Attend any conference and you’re bound to hear about change…. Lots of change…. At an ever-increasing pace. After three days at the Massachusetts Society of CPAs Practice Management Forum conference, I found this almost dizzying. That said, it’s always nice to step away from the office to take time to listen and think about the macro-level of what’s happening in professional services. There are definitely some worthwhile themes that I think are worth sharing with you here.
OK, OK, don’t stop reading now, we’re just getting started. Technology is not coming to take your job, but it will CHANGE your job. Stay on top of technology and it will change for the better. A the firm level, digitally mature companies are 3x more likely to report profit margins and revenue growth significantly above industry averages.
I’m saying “Yes, please” to automating repetitive processes, eliminating data entry, alerting me to problems I didn’t know to look for and opportunities I couldn’t find on my own. “Yes, please” to scheduling tools that eliminate email chains comparing calendars, driverless cars (still 10+ years away, apparently) and the end of the keyboard in favor of voice recognition that works and is smart enough to do what you want. I’ll even say “Yes, please” to blockchain when the banks and credit card companies figure it out and start giving discounts/better rates to increased data security.
Conversely, however, if you fall behind, technology will create a laggard effect and your firm will struggle, fall further behind, and get beaten by competitors or be sold (or not!) for a lower price than you wanted. Think you’re “too old” to change, then you better be planning to retire in the next 3 years, the experts said.
A quick anecdote. I was talking with two bankers at the event. They were playing the game where you list the 10 banks you worked at as the names change due to M&A or you moved around. As they discussed which banks got acquired/merged, they were saying how surprised they were that “this” bank and “that” bank were gobbled up since they were so strong and had great technology. I listened, then added…. I think that’s WHY they got acquired. Maybe the bigger player wanted the lead on technology or wanted to eliminate a future threat. Both bankers blinked, and said, “yeah, maybe you’re right”.
The End of Grunt Work.
An analogy: I saw a Facebook post from Boston College (my alma mater) promoting the new athletic facility / gym / rock climbing wall / pool / spa…. OK, maybe not spa, but that’s what it seemed like! Back in the day we had “the Plex” – and it was not good. To play club water polo we literally took a van to Simmons College to use their pool. I am supremely jealous of the students on campus today; but I don’t wish “the Plex” experience on anyone. Likewise, I know what jobs I had to do coming up the ranks as an intern, entry level marketer, etc. I wouldn’t necessarily wish that on anyone else either. Back then, there was no alternative to much of the menial, repetitive tasks. Today’s 20-somethings know there are solutions to these problems and they do not suffer fools. For the sake of employee development and retention, it’s time to give up the notion that our new hires are here to do the grunt work. In fact, if you pay attention to technology, a lot of this work will be gone anyway. I think it’s a good thing. Salaries are high and the more you can leverage each employee, maybe we’ll all stop checking our emails at 10pm just to keep up.
Banking on Trust
CPAs are the most trusted profession in the US. The fastest way to grow a firm may just be taking that trust and selling it in places we’re not seeing today. Not so long ago, people would have said that 80% of a company’s value was reflected on its balance sheet. Today, that number is 20%. Corporate purpose is rising – no longer just shareholder value as the only goal. With a majority of a company’s value based on non-financial measures, someone needs to come along and verify their claims in the areas of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria. Other countries have embraced this already in the form of “Integrated Reporting”.
CPA firms can start attesting to not just the financials, but also the ESG traits. A company that wants to claim carbon neutrality will need someone to verify its claims – perhaps a CPA firm. A company that wants to claim its cyber security will need someone to verify its claims – perhaps a CPA firm. Blockchain technology is purported to be immutable, but the public will want assurance of that for private company blockchains so early adopter companies may want someone to provide an audit for PR reasons – perhaps a CPA firm.
In a world of increasing change and different expectations, we need to be sure that our trustworthiness is applied to the right areas. Need to understand where society is going to evolve so our skills and impact are relevant. If CPAs stay in the lane of only attesting to the 20%, competition from outside the professional will start to claim attention rights over the 80% and the profession will suffer.
There were a few ideas on pricing by presenters at this conference. Value Pricing always comes up. Subscription pricing was an interesting one that I knew about in other areas of life (Netflix, Office365, gym memberships, etc) but hadn’t thought about for professional services. I’ll have to give this more thought as it is apparently extremely attractive to younger generations who are on a budget.
The pricing idea that caught my attention was the one based on choice, comparisons, and human inclinations. I had heard it before, but this time it stuck with me. Let’s start with a few basic ideas…. People love “3’s”, people love choices, people love value.
Let’s take the analogy of movie theater popcorn…. Never a good value, but here we are. Small for $5, Medium for $8.50, Large for $10. (For the sake of giving credit where it’s due, this is from Jenifer Elder of Sustainable CFO)
- The small is VERY small; though let’s be honest, it’s actually the amount you would make at home. It would do the job, but it feels insufficient compared with the other options and in the enormous movie theater space.
- The Medium is more than you need, but no one wants to run out of popcorn in the middle of the movie. It costs “significantly” more than the small, but for good reason – it’s “enough” popcorn. People pick the middle option a lot anyway because it seems safe.
- The Large is VERY large… like enough for everyone in your row, let alone your family. But, cleverly, it’s priced at only 15% more than the Medium making it seem like a great value. Plus, the person behind the counter is trained to ask if you’d like a Large for “just $1.50 more”, a trivial amount of money in the scheme of a movie night out.
How can you offer Popcorn Pricing to your clients?
- Estate Planners could offer a basic package that offers fewer options for a trust (beneficiaries would get their inheritance at 25, not any age of someone’s choosing); a middle package that includes all of the essential documents, executed well, done in the office, and provided both on paper and electronically; and an executive package that is done at the client’s home, and includes an additional service of answering estate planning questions by phone for one year.
- CPAs could do this with tax returns. CPA firms could offer a basic package wherein the client would forego tax planning, must provide all of their documents electronically through an app by a certain date and must be willing to have their tax return extended if that’s possible; a middle package that would include a tax planning session by phone or in the CPA’s office, and a later date by which to provide documentation before an extension would be needed; and an executive package that would include not only year round tax planning but also an annual financial review in addition to the tax return, which would be put at the top of the list for completion above those at the other package levels.
You’ve heard me say it before and I’ll say it again, “Marketing doesn’t set your goals, it helps you achieve them.” Again here, Jennifer Elder from Sustainable CFO had ideas that I’ll distill for you here.
- The world moves fast, so do annual SWOT analysis on your firm. For the internal measures, focus on answering the question “What do you do better than anyone else?” For the external measures, consider doing a quarterly Opportunities and Threats analysis since the pace of change may mean that a SWOT from 12 months ago is missing a key element.
- Remain Flexible in your Planning. If you plan from the present moment and look forward, you’ll anchor yourself in the present and only take incremental steps forward. If you “Futurecast” what you want your firm to look like at some future date and then work backward to set the plan, you’ll both set loftier goals and always know what the next step is so you won’t have to stop your progress.
There was also a conversation about “sacred cows” and not thinking that things have to be done the way they always have… but if you’ve met me then you know that’s baked into everything I do. Anyway! These are the highlights of what I got out of the three days. I hope you didn’t miss me too much (some of you were there!). Please reach out if you want to have additional conversations about any of these ideas, how they relate to your firm, and whatever else comes to mind. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
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