Welcome to the Improv Is No Joke podcast hosted by Peter Margaritis, AKA The Accidental Accountant and author of the book 'Improve Is No Joke, Using Improvization to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life'. This podcast series is also available on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
“It’s really about being able to pivot and move to those future-ready skills,” Rebekah said. “Also, developing communication and leadership skills will set you apart as a professional, and that will be the game-changers in success.”
All three of these phases will be crucial, moving forward — because the business is changing, regardless of whether or not you’re ready for it.
For example, Rebekah told the story of a group of chief accounting officers she spoke to, who worried that their auditors were falling behind because of a lack of future-ready skills.
“They were saying, ‘We’re doing robotic process automation in our accounting department, and our auditors don’t know what to do with it,’” she said. “They need to level up and get ready because we’re doing it regardless.”
The same mindset needs to embrace in any technological innovation in the accounting industry. You may not be ready to switch over from your 10-key to Excel spreadsheets, and you may not be interested in learning how artificial intelligence (AI). But accountants’ lack of adjustment doesn’t slow down the continued innovation. It’s happening, no matter what.
And being able to adapt isn’t just about making your life today easier. It’s about finding new ways to grow for tomorrow.
“CPAs spend so much time, heads down, versus looking up and seeing what is in front of us and beyond. CPAs are completely missing out on huge opportunities to grow,” Rebekah said. “And it’s that mindset shift of ‘Yes, I need to do my day-to-day job, And part of my day-to-day job needs t be looking out to the future.”
If you want to listen to the entire episode, please click here.
Thinking like a marketer can be difficult when most of us — well, think like accountants. Marketing isn’t a space in our brains; we use that often. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to, or don’t feel like we need to. Other times, it’s because we don’t even know where to start.
Luckily, I had a guest on the podcast who’s expertise is in just that. Kate Colbert is the author of “Think Like a Marketer: How a Shift in Mindset Can Change Everything for Your Business,” as well as the owner of Silver Tree Communications, a full-service marketing company.
Kate has (thankfully) broken down how to think like a marketer into five simple steps — which we can all apply to our businesses. Without further ado, because, as Kate says, “the perfect time to start thinking like a marketer is now”:
1. Communicate for connection and meaning, not just to transact sales.
Communication should be the top priority for anybody doing business, whether you’re in the accounting world, retail, restaurants, or publishing. Communication is about adding meaning and value to potential customers – not just trying to snag a check from them.
For example, most people only hear from their accountant around — you guessed it — tax season. They get a simple email reminding them to make their appointment, and maybe a follow-up or two. However, outside of that season, customers typically aren’t getting much year-round value from their accounting firm. Also, it doesn’t have to be that way. Blogs, podcasts, and newsletters are all great ways to engage your clients (present or future ones) and add meaning to your relationship, without asking them for a sale of some kind.
When a change in the tax code occurs, accountants need to reach out to their clients who will be impacted by this change. For example, “There is a change in the tax code, and I would like to have a conversation on its potential impact on your business. Can we meet for cup of coffee to discuss?”
“The accounting professionals who are finding ways to create meaningful conversations are the ones that are creating sustainable businesses for the long haul,” she said. “And (they’re) capturing a lot more value to the bottom line because they can raise their prices because they’re [bringing more value to their clients].”
2. Live and die by your client’s insights.
Are you paying attention to what your clients are saying? What they like and dislike, what they want to see more or less? If not, you’re leaving tremendous marketing opportunities on the table.
“What’s interesting to me about financial professionals is that, here’s a group of subject matter experts who are all about the data, right?” Kate said.
However, how many accounting firms are invested in the data of what their customers think? What’s your net promoter score? How is it trending?
Give a survey, or set up a focus group — you glean your information is up to you. Make this a priority in your marketing strategy. Otherwise, you’re not going to know where to go.
“Once you have those clients insights, you know what pivots to make in your firm to be able to grow,” Kate said.
3. Market in a way that’s strategy-religious and tactic-agnostic.
So many companies — accounting and otherwise — take the opposite approach than this. They’re all over the place with their strategy, but married to one tactic, just because they think that’s what the rest of the industry is doing.
The trick is in the opposite approach: Be married to your strategy (once you do the front-end work to come up with a robust one). Try a little bit of everything when it comes to the tactics — aka the vehicles by which you deliver your strategy.
Maybe the tactic is a video series, a workshop, a television commercial, or a newsletter series. Perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above. However, the trick is to experiment with a variety of approaches and see how best to deliver your strategy. Where are you seeing the most engagement, or the most leads coming from where? Pay attention to the numbers, and start devoting resources to the tactics that are producing results (and pulling resources from tactics that don’t).
“It’s about being willing to try new things,” Kate said. “And then walk away from new things.”
