Stop saying client centric and think about the client’s vision, goals and plans

5th Mar 2021
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Accountancy Manager
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If you just rolled your eyes at ‘advisory’, we don’t blame you. Quite frankly, the word doesn’t mean anything - and yet it encompasses so much. It is not, however, too complex for any accountant to deliver - so long as you have the right structures in place and know your limits. John Thompson from Complete Advisory Solution explains.

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What the heck is advisory anyway?

John starts off all initial conversations around advisory by boiling it down to its essence. “If we call compliance ‘keeping clients out of trouble’ - fulfilling regulatory obligations and making sure returns are on time etc, what's the equivalent with advisory?” 

“We often ask people to describe advisory in four words. And those are: Helping Clients Do Better. That gives a clue about why advisory needs softening in order to explain it better to clients, because ‘do better’ means different things to different clients.”

How to talk about advisory (don’t call it advisory)

Accountants talk about ‘advisory’ but what does this mean to clients? It is a ‘suitcase’ word that needs unpacking to carry any meaning to them, as John explains. “In order to introduce advisory to clients, don't call it advisory. Just talk about how you can help them do better, what their plans are, what their vision is, what their goals and objectives are, what's going to make them happy.”

“Whatever you offer to help them achieve that or move towards that - that is advisory. You don't walk up to a client and say, ‘let me talk to you about compliance’, you talk about tax returns, making sure you don't get an investigation, doing things on time. So that's the best way to talk about advisory.”

Personal affairs shouldn’t be taboo

CAs John points out for most SMEs and owner-managed businesses, business and personal affairs are inextricably linked. “There's a huge crossover between the two. Their wealth and personal situation often depends on the success of the business. That's the side of advice that I think people miss out.” 

Without the back story, without understanding the client and their future ambitions, understanding the numbers is nigh on impossible.”

“Often you see people's websites say 'business advisor'. Well, they do more than that. You don't just advise the business. You're advising the business owner. You are offering a Whole of Client service. What's really important is that when we understand not just a client’s business, but what's going on in their personal lives.”

“You could go to Companies House and randomly pick off a set of accounts and we’re taught as professionals to make judgements on those numbers. I would argue we can only make very limited judgements because we don't know the people who own it or anything about their personal finance.”

How to introduce advisory services to your practice and clients

Every accountancy practice already has internal workflow structures and service packages for delivering compliance to their clients. So, asks John, why not use the same basic ideas for delivering advisory? 

Use your internal compliance framework for inspiration

“Compliance within firms is incredibly structured. There’s a framework that’s been imposed upon us because of all the legislation and regulations. So that's a big head start. We've got to help clients tick lots of boxes and we have certain processes in place to help them do that.”

“With what we're calling 'advisory' there isn’t that framework, so we've got to create our own. The same way we have standard operating processes (SOPs) where everybody knows that when you get to February, the December year ends need to be undertaken and the SOPs in the practice just kick into gear. So why aren't we doing that for advisory?” 

Onboarding compliance + advisory clients - and transitioning your existing clients

Once you’re clear about what advisory really is for clients then you can look at how best to offer advisory services. You have two audiences to target - new clients that you’d like to onboard as both compliance and advisory clients, and existing compliance clients that you’d like to move over into compliance and advisory. Using the Complete Advisory Solution platform, you can take new and existing clients through a free 60-minute business review that helps clients prioritise what is important to them, reveals to you what areas they want you to help them with, and provides them with a valuable, affirming experience with a free report at the end. 

We're talking onboarding with a big O. What are we going to do with a brand new client that's going to blow their socks off?” 

Put your ‘client care’ process in place

For existing clients, John recommends the ‘10% rule’. “You don't want to set yourself up to fail. So just look at the top 10% of your client base to start with. Most firms already segment clients, so they can say ‘let's start with our Grade A clients’. Once you’ve chosen your selected clients, the first step is asking all those questions that explore both the back story and future ambitions of the business owners - and their businesses.”

Remember, you wouldn’t book a call to talk with your client about ‘compliance’, but about a specific tax return or accounts. So don’t book ‘advisory’ calls - John says firms that use CAS often begin by badging this as  ‘client care’.

