Change is inevitable…but for accounting firms, the ways you level-up your software functions will help to ensure your success. Here’s how.

Tips and Tools for Leveling Up Your Success  

Based on the February 18 webinar from Avii (What’s Next for Accounting and Customer Experience webinar). Today we want to learn more about the smoothest and most effective tools and practices accounting firms can adopt.  and especially about the ways to uphold the most seamless and effective customer experience.

We have new tax rulings—deadline changes and system outages—and these are just a few of the challenges accounting is having to surmount, every year. And they’re only escalating.

Consider the latest headlines: “IRS Expected to Audit More Small Businesses in 2021.” Says the CPA Practice Advisor: “After years of low examination rates, the IRS announced it will increase audits of small businesses: by 50 percent. This news comes during a time when complex tax law changes and economic stimulus programs in response to COVID-19 have made businesses’ books even more complicated than usual. We can mesh these realities against the experiences of accounting firm customers, which often leaves much to be desired.

According to Lyle Ball, CEO and Co-founder of Avii: “We are hearing and seeing that it is time for most practices, in fact potentially for every practice to Level Up right now. If practices are hearing their customers are unhappy with the intake process or are noting the process doesn’t integrate and translate into workflow efficiencies or enhancements… these are problems.”

So how do we address all of this? Today we’ll talk about how to expand and transform your customer experience productivity and profitability through three key steps, as follows:

  • Setting a vision that gains internal alignment.
  • Morphing your process to maximize customer engagement satisfaction.
  • Automating your workflows with the right technology to support both retention and profitability.

In a nutshell, says Lyle: “1) If there are issues with the integration among the tools you rely on the most – it’s time to up-level those functions. 2) If there are security and compliance concerns… You may require an entire overhaul of your accounting technology. As you conclude this year’s tax season there may be no better time, or 3) You may need to up-level certain functions, where you can achieve the most significant value add to your current process.”

What are the best ways for taking the customer experience to another level?

Beyond avoiding the pitfalls, what are the best ways for taking the customer experience to another level – one that causes them to spontaneously sing your firm’s praises- is that even possible in a field as wrought with stress and challenges as accounting? What would that take?

Says Lyle: “To us, client intake is maybe akin to

  • How do you go from CRM to learning about new clients to getting them to give you the documents or data that you need for specific projects?
  • How do you get them to upload the documents?
  • How do you get them to communicate with you?
  • How do you get their signature?
  • All of those elements are in the intake process and need to be running smoothly in the launch to start a new season or a new year.

Lyle continues: “The question we might ask is, “How happy are your clients with your current intake technology and process?” I hear every day from the decision-makers I’m meeting with, either our existing clients or potential clients, who are saying, “There are there are such better ways of doing this, where these systems are connected and interconnected.”

“So I’m a mindset guy. I like to think the way the target is thinking. So think of what consumers experienced this last year in COVID. Your customers, our consumers, have lots of products and services. Many companies jumped forward before their specific industries were on board during COVID. These include shining stars in the software industry such as banking credit card companies, healthcare, anything to do with your health savings account and questions ranging from how you access lab work from a doctor visit to maybe even your recent blood pressure.”

“In readings from visits to different hospitals or doctors, I can see all of that in one single portal for my health care provider and airlines. I think the airlines figured out that if things were going to be slow, we better redo our systems and improve things, so that when they come back online, we can give people what they want and they can travel.”

“There’s going to be a lot of competition for the money that’s pent up. And if you look at these experiences, these are secure portals. Especially in the case of banking credit cards and in health care, there are secure portals where all communication takes place. And then the clients get an email that says, ‘You have a banking issue to deal with,’ or ‘You have a fraud alert issue to deal with.’ ‘You have an exceptional charge that you might want to look at.’ ‘Somebody signed in from a new system.’ Or in the case of healthcare you have private information security information and different protected information you need to look at.”

“Those portals got really good this year. And so, the general population of humans in that are also your accounting clients. They have higher expectations now, of what a client portal does and how they access information. Couple this with the fact that last year there were more phone calls, emails and inquiries per client to accountants than in any recent memorable year. People had so many questions and so many changes thrust upon them. They were trying to get work papers and secure data to you from their own homes. They were trying to deal with PPP or tax extensions or wildfires and hurricanes. It was a crazy year, but the net result was more interaction in communication, which led to profitability for a lot of firms.”

“There were a lot of individuals paying for those exchanges, but it also led to pressures and needs to change systems so that clients and employees can see live status of projects. Where’s this; where’s that, what’s next and what am I missing. From this we can see that systems can do more with automated reminders.”

“Hey, it’s been 21 days since we asked for these four files,” for example, and instead of a human needing to send out a reminder, automated systems that read multiple software systems and collaborate can send unified reminders so that the client has a better experience. This prevents them from getting inundated with reminders for all the different systems in the workflow of the accounting firm.”

