ATB’s success has meant that in recent times, partners Michael Mekhitarian, Jim Vass and Paul Rattray have been asked to help other accounting professionals to develop their own businesses – to add greater value to clients – with deep understanding of their businesses and a wider range of advice.
Recently, Jim Vass addressed the Accounting Business Expo in Sydney, speaking to his industry peers about making the transition from a compliance-based accounting firm into a small business advisory firm.
ATB’s success story is as relevant today as it was when the company first started.
Because it’s about customer service and client focus.
“The simple fact of the matter is that the business environment is becoming more complex and more competitive,” explains Jim Vass. “Clients need a range of services and advice, and accounting professionals are in an excellent position to facilitate this, and in doing so, add real value,” he says.
Some years ago, Michael, Jim and Paul could see a common problem faced by almost all of their clients – they were stressed and time-poor. This was reflected in both their business performance and their personal lives.
Wanting to address the issue and give business owners back the ‘freedom’ they had typically entered into their own businesses for, ATB developed its Five-Step process and had great success implementing it with clients.
The Five-Step process enabled the ATB team to really get to the crux of ‘why’ business owners were doing what they do – their passion, drive and commitment, as well as what was going wrong and causing their dream to remain unfulfilled.
“We realised that small business owners’ needs are great, and that they’re largely unsupported,” explains Jim.
“For small businesses it can be difficult to obtain funding, cash flow is sometimes unpredictable, the costs of running a business can be high – wages, insurance, rent…
Growth needs to be managed… Many of our clients felt that they were just treading water, and many were wearing a huge number of ‘hats’ within the business itself, which they just didn’t have the skills for.
Having these wider conversations opened up a range of opportunities for us to help… With financial planning advice, with business structure, streamlining processes, with outsourcing, automating repetitive tasks through the use of technology, assisting with superannuation, insurances, strategy… the list goes on,” he says.
“And for all of us at ATB, it’s been a really rewarding journey. It is really stimulating and challenging to get to intimately know our client’s’ businesses and it’s very satisfying when we can solve a problem and take the pressure off, or make a significant difference.”
“The traditional accounting role is to ‘account for’ the finances at the end of the year, and then ensure that tax obligations are met,” says Jim. “At ATB we understand that we have specialist number skills and detailed knowledge of our clients’ financials. We ensure compliance, but we also help clients to see their business’s unique patterns and rhythm and its strengths and weaknesses,’ and this valuable knowledge helps them to plan for the future and make sound decisions.”
The ‘advisory services’ game can be tricky, because there’s a fine line between giving away “free information” and putting an appropriate value on advice that clients are prepared to pay for.
In other businesses it’s a much clearer transaction. If you’re a carpenter and you’re engaged to install a pergola and new deck, then labour, plus materials result in a fixed and tangible end result.
It is much easier for the carpenter to quote for his time and the materials, in a way that reflects his expertise and experience, and for the customer to see exactly what they are paying for. If you run a small retail business, the price customers pay is determined by your wholesale costs, plus overhead costs, plus profit margin.
Providing business advice on the other hand, comes in many shades of grey. So how can you transition your services and remain profitable? As a starting point:
“It’s simple really … ask your clients what keeps them up at night. The answer will surprise you. But it’s more than likely to be something you can help with,” says Jim.
“If you start to open up to wider conversations, you may be surprised at how many of your clients need more help, want more help, but don’t know how to ask for it.
“These initiatives start to naturally transform your business from one that’s simply compliance-based, to one that’s advice-based, it is what we do at ATB and you can do it too.”
“Over time,” says Jim, “this builds trust, generates client loyalty, makes your customers more valuable to you, and expands your service offering.
“What’s more, you’ll begin to challenge yourself beyond accounting practices, which is so much more rewarding than simply preparing and lodging the tax returns.”