Testing the water with advisory prospects 

Deciding whether to work with someone in an advisory capacity - whether they’re an existing client or not, is a two-way street. So, built in to CAS are tools to sense-check the potential advisory relationship. “We've got a couple of half hour tools, specifically designed for prospects you're not sure you want. If you come across someone not particularly ambitious and don't really value what you're saying, why would you want to work with them?”

How to bill for advisory and generate recurring income 

Again, John encourages accountants to look at how they offer compliance. “You don't just want to do ad hoc project work, you want to create recurring income streams. So, the minimum package would be quarterly implementation meetings, followed by an annual review of the plan. Most clients may want or need more. In monthly or quarterly meetings, it will all be focussed on driving the plan forward and introducing other services that are required.”

The Client Plan is Core

Having provided a great experience to the client where they have prioritised what is most important to them, you can take the next step - helping create their plan. The  plan is core, it is the central point of reference for the client relationship: keeping your client on track, proving value and crucially, the plan reveals the advisory services that  each client needs.

“So you can say, ‘we will help you put a plan together to drive your business forward, which ensures all the key areas you have identified are picked up and dealt.” 

It's impossible to put that plan together without the plan revealing all the services that are required to help that client do better.”

“It might mean their management information system isn't good enough. It might mean certain tax advice needs doing. It might mean that the business needs restructuring in a certain way and so on. The reason that’s much more acceptable to the client and they don’t say ‘you're just trying to sell to me’ is because of the point of relevance: their plan.”

Give clients tangible outcomes

“Mostly in compliance, there’s a tangible output,” explains John, “a copy of the accounts, the submission to Companies House and so on. It's got to be the same advisory. We see so many firms who give great advice on the phone and sometimes not even follow up with an email.

It’s not good enough, because the client will forget and won’t value it. We say to people, if you can't send them something that they can print it off and slap on the table, it isn't tangible enough.”

What makes a good advisor?

John is often asked, ‘what's the most important trait for a really good advisor?’. “Half jokingly and half seriously, I say that they have to be a bit nosey, they've got to be curious. They've got to be interested in people, why they’re in business and why people are the way they are.”

You don’t have to be a guru to be a business advisor”

“There's a lot of nonsense out there that says ‘accountants haven't got the skill sets to do this kind of work’ well I'd say: define ‘this kind of work’. Because a bit like tax, you don’t have to know every single thing about tax to give clients good tax advice. And you can bring in experts for different things at different times. Exactly the same with advisory. People can work to the level they're comfortable.”

“Big advantages accountants have over business coaches is that accountants understand the tax and financial consequences of decisions in a way that many business coaches never will.”

Where does AccountancyManager come in?

First, AM gives you back hours of time you would’ve spent on admin. By automating the ‘keeping your clients out of trouble’ bit (with automated record requests, payment reminders and an automatically generating Task List) you can channel more time into ‘helping clients do better’.

As John says “You need two things, an advisory delivery platform with advisory processes and capacity which means time”

Add advisory services to your automated Task List and track time

As well as the built-in services such as VAT, Self Assessment and Year End Accounts, you can also create custom services in AccountancyManager for your advisory services, then switch it on just for the relevant clients. That way, you can set deadlines and add recurring advisory meetings and work to your Task List.

You can also track time spent on advisory by anyone in your practice. Even if you’re billing - as recommended - in advisory packages with set pricing, recording your time will tell you how profitable your work is.

Send automated advisory-related emails and add advisory to onboarding letters

Once you’ve created your Custom Service, you’ll also find a template for automated emails - to request information, an update or to prepare for an upcoming meeting - which you can edit. You can also populate the details of the service on your Letter of Engagement.

And who are Complete Advisory Solution?

Complete Advisory Solution (CAS) is an advisory platform that enables accountants to deliver advisory services extremely effectively. CAS can be tailored towards transitioning your existing clients into compliance + advisory clients, but also attracting new clients who are compliance + advisory clients from day one.

Excited by the idea of helping your clients do better?

To explore advisory in more detail or to find out more about Complete Advisory Solution, contact John and the team on the CAS website.