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.

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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.

Does this Really Work?

Ohhhh, the frustration!

I recently posted about a seminar I attended last week.  The feedback I have received from that post has been significant.  The responses have ranged from “Oh my Lord – that’s us” to “so, there is a way forward”.  Great, but I want to concentrate on the first type of replies received.

So many firms understand that the way they operate and their business model isn’t great, but it’s all that they know.  To try and move them to a new, more effective model takes a great leap in mental construct on behalf of the owners and managers in those firms.

One of the responses I received was from a bloke I know well who has just taken over as CEO of a professional knowledge firm.  Well established, reasonable size and “good, traditional” brand.  And he is frustrated up the wazoo!

It would appear from his email that the following issues pervade the organisation:

  • staff are rewarded with bonuses for hitting “productivity” targets;
  • The transfer from WIP into debtors (you know – actually billing the customer) is fraught in that, once the bills are raised, the customers get pissed off;
  • Consequence of this is that a lot of work remains in WIP as the senior people responsible for billing the WIP are too scared to raise the bill as they don’t want to have to deal with an angry customer;
  • Debtors ledger is out of control as there are a large amount of accounts “in dispute” which means that the whole thing is taking a massive amount of time and effort to clean up.

Now, from my view, this appears to be the antithesis of everything a professional knowledge firm should be.  Let me posit my view of the warped thinking that enables such an environment to exist, let alone continue:

Productivity

We want our people to be working – agree on that.  But, do we want them to be working on things that make a difference to the customer and are valued by the customer or do we want them doing things that waste a heap of time on customer accounts?  The behaviour you reward is the behaviour that continues.  By tying rewards (bonuses) to productivity targets, we are encouraging our people to bill as much time to the Holy WIP Ledger as possible.  The argument goes that, when we record everything, it gives us a basis for billing everything to the customer (more on this below).

But what is the real message that we are sending to our people when we bonus (often ridiculous) productivity?  Is it a message about effectiveness?  And is it really a message about efficiency?  Too many times, firm leaders sprout on about efficiency but the bonusing system actually penalises people from working more efficiently as their productivity targets won’t be met (the thinking goes: if I do this job more quickly, I won’t spend as much time and therefore, I stand less chance of getting the bonus).  Where is the incentive for them to be more “efficient”?

As part of this system, you get the inevitable build up of your Holy WIP Ledger.  Many firms see this as a “lead indicator” (as per last week’s post) when, in fact, it is a wish list that often bears very little resemblance to collection.

The other message you send to your people with the focus on hitting production targets as far as time spent is that they will only see a customer as something to be billed, not valued.  The training that occurs as a consequence is that the “up and comers” get taught that to get ahead, you need to focus on pleasing the partner/manager with high productivity rather than pleasing the customer by delivering great outcomes.

As an aside, it is often the case that the less senior people very rarely (if ever) get to meet with the customers.  How is this going to play out in their career development?  How is this going to assist them with understanding the file and the customer needs?  All information is “filtered” through the senior people before it gets to the actual “doers” of the work.  The outcome – they flog their guts out to get promoted and then have no experience in dealing with customers face to face.  I know of one firm in town here where the only people who see customers are the partners.  Talk about rate limiting factors!  An obvious outcome of this is that there is more rework required and heavier partner involvement in getting a file “customer ready” as the instructions are, more often than not, “lost in translation”.  This though, in the warped world of timesheet based billing, is good – more chargeable hours to bill, higher “productivity” and a bigger Holy WIP Ledger.

Holy WIP Ledger (HWL)

So, we have a whole heap of people billing the Holy WIP ledger as hard as they can as this is the basis on which they get rewarded.  The HWL is seen as a current asset in the books of the business and the financiers and owners of the business see it as “money in the bank”.  All that needs to happen is for it to be billed.

Herein lies a bit of a problem.  I have yet to meet with a firm where they state, honestly, that the HWL is fully recoverable.  I know of one firm I have been dealing with who ran a HWL that was a pure estimate.  They had timesheets to (sort of) back it up, but they knew that they were all rubbish so they just did an estimate.  It was probably as approximately right as the timesheet based one anyway.

I recently did some work for a customer in a professional knowledge firm regarding the exit of a Partner.  The HWL was obviously an issue to be addressed as the approach they were considering was one based on a mixture of profit and net assets.  To get a true picture of net assets, there needed to be a full review of the HWL as everyone recognised that it was not valid and certainly not all collectible.  In this circumstance, I suggested that we not go through this process.  Instead, we developed an approach which looked at what the exiting Partner was happy to receive for his equity and what the continuing equity holders were prepared to pay for the share.  As I said to the Managing Partner – “We can go through the whole process and get a result.  The real risk here is, whilst it might be very right as far as the number goes, someone is likely to be pissed off”.  The approach we used meant that my business didn’t get a whole heap of extra money for going through the valuation process, but, we did ensure that the Partners (exited and remaining) have kept very very good relationships and our customer very much values the creative approach we have adopted to solve their problem.  In short, we provided value rather than a number.  And we have further strengthened our relationship which will lead to more referrals and customer longevity.

