Beware the Progressive Promise

With more firms moving to the Verasage pricing model (good on them – great move), we occasionally come across examples where firms haven’t really arranged their systems and processes to support the delivery of services.

idea

We are fortunate enough to be picking up a new customer (via referral) from a competitor who has “productised” their offering and built their model around cloud accounting.  Terrific.

The customer in question has been working with their accountant for many years and supported them as they moved the model to an agreed pricing platform (I don’t believe based on our discussions with the customer that the firm is anywhere near value pricing their services).  They had been paying the monthly direct debit to cover all the services required.  They had been providing all the information required to enable the firm to do what was required.

Now, put yourself in this customer’s shoes.  They’ve been paying a monthly amount to the firm for the various compliance obligations for the past three years.  However, they have only just now received the financials and tax returns for 2013/14 and 2014/15.  Are they frustrated?  Bloody oath.

To be clear here, they are pretty happy with the quality of the work they were getting – when they got it.  They were driven up the wall by the constant chasing up to get information from the firm.  They like the accountant they have been working with.  But they feel like they have been “left for dead”.  The experience they have had has been very unsettling for them. As they said – “we’ve paid for the work, why hasn’t it been done?”

Many firms are making the move to productising their offerings and moving more to an agreed pricing model.

They fall down badly though when their focus is on marketing and “brand building” rather than service delivery.

Having your customers pay into your account regularly is great for your cashflow.  When you’re not delivering the services agreed to under that model, you have a problem.

The firm our new customer was going to is widely lauded as a “leader” in its field.  It is held up as a paragon of virtue and “a major disruptor”.  The problem is, the lived experience of their customers doesn’t support the hype.

We will be making sure we deliver our agreed services to them on time and support them up hill and down dale.  We will also regularly check in with them to ensure they are happy with our delivery and service.  The great thing is, once they get embedded into our firm, they are wanting to refer a whole heap of their mates to us who are also with this “progressive” firm as they are all having the same experience.

The other thing is, we are value pricing the engagement with the customer.  They are wanting a heap more real-value services and they are more than happy to pay for them.  This is money the “disruptive, progressive” firm was leaving on the table by productising their offering.  The firm’s focus wasn’t on the customer, and that has created a marvellous opportunity for us.

When you do go down the path of changing your model, please ensure that you deliver what you agree to and keep the customer in the loop.  It’s no use being a “leader” in the industry/profession if your walk doesn’t match your talk.

You also need to have the value conversation with the customer and listen to their needs and wants.

Ends up being a far better outcome for all concerned.

Could not say it better myself!

Only just received the 2015 copy of the “Good, Bad Ugly” report on the Australian Accounting profession prepared by Business Fitness.  Makes for interesting reading.

head in the sand

There are a couple of points that are worth repeating:

  • revenue per partner has decreased by 8.9%;
  • average client fees have reduced by over 18% in the past two years;
  • for firms using timesheets, productivity is falling;
  • lower marketing spend over the past three years; and
  • 6% increase in firms using outsourcing (reasonable number, but not very many firms are doing it).

There is one very telling comment made in the introduction to the statistics in the report (my highlights):

When analysing the 14 years’ worth
of data relating to high-performing
firms, we can conclusively say that
productivity based on chargeable
hours has no correlation to
profitability.

Having just returned from the Verasage get-together in Boston, it has become even more apparent that the old models of firm management are not only redundant, they are dangerous.  Much of the discussion at the symposium related to the way successful firms focus on relationships – both internal and external.  This has to do with building, maintaining and honoring decent relationships.  Not relationships where everything is about flogging the crap out of your people and billing the hell out of your clients.  Relationships which are based on trust, accountability and common goals.

Having seen the damage done by the Almighty Billable Hour and looking at the impact this approach has on the cultures of firms, it amazes me that so many firms still use this model.

There is change already here in our industry and, as the GBU report reveals, this change is having an all-pervasive impact on our profession.  Either adapt or die.

The Pain of Old Firm Management

This week, I attended a seminar where, to be frank, there were some arguments put that had me considering the option of tearing my skin off and rolling in salt – it would have been less painful.

