A process model for the modern accounting firm

The accounting firm process model

What is the best way to view and analyze the big picture of a modern accounting firm? Adrian Simmons shares the process model he uses to keep track and prioritize the important details.

A few years ago, I was working on the interior components of our firm. There were so many different ideas coming at me that I had a hard time putting them all in context. I started to wonder, is there a way to see our practice from a bird's eye view that would help me determine what’s changing, what’s staying the same, what needs to be different and what should be left alone? 

From this thinking, the modern accounting firm process model was born. 

Processes aren’t strategy per se—on their own, they aren’t your business model or your organizational structure. They are simply the way things get done. They get touched by and touch all these other elements, so they need to work in harmony with your 'why'. But having a place where basic steps are outlined goes a long way in enabling your team to effectively and efficiently help your clients.

The four key elements of the accounting firm process model are Customers, Services, Team, and Entity. For me, every key process I have can be categorized into one of these four groups. And each of these elements can be added to, subtracted from, interacted with, or evolved.

For example, for the Customers element I have Attract & onboardInteractRelease & offramp, and Improve components. Attract & onboard is where we list items such as:

  • How we reach new customers (eg. print advertising, social media, etc.)

  • What we do on “first contact” from a prospective client

  • The notes for conducting our value conversation

  • Our template client agreements

  • How we setup the client in our contact management system

Interact is where we list details including:

  • How we answer phone calls

  • How change requests get handled

  • The steps for renewing customer agreements

  • Processing customer payments

Release & offramp is where we cover:

  • What to do if a client says they want to end their agreement

  • How we internally identify who may not be a good fit for us

  • Pointers for archiving client records from our various data systems

And Improve is how we go about making each of these components better.

The last one is especially important. As I mentioned above, your processes need to live and breathe with your ‘why,' so it’s critically important that you see and treat them as living, organic, and evolving. 

I made this argument in The firm(s) of the future(s), where I suggested that the firms of the future will be the ones who have developed the ability to develop—that we need to build the ability to build, right into our systems. Designing your processes in this way serves a two-fold purpose—you can get started on them right away since they don’t have to be in a completed state to ‘publish,' and they’re continually open-ended. This means that as you follow a process and are learning, you have a way to include that new knowledge and make your process better for next time. This is powerful stuff indeed.

Now allow me to weave one more thread back through this tapestry: Channeling creativity. In that post, I describe how a mechanism to capture and record ideas helps prevent the creative process from gumming up or losing direction. The Evernote mechanism I briefly describe is patterned after the model above—I have Evernote notebooks for Customers, Services, Team, and Entity. And anytime I have an idea that touches one of those four areas, I make a note and store it in the related notebook. As my mind fleshes out those ideas over time, I add the additional details. And when I’m ready to deploy that idea, I bring it to my focus notebook (I call it Single Stream), work on it for a while, then roll it out. 

Rinse, repeat. For me, this has been tremendously helpful because I have a framework for capturing good ideas so they don’t slip by, but a frame for helping place those ideas in context so I can prioritize, pick and choose, and focus only what needs focus next.

There’s more that can be said, of course, but I hope you can see how this model functions. If this concept is helpful to you, or if you have questions or thoughts about it, please let me know in the comments below—I’d love to hear from you. And if there’s any single revelation to me, it’s that processes need to be organic—it’s harder, but the only sustainable way to grow your firm.

Adrian Simmons is a Practicing Fellow of VeraSage Institute and Chief Creative Designer at his firm, Elements CPA. He is also a member of the Karbon Academy faculty. 

To fill the accounting industry’s gap in education, Karbon is launching Karbon Academy. Combining proven theory with practical examples and group coaching, you’ll be taught in your four tracks (strategy, management, efficiency and growth) by the best practitioners and lecturers from around the world in an MBA-like curriculum that has specifically been built for accountants.