I once worked in a small business where the General Manager was famous for his line ‘my role is to facilitate.’ It used to drive us crazy; in small business, there is no room on the payroll for a facilitator. All team members need to be doers with specific priorities and accountability.
But small business owners do need external perspective. And that is why an Accountant offering to play the role of a facilitator in a planning session is extremely valuable. You are in and out for a reasonable fee (most Accountants in Australia and New Zealand running planning sessions using our resources charge around $5,000 for the session – too cheap for the value delivered, but there you go) and because you are an ‘outsider’ your role truly is to facilitate – although make sure you tell it like it is if it is clear to you that your client is going down the wrong path. That’s what you are being paid to do. I know an Accountant who received the following written testimonial from a client making just this point:
"He brings external experience and expertise to our relationship and offers better advice or a better viewpoint when it comes to our own matters".
Most Accountants with whom we work would fall under the category of General Practitioner – you deal with a variety of different clients in different industries. If this is you, then you must lead with process, not content.
Consider this question from a client in, let’s say, a construction company:
“I hear what you are saying about planning and it makes sense. But tell me, how many other builders have you done this for? What do you know about construction?”
How you answer that question is of immense importance. You can either agree with the client and run away with your tail between your legs or you get on the front foot and lead with process.
“I know very little about construction but that’s why you should get me involved. You see, what I bring to the table is the knowledge of what works in business and what does not work. We work with over 200 business clients. Some of them are doing extremely well; others are performing not so well. We have been able to pick the eyes out of the good stuff and put together a process that we can apply across any industry.”
You might also add, depending on your level of courage, that the client presumably knows plenty about construction and yet they are underperforming. Perhaps they need some fresh eyes on the situation with someone untainted by the industry ‘norms.’
This is a very valid point to raise. Sometimes we need to look outside of our own industry to find best practice. When Southwest Airlines, perhaps the world’s most successful low cost airline, was searching for how to turn planes around in 20 minutes in a quest to gain a competitive advantage, it did not go to see how American Airlines, Delta or United turned around planes. It went to the Formula 1 track.
Every time I run a planning session, I follow a simple process. It goes like this:
As part of engaging a client in a planning session and determining and strengthening objectives, I demonstrate the profit improvement potential as discussed in the previous chapter. Before the planning session itself, I firm up on the numbers so that to the extent possible, we replace estimates with more accurate numbers (remember, however, that we are aiming for success, not perfection)
I prefer to discuss three scenarios which I loosely call Low Growth, Medium Growth and High Growth. Working with the client, I determine the scenario with which the client is most comfortable (needs to be both achievable and stretching) and we then lock in that scenario.
Prior to the planning session, I have the client answer a series of questions that have them thinking about their performance in a range of different areas of their business. In the planning session, we then go through the responses and pay particular attention to those issues that need to be addressed to ensure the preferred financial scenario has the best chance of being over-achieved..
Your most important tool in the planning session is a ream of flipchart paper or a bundle of Post-its. You will use this consistently throughout the day. When an idea comes up, capture it on the flipchart paper or Post-it. By the end of the session, you should have paper plastered all around the walls. During the day, you can refer back to previous issues and remind the client what they felt was important. Out of this emerges the action plan..
This entire process is systematized for our member firms and works wonderfully well. You must constantly remember process, not content. If the client is getting hung up on technical content as it pertains to their industry, bring the discussion back to what is important: the development of an implementable financial scenario supported by an action plan with clear priorities and accountability. The role you play in keeping this on track is of immeasurable value. Left to their own devices, clients can drown in the technical reasons why ‘you couldn’t do that in our industry.’ Your role here is to challenge and ask questions such as:
"Let’s move into the hypothetical world just for a moment. Put aside the reasons why this is difficult to achieve. In the hypothetical world, what would you need to do to make this happen?"
And then pick up a marker and start writing as the client comes up with ideas. Prime the pump if required with the odd idea of your own but, more importantly, ask questions to elicit further ideas.
When you truly understand that fact that process trumps content, the value you provide to your client jumps through the roof. It takes practice (the hardest part can be to stop yourself talking when you think you may know the answer!) but it is a skill well worth your while developing. I promise you that your clients will thank you for your independent perspective.
About the Author
Colin DunnDirector & Co-founder at PANALITIX
Colin is a Chartered Accountant who, having spent almost 10 years with one of the fastest growing and most innovative firms in the UK, has spent the last 19 years working exclusively with the Accounting profession with a focus on helping them implement business advisory services with their clients. He is passionate about helping turn Accounting practices into Accounting businesses and holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) and is a qualified ACA. Colin is relentless in the pursuit of improving the performance of every firm he coaches.
Colin is the brains behind ENGAGER (previously the PANALITIX app), TRUST and Proactive Success System, PANALITIX’s three cloud applications for Accountants.
He is also a prodigious author and generator of content, primarily in the form of ‘how to’ material to enable Accountants to respond to client needs with value-based services. He is the author of the bestselling book “Accountants: The Natural Trusted Advisors.”