The next in our series of case studies as part of our Realities of the Automated Practice effort focuses on the nagging issue of client buy-in to automation and, moreover, the pushback that comes with it.
The facts stand that no matter how seemingly beneficial automating firm and client functions can be, not every client will be on board with your thinking, planning or use of the technology. Our case study below centers around Sanford Lea Associates, a 12-person firm(two are remote in Kansas City and Dallas) from Springfield, Mo. Our discussion with Managing Partner James Lea revealed the firm’s challenges with getting clients on board with the technology they use and trying to grow their own business as well.
Like most CPA firms, in its 20-plus year history Sanford Lea was more traditional, but recognized it could not remain as such if it wanted to stay in business.
The firm slowly adopted technology use and has a niche working with entrepreneurs, in no particular industry, and start-ups. According to Lea, his partner David Sanford is “not your typical CPA,” as he is an entrepreneur himself and owns a handful of businesses so the practice attracts entrepreneurs who want to grow. They handle most back office tasks for the businesses they serve so the owners can focus on the business itself. This, however has not been without its challenges when it comes to, as Lea describes, “using our technology stack.”
Lea: We are in transition phase, we’re still on a server, but working to get off of it. We will be on a hosted server for next 18-24 months and then full cloud. Our biggest issue, overall, is convincing clients that our way of doing things is better. Some people didn’t have a good experience with technology once and they won’t do it again, even though there have been improvements.
Lea: We can pick and choose what clients we take on, they have to buy into our ‘stack’ or we won’t go with them, which is easier said than done. In a month I will try out three to five different apps to see if it may benefit the firm and clients. If you’re under 45 you already think that way naturally, older practitioners are just looking to get through for the next 10 years or close to retirement to make a change.
Our stack right now is QBO, Receipt Bank and Bill.com for our work. We were a firm that did things internally, someone drops off a bank statement and we produce the financial statement, move from that client by client and move through the stack.
We had to first get clients into QBO at the very least and then see where we go from there. If we can get into two (QBO and Receipt Bank) at least we get the data we need, then with Bill.com we have to explain why this is a good idea or maybe "scare" them into it.
For example, we have a client who is a pro fisherman and he got audited. What he would do is go to a tournament, put all of his receipts into plastic bag and put it in a file with a date. He would categorize all of those into an Excel doc and send it to us.
The audit was for two to three years before he had those files and the receipts he had from then were getting faded. I gave him the idea of using Receipt Bank and what we now have is him doing one-tap receipts.
Lea: The biggest hurdle is once you have buy-in the real work is staying on top of clients to take pictures of receipts and use it all the time. You have to re-train their whole way of thinking and working.
In our firm we have one person dedicated to onboarding new clients to our tech stack. That person is very knowledgeable about the tech (they got trained) and routinely follows up with clients to ensure they are using what they should be. We may do a Zoom meeting and show them how to use it, check back in a week and they still haven’t done it.
We remind clients, but once they get into it it’s better. Still, it’s constant feedback and follow up with them. In the world of automation the biggest hurdle is getting clients to do it consistently.
Using something like Bill.com, the biggest way I sell its use is security. Being able to securely remit payments is a great selling point. I tell a story of a client we did paper check payroll for and the checks got stolen out of a mailbox, the routing numbers got used and money got taken.
With Bill.com that can’t happen. Why would you want your account number floating around in the mail? Ten years ago we had to remind clients about documents to bring in, so it’s similar.
For getting buy-in on QBO, we ask clients how many times at end of the year are your books correct until I correct them the following year? When that information doesn’t match the tax return you have a problem so having them on QBO isn’t as hard, we tell them if they have a question it’s right there.
I can’t deal with the folks that bring me QB Desktop backup files because it wastes staff time and the books aren’t always correct and it’s more work for us.
Lea: Getting the buy-in from clients, you need a story to tell and real world examples, it will make the relationship that much better. Have access to the data and if they trust you enough it will make their lives better.
I won’t take a client these days if they won’t at least move to QBO and give me login information to their bank and credit cards. It slows down my firm’s efficiencies. Most entrepreneurs are good at what they do, let us do the accounting and bill pay.
Lea: Tax planning for every client, if they are on QBO I can show them what the deduction will look like, I can show you the future based on the tax code.