The business discipline of practice growth

"Opportunity is missed by most because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
-- Thomas Edison

By Gale Crosley, CPA
Promising opportunities may not be sporting overalls at your firm, but it's likely a number of them have successfully camouflaged themselves from you and your partners! Sure, you're busy these days, but sheer momentum isn't enough to guarantee long-term sustainable growth. For that you need an orderly approach to opportunity planning.

New Attitude

The process (and it is a process) of identifying top opportunities within your client base is based on today's unique market conditions. Back in the day, each partner in the firm had a book of business and was expected to cheerfully grow it by 10 percent a year. Case closed.

Today's tactic is more collegial and multi-disciplinary. It leverages the intuitive concept that colleagues' insights and experience can benefit one another's clients. But strategizing in this way is new to CPA firms. So new that there's no commonly accepted name for it. I call it client opportunity planning; in the corporate world it's known as account planning. I was first introduced to account planning at IBM many years ago. It was one of our primary processes for driving the growth in our client base, and was indeed very powerful.

One Process, Two Ways

You'll get the best results if you tackle it two ways—internally and externally. Internal client opportunity planning gathers partners, managers and relevant others in an orderly review of 25 percent of your top clients each quarter. In this way, each client is assessed once a year.

The session should be managed by the lead partner on the account. The partner describes the client, the type and scope of work performed and the perceived opportunities. An opportunity-assessment template can help guide the discussion and focus next steps. It permits you to formalize the observations and organize next steps.

After providing background, the partner opens the discussion up to the group and encourages creative brainstorming via strategic questions. Examples: What new service offering complements the client's business purpose and culture? What's changed in the industry or in the marketplace that would suggest an amended approach? Are there global opportunities that only your international tax specialist might uncover?

The business discipline of practice growth
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Make sure someone records the session and completes the questionnaire. All participants should receive a copy of the notes and a to-do list generated during the review. The list, managed by the lead partner, can include anything from making a discovery call on a client to ensuring that additional resources be applied to reflect changing needs.

The internal review gives visibility to the entire inventory of clients and opportunities. It helps determine the wisest deployment of resources. And it helps shift thinking from "it's my book of business" to "let's collaborate on behalf of clients, our primary asset."

In addition, this methodology ensures that every opportunity has an identified advocate – a leader who "owns" the development of the client and in whose success he or she is strongly invested. The exercise shines a light on the entirety of client interactions, permits a holistic view of services, revenue and, when the process is really working, can even reveal deficiencies!

And although it's not a typical result, the method can even help justify a decision to terminate a client. That's exactly what happened during a review in which I recently participated.

Take It Outside

The external review is more common than the internal process and, depending on the firm, can be conducted more or less formally. It consists of a dedicated meeting with the client to discuss the strategic direction of the business and how your firm can help achieve it. A checklist of service offerings can be a useful tool.

Don't confuse this exercise with annual tax planning. This is all about driving new opportunities and new revenues, not ensuring that your client is benefiting from available tax advantages. It's a chance to ask the right questions, learn all you can and match relevant service offerings to your client's goals.

Why Now?

Pursuing opportunity planning systematically is more important now than ever. That's because most firms simply have too much business on their hands and pruning back the less productive clients is tough. Trimming from the bottom is an uncomfortable task for most of us. But it's less difficult once you can see the new potential opportunities at the top.

The assessment process, internal and external, can demonstrate untapped potential like nothing else, making it easier to let go of the work that's not yielding as it should. Identifying new opportunities builds credibility among partners and creates confidence in the strength of the partner group.

Like Thomas Edison said, opportunity can hide itself. Get strategic and collaborative and you'll be able to seek it out masterfully. It's a skill that will help you and your firm get closer to your goals.

About the author
Gale Crosley, CPA, is founder and principal of Crosley + Company, and consults with CPA firms on revenue growth issues and opportunities.

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