What Firms Should Do to Improve Their Practice Today

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Seth Fineberg
Managing Editor
In association with
Accelerate Conferences
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Of all the challenges facing accounting professionals today, none seems to get raised more than the processes and inefficiencies they face in their firms.

We get it. Work gets in the way. You put things off or forget about them entirely. Clients call, files get moved around, new systems get installed while old ones remain, new people get hired, and before you know it, all of your work is in a variety of places and there’s no clear process for anything.

This doesn’t mean you’re doing everything wrong or that you have to entirely change everything you do. But if you could focus on one, maybe two things to improve within your firm, it would make a world of difference. CPA Mike Gordon knows this all too well.

He runs a small practice out of Coos Bay, Oregon, and has made incremental changes in how he works and is finally able to have the personal time he needs while properly servicing the clients he wants.

He has a wealth of experience in dealing with complex tax and accounting issues for businesses and their owners. He also specializes in a broad spectrum of clients and has been offering his advice to other practitioners on how they, too, can run a more efficient and successful practice.

Mike will be speaking at the upcoming OfficeTools Accelerate conference on ways firms can best market and manage their practices. We recently spoke with him on these topics and covered some of the main issues practitioners face with regards to these issues.

AW: What is the major issue with current practice management systems and how can/should it be rectified?

Gordon: Easy answer. For decades, the software industry has said the average person doesn’t want to learn more than two pieces of software at a time. Many CPAs are currently working in contact management, time and billing, due dates tracking, Excel, and email just to run their practices. Everyone has their way of doing it.

The biggest problem is that we as a profession have not had, overall, the ability to do it all under one roof. MS Office is used most, in a way, because people learn it and everything is in one place. It’s far from the best tool for this purpose, but people use it because it’s easy to learn.

Also, in my experience, companies don’t always listen to their users. I can say I have had good experience with OfficeTools and they’ve made necessary changes to fit my needs, but most of them don’t.

AW: Where do you feel firms run into the most trouble when it comes to client relationships and how can it be remedied?

Gordon: This is totally a marketing issue. For tax pros, you must always be “touching” your clients, and traveling and teaching as I have with other tax pros, this is what we talk about. There’s less than a handful who even understand what that means.

Basically, everything you do is an opportunity to “touch” a client ... like a newsletter. Even when I bill, it’s an opportunity to communicate ... to touch. I don’t have a receivables problem because of this, it’s all in how you communicate.

Usually when a client calls and complains, you put it over on the desk, put it off to call later, and dread having to make [that call]. You have to see it as an opportunity, turn it around, and make them a fan.

AW: In the same right, what are some key indicators it is time to end a client relationship and how should you go about it?

Gordon: Most of the “gurus” in our industry have said that you should be firing clients every year. If not, there’s something wrong. It’s not possible that you only have the best clients, so you need to determine that. Your staff know and you need to ask them.

How do you know who the ones who complain the most are, not just one time, but chronically? They don’t listen to you or you only hear from them when there’s a problem.

Also, clients who get themselves into serious financial difficulty, those are most likely to sue you at some point. As for doing it, I have some standard letters – a very wise “guru” said to me never give a reason that someone can hang on and get you for later.

I always say that on an annual basis we review and look at the mix of clients and match them to expertise, and many times it’s in the best interest to go our separate ways. Also include an end date and opportunity to pass them on or make copies of things. You should be aware of the timing of those letters; for example, don’t send them when you are in the middle of a project for the client.

AW: What are some areas of inefficiencies in your firm and how have you addressed them over the past year?

Gordon: I can give you two. One began five years ago, but I’m still working on it. Many practitioners have TRINs and TROUTs: tax returns in, tax returns out. I did that for everyone.

I had clients tell me we don’t want that, we’ll figure it out on our own. I then asked the next 10 clients and they all said they’d rather just come in to the office and get their stuff. That freed up so many hours.

The second one was over last year. Last summer at the Office Tools conference, I was talking with my staff. A client brings in tax returns and [invariably] things are missing. You try to contact that client and go and work on other stuff. I recall or email things that are missing, we go back and forth like this for a couple of months just getting pieces of what we need throughout.

The amount of unbillable time is enormous. But then we heard one firm that said when a client comes in and they’re missing things, they have a policy that within 24 hours they look through the docs, make a list of what’s missing, and respond to them in that time rather than putting it off. We do this now.

So, basically in two to three months when we do the return, we have it all and assign a staffer to track and document what’s missing rather than constantly asking for this or that missing thing throughout that time or forgetting who owes us what or trying to get it all at the last minute.

We can also now track it all in OfficeTools. It’s changed our lives.

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