Most of the firms we have consulted with in the past two years are experiencing the most successful and profitable years in their history. The majority would say they have never been busier, and they have more “bread and butter” compliance work than they can handle. Does that sound about right? The reality is that many have been lulled into the comfortable position of “doing what they are doing” instead of paying attention to how rapidly the world is changing around them. In my more than three decades of focusing on information production in the accounting profession, I have never seen the evolution of accounting tools and technology and the reduction of traditional compliance work occur as rapidly as has happened in the past two years. (That includes the Dot.com years!) The good news is the profession, media, and major associations are mobilizing around these opportunities and promoting a transition towards more advisory services. But how do you get reluctant firm members started down this path? Below we address eight “stepping stones” that firms should consider when moving towards a future with more advisory services.
1. Understand the Trends Driving the Transition
One of the primary focuses of Daniel Burrus’ book, The Anticipatory Organization, is the prioritization of “hard” trends that will happen versus “soft” trends that might happen. The economy and gas prices are examples of soft trends that go up and down versus hard trends that only go in one direction. Think about computing power, internet accessibility, and the cost of data storage. Each of these items only gets faster, more available, and less expensive. These hard trends have led to enterprise computing capabilities that are now accessible to all firms in the cloud. This has opened the opportunity for smaller firms to utilize big data, advanced data analytics, robotic process automation, and artificial intelligence, which are the technology drivers rapidly automating the accounting profession today and creating the push towards an advisory focus.
2. Financial Indicators
Headlines and financial surveys point to consultative services being the fastest growing and most profitable segment within the accounting profession. As lower-level compliance services continue to be automated by software, the adopters of these applications will replace the practitioners that are not automated by producing the work at a significantly lower cost. Is your firm prepared to begin the evolution to advisory services to remain competitive?
3. Evolution vs. Revolution
The rate of technological change and adoption of streamlining applications is increasing at a constantly quicker pace, meaning that firms staying with the status quo are falling behind at a quicker pace. Firms have a choice to either evolve with the new tools such as APIs (application program interfaces), RPA (robotic process automation), and data visualization (Tableau, Qlik, Microsoft Power BI) that are standardized, working, and cost-effective today; or to wait until they have a group of personnel that will force the change (or leave the firm). Revolutions are not pretty and usually cause significant financial and emotional pain, so firms should discuss their evolution plan now.
4. Mindset Challenges
Firms will need to openly address embedded mindsets to transition resistive personnel to be advisory-focused rather than compliance-focused. First, the majority of firm training has been on following a specific process to do compliance work; advisory work is not clear-cut and usually, there is no checklist, so personnel must learn to deal with ambiguity. Second, compliance-focused personnel are used to working towards a specific answer or solution, which is not the case when doing advisory work. Finally, compliance personnel have most often been trained to bill for hourly work for what is most often seen as commodity type services, compared to advisory services that are billed based on value received by the client, so they will need to learn to bill in new ways.
5. Understand the Nuances
To get personnel to think about the differences between compliance work and advisory services, Edi Osborne in her Trusted Business Advisor Academy suggests asking staff if the work being done is seasonal vs. non-seasonal, focused on the past or is future-oriented, commodity work or worthy of higher realization; if the firm delivers a product or facilitates a process; and if they are viewed as a historian or a business coach. These subtle nuances force individuals to draw a line between what they have been doing and what they could be doing from an advisory perspective, which also helps in having discussions with clients.
6. Identify Existing Expertise
Compliance focused personnel may have a difficult time knowing where to start the transition to providing advisory work. More often than not, they have already done special projects or have extensive niche/industry segment experience, which are the most logical places to begin looking. Reviewing projects that have helped one client or identifying highly profitable work for another client can often be applied to similar clients just by asking them.
7. Skill Up
As mentioned in the introduction, the entire accounting profession is mobilizing a concerted effort to transition towards providing advisory services so there is more content and training available than ever before. In addition to accounting media content, I would recommend Edi Osborne’s Firm Forward and Alan Weiss’ Million Dollar Consulting. There are also a significant number of advisory training courses available through the CPA firm associations and professional consultants, including the Succession Institute, Mentor Plus, Upstream Academy, Convergence Coaching, Boomer Consulting, The Growth Partnership, and Rootworks.
8. Famous Person Concept
Finally, one of the most useful approaches utilized by individuals to successfully transition towards advisory services is to be recognized as one of the top three “famous” persons within a specific niche, as this will provide continual opportunities to propose on advisory projects. While some firms buy external consulting practices or hire the famous person from another organization to quickly acquire expertise, individuals can also be developed internally with a proactive effort to showcase their knowledge and expertise through writing, speaking, and surveying. Writing articles for niche publications or contributing knowledge via blogs or podcasts are some of the easiest ways to showcase knowledge. The mere act of summarizing a concept helps “crystalize” the advisor’s knowledge so the individual is viewed as an expert. Speaking is also an effective way to become known in a specific niche. Many advisors begin by participating on panels, facilitating forums, or sharing short videos, which can lead to giving seminars and presentations. A final thought on developing advisory expertise is to facilitate surveys to help provide direct insight into current and evolving trends.
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