“These are some of the examples, but the bottom line is that consumers have a much higher expectation right now than they did 12 months ago for what is possible and what their accounting firm should provide them.”

How can you manage the process of improving your client management system?

According to Lyle: “I would say this is where a huge opportunity are around you know it’s available to CPAs and their firms and their clients. And that’s making it easier to work with each other. you’re making it easier to exchange information. And if we’ve learned anything from, you know, the experience of 2020. We’ve learned that we can do that more remotely more digitally. And it’s an area that needs constant attention, because if we can take client frustration off the table. Everybody’s happier. And if we can make it easier for the client and know what is the information that we need to exchange, and they know okay it’s me that we’re waiting on or no, I’ve given everything. Again, it takes a constraint, out of the overall system. So, this is definitely an area that you know firms and individuals CPAs should be constantly looking at, in our opinion doesn’t mean anything else you would out there.

Says Dustin Hostetler, Co-founder of Transformity: “I would just say we, the, the growth of the digital experience was pretty phenomenal last year in 2020 and continues to grow this year as well. You probably don’t go away in your firm without uttering that phrase or talking about the digital client experience and Michael and I are big proponents, we’ve been saying it for years. You know, looking at the integration of your processes and technology and looping and the client interaction and say, what are we doing as a firm to make it easier for our clients to do business with us if we’re trying to get work focused on voice of the client. How do we answer that question and what are we doing to make it easier for our clients to do business with us? If, firms are focused on this, they’re improving their processes to integrate technology to make that a reality. Not only are they going to improve the client experience, they’re going to find a lot more opportunities and be a lot more profitable as well.

Says Lyle: “You know there’s a point I’d like to make about the situation you have when industry vendors merge, or when one vendor acquires another and as a firm you have both of their solutions. What is the pathway to merge that data? What’s the pathway for them to interact, or if they merge, and you don’t have the blended solution is it going to affect you?  The other aspect is when your own firm acquires new technology. Is the firm simply replacing one silo with another, or are they moving towards a more connected world? Typically, you have 20 or more software systems in your firm that you use, and most of those systems are not connected. And because they’re not connected, humans need to then take files from the portal and put it into a different work paper system, and they need to send email in a different system, or they need to report their timecards in a different system where they need to summarize billing and billing system.

Says Dustin, “One of the things we stress, and we do a lot of work with CPA firms, is to focus on what happens if one vendor acquires another, how does that work? Have you set a future vision of what you want to be creating for your clients for your firm? We don’t really look at it from a process or a technology perspective it’s more about growth of the firm. We’re big proponents that firms have a similar vision of what they want their processes and technology to become.

They should look ahead three years into the future. With that roadmap, dial it back to saying what are the baby steps we can be taking today to get to where we want to be a couple of years out. When you start thinking 2, 3 or 4 years down the road, think about meeting your clients where they are going to be, not where they’re at today. This makes what you should be looking for from your software providers a little bit simpler of a puzzle to solve, because you’re not scrambling and don’t feel like you’re behind and just playing catch up. You’re actually controlling the direction that you’re heading. So if you have a two- or three-year vision of what you want to become and how you want your software to be integrated it makes some of these questions a lot more solvable.

Says Michael Wherry, CPA, Co-Founder and Chief Execution Officer of Transformity: “Dustin alluded to setting the vision firm wide, but it also can be departmental wide. And with that, bring the client interaction front and center and into the back and forth. When you do that a couple of things end up happening. It makes making changes easier, and it also gives you a story to tell about why we are making this change and why the change going to be better when you’re setting those incremental targets. The other thing that happens during that alignment is not only are you setting that vision of where you’re trying to go, you are looking for how technology can help you get there.”

“That gives you a roadmap to push on your technology providers to say I really like this tool. But what is this going to replace from my current technology stack? Because one thing we have to be careful of is constantly adding and not subtracting. Having that vision gives you the clear path to where we’re going and allows you to understand whether you need this certain type of functionality You know what it does better than the current choice in my technology stack and what it replaces.”

Adds Dustin: “This is critical. We believe the best way to get alignment is to involve a cross functional representation or team to come up in in brainstorm and dream up the vision and have conversations and debate what you know, what you want it to be, what direction you’re heading and how you’re going to meet the clients where they’re going to be at in the future. If you get more people involved in having a say and getting cross functional representation, they’re naturally going to buy into the outcome. So the alignment is crucial. Developing a vision should be a facilitated team effort.”

Adds Lyle: “Regardless of the size of the firm you work at, we see the best results when firms have an Innovation Council or Change Management Council that has representation from each subgroup. Perhaps somebody from Tax, somebody from Advisory, somebody from Billing and Finance, but also from different levels of roles. So there might be some partners in there, but there also might be some frontline employees who are part of the Council, so they’re giving a different perspective.”

