It should be no surprise that the AICPA’s 2017 PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues Survey indicated that finding and retaining qualified staff remains a top concern for accounting firms of all sizes.
Although current trends seem to show that the supply of new accounting graduates is in alignment with the demand for those new graduates, as Mark Koziel noted in a recent AICPA blog, firms that fail to clearly communicate the vision for their firm risk losing talent. But to communicate the vision for a firm, you first need to have a vision.
One of my favorite anecdotes compares the outlook of two stonemasons. One is building a wall. He spends all day, every day, placing heavy stone blocks in place.
The work is dull and repetitive. The other stonemason is building a cathedral. Every block he lays is bringing a magnificent cathedral closer to completion. Which one has more job satisfaction?
Are You Building a Wall or a Cathedral?
Every firm is unique simply because we are unique as humans. However, not every firm has a clearly articulated vision that sets it apart from the competition.
Those firms with a clear vision have a distinct advantage over the competition. Integrating this vision into systems, processes and procedures makes for a sticky relationship with staff and clients alike.
Clients stay around longer because they’re getting more than a tax return or a set of neatly reconciled financials from their accountant. Their relationship with the staff is more than simply passing documents back and forth and answering questions.
Staff stay because they’re part of something bigger than themselves. The work they do for clients isn’t just putting numbers in boxes, but provides those clients with benefits beyond the basics of tax returns and financials.
They see the real impact that that their work has. They help businesses grow. They see clients build financial foundations that allow them to achieve their dreams.
Lose Your Vision, Lose Your Staff
That’s what happened to a firm where I spent 11 years. The firm proudly displayed a beautifully framed vision statement proclaiming the firm to be a holistic provider of accounting and financial services.
One of my co-workers said to me “We had something special. I felt like we could do anything that anyone needed.” We were stonemasons building a castle.
As ownership changed over the years, the foundation for that vision eroded. Checklists designed to highlight additional services for clients disappeared.
No one seemed to be asking clients the questions that would enable us to provide accounting services for their whole lives. One business owner was collecting Social Security before anyone thought to ask him about succession planning.
Gradually we came to feel more like the stonemason building a wall. In a six-month period, five of us who had worked together for nearly a decade left.
How to Create a Vision
Finding what makes your firm unique will require brainstorming and some deep thought for your firm as a whole. Talking to an outsider with experience with different firms may help you uncover those differences.
What may seem perfectly ordinary to you may actually differentiate your firm from the competition. Here are some examples from firms I’ve worked with over the last few years to update their websites:
- An accounting firm in New Mexico takes the time to explain complex tax and accounting concepts with simple language so that clients come away from meetings with a clear understanding of innovative ideas they can use to grow their businesses.
- A bookkeeper in the UK leverages her decades of experience working with businesses of all sizes and with multiple software platforms to design cloud-based integrated systems that simplify their bookkeeping and give them access to data in real time.
- A family-owned accounting firm in Australia emphasizes their understanding of the unique pressures of running a family business to help their clients build successful enterprises while retaining work-life balance.
One approach to finding and articulating this vision is to dig into the deep benefits your clients receive from your services. In his ebook, The Intimacies of Pricing Your Customer: Part 2: Seeking Believers, Jason Blumer, CPA, suggests filling in X, Y and Z in this template as a starting point:
We Do X for Y, So That They Can Get Z
Here are a few examples:
- We provide bookkeeping and tax preparation for restaurants so that they grow and remain profitable.
- We provide tax preparation for small local businesses so that they have peace of mind that their compliance obligations are taken care of.
- We provide audit services to not-for-profit businesses so that they can continue to successfully provide services to their communities.
Make the Vision Part of Everything You Do
It’s not enough to have a vision. To be meaningful, this vision needs to be integrated into systems, processes and procedures.
This should be part of your firm’s onboarding process for new clients and the training for new staff. Blumer’s ebook describes his firm’s carefully created onboarding process, which is composed of several sequential steps that all new clients must pass through.
At the New Mexico firm, new staff join partners in client meetings so they can see and hear how the partners take the time for detailed and clear explanations. They see firsthand how empowered the clients feel when they grasp a complex concept and understand exactly what they need to do to get to the next level.
Salim Omar’s books, The Million Dollar CPA Firm, and The Ultimate CPA Practice in the New Economy: 10 Secrets to Attract More Clients, Boost Profits and Live Your Ideal Lifestlye both detail roadmaps that help firms develop systems to integrate their vision into their practices.
Attract the Right People and They’ll Stay
Some firms fear that by projecting a strong vision, they’ll alienate prospective clients and employees. This is a good thing — those probably aren’t the people you want to work with anyways.
And as your firm grows to embrace and integrate that clear vision, you may lose a few clients and a few employees. But for those who stick around, and for the new clients and employees who find your firm, it will be magical: you’ll be building cathedrals, not walls.
About Liz Farr
Liz Farr, CPA, has worked in tax and accounting since 2002. Besides tax returns of all flavors, she’s worked on audits of governmental entities and not-for-profits, business valuations, and litigation support. She is also a freelance writer specializing in content marketing for accountants and bookkeepers around the world.