Hell

Consider some of the points made at in one of the presentations at the seminar (and this is not an exhaustive list, my comments/thoughts are in italics):

  • You should get your “star performers” and keep loading them up with work as they get in front of the pack.  In effect, reward them for their great performance by loading them up even more and putting more pressure on them – what an incentive that is!;
  • Apparently, your WIP balance is a leading indicator for your firm (!) – not sure how this works, but some in the room lapped it up – how exactly is the WIP report a lead indicator other than for the bills you are going to raise at the end of the month which will be the cause of the client complaints in the month following?  So, maybe it is a lead indicator – of client complaints – the higher the WIP, the more complaints;
  • The seminal approach to customer happiness: “If you touch the client, you bill the client – for everything”.  This phrase reminded me of a discussion I had the other week with a somewhat more visionary firm in Adelaide.  They have some folk who are not all that happy not recording the time they spend working on/for/with/around their customers.  I asked them during the discussion “Do you record the time you spend thinking about your customers over the weekend or at night when you’re at home?”  Of course they don’t.  However, according to the approach being promoted, you should.  Work that out, or, better yet – set a budget for it!;
  • You need to budget for write-offs each month;
  • References to “fixed price estimates” – what, exactly, are these? I have been racking my brain about this – if someone can provide some clarity for me around this concept, I would be grateful;
  • Apparently, client satisfaction is important, “but we do have to make a profit though” – in essence, the firm’s goal is profit first – if that has anything to do with happy customers, all well and good.  To me, this seems somewhat arse-about;
  • You need to ensure that your clients understand that their actions reduce firm efficiency – OMFG.  So, we should punish the clients for interrupting our work – actually laughed out loud at this one; and
  • Clients need to pay for the inconvenience they cause – as it would seem that they are the cause of all the problems that exist in the first place.

According to the sage presenting this, “clients don’t understand how accounting firms work”.  Really?  Do they need to?

It was argued that firms need to focus on productivity and efficiency at any cost as these are your major drivers for profit.  You need to ensure that you are flogging the be-Jesus out of your people (they will apparently love you for it) and encouraging them to work harder so that you can load them up even more.  This bit I found offensive.  People are volunteers in your business – they can choose to turn up or not.  I hear many firms complain about staff-churn and turnover – any bloody wonder!  If your culture sucks, you get the team you deserve.  Culture is the result of the language, behaviors and focus of a business.  If these are all based around profit at any price, then they get the culture that supports that.  Won’t be happy or contributory or collaborative, but it will be, well, there.

I have been a willing recipient of the famous “Verasage Headache” on numerous occasions.  They are positive, challenging and serve to help me grow.

Unfortunately, the headache I received from this session was entirely different.  It is a headache based around people being measured on productivity and chargeable hours rather than on effectiveness and customer relationships.  It is a headache that resulted from arguing that the customer is there to be charged heavily and charged often – this based on the theory that any bill they get from you will be a good bill (driven, of course, by your “leading indicator” WIP report).

So, at the end of the session, I felt sad.  Very sad.  There were owners and managers of accounting firms in the room who were assiduously taking notes – picking up tips to make them better at flogging the crap out of their people and not really giving a shit about their customers.

Tim, our GM, was at the session with me.  His words at the end of it summed the whole thing up beautifully – “Pretty scary shit actually”.

The salt room beckoned.

 

January 23, 2015 Show Notes: There’s no such thing as a commodity

There is no such thing as a commodity. All goods and services are differentiable.

—Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business Review

G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Competition is a furious plagiarism.” Yet the fact of the matter is there is no such thing as a commodity. Anything can be differentiated, which is precisely the marketer’s job.

Believing that your company—and the products and services it offers—is a commodity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you are a commodity, so will your customers. How could they believe otherwise?

This notion of selling a commodity is one of the most pernicious beliefs, which leads to price wars, incessant copying of competitor’s offerings, and lack of innovation, creativity, and dynamism. Consider this story from The Tom Peters Seminar:

Transformation. Breaking the mold. Anything—ANYTHING—can be made special. Author Harvey Mackay tells about a cab ride from Manhattan out to La Guardia Airport: First, this driver gave me a paper that said, “Hi, my name is Walter. I’m your driver. I’m going to get you there safely, on time, in a courteous fashion.” A mission statement from a cab driver! Then he holds up a New York Times and a USA Today and asks would I like them? So I took them. We haven’t even moved yet. He then offers a nice little fruit basket with snack foods. Next he asks, “Would you prefer hard rock or classical music?” He has four channels. [This cab driver makes an above-average amount per year in tips.]

