It was a virtual event and I enjoyed a ‘fireside chat’ with a representative of Fathom, who provide our state-of-the-art business performance and planning software. Out topic was called ‘Advisory Rebooted’ and was designed for us to discuss, moving forward, the way accountants should package and offer this value-add service to their clients.
There are many advisory services; including cash flow forecasting, revenue projections for future planning, and budgets vs. actual reviews. These services are usually bundled up and sold as an additional service, typically on a quarterly basis. But rather than get into specific details of what is or isn’t offered in this service, instead we discussed a new approach to how these services are offered and how clients can benefit from this change of focus.
For transparency, at Cypher, we operate a monthly retainer model; all of our clients pay us a flat monthly fee and this gives them full access to the team, whenever they want. Some months clients will speak to us a lot – and get a lot for their money- but some months they are happy and just check in for ten minutes at a time and the investment from our side evens out. We have shifted our focus away from ensuring someone had done an hour of billable time and that have made money from it, because, trust me, that’s not what our clients want.
In general, we have seen a shift away from the need for a big advisory product. Now our quarterly client meetings aren’t driven by the quarterly reporting pack, but rather our advisory services are built in, throughout the quarter and clients are drip fed their information in a timely manner. It still acts as a driver for other services; let’s say, for example, that a client is about to buy another restaurant or take the lease on another office space, this still requires a cash flow forecast and a business plan and some KPIs, so we focus on building that pack and then delivering it.
The value for our clients is that they can speak to us for 30 minutes a day, every day, in the weeks leading up to the purchase, which makes them feel comfortable. And this isn’t about the nuts and bolts of the purchase, this is for things like ‘have you got the till set up?’, ‘how are you recruiting?’, ‘will you take out a loan from the brewery, or a corporate finance company or are there better products on the market?’
It’s a softer form of advisory, but it suits us and our clients because we wrap it up in one fee. If we were charging for it by the hour, then it would be much less attractive and much harder to sell. You don’t want to ambush your client with a different bill every month for the ad-hoc 45 minutes here and there.
As we all know, potentially the UK is on the brink of another nationwide lockdown or firebreak. It’s important that as a business- and a sector- we learn our lessons from lockdown part 1 and adapt accordingly. As a team we decided that when we came out of the first lockdown if we had the same level of clients, paying us the same level of monthly fees, with no-one dropping out, that would be a considerable win. So we made sure that during those initial weeks we gave all of our clients what we called ‘Lifeboat calls’ and just made sure that each business owner knew their options, understood the support that was on offer and that we were available for them.
In fact, we experienced a 60% growth in client business and took on more business in that time than we had during the previous half of the year. The reason cited by almost every new business was the same; we were visible and were there for our clients, whereas their current accountants were not. They just didn’t get any contact from them at a time when perhaps they needed it most.
After that initial period we realised that we were getting quite a lot of emails requesting a ten minute call with member of the team. So as a result of these early efforts, now two hours a day is blocked out in our diaries. If a client calls in the morning, we know can fit them in by the afternoon of the next day. The whole point of offering a ‘you can get hold of us anytime service’ is that clients can actually get hold of us. It falls down if we don’t have any time to actually get back to them. Business owners, if they have a problem with something, are used to calling someone and getting it resolved very quickly, accountancy needs to be like that.
To facilitate this instant feedback, we have also changed some of our channels of communication. We have a number of clients on our Slack system and many choose to WhatsApp us on a regular basis – even with gifs. We created the WhatsApp group initially so that during early lockdown, when so much new and complex information was being circulated, we could create videos that acted like a daily briefing and explained the impact for small businesses. We wanted to get ourselves out there, get in front of as many businesses as we could and offer up to date, accurate advice. WhatsApp seemed the most suitable way of doing this.
Typically, the WhatsApp chat it is more informal; it is for one line questions that require a single word or one-line answer, it’s not for a big tax advisory report. The feedback we get from clients is that if your clients can’t get hold of you then they will go elsewhere. A lot of bad will has been generated in lockdown when business owners couldn’t get hold of their accountants or support services when they needed them most. You have to be able to put your arm around your clients, or someone else will.
There are certain clients of course, that still take a scheduled, quarterly meeting with us, but there needs to be an absolute reason to use this model. If the calls are about something small that we can advise on immediately then we wouldn’t look to schedule further meetings unnecessarily. For clients that are growing or pivoting into something else, then the quarterly meeting is still core to their support, but every client gets a base line level of advisory service that they can understand and that they can buy into.
Digital Accounting Software like Xero allows for real time feedback and assessment on a business’s figures, performance and cash flow. We are simply changing our business model to offer an advisory service and level of human interaction to match. Now we are where our clients are, whether this is on Slack, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. The chat is less formal and it allows for an instant response, even if we can’t solve the problem there and then. Rather than set up an email and start to type a ‘Dear client’ note, it moves quickly and questions can be answered quicker, which reflects the relationship we have with clients. We see ourselves as more a friend in the phonebook than a big expensive corporate accountant.