4. Create cultures and processes that align with your brand.
If your firm has a brand associated with never surprise-invoicing people, then you should, as a firm, build billing processes and packages around that core value. According to Kate, structure your pricing in a way that there’s some cushion. Just in case people call and ask for further advice, you don’t feel like you’re giving it away for free.
Also, if you have a brand focused on being accessible and comfortable, and not nickel-and-diming the client, then build a culture surrounding that. An example Kate used is Southwest Airlines. This is an airline that’s built its brand around never being late, and not putting more costs on the customers’ shoulders. When a Southwest plane lands, all the crew going around and cleaning so that the aircraft can be used again for its next flight on time. Southwest built a culture in its employees around its “never late” branding, and that shines through in their marketing.
“What are we willing to do differently to deliver on the story that we’re telling the marketplace about what makes you a better accounting firm than the accounting firm down the street?” Kate asked.
5. Do everything in service of maintaining a virtuous cycle of creating value for the client while capturing value for you.
This last marketing value is related in a way to the first: It’s all about creating value. Kate states, “that might mean giving things away for free. If giving something away for free is going to land you even more business eventually, then it’s a good cycle to get into.”
“It’s about can you create value for people, not just upfront when you’re trying to win them, but continuously, how do you keep creating value?” Kate said. “But how do you capture it back? We’re all in business to stay in business. So it’s not about giving it all away for selling it for too cheap. It’s really about figuring out how do you make sure that you’re pricing yourself right.”
Much of this value comes back to the concept of “delighting.” How do you not just serve your clients, but delight them? Whether that’s the atmosphere, you create within the office, the gift that you give a new client, or that phone call informing the client of a tax law change. How do you delight your client enough to where they not only want to keep coming back, but they also want to bring you quality referrals?
Strategically doing this — in a way that eventually brings money back to your bottom line — is how to create a winning marketing strategy (and business).
“You can’t create more value for your clients, or future clients, or associates, or whomever you serve if you’re not capturing money back to the bottom line,” Kate said. “If you’re constantly working your marketing, your business is going to be around as long as you want it to be. Then you can retire and go buy a yacht.”
If your firm or department has struggled with employee turnover, my latest podcast will be of particular interest.
My guest, Cara Silletto, whose mother was actually a corporate accountant, is now a workforce retention guru. Her company, Crescendo Strategies, works with companies to reduce their employee turnover, and to bridge the generational gap within the workplace. (You can listen to our full conversation here (https://petermargaritis.com/s2e7/).
The hot topics Cara deals with certainly appear in our segment of the world: Accounting firms and corporate finance departments alike all deal with some of these same issues: Gaps in understanding between the millennial generation and Gen Xers or Baby Boomers. Constant turnover within their workforce. A judgment of millennials for not being “loyal” enough. The list goes on and on.
So how do managers in the finance world fix this? A little flexibility goes a long way. Gone are the days when employees were content with mandatory Saturday hours: Instead, employers are finding ways to empower their staff to make their own schedules.
“It’s not that they’re expecting any less out of their people, but they’re giving them the flexibility to bill those hours any time during the week,” Cara said. “If they want to pull later days, or come in on Sunday or Saturday night, work from home, wherever they can hit those billable hours, they can still do it. But they’re not requiring people to come in from nine to noon every Saturday morning anymore because you don’t have to do that.”
As a retention strategist, Cara gets plenty of calls from various companies: But the most common type of accounting firm or finance department she hears from are those who are “set in their ways,” who have policies that they haven’t revisited in years. They are the ones who call Cara and say, “We can’t recruit anybody.”
Put simply, the old way of doing things isn’t working any longer: Times have changed, and the next generation of workers isn’t loyal to a company, just for the sake of being loyal. Today’s workers stay in jobs where they feel appreciated, have scheduling flexibility, and see multiple avenues of promotion.
Flexibility is advancement is one lesson the accounting world can take to heart, maybe even more so than the others: Today’s employees aren’t necessarily going to stay at a firm for years on end, waiting for the day they’re promoted to partner. That’s why we have to be flexible with creating multiple avenues of advancement. Sometimes that means taking into account employees’ unique abilities and creating a position around those talents.
“I love when organizations create multiple paths for advancement,” Cara said. “You hear a title like senior advisor or something like that, which tells me that person is so good at what they do, but they probably shouldn’t be managing people, and that’s fine because they can still be promoted, and they can be a mentor or advisor for somebody else, or for a team, but they don’t have the direct responsibility of leading and managing others.”
Even for more entry-level employees further down the food chain, it’s important employers offer robust training opportunities. Today’s workforce won’t tolerate taking a job and then not being appropriately trained for it.
And important to remember, too: When you invest in your employees (whether that’s training, hiring, or retention efforts), you’re investing in your firm or department as a whole, too.
When it came to presentations, Jennie Scheel’s initial strategy wasn’t exactly foolproof. As CFO of Five Nines Technology Group, presenting was a core part of her job description. But …
“My strategy was to get up there, put all my beautiful spreadsheets up there with lots of numbers, talk as fast as I could, smile, then sit down and hope there was no question,” Jennie said.
