Regain control by managing your firm's traffic flow

A high proportion of accounting firm owners are constantly stuck in the weeds. Their business does not run smoothly on its own. And they are forced to work long hours to keep everything on track.

Then there are other firm owners who appear to be in total control. The flywheel keeps turning without their constant involvement. They take vacations and enjoy their weekends. And they have time to focus on growing their business, strategizing, and their long-term vision (the things a business owner should be spending their time on).  

What is the difference between these two types of firm owners?

More often than not, it comes down to traffic flow. More specifically, how effectively you manage the activity in and out of your firm. When you control your traffic, you control your business. 

Traffic flow is the real problem

Traffic in your accounting firm comes in two forms.

  1. Communication: Emails, phone calls, meetings and any other way your firm speaks with leads and current clients.

  2. Production: Getting the incoming work done. How you and your team handle the deliverables of all client accounts.

If you find yourself working hard all week in a struggle to meet deadlines, it’s clear you have a traffic problem. 

What happens when you get a new big client? Or if a global pandemic has all of your current customers desperately in need of financial services? Or you are forced to quickly figure out how to run your business remotely?

Effective traffic flow management is what sets firm owners apart.

3 keys for long-term traffic management

1. Get your team structure right

Right now, in your company, there are two broad categories of employees.

  • Grinders: Those who love to put their head down and do the work. Deliverables are no problem, but they don’t really enjoy handling the client communication aspect. 

  • Communicators: These are the people who love the customer-facing aspect of accounting. Figuring out the services needed, answering the questions and just being friendly with your clients.

There can be overlap. If a Grinder needs a certain number or access to an account, it makes sense to directly ask the client, instead of going through a proxy. And communicators are still handling deliverables.

Identifying the difference between Grinders and Communicators is crucial for traffic management in your firm.

2. Train each staff member for their specific role

In many firms, someone is assigned an account.

For example, Employee X handles clients A, B & C. Employee Y takes care of clients D, E & F. This is somewhat of a flat business structure and makes growth challenging.

You’re dampening the strengths of your team while simultaneously putting tension on their weaknesses. (Grinders won’t want to spend hours answering common questions and communicators won’t want to spend most of their time without interaction.)

In a more comprehensive structure, employee X handles 80% of the deliverable work for all clients (A through F), while employee Y handles 80% of the communication. 

You’ll find that this setup: 

  • Better utilizes your team’s strengths 

  • Allows for a streamlined workflow

  • Creates room for sudden growth and traffic

3. Systemize 80% and personalize 20%

Get your team into ideal roles and you’ll notice a huge traffic improvement. But there’s another hiccup causing traffic jams in many accounting firms — repetitive communication.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a great example of how firms get inundated with questions and requests about a company’s finances. When “non-essential” businesses had to close and many “essential” businesses had to quickly hire, accounting services became vital.

  • How much runway do we have to survive this situation?

  • Are you able to help navigate Government stimulus packages? Should we even get one?

  • Is hiring going to cause a financial strain? Because we need to increase staff by 10% immediately.

Some of these questions require personal interaction, but the majority are so common a general answer will often suffice. For instance, if you have a lot of stimulus package questions, a template email or FAQ section on your website will handle most incoming requests.

 Key takeaways for traffic management:

  1. Find out your grinders and communicators.

  2. Figure out the new roles and nail down the new system of handling deliverables/communication.

  3. Take a look at all incoming communications, pick out the most common, and develop templated answers to free up more of the traffic bottleneck.

5 instant changes to make today

The broader plan outlined above is not an overnight fix and it will take time to implement in full. But there are also some immediate steps that you can take right now.

1. Identify your A, B, C and D clients

Take your client list on one side and a spreadsheet with A, B, C and D sections. Begin separating based on several factors.

  • “A clients” are those you should directly deal with. Your most profitable, longstanding and other high-profile clients will go on the A list.

  • “B clients” are also fairly high-profile, handled by you or a member of your management team.

  • “C and D clients” are easy to deal with, clear deliverables like bookkeeping and budgeting.

2. Focus on your A and B clients

Is your time best spent by handling the incoming email and calls? Or is it only scheduling meetings with clients who have complex financial situations?

If you like to be hands-on, it’s one of the most difficult changes to make in your firm. But it’s non-negotiable if you really want to achieve growth and manage the traffic coming into your business.

Dealing with the A/B clients allows you to:

  • Better explain your services to reduce confusion later on in the relationship

  • Increase the sale and provide more services to top-tier clients

  • Free up your time by only handling accounts meeting certain criteria

3. Don’t do the “grinding” work yourself

You’ve probably said something like, “it’s quicker if I just do it myself.”

It’s not just you, either. Other members of your management team are likely making the same mistake. There are really two roles for you and your managers in the firm:

  • Communicator: You’re talking with those A and B clients to ensure they’re going to stick around.

  • Quality control: Managers are handling operations, checking progress on deliverables in order to keep the level of work as high as possible.

4. Transition to a “deep” from a “narrow” team structure

Even the most organized and well-structured firm will experience employee turnover. If you’re not prepared when someone retires, takes a different position or has to be fired — it will throw you for a loop!

It’s OK to rely on your team, but if you depend on each individual to work out smoothly all the time, that’s a narrow team. When something goes wrong with one or two of your staff, traffic flow gets out of control. 

Before you know it, you’re back into the deliverables just to meet the deadlines and handle the workload.

The solution? Develop a deep team.

A deep team is one that is:

  • Cross-trained for multiple services you provide and for different roles in the company.

  • Well-staffed in a way where everyone has a job to do, but isn’t overloaded, making it less difficult in the event of a sudden dismissal.

  • Maintained to include the growth demand. If you’ll need 5 more people in 6 months, hire 2 now (if the budget aligns).

5. Get the process down

This is an entirely new process for many firms. But you can start today by sitting down and getting something on paper. 

  • Write down the responsibilities for the roles and potential training exercises.

  • Send it to your team or colleagues, allowing them to poke holes in it.

  • Transfer client communication and deliverables, slowly, to the new structure.

Effective traffic is better for everyone

Happier staff, satisfied clients, easier growth, less work and more revenue. These are only a few of the benefits of properly managing communication and production in your organization. Plus, your firm is equipped to handle any crisis.

If another period of economic turmoil hits and communication increases, your team will be  much better prepared to handle that traffic — and even maximize revenue.

This article is a recap of our recent webinar, Work less and earn more by managing your firm's traffic flow, featuring Ed Chan (Chan & Naylor and WIZE Mentoring). You can watch the full recording here.

To learn more from Ed Chan, download the free playbook: The Accountant's 20-Hour Workweek from WIZE Mentoring.

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