The HWL is never right.  The term in most professional firms is “lock-up” – how many days the firm has “locked up” in WIP and debtors.  Often time, this number is horrendous – I know of some firms who have nearly one year’s worth of revenue “locked up”.  For what purpose?  You can’t spend it as it’s not real.  Why bother measuring something that is so subjective as to be useless?

Debtors

To get a bill done from your HWL, it needs to go through a process.  Often, it will be a senior person or Partner who goes through this process.  More often than not, they will sit down and agonise over the process “If I bill them what’s on the HWL, they will have a melt-down”.  So, what happens is that a bill will be raised against the customer for some portion of the HWL balance outstanding – in effect, what the person doing the billing believes they can get away with.  Conversely, if you do bill them for everything that’s on the HWL, you are almost guaranteed to get a pissed off customer on the phone three days later (or, worse, never – as they quietly leave and have no intention of using you again – or paying your bill).  There is no positive outcome that arises from this.  For anyone.

Now, the current thinking with regard to this is that firms should budget for “write-offs”.  In other words, they are saying (in words and deeds) that they know the HWL is crap.  But they then hold that the basis of their charging of the client is on time spent.  So, if the client has agreed to appoint them on time spent and they don’t bill the full time, are they really engaging them on that basis or on a “best estimate” at the end of the job?  This is where “estimated ranges” of accounts come in to it.  The client is told the cost of doing the work will be in the “range” of (say) $5,000 and $10,000.  The client hears “$5,000”, the Partner hears “$10,000”.  When the bill ends up being $8,000, both parties are pissed off.

What happens more often than people care to recognise is that there is a lot of “stuff” on the HWL that the senior guys are just too scared to bill.  I have seen some aged HWLs which record work done up to two years prior that is yet to be billed.  Seriously?  Is it ever going to be billed?  Or is it just there as a tacit admission that the system ultimately doesn’t work?  This then leads to other KPIs in firms about the ageing of HWL.  Most of these are there but not adhered to.  If the WIP isn’t billable, write it off – with all the “appropriate” consequences.

But, back to the staff posting time to the HWL.  How do they feel when the time they put in to a client is then written off?  Where is the feelgood out of this?  For anyone?  What is their thinking at the end of a job when, they are encouraged and incentivised to record all the time only to have it written off?  How will they think about the Manager/Partner who has “done this to them”?  What message does it send about the “system”?

So, after much navel gazing and internal brinkmanship, the bill is sent out to the unsuspecting customer.  The customer gets angry.  Now, one of two things happens.  The customer ring the Partner to have a whinge about the bill – the firms sends out a detailed HWL report to the customer detailing everything they have done (including the 15 minute phone call – billed as 18 minutes – where the customer recalls at least half of it was spent discussing the football results) for the period the bill covers.  Guess what, they get more angry “They’re charging me for what?”  Then they start to do the maths.  “If he is $500 per hour and he spent 8 minutes talking about the football, he wants me to pay him $100 for that?”  Not a great outcome.

Source:  geektoauthor.blogspot.com.au

Source: geektoauthor.blogspot.com.au

The other thing that can happen is that the customer simply doesn’t pay the bill.  So, they start to get harassed by the ever-vigilant accounts department in the firm.  The “friendly reminders” come out, then the “is there a problem” letters and so on until the letters get more threatening.  Really good, positive stuff about customer engagement through this whole process.

At the end of the day, it gets nasty and people start defending positions.  The firm will (usually) relent and write-off a part or the whole bill or, sadly, take the customer to arbitration.  On this note, I remember a number of years ago when Ron Baker did his “Firm of the Future” tour around Australia.  During this tour, I met with a number of the Legal Services Commissioners from various states around Australia.  Their major source of work?  Fee disputes.  Their fervent wish was that all firms priced up front as the firms that did this hardly ever had a fee dispute.

So, we have a debtors ledger that is somewhat suspect as to the real collectability of the balance.  Which means, when coupled with the HWL, the “lock up”metric used by a number of firms is inherently questionable.

After all of the above, is it any wonder why my firm dumped timesheets in 2007?  It has saved innumerable hours, it has reduced customer complaints and has meant that the team in here are far more focused on delivering positive customer results rather than inputs.  As stated above, the behaviours you get in your firm are the ones that you reward.  Is your reward program incentivising the right behaviours?  Is your firm business model one which is team and customer focused?

There is a better way of running a professional knowledge firm.  Far less stressful, more enjoyable and one where you actually want to come to work.  if you look after your people and customers, the profits will (generally) look after themselves.

The frustration of firm management can be reduced and/or removed.  There are a band of highly experienced guys and girls at the Verasage Institute who can help you make the move.  But you have to make the first step.  I strongly encourage you to do so.

Regrets? They’ll have a few

OK, so we’ve all got them.  You know, those things that we look back on and think “what the hell – why did I do that?” or, (even worse) “why didn’t I do that?”

I’ve had plenty – more of the former type than latter, but it all forms part of the rich tapestry of life that we humans form part of.  And, much as we may regret things, it helps us develop into the people we are and forms the foundations of who we will be.  Great.

