When done right, advisory has the power to grow a business, help achieve important goals or save a struggling enterprise. It’s a powerful approach to modern accounting, focussing accountants to perform the meaningful work that really makes a difference for their clients and communities. Despite the powerful impact of the advisory mindset and service offerings, many accounting firms struggle to transition from just doing core compliance. They may feel that the leap is too hard, or not worth it, or simply may not know where to begin.
To discuss this and more, I recently hosted a webinar on how to deliver the Ultimate Advisory Session. Joined by incredible guest speakers Steph Hinds, Founder of Growthwise, and Sam Musgrave, Founder of Nine Advisory, we compared our experiences and got to the heart of what it takes to create advisory gold.
The full webinar is well worth listening to, and can be accessed here. Otherwise, here’s just a few of our golden tips:
1. Advisory is all about translating the numbers into meaning and action
Have you ever presented a client with a spreadsheet you were proud of, only to watch their eyes glaze over as you talked them through it? Perhaps counter-intuitively, many business owners just don’t find raw numbers very interesting. This is where a trusted advisor can make all the difference, not just by explaining what the numbers mean, but by translating their meaning in a way clients can understand. From there, better decisions can be made.
While Spotlight Reporting’s colourful, engaging, and eye-catching charts and graphs can alleviate the Excel glaze-over, the real power rests with you. What does your client need to know, in real terms, so they can get their business to that next level? What insight needs to be shared and what conversations will this trigger?
It’s important to remember that in the world of advisory, you’re the guide, not the hero. This is not your journey, it’s theirs—your job is to lead them to where they need or want to go. Don’t assume that you have all the answers, or that you know exactly what their goals are. The best way to make sure you’re providing the most value is by putting the client at the heart of the session, and asking the right questions. Now is exactly the time to exercise your intellectual curiosity—get to grips with their business, be across all aspects of the financial and non-financial data, and discuss, listen and find the right solutions to the real problems and opportunities.
2. Key Principles, Flexible Structure
Because no two advisors are exactly the same, advisory sessions can differ wildly in approach. Steph, Sam and I all structure our advisory work in different ways, but we’re all effective because we employ the same key principles:
- Active listening: you can’t solve an issue or help reach a goal if you don’t know what they are. Listen to what your clients have to say, ask questions that encourage confidence, and don’t be afraid of going on a tangent. You never know what you might pick up if your ears are open wide.
- Regular, consistent meetings: it’s important that you and your clients meet and interact often, so that you’re always across anything and everything that might arise. Try to see all your clients monthly, although you may need to have a few ad hoc crisis sessions as well.
- Meet the needs of your clients and community: while high advisory fees are a part of the work, be mindful of the needs of your potential client pool. Steph created her L-Platers program to cater to startups who can’t afford full advisory services, but still needed a helping hand. What she found was that once they found their feet, many of them retained Growthwise’s full services, and stayed loyal, high value customers.
- Get your team invested in your clients’ success: advisory shouldn’t be the domain of a few specialists. Get your whole team on board, and work together to change outcomes and make the lives of business owners better.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to advisory, and you need to create a structure that works for you and your firm. As long as you’re consistent in your methods, progress should be made.
3. Tangible Benefits Are Easier to Sell
“Half the time we win clients because I tell them, ‘our best performing electrician (as an example) has a net profit of 24%. What’s yours?’” says Steph. “They say ‘wow, I’d like that as well’.”
One of the biggest worries accountants have when implementing advisory services is that no one will want what they have to offer, or the value will be hard to demonstrate. The best solution to this problem is to get people interested by showing them the concrete benefits of engaging your services.
Sam suggests that you begin by thinking about the industry your client works in, and factoring in all the different inflows and outflows they may have. Then calculate exactly how much of every dollar they earn as a margin, what needs to be paid out and how much could be retained as profit.
“If that operating margin is anywhere below where you think it should be… that is your tangible demonstration of the value you can add,” says Sam. “So you say, ‘you’re at 15% margin, and you should be at 30%. If you’re turning over a million bucks, you’re leaving $115k dollars on the table. You pay me 30, 40, 50k, and we’ll get that money for you.’” That, says Sam, is a much easier sell than the general, sometimes ‘woolly’ benefits of advisory services.
Benefits don’t always have to be that tangible, though. Sam believes that if you give people information for free, they’ll pay for the implementation. Do you have internal resources that could benefit your clients if you made them public? Why not share the knowledge, and sell your help in putting it into practice?
Finally, you could always give clients a taste of what you could do for them by hosting free webinars and seminars. When I created my boutique advisory firm, this is exactly what I did to grow my contacts. Once I had convinced a few prospects that I knew what I was talking about, selling advisory services and getting referrals became much easier.
4. Just Get Started
At the end of the day, the best thing you can do to begin your journey with advisory is to just get started!
"Sit down with a client who is a friend, or someone who you've done a lot of work with, who you feel most comfortable with to start with," says Steph. "...don't worry about what you're going to charge, or what tools you're going to use, or anything else. Just sit down, have a conversation with them, and ask them great questions."
Remember to take note of what works for you, and what doesn’t. A few sessions in, ask for feedback on what you could be doing better. Use this feedback to refine your process, and don’t be afraid to change things up.
Remember: the ultimate advisory succession is one that helps your clients succeed. It might not happen as you envision it, and you may not be a perfect advisor to begin with. But at the end of the day, if you’re saving your clients time and money and giving them peace of mind, that’s advisory success.