Audit or Advice? Small Accounting Firm Practitioners and Small Business Clients
When a small business owner needs advice about running the business or strategizing on financial matters, one would think that the business owner would engage their accountant in the discussion. Following along with that logic, many small firm practitioners believe that their small business clients will ultimately engage with them for this advisory work and move beyond statutory audit and compliance work. For a great many firms, however, there remains a struggle to achieve more work and greater opportunity from client engagements; the firm remains relegated to performing mechanical functions of accounting and reporting and fails to gain the additional work which is truly desirable. There are a number of elements which present themselves in this discussion – considerations that the small firm practitioner may not be addressing – and which are likely contributing to the firm losing the opportunity to deliver more and deeper services to the client.
First, let’s consider why small business owners initially engage with their accounting professionals. More than with larger businesses, smaller businesses tend to rely more heavily upon the involvement of outsourced accounting professionals simply because the business isn’t able to justify the cost of staffing the position full-time. Needing office managers and bookkeepers or data entry operators is often a more evident need to the business owner, where assistance with daily operational and information management processes are more urgently required. Functions considered to be “accounting” could effectively be outsourced to a 3rd party and handled in more of an after-the-fact basis. For many small business owners, accounting is something which can be performed after all the real work is done, and presents the information necessary for payment of taxes, processing of payroll reports and the like. The accounting professional is typically engaged because the business owner knows this work must be done by somebody, and believes the selected practitioner to be competent and trustworthy, and they’re also probably local.
With the convergence of market environment changes, regulatory and jurisdiction conditions, as well as changes in behaviors (cultural, sociological, technological), a new level of demand has been created for business and financial advisory services. Yet small business owners often remain reticent to approach their local small firm practitioner for the service. Why is it that the client doesn’t often approach their small firm practitioner with requests for advice and advisory services?
Part of the problem is perception. Small business owners often believe that their needs require specialized knowledge and experience to address, and that the skill and experience can only be derived from a larger firm. Particularly if the smaller firm is not presenting itself in a manner that suggests that business advisory services are not only offered but are a specialty, the firm may simply lose to competitors who communicate the ability more effectively (something larger and more established firms are able to do via referral and reputation as well as through marketing).
A possible way to address the competency and perception issue is partnering, where firms join to collectively deliver solutions to the client. Where one firm may specialize in an aspect of the engagement and the other firm addresses other areas, the delivery of full service to the client is ultimately the goal, and sharing the work and the revenue is often a more agreeable approach than losing out on the engagement altogether.
Another factor presenting itself in the equation is the “entrepreneurial spirit” from which many small businesses are fueled. A small business owner is often somewhat of a superman, taking on multiple roles and performing a variety of functions in the business. It is this DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude that contributes to the business growth and success, but it is also sometimes the barrier to achieving a higher degree of success. Believing more in the personal power of critical thinking than in the reliance on the professional’s education, experience and insight, the business owner simply refrains from asking for advice because they don’t think they need it.
Frugality is another factor playing into the small firm/small business relationship. Small business owners may want advice, but they don’t want to have to pay for it. Anyone selling products or services to small business recognizes that there is a certain amount of consulting and advice that accompanies most sales. For some, this is simply a part of the sales process; helping the customer determine that this is the best choice and they should buy it. It’s not so simple with accounting and finance, however. There’s a big difference – and perhaps large risk associations – in giving advice versus performing accounting and compliance work. Certainly, advisory services aren’t something the firm would elect to give away, so it becomes essential that the value of the advisory service be expressed in a way that the client can understand and believe.
I once heard a financial planner address this same argument, where a prospective client suggested that they couldn’t really afford to pay for the advice. The financial planner countered with the argument that a good financial plan will increase the return, which then recoups the cost of the advice. If you pay $100 for the advice, and you earn $500 more than you would have without the advice, then it kind of feels like you’re getting paid to get advice because you gain more than you spend. It’s the same with accounting, finance and business advisory services: sound advice should improve the rate of return, which would more than compensate for the cost of the advice. The trick is getting the client to view the service as something real and valuable and not as snake oil, and to make a commitment to following the advice. Real value must be communicated and tangible results measured and delivered, not smoke and mirrors. Otherwise, the client return isn’t there, and the advice proved valueless.
As regulatory requirements increase – and become increasingly complex – the demand by small business for outside help also increases. It is this ever-expanding demand which represents opportunity for small firm practitioners to capture more (more interesting and more profitable) work from their small business clients. But competition is also growing from new providers and systems delivering advice, forcing adjustments to how the small firm must present its offerings and services, as well as change how they deliver and support those offerings.Whether through partnering and referral models, the development of new competencies and capabilities, creation of new workflows and methods, or some/all of the above, small firm practitioners must adapt in order to get that opportunity.
While the small firm practitioner may recognize that the small business client is greatly in need of advisory services, what they may not recognize is that the traditional approach has turned around, and it has become more likely that the client will seek advice first and statutory audit work second. For small firm practitioners, it is time to recognize that relationships are changing and how business is done must evolve to meet and advance that change.