Execute your plan: Get a view on 2022
You may be asking yourself what you can do now to get the ball rolling for success in the year ahead. After so much change both within the profession and within our own lives, now is the time to take a step back, reflect on our goals, how they’ve changed, and what we can do to incorporate the vast learnings from the past year into our 2022 strategy.
Effective strategic planning helps to establish your firm’s direction, improve communication, promote creativity and focus on action. In short, your strategic plan is a vision for how your firm will grow and prosper. In general, a firm should review and update its strategic plan on an annual basis. That said, the frequency also depends on the nature and needs of the firm and its external environment. It goes without saying that the global challenges of the past year necessitate a review of strategic planning for all businesses, no matter the industry.
When it comes to accounting firms, the current landscape presents some unique challenges as well as opportunities. Prior to the pandemic, the public accounting industry was changing rapidly. From evolving accounting and financial reporting standards to SEC rulings and state regulatory initiatives, many firms were working overtime to keep pace. Coupling this already challenging environment with the multitude of pandemic relief programs enacted over the past year and the importance of updating and aligning strategic plans with the current landscape becomes all the more crucial.
Reflect on the learnings from the past year
Over the past year, firms that were able to quickly pivot on a variety of fronts weathered the storm of the pandemic and in some cases launched entirely new practice areas. If you were one of these firms, consider how these new services will play into your strategy in the next year. By being agile and adapting your firm’s strategy accordingly, you can stay one step ahead of your clients’ needs.
Define short-term and long-term goals
When developing your strategic plan for the year ahead, draw upon historical data and current conditions to define your short-term and long-term goals. Even the smallest of firms should have a one-page strategic plan with measurable goals. Without consciously and thoughtfully planning your firm's direction, you can lose your competitive advantage before positioning yourself to respond. Additionally, the final action plan should be agile enough that you aren’t blind-sided by the challenges of our complex and uncertain tax environment.
Put strategy first, budget second
Most firms routinely develop at least a rudimentary budget each year. For a variety of reasons, many firms believe that the budget component of a comprehensive business plan is more important than the strategic plan component. Remember that the development of a strategic plan goes hand-in-hand with the budgeting process. Your firm must have a strategic vision in place before the budgeting process can be realistic and meaningful. Once you’ve developed your strategic plan, you can develop a reliable budget.
Training and development
Fortify strategy with professional development
Accounting professionals are understandably exhausted after the past year, however, there is a tremendous opportunity to reflect, reset and energize staff with a fresh perspective infused with learnings from the 2020 tax season.
While the responsibility for this professional development planning can vary depending on the size of the firm, a thorough knowledge of the various CPE requirements affecting the firm, as well as a thorough understanding of the special needs of the firm to appropriately serve its clients, is essential.
Develop a personalized learning plan for each professional in the firm
Creating a professional development plan means more than having a policy that requires 40 hours of CPE each year. To be effective, planning should include a professional development plan for each individual in the firm.
As part of this process, consider each staff member’s professional development desires when creating an individualized plan. Ask what CPE courses or seminars they want to attend, what skills they would like to develop, and if there are any specialized industry areas that they would like to focus on.
Balance personal development with overall firm strategy
To align with your firm’s overall strategy, assess both the individual's professional development needs relevant to their responsibilities and the firm's particular needs when it comes to staying technically current in a special accounting area or expanding into a new service area.
Professional development planning should consider the firm's needs for specialists or experts in particular areas, so be sure to identify special courses or reference materials that are needed — and take steps to fulfill those needs. Some firms may have a need for managers, partners, and experienced staff with other professional certifications in addition to the CPA certification.
When you add a new client with unique industry accounting requirements, consider industry training for staff to help develop the capabilities and competencies for that specific industry. To build knowledge and confidence, encourage your staff at each level to participate in professional development activities like completing external professional development programs, becoming members of professional organizations, serving on professional committees, writing for professional publications, or speaking to professional groups.
Coordinate CPE needs at the firm level to reduce cost
While establishing professional development plans for each professional is time consuming, it represents the most effective method to ensure that staff members obtain the appropriate CPE to enable them to fulfill their assigned responsibilities and satisfy applicable CPE requirements of the AICPA, state boards of accountancy, and other regulatory agencies.
By coordinating CPE activities at the firm level, you can greatly reduce total CPE costs. Such planning can also help achieve a proper mix of in-house and outside programs that best meet the needs of your firm and staff.
Technology and automation
Embrace new technology to adapt and thrive
We all know that new technology is rapidly changing how firms provide services and the type of services they provide. We live in an information-driven society where virtually every aspect of business utilizes technology to operate. Accounting firms must not only utilize technology for their own practices but must also understand its capabilities in order to interact knowledgeably with clients. Firms that are not knowledgeable about current technology are at a competitive disadvantage.
Getting technology right accelerates modernization and elevates the value you firm delivers to clients, employees and stakeholders. Make 2022 the year you modernize your tools and strengthen your resources. Here’s how.
