Mid-size CPA firms who are hungry to grow often engage in strategic planning late in the calendar year. But as they get into the process of looking at the future, there are often competing visions among partners about the objectives that should be in the plan.
After working with hundreds of leaders of mid-size firms, I’ve come to identify 6 key objectives that I think should be at or near the top of the list. I believe that if you put these 6 objectives into your plan, you greatly increase the likelihood of thriving in the coming years.
THE 6 KEY OBJECTIVES
While there are all sorts of priorities that could be in your strategic plan, these 6 objectives will likely determine if your firm will be stronger or weaker within the next 5 years:
- Attract new younger partners to lead the firm in the future.
- Build an ideal client profile and commit to serving only them.
- Define how you’ll increase adoption of advisory and consulting services.
- Formalize your new client acquisition process and teach it to budding rainmakers.
- Identify the best approach to growth: build or buy?
- Commit to digital brand building and get really good at this.
Let’s explore why these goals should be in your list and some considerations for each one.
THE BEST AND MOST ASSURED WAY TO LIVE THE FUTURE OF YOUR DREAMS IS TO CREATE THAT FUTURE.
WHAT IS STRATEGIC PLANNING?
Before we look at these 6 objectives, I’d like to quickly describe what strategic planning actually is because I find that many people struggle with the concept. Strategic planning, in its simplest form, includes four best-practices:
- Document where you are today (current-state) on 7 key vitals (see this post).
- Define a vision for where you want to be in five years (future-state) on those vitals.
- Build a plan made up of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-Bound) for the coming year to bridge the gap between current-state and future-state.
- Execute the plan and track progress by way of four meetings over the year.
The 6 objectives I’m about to describe would be part of step 3 above – building a SMART plan. My advice is that the partners or CXO leaders at your firm should own these goals.
If you like these ideas, you’ll love this Action Guide:
A COMMON SCENARIO
Many of the mid-size CPA firms that I see today are first-generation. This means that the name on the door and the leadership of the firm are the same. Smith, Johnson and Kaline – for instance – aren’t just a brand name. That’s also the name of the 3 founders.
If those 3 founders are over 50 years of age and if they have not actively fostered a second generation of partners who will one day take over the business, they have a real problem. Smith, Johnson and Kaline may believe that they can transition their practice to a larger firm, a merge up. But I would advise them not to count on that. Why?
The Baby Boomer and GenX generations produced an unprecedented number of CPA firms with 10-100 staff. By my math there are more than 3,000 firms who fit that profile today. But there are and will continue to be far more firms looking to be acquired than there will be firms ready to acquire them. This means there will be more demand than supply. When that happens, acquirers can be very, very picky.
Just this year I had a very sad conversation with a CPA firm leader who was in an awful spot and couldn’t get out of it. This person came to us about 5 to 7 years too late to be able to help them. I don’t want you to be one of those people.
The best and most assured way of living the future of your dreams is to create that future – not to let it happen to you. If you are a first-generation founder or are in a firm where the future is unclear, my advice is – don’t wait. Make a plan for these 6 key objectives now because the future is coming faster than you may think.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE 6 KEY OBJECTIVES
Attract New Younger Partners to The Firm
While there are other succession plans that might work for your firm, attracting new young partners is 100% within your control (unlike other strategies). Of course, to attract these people, you’ll need to give them reasons to believe that your firm has something really special going on and that they have a future with you – a future they can believe in.
Here are some characteristics to look for in the ideal young partner:
- 35-45 years of age
- 10 years of solid performance as a CPA
- Probably satisfied in their current role but with an itch to do more
- Entrepreneurial instincts, not afraid to take risks
- Demonstrated leadership potential
- Looking for an opportunity to be coached and mentored into a leadership role
I believe that one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to pass this goal off to a recruiter, either inside or outside your firm. While you can get support from these people, this has to be a top goal owned by the leadership of your firm. Your future depends on this.
Build an Ideal Client Profile and Commit to Serving Only Them
This is one of the first things we do when we engage with CPA firms. Without fail, every time we do this, we find that up to 25% of the client-base the CPA firm is serving today does NOT fit the ideal client profile. It is a scary thing to admit that you need to shed clients who are not profitable, who are difficult to deal with and who probably cost you money. But it’s necessary.
When CPA firms build an ideal client profile and shed non-ideal clients, great things happen. Their profits go up. Their quality of life and work satisfaction increase. The staff seem much happier. They differentiate from competitors. They acquire much better clients. They attract staff and new partners who want to work with those types of clients.
Define How You’ll Increase Adoption of Advisory and Consulting Services
Right now, tax and audit dominate the landscape. But AI, blockchain and clients who perceive that technology does a lot of the work are all eroding the value proposition of tax and audit. I interviewed a CPA client a while back who said: “I don’t need someone to take my data, crunch the numbers and then tell me how much I owe. There’s no value in that.”
This means that you’ll likely need to figure out how consulting and advisory services can increase your perceived value. My counsel is don’t wait to do this. New service roll-outs can be challenging and take time. For many CPA firms, this will not be a comfortable transition. If you have good technicians on staff, people who are highly analytical but may not possess the best people-skills, you may have to bring in new team members.
Formalize Your New Client Acquisition Process and Teach it to Budding Rainmakers
Founders who are also rainmakers have a certain energy and ability to strike confidence in prospective new clients. They have touch. But they usually also have a way of doing things, of communicating with prospects, that might not come naturally to others. So my advice is two-fold:
- Document the strategies and tactics that rainmakers use today to win new business.
- Identify people within your organization who have the potential to be really good at business development and teach them the strategies and tactics.
Identify the Best Approach to Growth: Build or Buy?
Most mid-size CPA firms will expand geographically, something that is key to growth, by either opening a new office or acquiring a practice in a new location. This is the build or buy equation. There are no right or wrong answers here, but there are lessons to be learned.
The most important lesson is that you need a proven strategy for success. You need a plan to help make that new office just as successful and as profitable as your other offices – whether you build it or buy it. There are numerous CPA firms today who experience huge variances in profitability between their offices. Addressing this should be a top goal.
Commit to Digital Brand Building and Get Really Good at this
In the summer of 2018, my firm conducted quantitative market research on 60 mid-size CPA firms in the US. Using the team section of their websites, we identified a list of people to profile on LinkedIn. Our research focused on three primary criteria:
- Size of tier-1 network.
- Number of groups they were in.
- Number of articles they published.
Our empirical research shows that more than 70% of mid-size CPA managing partners are in fewer than 10 groups and 95% have never published an original, thoughtful article that demonstrates thought leadership. This means their voice on LinkedIn – the very place where that new young partner might be looking – is weak.
One of the most important things you can do to attract new talent and differentiate from the competition is adopt great digital marketing practices. This is a complex area with tremendous opportunities for wasting time and money. You don’t want that.
Most mid-size CPA firms seem to believe that the greatest expense they should consider is the hard-cost of digital marketing – what they pay to get it done. I take a different perspective. There is nothing more expensive than failure. I don’t’ believe the question is “how much is this going to cost us?” The real question is “how much will this cost us if we don’t do it really well?”
Don’t get me wrong. You have to be responsible with your resources and practice good stewardship. But if you are counting on an inexperienced and lower-level person in your firm to accomplish this important goal – and you are doing this because you’re trying to save a few bucks – this will likely cost you in the end.
If your CPA firm is developing a strategic plan and you’d like an experienced and objective third-party to work with you on this process, please reach out to me.