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What Skills Do You Need to Offer Advisory Services?

With all of the discussion around accountants moving to a more advisory service model, very few talk about what it actually takes to be an advisor.

Nov 6th 2019
Managing Editor
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During the recent QuickBooks Connect event in San Jose, hosted by Intuit, Michael Ly, CEO of Burlington, VT.-based bookkeeping firm Reconciled offered a detailed look at the skills accountants need in order to successfully offer advisory services. Specifically, he suggested five key skills that he learned practitioners must have, based on his own experiences.

1. Data Gathering. This is where most accountants are very comfortable. It’s having the right documents, putting the data into an accounting system including expenses and past and current transactional history. That’s the bulk of our work and there’s still lots of value around charging for this. The profession will see that data gathering is getting more commoditized, but you still need solid bookkeeping skills to do it right.

You need clean data for advisory services, you also need good sources of data and how efficiently you do it. Conversely, too much data can mean no data. It’s not great for clients to have a 200-line chart of accounts when they can make decisions on a fraction of that.

2. Data Analysis. Now that you’ve collected the data and ensured it’s clean you take a good look at it. Some accountants are comfortable with this step, but not great at it. Taking the actual information and analyze what happened. In other words, KPIs(Key Performance Indicators) and metrics. Get to know these terms as they are the key part of analysis. Teaching the KPIs to your staff and what to do with it is also important.

In addition, trends are important. These may be revenue increasing month over month by 10 percent. Some accountants may do data analysis in Excel or other reporting apps on the market. Dashboards and benchmarking are also key components of analysis and advisory work in general, but they are only as good as the data is clean. Common KPIs are profit after costs, what is left to pay off expenses, and cash flow.

3. Ask Great Questions. The better the question the bigger the value. Ask the right questions, it’s not enough if they are “ok.” In the process you teach your clients to ask these things of themselves. In advisory you learn more about yourself than your clients. There are two types of questions: process and succession.

  • Process = tell me how something is made on a typical day.This is something you can charge for.
  • Succession = do your clients have key man insurance? What happens to your clients company in a tragic event.

Finally, work on your tone and approach with these questions, sometimes they have nothing to do with accounting. Don’t be afraid of the answers. A good tone is “tell me more about why this keeps you up at night.” A bad tone is “why does that matter to you?”

4. Active Listening. Most accountants are really bad at this as they believe clients are paying for you to talk to them, but in advisory they pay for accountants to listen. Clients know you know the deepest things about their business when you’re in the financials. It starts in the sales process where the only question you ask is “how can I help you?” The client talks the rest of the time.

Most clients just want to know if you will listen to the most difficult questions. You won’t have all the answers but you can help a client find them. Take physical notes, even on calls try to do video so they can see you taking notes. This shows the client you are listening. Also, repeat back to the client what you heard.  Always follow up with a summary and next steps in an email.

5. Clear and concise communication. Simplify your thoughts. When you communicate with a client make what you’re saying and what the goals are very clear. The client needs to leave with at least one action item for them to do for their business.

Execution is the goal, so as you are communicating you pass along the steps. Accountability is also a big part of being clear and concise, a week after an advisory session you can follow up with them and see how it’s going. It also gives you the opportunity to talk more about challenges of implementing the things you talked about.

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