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BUT, what would happen if you knew that something was going to happen and, despite every nerve in your body screaming at you to do something, you didn’t “do it” (whatever “it” might be) – is that really a regret?  If you adopted a stance of denial, does that turn into a form of regret?

How is it that, even when confronted with massive amounts of evidence supporting a reality that is going to occur (and I’m not talking “consensus” here) – I am talking incontrovertible facts – you still don’t make the moves that are required?

I’m not going to launch into semantics here (I will leave that to my far more learned colleagues in Verasage), I am just trying to posit the argument that often times, people do not do what they should and don’t take action when they should or find a million reasons not to do something they know they need to because, well, they have lost something.

What is the loss they have made?

Consider if you will the current state of the accounting profession.  We are seeing massive changes set upon us – mainly from technology/cloud solutions, but also from offshoring operations.  Did you know, for example, that most of the Big Four have established offices throughout Asia to which they “in-source” their compliance work at (about) AUD10 per hour?  I know of an Australian example where a large corporate has moved a significant volume of their processing/admin work to a Pacific nation as the effective wage rate there is AUD1.20 per hour – a bit better than the award rate over here!

This is all happening now.  Today.  To our beloved accounting profession.  And what are the vast majority of our colleagues around the world doing about?  Nothing.

I posted some time ago about the changes that were occurring to our profession.  The changes that were coming then are rolling out even more quickly than I anticipated.

So, what is the profession doing to adapt to this change?  Not much.  Some of us a screaming to all who can be bothered to listen that there needs to be a change in business model.  Hardly anyone seems to be listening.  Or caring.  And we are not, by the way, being “chooky looky” – the sky is falling in!

What are most accounting firms doing to try and combat the inevitable?  They are trying to be more efficient.  Making better time recording platforms and putting greater emphasis on staff productivity.  Anyone recall Danny DeVito in “Other People’s Money”?  Buggy whips.

To make the process more precise isn’t what’s required in the accounting profession today (or tomorrow).  As Ron Baker is fond of saying – “I’d rather be approximately right than precisely wrong”.  Bravo Ron!  But tell that to the Luddites who persist with a 1950’s business model 65 years after it was made common place and 64 years after it became redundant.

The time-sheet is an anachronistic tool that does not fit with today’s requirements.  Staff hate them, admin hates them, managers hate them and Partners/Directors hate them.  The people who hate them most however, are the second most important people in your business – your customers.

In some respects, I am advocating a “back to the future” scenario – get rid of time-sheets – but with some important changes.  Changes like agreeing the scope of work and price up front with your customer.  The change which includes and involves your people in determining scope – and price!  The one where you truly empower your people to shine rather than record their misery in 6 minute increments.

Ed Chan of Chan & Naylor last week posted on Linked In.  Chan’s argument is that accountants sell time.  No.  We don’t.  We sell solutions to our customers’ problems.  His argument is that the “solutions” (I am expanding his argument a little here, but I believe it is in the same vein as what he has written) are all compliance-based whereby all we are doing is the “same thing” for each client.  As I have illustrated above, the basis of a lot of the compliance work is going to be automated or off-shored.  So scalability only applies if you’re doing basic, processing and bookkeeping work.  Not exactly what we’re trained for is it?

Similarly, setting an arbitrary hourly rate to charge them for your time isn’t reflective of their need or the value that they place on the work to be done.  Using the same rate for everything you do makes you pretty “average”.  And remember – average is where the best of the worst meets the worst of the best.

My belief is that every customer is unique and have their own set of fears, needs and the like.  To try and put them all in one basket is to demean both them and the people who work on their files.

Chan’s argument is also based on the premise that all you have to do is to hire more people and more customers will come to you.  Oh, to live in such a wonderful world!

From my experience (such as it is), the only way you can achieve this is to discount your offering to a level that drives people to you.  And then, what happens to “the margin” that Ed believes is the Holy Grail?  That and the fact that you’ll generally get the bottom-feeding clients who don’t value what you do anyway and will bring a whole heap of their “friends” along with them – High School Chemistry – like attracts like.  You will also not exactly engage your people as they merely become cogs in a never-ending grind out of tax returns.  Inspiring isn’t it!

So, in Ed’s world, where “you build a business to prepare a tax return”, I believe there will be regrets.  Lots of them.

Customers don’t want tax returns.  They want advice.  Support,  Counsel.  Encouragement.  SOLUTIONS.  The tax return work is only there because the government stipulates it.  Nobody really “values” it in the true sense of the word.  And the ultimate disruption?  I know of at least one of the Big Four that will be offering their clients compliance work for $0 in the coming years.  How’s “the margin” on that?

Getting the business model right for accounting firms is critical given the disruptive times we are in.  Making a bigger or cheaper version of what exists won’t answer the challenge – it merely cements in a race to the bottom for those firms that don’t adapt.

Regrets?  Yep, I have them.  A number of them.  One I do not have however is getting rid of time-sheets and moving to a business model that will sustain our business, our people and our customers for a long time.

Oh – the loss they have made that I referred to above?  It’s a loss of self esteem and belief in why they do what they do.  And that, my friends, can be scaled!