CPA firms are understandably exhausted after the past year, however, there is a tremendous opportunity for the accounting profession to reflect, reset, and energize staff with a fresh perspective infused with learnings from the 2020 tax season.
In the latest episode of Pulse of the Practice, “A Conversation with Carrie Steffan”, Paul Miller, Owner of Business by Design, and I discuss how to inspire and mobilize CPA firm staff in the year ahead with insight from Carrie Steffen of The Whetstone Group. As President and co-founder, Carrie’s mission is to help CPA firms and professional service firms nationwide find growth and hone their competitive edge.
Decide what to stop doing
After such a crazy tax season, most CPA firms are in reactionary mode. That’s why, according to Carrie, it’s really important for firm leaders to step back and take stock of which activities to continue—and which ones to stop.
“We’ve been focused on adding, adding, adding this year, right?” says Carrie. “We’re adding PPP compliance. We’re adding remote work. We’re adding all of these things. What can really help firms is to sit back and use that quiet time to figure out what are they are going to stop doing.”
Instead of piling more work onto your staff, it’s a time to think about what you should be doing less of. Whether it’s eliminating manual work or ending certain client relationships, focus on what brings in the most benefit with the least headache.
“I know it seems like an interesting time to think about letting clients go because of the uncertainty that’s been created in the economy, but I think that one of the best things you could do for your people right now is to make a list of those things that you’re going to stop doing,” says Carrie.
“I would point to inefficient, ineffective processes and which clients you are going to move away from and transition out of the practice,” she continues. “Your people will be so grateful to you because they know which ones they are. And if you don’t know, ask them for input.”
Involve your staff in decision-making
Whether you are deciding what activities to stop or start, involving your staff in decision-making can boost their energy and engagement. Carrie suggests checking in with your staff and asking them how they’re doing. Let them know you’re taking a serious look at your processes, and you value their input.
“There are some firms that do that sort of by conversation and there are some that do it electronically,” says Carrie. “You can even have some sort of a survey process and ask for input in an anonymous format. There are lots of different ways to do it, but I think that it’s important for your people to be heard.”
“And I think beyond that, leadership has to commit to taking action and circling back with those folks and saying what they are doing as a result of this input,” she continues. “They have to see action. If they feel like it goes into a black hole, they’re going to be frustrated, and they’re not going to respond the next time you ask for input.”
Enable staff to develop client relationships
Creating an environment that empowers your staff is important, especially when it comes to giving them the freedom to develop deeper relationships with clients.
“One of the concepts that I’ve been thinking about, especially in the last year or so, is this concept of unlearning,” says Carrie. “We have learned how to serve clients through generations of having done it the same way, right? But we’ve got to be able to step back and realize that our knowledge now and the tools that we have now, and the demands of our clients now require us to approach these things in a different way.”
Extend the ability to engage and interact with clients to your staff instead of solely relying on leadership to own those interactions. Client trust is an asset to be leveraged across the firm, not something for partners to hoard.
“We’ve got to let go of that old paradigm of what it means to be in client service, and we’ve got to replace it with something that’s new and better and different that involves more people and empowers more people and gets more people to the table,” she says. “Because that’s the way forward in the profession, I believe.”
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to staff empowerment is that leadership doesn’t believe that staff is ready to take ownership of client relationships.
“There’s a certain level of vulnerability that’s required of leaders and a courage to be able to do that,” says Carrie. “And the profession is at a point where we have leaders that are willing to do it but aren’t totally sure how to go about doing it, and so, they may need some coaching. They may need some outside resources to help them.”
But having faith in the investment you make in your staff is a mutually beneficial decision.
“I think that’s one of the biggest barriers is this idea that our people aren’t ready, and they are, they’re ready,” she says. “I interact with those folks and they’re smart, they’re engaged, they’re better at technology than any of us, they have ideas, and they can do it.”