Service and commitment

Kate Malov is a young, energetic and proactive CFO working for a firm called CargoWise – a software firm specialising in supply chain logistics systems. Here is a Q and A with Kate.

Tell me about a time when you received the best service from an accounting firm.
What made it the best? How did it make you feel?

We requested advice on a transfer-pricing issue we were facing from a Second-Tier firm who, at the time, weren’t our advisers.

As most accountants would know, transfer pricing can be a complex area of business. Within our company, we faced the difficult task of convincing the senior stakeholders that we needed to do some exploratory work in this area.

The accounting firm in question came into our offices to meet with us and they were fantastic. They gave presentations to the various stakeholders, answered all the questions put to them and ended up winning support from all the key decision-makers and influencers. They really got the in-house accounting team involved and educated them to the point that everyone in the team was fully briefed and comfortable with the relevant transfer-pricing concepts and processes. The project deliverables were all met within the assigned timeframe and the outcome was exactly what we wanted. A truly wonderful service. It makes the job of a CFO that much easier!

In terms of why the service was so good … I think it came down to the fact that they (ie the accounting firm) understood and appreciated the internal dynamics in the business. They also took the time to really understand how our business works in each country in which we operate. It’s quite a complex exercise in itself and that was probably the best part – that they really tried to understand our business and make sure that all their findings were documented. They went back and forth with us and asked lots of questions to ensure that their understanding was correct because it’s critical in the area of transfer pricing that all relevant entities and transactions are fully tracked and understood.

I was so impressed by their service and commitment to us that I would recommend them to anyone. It made me very happy, to say the least! Needless to say, at the right time we subsequently appointed this firm as our accountants.

Until next time,

James E.

The danger of overselling ( 2 of 2)

Last post we left the story with the question: ” How could a senior partner who is highly skilled & experienced in the art of relationships & business development get it so wrong in what one would think is a simple and straightforward pitch?”

Unfortunately, the answer is amazingly simple. Don lost sight of the relationship and was focused on the fees. The prospective client wanted a specific project done – A. Don not only presented and impressed the client that he and his team can do A and do it very well, he went on to “sell” the client B, then C, D, E and F. That was his mistake. Don, under pressure to generate more fees simply oversold what the firm could do for the client. It was clear to the client, obviously not Don, that  the relationship with him and his organisation was not the focus of the meeting but rather he was being groomed as a “cash cow” of sorts. Understandably the client was unimpressed and things went downhill quick from there.

Clients aren’t stupid. The CFO in this example saw right through the facade and he didn’t like it one little bit.

What could Don have done differently? With the benefit of hindsight – Don should have focused on doing A and impressing the socks off the client and invest in the relationship. After respect and trust has started to develop Don could have easily mentioned about service offering B and maybe even C. I dare say the reception from the CFO would have been different after he saw that Don and his team were in it for the long haul and wanted to start and build a relationship and add “goodness” to their client 🙂

Until next time.

All my best,

James

The danger of overselling ( 1 of 2)

Lets take a short break from the extracts of the “What do Accounting Clients Really Want?” book for the next few posts.

I had a call from a CFO friend of mine who wanted my advice on a person we both knew. Lets call this person we both knew Don as is Don Draper from the popular television series Madmen.

Don is a senior partner in a top 10 Australian accounting firm. He has 25+ years experience working in professional services as is recognised by his firm as a rainmaker, that is, someone who is able to effectively sell additional services to existing clients and win new clients. He is often described as proactive, articulate and very “client-centric” – traits that are often in short supply within partnerships in professional service firms – not just accounting, but in law, engineering, management consulting and so on.

My CFO friend called me after a presentation that Don made to him in response to a specific request for accounting services. According to my friend, Don’s presentation was both impressive & informative. However, he went waaaaaaay over the top; so much so that the CFO was simply turned off and in his own words … “it just left a bad taste in my mouth”

Hmmm … this is not a good situation to say the least. How could a senior partner who is highly skilled & experienced in the art of relationships & business development get it so wrong in what one would think is a simple and straightforward pitch? Don would have done hundreds of these presentations over the course of his career – a high proportion of which would have been successful. Whats going on?!

Tune into next post to find out about Don’s dilemma!

All my best,

James E.

The importance of being responsive

Andrew Graham is the MD of a business called epm Projects – specialising in development and project management in the property and construction industry throughout Australia. I’ve known Andrew for many years and he is one of the most proactive & energetic guys I know. I asked him what is the most important quality he looks for in an accountant?

For me James it’s responsive service. Being a small business, we are required to be responsive ourselves to clients. That’s why clients come to small business. So if we’re going to be responsive, we need to partner with other businesses that share that very same ethos.

To unpack your attitude regarding responsiveness a little more: if someone had referred you to a new accountant and you emailed that accountant a question, when would you expect a reply? That business day, the next day, a week, a month?

I would expect that day. We expect to be able to contact people on the day that we call them, and we expect a response to issues that we raise; whether that response is to acknowledge the issue or to resolve it that same day.