“Then there’s a systemic way for those individuals to get good specific feedback from each of their groups. So it’s not just random but is a systemic pattern that is driven from a culture. If your firm doesn’t have this culture, please encourage it — a culture where the firm drives and incentivizes employees to give specific feedback on how the client experience could be better, how the technology could be better and how the firm interactions inside the firm peer to peer could be better. Those require change management coupled with technology.”

“So you can’t just throw technology at something and expect that people will be committed from a change management level. And you can’t just “will” it to happen if you don’t fix technology. There’s a sweet spot where in a healthy culture, employees, and clients have a fantastic experience in accounting. We know it’s possible, and we have a lot of business intelligence we’d love to share that with you. But regardless, just open your minds and share those specifics with your firm and watch what happens this year because change is happening, even for those you know have been the most rigid or stubborn senior partners in the past have been really resistant to change.”

“The shackles are being broken; they know they have to change. So this is the year for you to share your ideas as well. And here’s it here’s a crazy idea: Why not involve a client or several clients into that Innovation Council and Transformation Council as well.”

So how do you start implementing those changes for this excellent client experience in every single one of those areas?

Says Lyle: “This reminds me of the story of the little boy throwing starfish in the ocean. Something like 10,000 starfish were stranded and dying on the beach and a man walked up and said, “Little boy there’s 10,000 starfish–what on earth are you trying to do? You can’t save them like, “Well, I just saved that one, and he tosses it into the ocean.” You’ve got to start somewhere. It can feel overwhelming, and it can feel also like you don’t have a voice. You might be in a culture that doesn’t hear your voice, or you might be in a culture that hears your voice and then doesn’t make changes. But my advice is that you have hope and start somewhere. And one thing that almost all management members appreciate are specifics. ‘Here’s the specific problem. Here’s how I think we could fix it’ or ‘Here’s what might benefit us–have we researched this?’ The more specific your conversations can be with those who are holding the steering wheel of change management or software innovation, the more indispensable you will become.”

Michael Wherry, co, adds: “Once you’ve established your vision and you come up with your alignment plan, whether it’s come from an innovation council or a small cross-functional team. When you’re attacking that problem in those sessions, you’re going to have a clear answer to a couple of critical ‘why’ questions. The first one is ‘Why are we making this change?’ And so you can relay to the greater group in the firm why we’re making the change, or to your clients. Give them the reason. The other question to answer is ‘Why is this change going to be better?’”

“If you if you just think about those two questions and the answers to them, it’s a powerful message to get everybody on board, and to continue that alignment with the change.”

“A couple of other things we sprinkle in there is the reality that change is constant, not only in our CPA firm but in the greater world around us. One thing I like to point back to is to look at our cell phones. How frequently do we update our cell phones? If you’re like many, you get your new cell phone as soon as the new version comes out. Whenever you update your phone, there’s a lot of change involved but it’s okay, you get through it.”

“So it’s the function of making your team understand during changes that we’re going to be okay. If you couple it with why we’re making the change, and why this change is going to bring better alignment, this brings success.”

Says Lyle: “I remember the year in the Navy when we lead a significant change. I brought out the infamous airline seatbelt. I bought an actual lap clip seatbelt from eBay from an airline, and I brought it out and we looked at it and I said, “Look, we are going to experience turbulence. We are pushing to a new direction and a new level. We’re going to go through clouds and are climbing. It’s not going to be smooth, so if you think we can climb and not feel bumps, you’re on the wrong plane; we’re going to feel bumps.”

“But remember, we’re doing it with a purpose. So when you feel those bumps, don’t scream or cry. It’s just air flowing over wings. It’s good pressure and we’re using it to climb. We’re going to make it through and communicate during the process. Don’t overreact. That physical seatbelt reminds all of us that change management isn’t always smooth sailing, but it’s about a change that is possible, if you process it the right way, with very little discomfort.”

“One more simple thing is to be sure the change is documented. Who is responsible for what? How is this change going to be implemented? Too often we overlook that and when we have a great vision, we feel like we have alignment. And then we forget what is probably the most important thing to do, which is to create an action plan. What are we doing? When are we doing it by? Who is responsible? What is the next step? What’s the baby step to make progress? Without that simple formula, you may know you have great alignment but no one’s actually following through.”

How can you make your integrations better?

If your integrations are not exactly where you’d like them to be, they’re in the range of somewhat effective/not sure/somewhat ineffective. How can you make them better?

