I recently talked with Doug Sleeter about the current state of the small business consulting profession. We talked about how consultants have great opportunities for competitive differentiation by taking full responsibility for the success of the entire accounting and business management systems for their clients. So I asked Doug to write his thoughts on the matter. -- Gail Perry, Editor-in-Chief
By Douglas Sleeter
Are you leading your clients? Or are you merely serving them?
In this ever-changing world of technology and solutions in the small business accounting world, it's natural for consultants to be overwhelmed by all the vendors in the market who claim to have the best solution in their market space. If you're like most software consultants, you're constantly flooded with pitches from vendors about their new products and solutions. With all of this "noise", staying "smart" about what's best for your clients is a never-ending challenge.
But I have some questions for you. When you think about your typical client, considering the skills of the client's staff in the areas of accounting software, systems, and technology, how would you answer these questions?
- Who is the best person to help make the right technology decisions for the client?
- Who knows more about the available solutions in the market?
- Who is the best judge of how appropriate each solution is for the client's business?
- Who has the depth of understanding of your client's business functions?
- Who knows the most about how your client's workflows affect and are affected by software solutions?
- Who has the most knowledge and skills in accounting, software, and how to ensure the overall system accurately serves the needs of the business?
The answer to all of the above questions must be you – their accounting software consultant!
The responsibility that comes with being the consultant is huge. You must lead your clients to help them plan and implement the best solutions for their business. And I'm not talking just which accounting software to use or which chart of accounts to use. I'm saying the consultant must take responsibility for the ENTIRE system, including accounting, add-ons, the web store, the payment gateways, the online payroll, the remote time sheet data entry, and any other LAN or web-based applications that feed data to the back-end accounting system.
If you don't have complete command over all of these systems and how they interact with each other, and with the general ledger, you will almost certainly have trouble, probably sooner than later. Most likely, the client will expect you to have prevented whatever problem occurs.
I recently learned of a situation that underscores what can go wrong when the consultant doesn't take leadership of the whole system. This consultant is a true expert, but he isn't familiar with, or skilled in solutions for, the rental equipment business (which represents about 25 percent of the client's business). Therefore, when the client asked for advice on what software to use, the consultant took the easy way out. Instead of researching the problem and gaining the needed expertise or finding another expert to refer, he told the client to check out a vendor solution on his own.
Since the client trusts this consultant implicitly, having built a strong relationship over the past several years, the client naturally thought that because the consultant made the recommendation, the vendor would have the right solution for his needs. The vendor salesman, upon learning that the consultant referred him, naturally assumed that his product was a good fit, otherwise the consultant wouldn't have recommended it. Then, as the sales process continued, when questions came up, the salesman did everything possible to help the client learn how",with workarounds", the vendor's product could in fact solve the client's needs. Of course, the salesman was acting in good faith and only trying to help solve the problem, but the saleman should have stepped back and realized the product was a bad fit for the client's needs.
Of course, we wish vendor salesmen would ask probing questions about each client's needs and do everything possible to ensure their product is the "right fit" instead of just a force-fit solution, but you can see why that didn't happen in this case, and you can see why, in general, vendor salesmen are incentivized to make sales however they can, rather than doing everything they can to discover a bad fit. Simply put, their job is to sell. The consultant's job is to ensure a good fit between vendor product and client need.
Advance the clock forward a few weeks and you have product sold, installation in progress, and finally, the client starts seeing how it really works and starts to panic. "This isn't going to work for us", the client says, and is beginning to wonder what the business has gotten itself into. The client has already spent tons of money, time, and staff frustration trying to get this new system up and running, and now the client is realizing that the solution simply doesn't fit the need, and it never should have been recommended in the first place.
At this point, the client is seemingly beyond the point of no return and is now looking for someone to blame. If not blame, the client is certainly looking for help to unravel this disaster and, almost certainly, doesn't have the skills on staff to figure the right way out of the problem.
I'm sure you're getting the picture here. So let's ask a few questions again. Based on what you've heard about this client's story:
- Should the consultant have recommended the vendor at all?
- Should the consultant have stayed uninvolved in the implementation, even though he's the main accounting software consultant for the client?
- Should the vendor salesman have done more to disqualify this prospective sale?
- Who is to blame for this disaster? (A) the consultant, (b) the vendor, (c) the client, or (d) a mixture of all of the above?
- What should be done now? And who should lead the client out of the muddy waters?
This situation clearly shows why consultants must lead to succeed. In this case, most likely the consultant will lose the client, or at least lose the respect he once had from the client. From the client's perspective, the consultant's job is to (a) keep the systems running smoothly, (b) recommend the right solution for improving the system, and (c) be there to support the client and resolve problems that are bound to occur from time to time.
The whole point here is that in order to deliver your services in a truly professional way, you must assert yourself with each of your clients. First, and most importantly, you must develop trust with your client. Then, once you've gained the client's trust, you must take control to make sure you have complete involvement in every aspect of software, hardware, and implementations that affect the overall system.
Clients hire you because they don't have the skills to do what you do. So go out and give them what you signed up for. That means you'll forever be schooling yourself in new technologies, software solutions, and best practices for implementations.
At the end of the day, the buck stops with you, but consulting is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world, so enjoy the ride.
About the author:
Doug Sleeter (@dougsleeter) is the founder and president of The Sleeter Group, a worldwide network of over 700 accounting software consultants. He is a passionate leader of innovation and change in the small business accounting technology world. As a CPA firm veteran and former "Apple Computer Evangelist", he has melded his two great passions (accounting and technology). CPA Practice Advisor has recognized him as one of the "Top 25 Thought Leaders" in the accounting profession for the past several years, and he has been named to Accounting Today's "Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting" each year since 2008.