If it is an acknowledgment then I would also expect to be given a timeframe in which the issue can be addressed and closed. This timeframe will need to be acceptable to my business to enable us to either provide support to our staff or to respond to an issue that a client may have raised, or make a purchase in the timeframe that enables us to be the type of business that our clients originally signed up for: professional and responsive to their needs.

The question here for the accounting profession is – are you as energetic & proactive as someone like Andrew?

See you next post!

James E

Its all about ideas

John Edwards is the CFO of RPG Australia – a large privately owned steel manufacturer. We spoke about accounting firm roles. Here is what John thinksabout the question – What role does your accountant play in your business? What role would you like them to play?

I’ve already explained the relationship we have with the two big four firms we use. They play the right role for us at the moment. One is audit and tax; the other special consulting like research & development concessions.

If the R&D specialist said they had come up with a non-R&D idea would you talk with them?

Absolutely.  At the end of the day any half-decent CFO wants that diversity of opinion and a source of new & fresh ideas.   It’s handy.  I’ll take anyone’s idea.  I don’t care where it comes from. If the idea makes commercial sense and is able to be implemented then bring them on.

Is the accounting profession proactive?

I think it is to a certain degree, only because of all the changes thrust upon it.  They’re always saying things like, ‘This is going to change next year.  You’ve got to be up to date with all these kinds of changes’ and the like. I think the area in which they are somewhat lacking is in where the business of their client is heading.

Has anyone from the accounting firms that you have worked with phoned you with a completely “outside the box” idea they wanted to bounce off you?

No.  They certainly haven’t.  I think they probably assume, rightly or wrongly, that that’s the business of the senior management team. Given it’s a private equity growth play here, I think they assume, that we have more ideas and opportunities that we know what to do with.  As I said before if they <the accounting firms> come to us with ideas – fantastic! The more the better. I’d be impressed and their proactivity would only strengthen the relationship with us. It’s a case that the act is perhaps more powerful than the outcome. The idea they come up with might be complete rubbish and you say no, but that’s not the point.  The point is that they took the effort to try and that’s exactly what we want.

See you next time.

James E

Forests and trees

I bet you a dollar that you have never heard of HVP Plantations. Well until meeting Steve Ryan, HVPs CFO, nor did I. HVP is one of Australia’s largest privately owned timber plantations.

Steve is a seasoned CFO and has a lot of valuable things to say about the profession and how he engages with accountants and their firms . Here is just one example.

Steve, if you were to hire a new accountant/accounting firm what are the things you look for?

From my perspective, overall, I’m looking for value for money.  Because any time you’ve got to go outside and use additional accounting services, it’s usually not a budgeted item, it’s normally not something that you expected to do. Leaving aside the normal annual auditor engagement and perhaps some tax work for ongoing requirements, when you’re talking about a specific assignment, the expense is unexpected and as such it isn’t budgeted for. It’s something that comes along and you need assistance for a particular reason.  As a result, I’m really looking for value for money out of it because it’s normally an unanticipated cost that we’re engaging for the organisation.

For me value for money simply means that I want an efficient, effective, quality job done.  It also means that I can rely on their expertise on the job.  I can actually rely on the fact that they’ll resource correctly so that the person takes the right amount of time to get through the work and not take too long or too short because they’re at the wrong level of expertise for the assignment.  Value for money for me also means that there is not a huge bureaucracy in the organisation which means that a piece of work has to be reviewed six times before it’s signed off and therefore we’re not adding layers of cost unnecessarily.  It also means that I can get it on a timely basis.  That the work is not going to drag on beyond a reasonable time period in which I want the work and assignment completed.

When I’m looking for a new firm I also want integrity.  I want to make sure that the organisation that you’re dealing with is above-board, is honest in their dealings and professional in the way they go about things.  Honesty and transparency is a must have.

Also I would want the new firm to promote good communication.  The ability of an organisation to clearly understand what the requirement is, proactively ask questions, clarify if they’re not sure on it, and give you a succinct response or outcome to your assignment is what you want.  Not a report that might waffle on for forty pages to try and justify the cost.

Talk with you next post.

Bye for now,

James E

More than just lipstick!

Ruth Richardson-Clark is the CFO of The Heat Group. Chances are that you have never heard of them, but you would (especially if you’re a woman) know the brands they distribute – Maxfactor, Covergirl & NYC just to name a few. Ruth has some interesting insights to share on the question of What can accountants do to improve their service to you?

I’m very simple in my views when it comes to things like this.  I just think they need to be proactive and keep me and their clients informed of changes.  Also it’s important that the interaction is more personal.  It’s not about receiving a generic bulk email saying , ‘Here is our monthly newsletter and you should read it’  That method doesn’t appeal to me at all. I would much rather something more specific and relevant to me, my business and the market in which we operate. Something like ‘Hey there, this has changed.  It’s going to impact you.  Have a look at it.’   I don’t know if it’s possible to be that granular in their information/news broadcasts but it would be great for someone like me!

