As January approaches, many accountants and their small business clients will take stock of the year’s successes — or any missed opportunities — and start strategizing ways to improve upon them in the year ahead. If you feel like you’re having to put out fires and shuffle processes all year long, it could be a helpful exercise to set some “New Year’s resolutions” now.
The new year is one of the most practical times for accounting firms to improve the productivity of their practice. Not only are your employees coming back from vacations feeling refreshed, but you’ll be kicking things off on a fresh new calendar (and tax) year. Any changes that firm owners can make ahead of January can lead to a more productive (and profitable!) tax season and beyond.
Here are five great ways to set your accounting firm up to be even more productive in 2024.
Get your contacts organized with CRM software
A CRM software is an integrated system that allows you to manage your entire client workflow and, if the CRM allows it, your sales cycle as well. Though the benefits of using CRM software are many, the most valuable (and powerful) one might just be the enhanced visibility that a quality CRM gives firm owners and managers into their clients’ activity, workflows, and outstanding to-dos.
For example, consider the lack of efficiency that exists in delegating and assigning tasks entirely over email. In most cases, almost no systematized follow-up mechanism or centralized task management system exists: each assignment only lives in the staff member’s inbox and the sender’s outbox. Without any smart tracking or automation, any subsequent follow-up will depend on the end user’s to-do list management and inbox organization — and it’s easy for things to slip through the cracks.
Though this way of doing things may work adequately enough when you only have a handful of clients, it’s a system just waiting for things to fall through the cracks as your client number grows into the hundreds or thousands. This can lead to a major productivity drag at best, and errors and client loss at worst.
A good CRM, however, will give you and your managers the ability to assign tasks within the software itself and view each one — with their respective statuses — at a glance. It can help you reduce the risk of assignments getting lost in the shuffle, and you’ll be able to efficiently plan your staff’s workload and spot any productivity issues before they become a fire that needs putting out.
Change can sometimes make people feel a little uneasy, so it’s important to be prepared for some questions (and possibly pushback) when introducing the CRM to your team. Some staff will simply not want to adapt to a new way of doing things, and others may simply have grown accustomed to the lack of productivity of a more decentralized way of assigning work. Patience and compassion are important as you adopt a new tool:
- Paint a picture of how the technology will make everyone’s jobs easier
- Make sure ample training is available
- Remind teams their questions are always welcome
The important thing is to be consistent and remind your managers and staff to “live in the CRM,” to borrow a phrase from my firm (and one we reference on a regular basis).
Delegate one new task per month
If you’re like most accounting practice owners, you’re probably performing tasks regularly that make more sense to delegate to a manager — or even a staff accountant. Ideally, you want to get to the point where you will be spending most of your professional hours doing the things that only you can do, like being the public face of the firm or closing your biggest client leads.
That won’t happen overnight, though, and trying to delegate everything at once is a recipe for disaster. Taking a gradual approach will work better for you and your team. Make a list of at least 12 tasks you’d like to delegate, and start thinking of the coworkers you trust who can handle the added responsibility.
If you’re racking your brain for ideas, here are a few items you might be spending too much time on without even realizing it:
- Approving paid time-off requests
- Reviewing basic tax returns
- Conducting staff training programs
- Drafting engagement letters
- Keeping clients updated on the status of their projects
- Pulling IRS transcripts
- Reviewing staff timesheets
- Conducting performance reviews for lower-level employees
- Managing your schedule
- Being the CRM “guru” and answering other employees’ questions about it
- Organizing staff appreciation events
- Onboarding new employees
Some of the duties listed above can be assigned to a non-technical employee, such as an office manager, while others will require more expertise, and may need to be handed off to CPAs, EAs, or attorneys in your firm.
That said, no matter to whom you delegate a task, they will need to be trained — and ideally, they will need to have some training material to reference (that you can compile in-house) as they get settled in with their new duties.
Once you compile your list, pick one task per month you want to delegate in 2024. Set aside five to ten hours each month to document a one-time “training guide” for that month’s task, as well as how you can future-proof it. The goal is to develop it in such a way that someone who has never done the task before can be trained even years from now.
This training program should consist of a written instruction manual — a Google Doc is fine for organizing it all — or even video walkthroughs recorded on your computer with software such as Loom. To do this right, you will need to set aside five to ten hours to create each task’s training program. So to reach the goal of successfully delegating twelve new tasks in 2024, you’re looking at a 60- to 120-hour commitment in total.