Says Dustin: “Without the vision of what you’re trying to accomplish and the plan in place to make it happen, you might be solving the wrong problem. Michael alluded to this earlier – historically, what a lot of we’ve seen a lot of firms do is what I would call ‘patchwork’ in terms of adding software, adding applications and not really taking the time to address the overall plan.”

“What have we combined, consolidated and eliminated? Or we just adding steps by adding software and adding complexity to the process? It is really important to have that vision in place and to begin involving your IT leadership and IT teams in the process as well. If we’re looking at up-leveling our integration, there has to be a clear plan. It has to be on boarded with an aligned strategy as well, and it has to be meeting that future vision. If not, the patchwork software applications firms have used over the years is causing some of their process and technology issues that they’re having both in their internal processes and customers as well as with the external customers.”

Says Lyle: “As white-collar professionals, we just use the software we have in our rules, and we get pretty good at it, and we accept it. And we say, “Well, that’s what I do, I do this in my job and I use the software and so every day I just kind of put up with that and start to accept that that’s the best practice. Because if I could, I would find better software or the firmware. So I’m just going to use what I have.

“If software is disconnected inherently, it can’t drive workflow automation to the next step. So if the client portal is working great but it’s not connected to the system that handles document storage or document handling, or review acceptance rejection and notes or other work paper processing, workflow automation is not really working. And if it’s not inherently connected to the project management software and the task name of the software, it’s not really working. And if all of those aren’t inherently connected to communication, you’re jumping over to email or you’re jumping over to other communication systems to talk about what’s happening in the portal, or what’s happening in documentation or what’s happening with the workpaper.”

“If they can’t talk to each other, they can’t automate. For real artificial intelligence to jump in and for real automation to jump in, the data and the systems need to be connected. Otherwise, what you end up with, and most firms have this, are 20 disconnected systems with 20 workflows and 20 little subsets of artificial intelligence or 20 little subsets of automation. And they’ll say, “Yeah, we’re happy with it, it worked pretty good last year we made a lot of money. We were very profitable.” And that works. There’s such a better world where you could not only be more profitable but you could also be happier; you could literally work fewer hours.”

“Imagine a crazy world where accountants aren’t required to work the insane hours that we just accept because it’s the world we live in right now. Imagine if a bunch of things were handled by machine so we could do just the things that only we can do. And then we do that very efficiently and effectively. And we could have better lives. That’s a big vision, but we see firms that provide a lot more joy to their staff because they’re automating and getting rid of all this human waste of time on things that are not important.

“You know, you went to school, and you got a really nice degree, and you pass a really big test to be in the seat you’re in as a professional accountant. Why on earth are you required to search for things as often as you have to, or send email reminders, or calendar things or remember to do timekeeping, or go back and rebuild your reports from billing and invoicing and all of these other things that should just happen, so you can focus on more important things for the firm and on things that are definitely more important for the client to have a better experience.”

Lyle continues: “I want to chime in with what Dustin said about patchwork. There’s this is kind of a silly analogy, but there’s a product out there called FiberFix and they have an incredible commercial. They talked about how it’s stronger than steel and they compare it to duct tape, and say, ‘Well, it’s 10 or 1,000 times stronger than duct tape. But couldn’t you just use 1,000 times more duct tape?’ And it shows this broken shovel with this giant ball of duct tape around it and the guy is like, ‘Yeah, I guess you could do that.’”

“And I feel like sometimes that’s what we do. We pile on more duct tape and then suddenly we have this thing that doesn’t work and it’s horrible, but it’s what we know and while we think it’s the best thing we have, there’s actually something better.”

Where do you go from here?

From Lyle: We a software self-audit tool, a software audit that we can do, and that’s free for you, or you can try the entire Avii workspace for free (and it’s not a demo or limited–it’s the whole thing). And you can review the entire Feb. 18 Webinar, Three Steps to Up-Level your Accounting process, available here.

Michael Wherry, CPA, CoFounder of Transformity Solutions LLC – Michael brings more than 16 years of real-world insight in consulting and mentorship in technology automation and process improvement as he made the transition from technical CPA to consultant CPA five years ago. He uses his unique skill sets to optimize and inspire competence for his clients. Michael earned his BA in accounting from the University of Northern Iowa and obtained his Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certificate from the University of Georgia. He is licensed as a CPA in the state of Minnesota.

Dustin Hostetler, CoFounder of Transformity Solutions LLC – Dustin is an industry pioneer in applying Lean Six Sigma process improvement techniques to the CPA profession, facilitating change management, providing collaboration insight and successful strategy execution to lead the best organizations in the CPA profession to unparalleled growth and transformation. Over the past 14-plus years of consulting, Dustin has worked with mor than150 firms to enhance processes and optimize technology utilization, including work with over more than half of the top 100 firms in the country. Dustin earned his bs BA in finance from the Ohio State University and both his Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and master black belt certifications from Kent State University.

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