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Talent is Key for Success in Client Advisory Services

Client Advisory Services (CAS) is the fastest growing area of consulting in public accounting. Building the right team to start or expand a CAS practice can be challenging, especially given the pressures CPA firms are under in general on staffing. But a blend of strategies, such as automation, expanded hiring and flexible work opportunities, can help practice leaders meet their goals and keep team members happy.

CPA.com and the American Institute of CPAs’ Private Companies Practice Section (AICPA PCPS) recently put out our latest CAS Benchmark Survey, which offers insight into the challenges firms face in this fast-growing service line, as well as best practices from top-performing practices. The topline results – a 20% growth rate and profit margins for top performers that outpace traditional practice areas – underscore the opportunities in CAS, which we define as a practice area in which firms advise clients across a spectrum of financial and accounting related decisions, with the goal to deliver higher value and deepen the trusted advisor relationship. When it comes to talent development, the survey’s insights fall into three main categories:

Increased Focus on Recruiting and Retention. Acquiring and keeping talent has been challenging throughout the profession, and broader business trends such as increased turnover (what some call the Great Resignation) are also causing headwinds. On a positive note, our survey found that CAS staff were paid on par with other professionals in their organization, so a brain drain to what could be perceived as higher-reward practice areas shouldn’t be occurring.

We found a majority of firms use traditional online advertising, social media, internal recruiting and campus recruiting to fill their staffing needs. However, top-performing firms (defined by us as those in the top 25% of all CAS practices in terms of net client fees per professional) were more likely to pay a recruitment bonus and rely on internal recruiting than their peers. We also know many non-traditional firms look beyond just CPAs and are recruiting data analysts and others with critical skill sets essential to this category.

When it comes to retention, more flexible working arrangements can be a means to convince staffers to stay. The good news is a majority of firms in our survey (59%) said they adapted to remote work surprisingly well during the pandemic and another 13% reported being completely remote – that’s a solid baseline to build on. Another advantage for the category: Unlike tax practices, CAS work is subject to less seasonality, so work-life balance can be easier to achieve.

One key element for firms to focus on is workplace culture. In a recent AICPA Town Hall, for example, Elinor Litwack, CPA, a partner at GRF CPAs & Advisors, said the firm’s emphasis on shared values and respect within the workplace was a critical driver in its growth.

“One thing that really resonates with us at GRF is leading the ‘people first’ culture,” Litwack said. “We’re nothing without our people. It’s not just a talking point.”

Sharpening Skills. Top-performing firms were far more likely to use dedicated staff for their CAS practices than other firms (52% versus 32%). This focus allows firms to provide better engagement efficiency and increased quality in service delivery.

Our survey also showed an across-the-board increase in training hours for CAS firms since 2018 (37 hours per full-time equivalent position versus 27 hours), and an even sharper increase among top-performing firms. The latter are more likely to have staff attend vendor training or certification programs, sit in third-party workshops or conferences, and otherwise invest in outside learning. Some 68% of top-performing firms, for example, said staff had attended one of CPA.com’s CAS-related workshops for practice development. Jennifer Wilson, partner and co-founder of Convergence Coaching, says core training should include soft skills, such as leadership and communication, which are essential to advisory practices.

Emphasis on Efficiency. Billable and total hours were up over 2018 for CAS team members in our survey, probably due to the net fee growth practices experienced. Introducing automation and repeatable processes is key to maximizing staff. Top-performing firms are more likely to use workflow tools (87% vs 77% for all CAS firms), dashboards and alerts (78% vs 66%) and are also more likely to employ artificial intelligence and robotic process automation.

Top performing firms were also more likely to limit the general ledger software programs their clients use to three or less, simplifying staff training and easing client onboarding. Rather than doing custom work for everyone, they are more likely than other firms to productize service delivery, creating defined, repeatable client deliverables to increase team efficiency, scalability, and margin – and, more importantly, free up staff to focus more on advisory work.