It won’t shock you to learn that Jennie’s audience didn’t always share her appreciation for a beautiful spreadsheet. And since they weren’t interested in the method of presentation, they often didn’t understand the information being laid out for them, either.
That’s when Jennie switched up her presentations. Instead of only speaking in her language, she presented in a language that everyone could understand. To break up the boring financial numbers, Jennie instead broke down all the numbers as part of a dollar.
For example, instead of explaining that company benefits were 6% of the company’s expenses (which doesn’t really mean anything without context), Jennie illustrated the information to reflect the fact that six cents out of every dollar are spent on benefits, like health insurance or a 401(k) match.
And instead of throwing a meaningless alphabet soup of letters up on the screen (COGS), Jennie instead illustrated what Cost of Goods Sold actually meant.
“I have to remember and try to say, okay, so here’s our bucket of revenue, here is a bucket which is hopefully not nearly as full of expenses, so that when you mix them together, that’s the number that makes up our net income,” she said. “So they can kind of see how those flow together and in proportion to each other.”
When it comes to accounting (or any niche, really), it’s important to remember that every niche has its own language. Engineers use words others don’t understand. Accountants speak in numbers and percentages and words like “accrual.” So when these niches cross paths (like when Jennie, a CFO, is presenting to her IT outsource company full of engineers), it’s crucial to use language that everyone understands.
“The second that I say the word accrual, I think that they automatically go straight back to their phones or lose any idea of what I was trying to say,” Jennie said.
Language doesn’t always have to be solely words. It can be body language, too: That’s why Jennie started wearing blue jeans to her presentations, instead of nice suits. Most engineers at her company dressed in jeans and polos most days — so dressing to match your audience can make it easier for them to listen to you.
And, of course, language can be simple pictures, as well. That was the quickest thing that Jennie — lover of spreadsheets — learned.
“The pictures are doing an excellent job of telling the story, instead of my spreadsheet,” she admitted. “Obviously I love all of my spreadsheets and all of the data, but those are not what will relate, and people will not be able to understand. So what I have learned through training and by actually utilizing it is that the pictures really resonate with people.”
The point of any presentations — whether they’re filled with spreadsheets, numbers, photos, or videos — is for the audience to understand the content.
So when it comes to presenting, tailoring to your specific audience can make a huge difference in them understanding your content (versus zoning out, and not retaining anything you say).
“I’m always trying to analyze what pieces of information they’re looking for and then how we would break it down so that they can understand it,” Jennie says. “What details do I need to present to them so that they can understand the company or their role, and be successful with the decisions that they make?”
To listen to the full Change Your Mindset interview with Jennie, click here
It’s not hard to find where the “stuffy” stereotype of accounting has come from: boring offices, firms inflexible with their rules, and an overall stiff work environment for so many accountants.
But that’s why I’ve been so impressed with DeLeon and Stang, a firm that takes all those stereotypes and throws them out the window, creating their own future-forward culture. I talked to Rich Stang and Brad Hoffman, partners at the firm, about what makes their office so different from other accounting firms.
One of the core components of DeLeon and Stang — one that might initially sound sacrilegious — is taking care of employees first, clients second.“If we take care of our staff first … there’s not as much turnover,” Rich said. “And so that’s ultimately going to be good for the clients as well.”
At DeLeon and Stang, the firm has made an effort to put that employees-first philosophy into practice. The team goes out to happy hour together, letting loose and having fun, even if it’s 4 p.m. on a Friday and they’re “supposed” to be on the clock.
The firm has also instituted unlimited paid time off — a policy still in the beginning stages but that lets employees know they have options for when things happen in their lives. Employees also have the option to work from home sometimes when they don’t have client meetings.
When employees feel comfortable in their work environment, they start to naturally have each other’s backs. Accounting doesn’t have to be cut-throat or boring. It can just be fun, and a work environment where people are happy to be there, like at DeLeon and Stang.
From that environment comes less of a need for staff oversight.
“They’re starting to really buy into this teamwork approach,” Brad said. “So they don’t want to let others down. So there’s a lot of them holding each other accountable. And you’re leading, not managing, which is way more fun. You’re encouraging, you’re strengthening. You’re not standing over top of them telling them what to do.”
That kind of flexibility extends to virtually every aspect of DeLeon and Stang — including the reasoning for their latest location, in Frederick. The partners realized many of their employees lived in that area and were spending significant portions of their days commuting.
That new office – in addition to being convenient – also builds on all the aspects of an accounting firm no one would expect. Having those elements attracts better candidates, which is just another example of the firm’s future-forward philosophy.
“We want to be the first to the race with the Millennials, because they’re going to be the future of the firm, and they want cool space, they want flexibility,” Brad said. “We’re here to accept and challenge the Millennial workforce, and want them part of our team.”