Staffing has been a challenge for many years. Due to demographics and disruptions in the accounting pipeline, it’s likely that most firms will face continued tightening in the supply of accountants and CPAs. In the face of a talent shortage and growing demand from clients, firms must develop creative strategies to ensure their proper capacity. Key strategies include:
- Outsourcing and offshoring
- AI, Bots, and other technology automation to reduce the time to produce work
- Scheduling firmwide to eliminate pockets of underuse and other process innovations
- Exiting clients who are outside the firm’s sweet spot, are risky, are painful to work with, or who do not meet ideal target client standards
Another critical strategy that is the fastest and most sustainable way to increase capacity is developing a Non-CPA Workstream, an approach we’ve used in our own practice and have helped many CPA firms employ. Under this capacity-building program, firms hire smart, tech-savvy, client-savvy operational talent and place them inside their service lines as Client Service Representatives (CSRs) (or a host of other title options – more on this below). Over time, as these resources gain speed, they can support the team in amazing ways, freeing up accountants, CPAs, advisors, and other technical talent so they can focus on higher-level responsibilities and opportunities.
Let’s explore some of the considerations as you build your Non-CPA Workstream program. For the purposes of this article and illustration, we’ll call the new resources “CSRs.” We’ll use “technical experts” to represent accountants, CPAs, advisors, and other technical, client-facing talent.
Begin by looking at the possible activities that a CSR can manage. CSRs can attend prospect calls alongside a service provider, write recaps from meetings, prepare engagement letters, onboard clients, build project plans for client projects, encourage and teach clients on the use of the portal, schedule and attend meetings, write recaps of missing documents or needed data, cheerfully follow up on needed client or team action items, monitor plans and deadlines to drive to completion, and more. They can prepare and follow-up on engagement letters and billing, prepare confirmations, and input data. Numbers-savvy team members might prepare (and even review) simpler deliverables like 990s and sales tax returns. Strategic, process-oriented CSRs can improve procedures, develop automations, and simplify currently convoluted workflows.
Envision an “advance team” that is proactively looking ahead at engagements to ensure they are ready for technical experts at preparation time. Experts will spin their wheels less and have more energy to go deeper with engagements and client relationships. As you put CSRs in place, you’ll free up your hard-to-find accounting and other technical personnel, you’ll reduce overwhelm, and improve your ability to make a difference for clients, too.
Creating CSR Roles and Reporting Structure
Titles vary for CSR roles and can include:
- Client Service Representative
- Client Service Coordinator
- Client Relationship Specialist
- Client Support Specialist
- Some firms add the service area to the name, such as Tax Client Support Specialist
Notice that these titles include either “client service” or “client relationship,” emphasizing a hands-on, client-facing interface between CSRs and clients. Pull your CSRs out of the back office and get them in front to drive aspects of client service and significantly enhance your overall client experience.
Next, move away from the traditional “cost center” model for admin and instead, have CSRs report to service line leadership, for instance a Tax Service Line Leader or their delegate. Consider CSRs a key component of your client-facing teams (who have historically been called professional staff, a term to avoid because everyone should behave as a professional). CSRs will contribute to the revenue stream and not be considered overhead.
As CSRs develop confidence and expand skills, build out levels to recognize their growing contribution. CSR teams will grow and require more supervision, and your more highly experienced CSRs can step into supervisory roles. They’ll need a career pathway – a picture of the steps and ways they can grow – along with a map of the skills to acquire and learning opportunities (either educational or experiential) to develop new abilities.
Who to Hire for CSR Roles
As you build the CSR skills profile, consider qualities like service-orientation, organizational skills, attention to detail, and the ability to prioritize. Look for individuals with the communication skills needed to be in front of your clients, ideally with strong written and verbal skills. Seek out digital natives – candidates who are comfortable with software, web apps, and working with electronic documents. And qualify possible CSRs for the confidence to problem solve and drive decision making in their areas of responsibility (no order takers allowed).
As for where to find them, think creatively. Here are some ideas to start:
- Customer Service Representatives from insurance or finance organizations (experience with numbers and details)
- Office Managers and Education Administrators (creating systems, organizational approaches, and managing data)
- Hospitality Employees (high level of service orientation and focus on customer experience, prioritizing, and managing peak periods)
- Elementary Educators (love to be of service, communicate at many different levels, capable of managing a sometimes-chaotic environment)
Some firms are using their existing Campus Recruiting programs to attract business and communication majors into CSR roles. Internship programs could be adapted to include CSRs, giving students a taste of your firm and this key “make a difference” role in client experience.