Building your CAS practice

The CAS Benchmark Survey offers a wealth of information on staffing practices that firm leaders can review to see how they stack up against their peers. CPA.com has a number of resources to expand training, from our CAS workshops and certificates to our signature Digital CPA conference, which has a considerable focus on CAS. Moving forward, we’re committed to providing new tools and learning opportunities for firms to move into the next level of CAS, an array of higher-order advisory services we’re calling “CAS 2.0”. Talent development will of course be key to this transition.

Phil Quimby is CPA.com’s Product Marketing Manager for CAS

3 Ways to Future-Proof your CPA Firm

DCPA21 Poster

In these disruptive times, one thing is certain: Change is inevitable. In this landscape, it has become increasingly important for CPA firms to know that they’re taking the steps necessary to future-proof their practices against the uncertainty of the future.

That’s precisely why Jeremy Senften, CPA, CGMA, COO at Rea & Associates and long-time alum of the Digital CPA Conference, sat down with Colette Sharbaugh, Director of Communications & PR at CPA.com, for a special LinkedIn Live. In just around 10 minutes, he shared three ways firms can prepare for the future:

  1. Stay ahead of emerging trends

    Trends are just like the savviest accounting professional: They’re always evolving. But in order to truly future-proof your firm, you must be one step ahead of them. Senften says attending top industry conferences, such as Digital CPA, keep him well-informed on new and emerging technologies. In fact, he and his team implemented Robotics Process Automation (RPA) after hearing about it from both session speakers and peers at a previous DCPA conference. Senften recommends educating yourself on new technology solutions that can create efficiencies in your firm’s workflow and delivery of services.

    Preparing your firm for the future also means anticipating your clients’ needs and the opportunity for new service lines. Senften said his firm had always offered some form of Client Advisory Services (CAS), but through the guidance provided at Digital CPA, the firm learned how to grow and refine this practice area.

  2. Watch what best-in-class firms are doing

    It’s also important to keep tabs on what other firms are doing. Pay attention to your competitors, understand the industry benchmarks, and network with other professionals. Every business is different but when you have a true grasp on the differences and similarities between your firm and others in the same market, you can use that data to great effect. Further, by networking you can hear about practical strategies from your peers that are facing the same challenges as you and build long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships. Digital CPA has been a great help to Senften and hundreds of other accounting professionals by allowing them the means to connect, collaborate, and learn about topical industry updates that they won’t get anywhere else.

  3. Understand your top challenges – and how to address them

    We all face challenges no matter how big, small, specialized, or experienced our firms are. However, Senften explains that it’s helpful to definitively identify those challenges before addressing them. These days, talent and technology challenges are top of mind for every firm. In order to address these challenges, Senften has benefited from the latest research, strategies, and tips that he’s gleaned from past Digital CPA conferences. The information gained during all the sessions, keynotes, and networking activities has made a significant difference in how he’s addressed these problems. In fact, his firm now has 5-6 employees attending each conference so that they all come back to the firm with different insights that can be immediately implemented into their firm.

It’s clear that the future will always be uncertain, but that doesn’t mean firms can’t prepare. Our Digital CPA 2021 conference, held onsite in Nashville Dec. 5-8 and live online, brings together industry experts and profession leaders to share the latest insights, trends and practical strategies to help you take the steps necessary to future-proof your firm and lead the way within the accounting profession. Register before Oct. 31 and automatically save $100 per person on top of group discounts.

Recruiting & Developing FP&A Talent – 4 Tips for your CAS Practice

Client Advisory Services (CAS) practices have been leading the way in growth for CPA firms for several years now. Initial data from CPA.com’s 2020 Client Advisory Services (CAS) Benchmark Survey (launching later this fall) further underscores this point: CAS practices reported a median growth rate of 20% last year and are showing significantly stronger performance than other practice areas.

With growth like that, it’s no wonder CAS is getting a lot of attention. Within CAS practices, one of the fastest growing areas is Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A). New, all-in-one software tools such as Jirav are helping CAS practitioners take forecasting, budgeting, and other planning and analysis activities out of Excel, enabling them to seamlessly integrate and extract data from the general ledger and other systems such as payroll and customer relationship management.

Your firm may already be employing such tools and processes, or you may still be using Excel for advanced and complex forecasting and budgeting and are struggling with its limitations.