Though it may seem like a big time commitment, consider that delegating just one of the tasks on your list could save you hundreds, if not thousands, of hours over the life of your practice.
Consider niching down and building processes around that niche
When I started my CPA practice, my staff and I were doing a little bit of everything, from bookkeeping to payroll to tax returns to tax resolution; I took any work I could find! But, I soon came to realize the approach made it especially difficult to build processes, systems, and hiring practices to make scaling the firm a realistic goal.
For one thing, every new staff member I hired to work at my “jack-of-all-trades” firm was required to become a jack of all trades themselves. It meant that even our “senior staff accountants” with two to three years of experience — the staff members I expected to train the brand-new hires — actually didn’t have that much depth of knowledge in many of our service offerings.
Because I couldn’t trust our review process up the chain, I, the firm’s owner, would frequently find myself running changes to tax workpapers and bookkeeping entries myself. I became the one thing in my firm that you should avoid at all costs: I became the bottleneck.
When I “niched down” my firm to focus exclusively on tax controversy cases, everything changed for the better. Now, everybody at my firm is a specialist in that niche; after a year’s experience, my new hires are as savvy — if not more so — at tax resolution as my former senior accountants were.
Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t (or won’t) eventually become a well-oiled, full-service CPA firm. But if your team has fewer than, say, 20 professionals, you might want to think about specializing in as few services as possible and fine-tuning each one before branching out into other specialties.
Another bonus of this approach is that you can build a pretty incredible referral network. For example, since we don’t do bookkeeping anymore, I can refer any of our clients who need bookkeeping services to bookkeepers in my network. These bookkeepers, in turn, refer their clients with tax debt to my firm.
— Logan Allec, CPA
Invest in your staff
There’s no other way to put it: your staff is the backbone of your business. And they likely know your clients in ways that you don’t, even if they’ve never met them in person. Of course, as the firm owner, you’re likely familiar with your clients at a high level, keeping relationships in good standing through periodic phone calls, lunch meetings, and follow-ups.
But your people are the ones who know, for any given one of their clients, how to navigate their unique bookkeeping system, how to get on their assistant controller’s good side so they finally hand over the documents on the annual PBC request, and how to roll forward that weird tax workpaper that every client seems to have.
And while a good documentation and notation system in your client files can go a long way, the reality is that an employee who has worked on a client’s projects for the past two years will be much more efficient at doing them in the third year than a completely new staff person will be.
The best-case scenario, of course, is that your staff members grow with your clients. Imagine how well your firm would run if, instead of having to hire outside managers due to turnover, current employees stayed long enough to become managers in your firm. That means senior-level managers at your firm who started as entry-level staff members a decade ago have been working on the same book of clients for the past ten years.
The depth of knowledge they would have about the clients they serve — and the level of training they can provide the newer employees working on these accounts — would possibly surpass yours, and your firm would be a model of productivity.
But you’ll never get to this point if you can’t retain your staff and have them stick around for the long term. Even though a good pay plan is important, there are other ways you can invest in your staff to keep them around — and a competitive benefits package ranks among one of the top things employees seek. Need some help? OnPay’s guide to offering benefits to your employees has some great guidance on where to get started.
Switch to a payroll provider that helps you improve productivity
If you haven’t already, adding payroll to your practice is a great way to scale your services, generate more revenue, and attract more clients. But if you already handle payroll for your clients, when was the last time you took a fresh look at the software you use? As you think of ways to take productivity up a notch, think back over the past year and see if there were any times when your current software setup slowed you down.
For example, if there were any problems with getting industry-specific payroll calculations right, or if you had to deal with a less-than-helpful customer support team, it might be time to see if you can get a higher level of service from a payroll software for accountants. Some software providers are better built to handle the needs of accountants and bookkeepers so that you can make running payroll efficient (and profitable) and easily delegate tasks to your staff or clients.
Productivity creates possibilities
As you plan goal-setting for a more productive year ahead, remember that there’s no easy button that automatically makes everything work more efficiently. The good news? Sometimes it just takes a little bit of self-reflection and a willingness to think creatively.
Even though the changes might not be particularly earth-shattering, they do not have to be. It can simply be a mix of elevating your staff, taking some tasks off your plate, or just revisiting the tools you already pay for and making them work to your advantage.
So as you prepare for the new year, best of luck in achieving (and exceeding) your goals, and running a more efficient practice.