If a taxi cab driver can establish a rapport with a complete stranger in a 15-minute ride to the airport, what is possible with a customer relationship over the course of a lifetime?

The potential for competitive differentiation is only limited by your company’s imagination. Many leaders lament that since their industries are mature, commoditization is inevitable, despite all the empirical evidence surrounding them that this is simply not so.

Commodity + Creativity = Differentiation

Consider candles, an industry literally in decline for the past 300 years. Yet Blyth Industries custom tailors its candles for the specific location, companion, and occasion, growing from $3 million in sales in 1982 to nearly $1 billion in 2010.

Even the declining lettuce business has been differentiated by prewashing it, cutting it up and packaging it—along with some salad dressing on the side—for the customer in order to save time. As a result, from the late 1980s a billion dollar industry was created.

Imagine investing $1 million of your own money into a start-up company selling dolls to girls. Most people would be deterred from facing Mattel and its flagship Barbie doll, but not former elementary school teacher Pleasant T. Rowland, creator in 1985 of The American Girls Collection.

Inspired by a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, she reflected on what a poor job schools do of teaching history, and how sad it was that more kids could not visit this fabulous classroom of living history. In 1998 Rowland sold the company to Mattel for $700 million.

Would you ever pay more for a share of stock—whose price is publicly listed and traded on the New York Stock Exchange—to one broker over another? After all, how can a share of stock be differentiated?

Before you answer, visit www.oneshare.com, where you can only purchase one share of stock at a time, valued primarily as gifts for babies and teenagers. Included in the ten best-selling shares, which you can have framed for an additional price, are Disney, Harley Davidson, Coca-Cola, and Facebook.

Starbucks. If coffee beans and water can be differentiated—not to mention command a premium price—what is the excuse from your marketing department?

Basic economics teaches that it is very difficult to sell something someone else is giving away for free. Yet notice bottled water. Water covers nearly three-fourths of the earth’s surface. Could there be a larger commodity than water? Perhaps this is why Evian is “naïve” spelled backwards?

Charles Revson, founder of Revlon and a man who understood exactly what his customers were buying, illustrated in his famous saying, “When it leaves the factory, it’s lipstick. But when it crosses the counter in the department store, it’s hope.”

Revson refused to believe that what he sold—a relatively straightforward concoction of chemicals—was a commodity, and reportedly spent 45 minutes in front of a seminar of his international marketing executives having a dialogue with a glass of water, attempting to illustrate the meaning of product differentiation. As explained by his unauthorized biographer Andrew Tobias in Fire and Ice:

. . . [T]he water glass caught his eye. He picked it up, held it out in front of him, and said, in his friendliest way, “Hello, glass. What makes you different? You’re not crystal. You’re a plain glass. You’re not empty, you’re not full . . .” and then he began telling the glass how it could be made special . . . by changing the design, changing the color of the water, giving it a stem, and so on.

Avoiding the Commodity Tax

So many companies are prisoners of their past, assuming that the way they have always done it is the only way. Yet it takes creativity and innovation to separate yourself from the competition. Offering only a cheap price is the last refuge of a marketing department out of ideas for creating value for customers.

There is absolutely no excuse—none—for businesses to think of themselves as commodities. Any company can compete on price; it is truly a fool’s game. The commodity trap is a self-fulfilling prophecy, breeding cynicism and stifling creativity, dynamism, and innovation.

Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad, said, “Advertising is a tax for having an unremarkable product.” Commodity thinking is the same type of tax.

Do not let your company acquire a core competency in cutting prices by falling into the commodity trap.

Episode #28 Preview: There’s no such thing as a commodity

slide1G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Competition is a furious plagiarism.” Yet the fact of the matter is there is no such thing as a commodity. Anything can be differentiated, which is precisely the marketer’s job. Believing that your company—and the products and services it offers—is a commodity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you are a commodity, so will your customers. How could they believe otherwise? This notion of selling a commodity is one of the most pernicious beliefs, which leads to price wars, incessant copying of competitor’s offerings, and lack of innovation, creativity, and dynamism, not to mention suboptimal pricing strategies. The potential for competitive differentiation is only limited by your company’s imagination. Many business leaders lament that since their industries are mature, commoditization is inevitable, despite all the empirical evidence surrounding them that this is simply not so. Ed and I will attempt to dispel the myth of commoditization.