Regardless of where your firm is in your CAS journey, there’s an opportunity to deliver greater value to clients through agile forecasting and budgeting — the pandemic has made this need obvious. As firms move to meet this new demand, a key challenge will be recruiting and training talent. For CAS and FP&A, appropriately skilled talent is critical to long term success.

We spoke recently with Dan Gertrudes, CEO of GrowthLab Financial, a Finance-as-a-Service firm with an established FP&A practice, about how to identity and develop top talent. While GrowthLab is not a traditional CPA firm, the strategies he shared can help CAS practices build solid teams and talent pipelines:

  1. Dedicate Staff to FP&A. A key takeaway from the 2020 CAS Benchmark Survey was that top performing firms have staff exclusively focused on CAS. That bears repeating. CAS team members work solely on CAS. Extending that further, again depending on your practice, you may want to consider positions that are entirely FP&A. In GrowthLab’s case, they have a dedicated FP&A group that works with clients on their long range and annual operating plans as well as monthly deliverables.

  2. Understand the skills required for the role. Gertrudes recommends developing the profiles and skills needed for each role and then seeking the right talent. “We hire based on fit,” he says. His firm often recruits from non-traditional backgrounds such as econometrics or marketing. “Our hires are entry-level for the role, then receive the mentorship and training from our more experienced team members.”

  3. Invest in staff. Your talent development program starts as soon as a new hire walks in the door. The onboarding process is your opportunity to set the tone and make the right impression. “Our values of transparency, mentorship, balance and risk-taking are intentionally aligned with developing strong team members,” Gertrudes says.

    Additionally, CAS Benchmark Survey data shows top performing firms investing over 40 hours annually in each staff member in areas such as vendor training and certification programs, CPA.com conferences and workshops, vendor conferences, and internal training programs.

  4. Rethink how you look for talent. In the wake of the pandemic, the question of remote work is front and center for the profession. Many firms have implemented technologies to make work-from-home or work-from-anywhere a long-term viable option. Hiring remotely can also give firms struggling to recruit in their local geographic market a broader candidate pool.

    Gertrudes admits, however, there is downside to remote work: mentoring can be challenging. “Remote isn’t a great option for our entry-level folks. We place a huge emphasis on mentoring and in a remote environment they miss out on a lot.”

    As for sourcing talent at the entry level, he suggests recruiting at the second and third tier schools that aren’t on the larger firms’ radars. “We end up being the big player at some of our target schools and have made some great hires,” he says. “While we don’t avoid tier one schools, it goes back to hiring based on fit, not academics.”

FP&A services offer a tremendous growth opportunity for CAS practices. Put in the work now and develop a talent strategy that will help keep your CAS practice on its upward trajectory. Watch our free webcast “How to Recruit and Upskill Staff to Grow a Successful FP&A Practice” to learn strategies to identify and cultivate a high-potential team for FP&A services.

Sales and Use Tax enforcement: What your clients need to know

CPA: “Hey! I’m so glad to be able to catch up with you – it’s been a while. What’s on your mind?

Client: “I was talking to my friend who owns their own business, and they just found out that they owe the state a ton of money in uncollected sales taxes. They were still in a state of shock.”

CPA: “…and you started wondering if it could happen to you.”

Client: “Absolutely. I don’t want to get blindsided by an audit. Should I be worried? What should I do?”

If you haven’t already had some version of this conversation with clients, you may want to start preparing for it. It’s been over three years since the landmark South Dakota v. Wayfair ruling, which determined that states can broadly require online retailers to collect sales tax even if they lack a physical presence - expanding nexus. Many states enacted their economic nexus laws within six months of that decision, and most have a three-year statute of limitations for uncollected sales taxes, which means now is the time for state and local taxing agencies to audit online sellers with economic nexus.

Since the 2018 ruling, consumer behavior has evolved dramatically, largely due to the pandemic. E-commerce has exploded, resulting in more businesses with multi-state sales activities and a greater and more complex set of sales and use tax needs. The Wayfair ruling was a big deal for businesses before the pandemic. Now it’s an even bigger deal.