Power your day-to-day operations
Practice management software, which began with simple time and billing applications, has grown dramatically into solutions that encompasses critical management areas, such as revenue management, client contact management, project management, and time management. Many software providers bundle these applications into a single integrated practice management tool.
When it comes to the day-to-day operations of your firm, practice management software gives firm owners the ability to quickly find information and analyze performance. Some practice management systems present a snapshot of performance highlights on a digital dashboard, including an executive summary of key performance indicators from separate components of the system.
Because of the vast number and different types of practice management software offering a wide array of features, it is extremely important to carefully select the one that most closely meets your firm's specific needs.
For a better view into your firm’s operations in the year ahead, look for practice management software that includes:
- Digital dashboards. Customizable digital dashboards with specific information needed to manage the day-to-day details of the firm in one convenient location.
- Flexibility. The ability to accommodate your firm's current user codes, client numbers, service codes, and other internal codes with little or no modification, and the ability to import prior data for historical comparisons.
- Time, expenses and invoicing. Automatically record time and expenses and create customized invoices and statements that can be electronically delivered to clients.
- Project tracking and workflow. Track firm projects and tasks from any workstation and compare actual status with budget information or integrate with workflow applications.
- Client contact management. Centrally manage client contact information and set up custom fields for marketing list management.
- Integration. The ability to integrate with other accounting and professional software as well as with Microsoft products, such as Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook.
- Reporting. Produce reports in the formats that are compatible with the firm's processes. Look for a package that can generate the reports your firm needs (chargeable time, billing realization, work-in-process aging, accounts receivable aging, engagement completion status, etc.).
- Remote access. The ability for personnel to access the system from outside the office can increase efficiency and provide management with real-time, up-to-the-minute management information.
- Additional modules. Some packages provide several practice management features, such as time and billing, due date monitoring, project workflow scheduling, human resource management, and CPE tracking. These features may be standard features or add-on modules.
- Scalability. The ability to expand and add users as the firm grows.
Improve productivity through automation
There is no doubt that manual processes bog down productivity. If you’re still spending hours sorting paperwork, typing numbers into spreadsheets and entering the same data over and over, it’s time to automate.
Choosing the right tax technology solution can help your firm automate your entire tax workflow. By automating non-billable and low-value activities, your staff can shift their focus to proactive, value-added activities. The result is more profit for your firm, as well as more rewarding work for your staff.
To take full advantage of automation, look for tax software that enables your firm to:
- Enter data once — and only once. Link returns using a tax ID number, so your staff doesn’t have to make the same changes across multiple documents. By reducing manual data entry, your firm can decrease the margin of error and the time needed to review returns for accuracy.
- Collaborate with clients. Offer clients the ability to share data and documents directly via private accounts, automatically extract data from client source documents, or easily transfer account balances from integrated business tax preparation software.
- Keep your staff working without interruptions. Your tax software should update automatically so that no staff member is forced to waste time waiting for software updates.
- Review problem areas using sophisticated diagnostics. With automation, accountants no longer have to manually detect blank fields or numbers that don’t add up. By comparing a tax return with last year’s documents, the right software flags problems before it’s too late to fix them.
- Meet all of your tax workflow needs. From initial data collection, through preparation, review and final delivery, a customized, end-to-end solution built on cloud computing, advanced data sharing, and paperless processing provides a seamless tax workflow process from start to finish.
Expand into advisory services to strengthen client relationships and retention
As you prepare your strategy for 2022 and beyond, consider expanding your firm’s services beyond tax preparation and into advisory services. In today’s complex and uncertain environment, many clients are seeking more than a tax preparer. They want a strategic partner that can advise and support them in growing their business.
With a strategic plan that prioritizes improved processes and technology, you can begin to shift your focus to offering clients forward-looking advice that fosters more meaningful relationships and sustained revenue well into the future.
- Wow your clients. Clients expect an accurate tax return, but they may not necessarily expect strategic insights that make a broader impact on their businesses. By anticipating your clients’ needs, your firm can stay ahead of the game and deliver extra value.
- Uncover needs proactively. Getting pertinent information to your clients ahead of time, whether it’s sending reports, notifying them of legal or regulatory changes or sending reminders to make estimated tax payments, you’ve positioned your firm as the first to identify potential problems — and solutions.
- Stay ahead of tax changes and trends. When software handles manual processes, your staff has more time to focus on what matters most: serving your clients as trusted advisors and growing your firm. This includes researching and sharing insights on the tax topics and trends that affect your clients most.
- Foster a year-round relationship. A successful year-round relationship reinforces that you are not just a transactional expense, but a committed partner who supports your clients beyond tax season. And that means more meaningful and sustainable client relationships and a business that will thrive long-term.
As you prepare to execute your 2022 strategy, remember that your knowledge and the knowledge of your staff is unique, so develop a plan that positions your firm as a trusted partner, not just a once-a-year tax return provider. Making the shift from a compliance-focused model and to an advisory services approach will increase revenue while building deeper, more sustainable client relationships. This translates to success not only in 2022, but for many years to come.
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