You may also choose to move existing administrative personnel into these roles. Their current knowledge of the firm could accelerate development of the CSR role, as well as how quickly they grow into the position. This could be an exciting opportunity for the right administrator to step up and elevate their contribution to the firm. However, not all administrators will make the transition to CSR. Ensure they meet your skills profile and have demonstrated the ability to drive deliverables and results. If not, look outside the firm instead.
For both internal and external candidates, training is required. As your CSR program gains momentum, so will the success and speed of your onboarding. Initially though, you should expect to experience bumps in the road. Learn and adjust these role descriptions over time.
Getting Your Leaders on Board
Delegation is always a challenge for technical experts. Leaders at all levels struggle to let go and work more collaboratively and with more leverage within their team. As a result, some team members will resist working with CSRs.
To drive more adoption, proactively and regularly educate your team on your vision for this symbiotic relationship between CSRs and the technical staff. Here are a few “why’s” and key ideas to incorporate into your communications and positioning:
- Each of us should seek to work at our highest and best use, focusing on activities that require our highest level of skill and ability. Tasks that can be completed by someone at a different skill level should be delegated.
- Getting work to the right level and role will drive higher levels of profitability. Doing so creates capacity for you so you can focus on proactive activities like increased advisory for clients, investment in team members, technology, and more.
- To support the move of work to the right level, we’ll have to train and develop our CSRs (and upcoming accounting staff and seniors) more effectively. We’ll make investments upfront to build their skills to free up our time once these systems and abilities are in place.
- Be on the lookout for times when you say to yourself or rationalize to others: “this will only take 1 2 minutes.” Small increments of time add up quickly and are likely candidates for delegation (and in the future, automation). Letting go of these responsibilities will allow each of us to go deeper and offer more value to clients or the firm.
- As we move tasks to others, mistakes may happen. We’ll seek to have all parties learn from these missteps and adjust our procedures to avoid them in the future. Be prepared to fail forward.
Lastly and most importantly, create “rules” for the level at which certain tasks and responsibilities will be completed. Firms must systematize workflows to ensure profitability and consistent client experience. Your higher-level technical people can sometimes operate as high-control overachievers. Make it clear to them that certain work they’ve done in the past is not their highest and best use and will no longer be supported. As your program matures, individual technical experts shouldn’t be allowed to work below their level and instead, must move certain responsibilities to CSRs.
Getting Clients Onboard
Transparently communicate with clients as you create your CSR roles. For your larger, more complex clients, introduce the CSR during in-person or web-based meetings. Smaller client groups can be introduced through email or as engagement letters go out.
You’ll likely meet little resistance to CSR support from clients (and in fact, they may think, “it’s about time!” or “I hope this speeds communications and turnaround time!”). If you do face resistance, discuss the accounting talent pool challenges you’re facing. Your clients could be struggling with similar capacity issues and appreciate the chance to learn and apply your newfound strategies in their own organizations – almost everything we’re experiencing in the talent arena is also facing your clients! And you’ll dispel any myths about old service models that in today’s market, are unsustainable.
To capture the value of your CSR investments and innovations, and to ensure the success and viability of your firm, keep engagement fees consistent as you move work to lower-cost resources. Just because you complete work more efficiently doesn’t mean your risk in the work is less, or that the clients’ value is diminished. DO NOT BILL LESS!
Logistically, this means that:
- If you are billing based on time and you calculate bills based on WIP, assign CSRs a billing rate, and have them enter time against the client. Writeup their time to be commensurate with historical engagement fees (and ensure you’re still increasing fees annually to reflect wage and general inflation)
- Better yet, institute price and bill ahead engagement fees that are at or above historical fees and not based on WIP. The benefits of this latter approach are many, too many to explore in this blog!
How to Get Started
A pilot is a great way to test an idea before it’s finalized. Consider, therefore, piloting CSRs in one department or service area. Partner with an open-minded leader in your firm who is willing to undertake the learning necessary to drive a positive outcome. Hire at least two CSRs to maximize your likelihood of success, especially since you lack experience “profiling” these newly created roles. If you transfer internal resources from your administrative team, choose your very best and brightest for this critical role.
Because this strategy is new, there isn’t industry benchmark data for how many CSRs you’ll need. Over time, you’ll gain a sense of CSR capacity based on the number of clients, partners, or technical experts each CSR can support.
Most importantly, don’t wait to implement CSRs in your firm’s service lines. Start now to create long-term, sustainable capacity for your accountants, CPAs, advisors, and other technical talent. Over time, you’ll find that you can run a more streamlined, profitable, client-focused business with CSRs at your side.