Do you know what your firm sells?

Accounting

As you read the intro to this article, you might start to question where I’m going with all of this as I dig into the business model of coffee shops. But bear with me: I have a point — a crystal clear point to make.

As a dedicated coffee drinker, I’m a frequent patron of my local Starbucks. Now there’s a company that has operations down to a science — with a clear focus on what they sell and how they deliver products. This got me thinking. What would the challenges be for coffee shop owners who don’t have clarity on the products they sell?

  • How would they properly train employees to meet customer needs?
  • How would they know what equipment is necessary to support operations?
  • How would customers know what is offered?
  • How would the company market to their ideal customers?

A customer holds Starbucks Corp. beverages as she exits one of the company's coffee shops in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, May 28, 2013. Starbucks, the world's biggest coffee-shop operator, reported fiscal second-quarter profit in April that met analysts' estimates as U.S. customer traffic improved while sales stagnated in Europe. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

A customer at a Starbucks in Berlin, Germany.

Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Certainly, if someone opens a coffee shop, by default they should know that they sell coffee. But does that mean they also sell lattes, cappuccinos, pastries or protein packs? Not necessarily.

The point? Even for a business as “simple” as a coffee shop, it’s critical to have clarity around products offered. Just as it’s critical for accounting firm owners to be clear on the products they offer in order to be effective at all levels of operation — from staff training and marketing to product delivery and client experience.

So, the question is: Do you really know what you sell? If not, you may face many of the same challenges presented in the coffee shop example above. How can you possibly educate your staff so everyone is on the same page? How do you market your products to your ideal clients? How will your clients know what your products are? And how can you deliver a premium client experience if you don’t know what products your clients need?

The fact is that for too long, firms have fallen victim to lack of clarity — the biggest killer of enterprise.

Clarity is an ongoing quest

Many firms might say that they’ve always had clarity around what they sell, simply because they’ve been selling the same thing for years — bookkeeping, payroll and tax preparation. Make no mistake, this is indeed clear, but clarity is not stagnant. Firms have to change with the times and continue to define what they offer based on the market, trends and evolving client needs. Clarity is an ongoing journey.

For example, take the norm: Your products are bookkeeping, payroll and tax prep. First, these are all compliance products, which take the most time to support and are offered by the majority of firms across the country. Second, consider the growing threat of “big box” competition such as Bench.co or Pilot. These companies are offering outsourced compliance services at an exceptionally low cost and, reportedly, with higher levels of convenience.

With all the competition for compliance services, it’s time to redefine offerings. It’s time to get clarity on what it would look like to productize advisory services as well. Think about it, and then imagine the positive impact of productizing every solution you offer.

  • Standardized staff training across departments and roles. Create “off-the-shelf” training to quickly educate current and incoming staff on your product offerings. For example, if you offer a retirement plan product, once staff are trained, any one of them can support the client.
  • Standardized technology. When you accomplish clarity on the products offered, it’s easy to identify the tools needed to support a given product. It’s even likely that the client technologies you have in place today could support operations. But also consider added tools that streamline product management and the ability to easily share product information among team members.
  • Standardized marketing and sales processes. Imagine how simplified marketing and sales can be when you know exactly what you offer and who your ideal clients are.

From reactive to proactive operations

For as long as I can remember, accounting firm owners have operated with a reactive client service mindset. Simply put, this means waiting for the client to come to you with needs and then you respond. This type of business model also means you reinvent products and services with each client’s request. And that is no way to operate. Only when you have clarity around products can you anticipate client needs and then go to market with the products they truly need.

Moving away from the all-too-common reactive model takes time. It also takes data! Because how can you really know what your clients need unless you know more about them? Get the data and clarity will follow.

For brand giants like Amazon, Etsy and Apple, customer data is constantly captured. These companies are collecting data on buying habits, frequency of purchases and more. In one case study I read recently, a retail store used mounted video cameras with facial recognition to capture a buyer’s every move while on premise — including brand interest, time spent in certain departments, and purchases. Creepy? Yes. But this level of data, combined with online browser history, allowed the retailer to pinpoint client interests and market with laser focus.

So, if data is really that valuable (and we know it is), what opportunities are firms missing to better service clients by ignoring data that passes through the business every day?

This is where clarity comes back into the story. When we have clarity around our clients’ needs, we can then define products that they truly need — products that serve to foster business growth and long-term prosperity. It’s not about selling more stuff … it’s about selling the right products to enhance client relationships. But to get there, you need data.

The fact is, we all have tons of client data that can help us better understand our clients’ needs — to move away from a reactive to a proactive business model. The problem is that most of this data is in our heads. Consider just a few data points you might have on a client:

  • The client has or does not have a retirement plan or a buy/sell agreement.
  • The client does or does not use QuickBooks Online, Zoom, Slack or other helpful technologies.
  • The client set up as an LLC or a corporation.
  • The interest rate the client is paying on a business loan.

Likely, there are a hundred more data points like these examples. If you could capture all data points in a single space, just imagine the clarity! Just imagine how much easier it would be to support clients with much-needed advisory products.

For example, if you had a way to aggregate data, you could identify that a client does not have a retirement plan in place. Because you’ve clearly defined your products, you have a “packaged” retirement plan product you can offer the client (proactive versus reactive). Or imagine you identify that the client is still using QuickBooks Desktop. You could then proactively move the client into your firm’s preferred and recommended technology ecosystem, which likely includes QuickBooks Online.

There are numerous other examples of how data can clarify a client’s needs, and ways your firm can easily support clients with productized offerings … beyond standard compliance services. And this all serves to enhance the client experience to an unprecedented level.

Data is the bridge to advisory services inside an accounting firm, and it is the key to enabling a proactive business model and getting to a true state of clarity. If it’s been awhile since you’ve evaluated your product set, you may not be as clear on your clients’ needs as you think.

This is a big paradigm shift. It requires a shift to dedicated data collection. A shift from a reactive to a proactive client experience mindset. A shift from being a heads-down compliance services technician to a modern-thinking advisory services entrepreneur. All of this can be a reality when you make clarity a reality in your firm.

For a deeper dive into the topics discussed here, listen to Darren’s “Better Every Day” podcast on iTunes or at rootworks.com/podcast.

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