In a heavy conversation the other day with a friend who is also in the consulting profession, we reflected on how lawyers and accountants, through their associations, continuing education, and even with their consultants, have belabored much of the same 'stuff' for more than 20 years.
They (you...we...) worry about, ponder, and hear recommendations about, the same 'ol issues and concerns--yet they still go unresolved. These are things like recruiting, retention, cross-selling, profitability, succession, new business development, etc.
Look at the topics of most conferences, seminars, and roundtables and you'll see the same subjects over and over and over. Year after year.
So, we wondered...
- are firms going to session after session on the same topic in hopes of hearing a recommendation that is "easier" or less painful?
- is it that most firm leaders don't want resolution enough to actually take action? (ah, maybe retirement isn't that far away...and it will be the next generation's problem to solve...)
- how much is just plain overwhelm?
- or, maybe, could it be that the problems discussed are symptoms and not the real illness?
We also agreed there are some big problems that don't get talked about much. They are pooh-poohed or swept under the rug and avoided all together.
My friend asked, "What do you think could most positively impact firms in the next 10-20 years?"
Not an easy question (and my crystal ball is in the shop) but after thinking awhile, I offered these three things:
- Forethought and Reflection
Though they look small, they are not.
MORALE has dramatic impact on customer service and longevity not to mention its benefit for personnel.
Job enjoyment, magnetizing the firm to attract more and better talent, and energy toward learning and excelling--the desire for people to go out of their way to impress each other--are all tremendous results of great morale.
Much of the delegation problem is trust and training based. Great morale creates the behaviors that increase trust. Don't underestimate this as a core goal for your firm and better!
FORETHOUGHT and REFLECTION in my mind means project management. Every project that has a beginning, middle, and an end should have a process.
The beginning should include thinking through each step "with the end in mind" and anticipating road blocks, establishing a timeframe, and communicating with clients about timing and possible obstacles in order to set and manage expectations.
The middle should involve reviewing progress against the preceding items followed by managing changes and communicating with clients along the way.
The end, after product delivery, should include at least a quick After Action Review (AAR, created by the US Army) by the service team to address these four questions:
- What did we expect to happen?
- What actually happened?
- Why was there a difference?
- How could we do it better next time?
If anything actionable comes out of the AAR, by all means, assign it to someone and stop the madness (the continuation of mediocrity or worse)!
By doing this, you protect your products and services, innovate and improve quality, get better at planning and executing, get better at managing customer expectations, and provide essential training about all of the above.
Perhaps, most importantly, you continually add value to your firm and your firm's deliverables! (Your pricing can begin to reflect this!!)
DIFFERENTIATION is a subject most professionals confuse with branding. It is related, but it isn't just lipservice (not that branding should be either, but it frequently is and businesses get away with that). To really differentiate, firms must make a choice: Who are we? Who are we not?.
Then, the firm needs to demonstrate it so that it is obvious externally. Not just say it. But illustrate it. (See my post here called Few Firms Get the Point of Differentiation). Actions and evidence. Not just words!
Customer selection (and elimination) is part of this. With the current constraints on capacity and the future looking even bleaker on that front, it's time to make choices. How many clients should your firm, at its present size and capability, have? Seriously? How many? Is the number in your mind larger or smaller than the number of clients on your roster?
Specializing is also a key part of this. Fact is, most people don't want to hire generalists. If "general" were enough, you'd still have magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Life. Instead, we have publications specialized around very narrow topics...model trains, digital (versus paper) scrapbooking, and even pre-school art!
TV, too. We went from a society who watches the prime-time evening news or Saturday morning cartoons to watching 24/7 History Channel, Cartoon Network, and even home improvement channels.
Specialization. Who are we and what DO we do? Who are we not and what DON'T we do? Firms that make this choice have clarity of strategy and greater success. They also charge more and have client selection built right in.
Think of your region's most notable boutique firm....premium prices and clients self-select. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? What are YOU best at?
And the last key to differentiation is PLEASE quit looking only at what other accountants or lawyers are doing!! Everyone studies each other looking for precedent (Hey, look at the unique thing Joe's firm did! Let's copy it and be unique too!). This doesn't make you different; it makes you exactly the same!
All this benchmarking and copying "best practices" of your competitors isn't helping you to be different at all.
I realize the legal and accounting professions aren't, by nature, the most daring and risk tolerant, but c'mon guys. You've gotta break out from the pack sooner or later! Let it be sooner.
These are three three things that, over the next 10+ years, will most positively impact firms.
Keep going to the same old courses about employee retention, client satisfaction, and referral source development at your own peril. In the meantime, good clients and your best employees slip away.
Instead, start dealing with MORALE, with service and product betterment, and with being truly different. This will get you much further ahead in every way.