In my last role with a commercial organisation our tax advisor at the time (one of the big four)  was  really good at inviting their clients and friends of the firm to breakfasts, lunches, seminars, workshops and the like.  These type of small and regular events were just great. I was forever getting snippets of useful information, technical updates, changes in ATO treatments and so on.  In addition, the provision of a forum to network with partners/staff within the firm and their clients is very welcome for CFOs – most of whom would relish the opportunity to spend time with peers.

I also like it when the partner phones up and says “, Ruth, can I come around and have a cup of coffee  with you?  I just want to chat and find out things are going.  No charge – just want to catch up”.  What tends to happen is that through having a general chat with no specific agenda things tend to pop up. This may lead to a formal engagement or not.  But that is not the point.  If they are proactively helping me than I will remember when I need to buy in some expertise.

Food for thought indeed.

All my best,

James

Gun for hire

Thomas Taylor is a “CFO at large” He runs a boutique consultancycalled T2 and works with many organisations, both big & small, as a gun for hire. He goes into the business and acts as an interim CFO – to either help them out of a mess or help them grow to the next stage. Consequently he works with many accounting firms and is uniquely placed to answer the question of what accounting clients really want. I asked Thomas “Is price and quality a trade off? Does it need to be? ” Here is his answer:

I think we’d have to define quality first. Let’s say in this context that quality refers to good and sound, consistent advice. I suspect it is probably is a trade off. My gut feel is that the smaller firms as a generic group probably provide lower quality than the large firms, given the large firms’ resources and the ability to peer review.  I’m sure the variance within the large firms is very low whereas I expect the variance within the small firms is very high.  It depends on what level of technical expertise you’re looking for.  If you’re looking for someone to do consult on international tax or things like that you would go for a bigger firm. The simple rule of thumb I suppose is the higher the complexity, the great need for a bigger firm and the higher the resultant price. Very much a case of you pay for what you get.  I think people believe that.  That’s been my experience, although I have found smaller providers who have provided excellent service.  In my experience they usually are people who are refugees from the larger firms because they don’t like the culture of the large firms for one reason or another.

Until next time,

James E

The CFO directing traffic

Peter Backwell is the CFO of Altus Traffic – a business which provides traffic management services when road works are underway. Tey supply the people-power and equipment to direct traffic while roads & bridges are being built and/or maintained (http://www.altustraffic.com.au/)  Here are Peter’s thoughts to the question, “What can accountants do to improve their service to you?”

Two things that come to mind would be continuity of staff on the job and transparency on pricing.

All clients expect some degree of staff turnover within their accounting firms, however, when more than 60% of an audit team changes year on year it is simply too much. As CFO you have to spend a big chunk of time bringing the new people up to speed.  It’s an imposition I can definitely do without.

We’ve spoken about pricing earlier. However, it’s worth reinforcing the point that all accounting firms, in particular the big ones need to be more realistic about the fees they charge for their services and be ready to answer the question “why?”

The other thing accounting firms could do to improve their services is to be a little more generous in the sharing of their expertise.  I find sometimes that they’re overly protective of some of their tools and processes. For example, they might have some really funky Excel spreadsheet that they’ve produced that provides users with a set of useful calculations or something like that. Some firms will give it to you, where other firms will try and sell it to you or say that you can’t have it and or they’ll charge you a small fortune to build it for you.

Being more open with such tools would help the relationship no end. I’d be more than happy to leave their logo on the tool and tell people about it.

Until next time, all my best

James E

The SUPER CFO

ASFA is the Australian Superannuation Funds Association. It’s the peak industry body for the superannuation sector, representing all types of superannuation funds, service providers and fund members. It’s members manage hundreds of billions of dollars for their clients. It’s a big deal! See http://www.superannuation.asn.au

Matt Haes is the CFO of ASFA. Here is his response to the question,  “When looking at engaging a new accountant, how important is their firm’s brand to you?”

For me, if I was to step outside my current role and work for a small-to-medium business I would more than likely use a mid tier to 2nd tier. In my last role, working in a small financial services company, using a 2nd tier accounting firm just made more sense. At the time we had a big 4 firm auditing one of our funds. The fund was very small and they wouldn’t do an audit for under $10,000 – it would have taken them literally half a day to do it and sign off.  Their fixed cost structures prohibited them from going any lower but the 2nd tier firm we used came in and were happy to take a longer term view and make an investment in their relationship with us.

So to answer your question, brand is important up to a point. For an SME client I would imagine the brand difference between the say top 15 firms in Australia isn’t that important. However, in my current role, given our profile & function within the financial services sector and the fact that we have “big end of town” CEOs sitting on our board, I would tend to use a big brand (i.e. one of the big four) so as to send the right signal to our board, members and other stakeholders.

Tune in next time for another extract from the upcoming book “What do Accounting Clients Really Want?” published by Thomson Reuters in August.

All my best,

James E