IRIS in conversation with… Alastair Barlow, Founder & Partner, flinder

Brought to you by IRIS Software Group

flinder recently won the IRIS Customer Award for the Best use of Technology Firm of the Year. We spoke with Alastair Barlow, founder and partner of flinder to find out how he approaches client relationships, making the most out of them and how to spend more time with the best ones.

How do you get a better understanding of your clients?

flinder gets under the skin of every client before any work commences. We work closely to deeply understand the prospect and see if they are a good fit for our business. It’s expensive to onboard a new client, but I believe that by truly understanding why they exist and what their ambitions are, sets the correct tone for a long-term partnership.

At the heart of our service is the client relationship. We invest time in getting to know the people in our clients which, for larger clients, often requires one or two days a week on site but allows us to foster connections and form close bonds.

Some businesses are very surprised by the approach we take at flinder. They often start by explaining the finance side of the business, but we ask to take a step back and learn about the business itself. The reason is simply that without this information, we cannot strategically direct the finance function. Operating within an accounting silo without knowing the business objectives and vision is pointless. This often takes the company by surprise. I’ve heard many businesses say the previous accountant never understood my business. And why would they? Figures in isolation are meaningless. Understanding the rationale and why there has been an increase or decrease in the figures give us the vital information needed to provide the correct advice.

Have you managed to increase the average fee paid by clients, or even get rid of unprofitable ones?

flinder specialises in working with companies that have a high growth potential – it’s one of our criteria. Our fees increase organically as the business grows. In several cases, we engage with clients that are seed funded or pre-start up. We implement quarterly plans which provide rich regular insight and allows the owners to make strategic decisions.When they reach a revenue or complexity point, there is a natural progression to governance, selecting a board of directors and other growth milestones, which usually includes additional work and consultancy for us.

As for the unprofitable ones – I would question why you would run with a client that’s unprofitable? They should not be in the client base in the first place.

What advice would you give to other accountants who want to be more selective in getting new clients and dealing with existing ones?

Firstly, look at your practice. What’s the raison d'être of the firm? Why do you exist? The mission is to explore the practice specialisms, understand the client profile and self-select. This will leave you with the clients in your sweet spot.

Every accountant can provide good advice. The hardest thing for a traditional accountancy professional is to bring out the softer skills. But firms need to understand why they want to do this; is it part of the practice strategy? Is it a design principle? Or are you doing it because you think you should? Softer skills are rarely taught to accountants, so seek coaching or training from specialists such as IRIS Practice Advisory.

Lastly, listen to your existing portfolio. Find out more information about their business, the challenges, objectives and values. 60-70% of flinder’s new business is from existing clients, whether its an extension of the services or referrals. For example, during a conversation with one client, I recognised the chairman was finding it difficult to articulate the business strategy. This led to flinder facilitating a high-level strategy workshop; within a structured framework, we helped them uncover their strategy which could then be detailed with the senior management team and rolled out across the business. Many accountancy firms don’t think about extending their services to strategic support. I see it as fundamental.

What can accountants do to ensure they are spending more time with their best clients?

Which clients are rewarding? Accountancy practices must first segment the client portfolio properly. Run the analytics, meet as a partner team, evaluate the risks and identify the challenges. This will enable you to identify your best clients. For us, they are not always the most profitable ones today; but those that are incredibly engaged and have huge potential are exciting to work with – and, you can genuinely help the business grow. It’s important to define what best means to your practice.

I can’t stress the importance of spending time with clients. Every business is unique; go above and beyond the call of duty. Always deliver to the highest standard. Your best clients are the ones that view you as far more than the accountant. You will be a true partner in the business. It will help your business, their business and be a much more rewarding experience.