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Running an Accounting Firm in the New Normal

September 10, 2020

From one-star ratings in a mock movie review to the “2020 do-over” memes, many of us are turning to laughter for stress relief. In the past few months, the world as we know it has been turned upside down. Record unemployment, shuttered businesses and economic uneasiness are the new reality.

But accounting firms are a resilient bunch. As soon as the depth of this crisis became apparent, many firms transitioned rapidly to remote work and began to explore methods to support clients in different ways. Suddenly, running an accounting firm meant finding a new appreciation for secure portals, e-signature applications and the OfficeTools mobile app, all of which allow accountants to collaborate with clients and keep work moving smoothly.

Blurred Lines: Managing or Starting a CPA Firm from Home

When firm employees and their clients work remotely, work is less dependent on time or location. Accounting firms are learning to be flexible enough to account for conflicting meeting schedules, time zone gaps or interruptions from toddlers and dogs. Asynchronous channels like email, Slack, Google Docs and cloud-based practice management systems offer fluid information sharing, so workers can resume projects or activities where a colleague or client left off. While these tools are great for collaboration, they are best used in combination with an effective workflow automation strategy.

Accounting Workflows Offer Structure

Virtually running an accounting firm can be a challenge. Naturally, some firm owners and partners feel a loss of control when they can’t be right in the same office with staff each day. When a major change, planned or accidental, shifts the business environment – whether due to an acquisition, the introduction of new services or a pandemic – it’s time to review firm workflows.

Reviewing and implementing upgrades to workflows when running an accounting firm is crucial for maintaining efficiency in practices. It allows you to systematize the process. A new accountant or partner can join the firm, and the workflows and structure provided by the practice management system guide him or her in learning and following processes in a consistent and accurate way.

Practice Management Lifecycle: Workflow Examples

The Practice Management Lifecycle model identifies 12 elements in a series that represent the entire sequence of activities that firms take on to support clients and manage the business, from new client prospecting through final reporting and analytics. OfficeTools’ Nicole Fluty recently offered a complete introduction to the 12 workflow elements in a webinar with CPA Academy on The Evolving Practice: Running an Accounting Firm in the New Normal.

Here are a few examples of automated accounting workflows to examine and update when managing an accounting firm in the “new normal.” Doing so can help improve operations, increase productivity and reduce operating costs.

Client Intake:

How is the onboarding experience for new clients? The client intake process may also affect customer experience for existing clients when they request information or deliver documents. Do we know them when they call or ask them for the same information they’ve provided in the past? Optimize client intake workflows to put client information at your accountants’ fingertips so they can offer a detailed answer in one exchange and eliminate the need for callbacks.

Scheduling:

Scheduling should be integrated with the practice management system. Integrations should also push key information, invitations and calendar items to Outlook.

Document Intake:

The document intake process should save documents in an organized structure. A complete document management system makes documents accessible, searchable and organized in an intuitive way. Having a central location for staff to store documents will ensure that they are not holding client data locally and circumvent the challenge of not having access to all the files need to complete a project. An efficient practice management system will include a DMS.

Staffing:

How does the management team assess staffing needs? Can you accurately forecast workloads and estimate the amount of work and hours to available resources? This workflow element is crucial, particularly in the shifts from tax season to slower seasons while estimating staffing needs.

Workflows:

Workflows are the hub of a successful practice. Implementing workflows affect every person in the firm, so communicate frequently, involve the team and share the end goal. Workflow automation can help staff handle deadlines, extensions and appointments. Gather data in a more automated way to replace the more cumbersome tracking in Excel.

Time Tracking:

Even when using value billing, effective time tracking can help management know what profit margins are realized. Over time, the data captured allows a 365-day look across the firm, offering insights into where the team is spending its time and which activities take up that time but are not being billed.

The great thing about the Practice Management Lifecycle model is that you do not need to overhaul all workflows at once; rather it’s a road map for continuous improvement. The “new normal” catchphrase reminds us that things have changed. As Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant in life.” We all need to be flexible, expect continued evolution and drive positive changes in our own business.

Learn more about the full 12-step Practice Management Lifecycle. View the webinar “The Evolving Practice: Running an Accounting Firm in the New Normal.”

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