided as reasons why leverage is difficult to achieve.

Of course, these are all good reasons why leverage is difficult. However the real issue I see is that many partners still resist changing their own behaviour towards both staff and clients. Your young accountants want a roadmap to developing skills and capabilities and the simplest way to do this is to give them the opportunity to learn (and make mistakes).

What are you going to do this year to give your accountants more responsibility for workflow and client relationships?

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