State sales tax rates did not increase during the pandemic; however, city and district sales taxes have risen rapidly and are on pace for a record-setting year. “States are reluctant to raise their sales tax rates because they know that the increase in sales tax can be regressive,” explained Mike Bernard, Chief Tax Officer at Vertex. “We saw the same thing during the recession of 2007-2009. However, changes below the state level have been abundant. We expect the frequency of new and changed city and district sales taxes to continue.”

In its Mid-Year Report, Vertex shares statistics on sales tax changes that tax professionals should notice:

  • State-level sales tax rates continue to be stagnant:
    • There were no state sales tax changes in the first six months of 2021. The last state-level sales tax rate change occurred in 2019.
  • District-level and city-level taxing agencies are making sales tax rate changes at a record-pace:
    • There were 127 new district sales taxes enacted in the first six months of 2021, up 88 from the same time last year. This trend continued in July 2021, with 36 new district taxes enacted.
    • In the month of July 2021 alone, 22 new city taxes went into effect. The total number of new city taxes for the first six months of 2021 was 23.
    • The average number of changes per month to city sales tax rates for the first six months of 2021 was 22 per month. In July of 2021, there were 54 city rate changes.

Clients can’t ignore sales and use tax anymore. Neither can you.

Clients who are non-compliant with the growing web of sales and use tax regulations at the state and local levels could be facing catastrophic risks to their businesses. Perhaps even worse, many don’t know they are at risk, and don’t understand the implications of their exposure. This is a critical moment for businesses, small and large. Accounting firms can solidify their role as a trusted advisor by proactively protecting their clients from the mounting risks of sales and use tax non-compliance.

Where should you start? First, determine which clients are at greatest risk, and where. Sales and use tax requirements are applicable to many different industries across a wide range of jurisdictions and are often applied in different ways. Some industries targeted most by auditors are:

  • Construction and Real Estate
  • Digital Goods and E-Commerce
  • Manufacturing
  • Retail

If you have clients in these industries, it’s time to reach out to them to discuss their potential exposure to sales and use tax regulations. Of course, these aren’t the only industries that should be on high alert. Any business that sells goods into a state where they don’t have a physical presence (often referred to as “remote retail sellers”) is at risk and should be made aware of their potential exposure. Ensure your clients understand the costs and risks of noncompliance, as well as the benefits of complying – all in the context of their bottom line.

Your clients also need to understand the threat of an audit is real. Not only do states have access to clients’ transactional data, but they’re communicating with each other in ways that they’ve never done before, in order to ensure that they have a clear picture of how businesses are operating.

Need a sales and use tax confidence boost? It helps to have the right tools for the job.

It’s easy to feel discouraged by the massive complexity of sales and use tax compliance. However, with the right technology, developed by a trusted partner, you can feel confident in your firm’s ability to meet clients’ growing and complex sales and use tax needs. By leveraging technology, your firm can automate many of the manual tasks associated with tracking regulatory changes at the state and local levels—and understand how those changes apply to your clients’ businesses.

CPA.com has partnered with Vertex, a leader in sales and use tax technology, to help firms navigate the new sales and use tax landscape. Whether you’re seeking guidance on developing a referral strategy or looking to scale up your firm’s sales and use tax compliance practice, we’re here to help. Our Vertex Firm Advisor Program offers an efficient, proven way for firms to ramp up their sales and use tax capabilities, regardless of where you or your clients are in the journey.

To learn more about the resources available through this program, or to learn more about Vertex’s capabilities, visit cpa.com/salestax.

Creating Your Firm’s Path Toward Audit Transformation

The accounting profession has been talking about transforming the audit for years. Today, there are plenty of signs that this moment has finally arrived.

First, cloud capabilities have created entirely new opportunities for collaboration and data sharing between firms, clients, and regulators, as well as within firms themselves. Add to that disruptive developments in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and blockchain and the profession now has the right capabilities to transform the audit. With these advancements, auditors are well-positioned to reimagine how they perform the audit – what they look at, when they look at it, and how they look at it – to drive a more precise focus on higher-risk areas and deliver deeper insights and more value to clients.

Despite all this, many firms have not yet identified or pursued their strategies for turning these advances to their advantage in the audit. Rather than proactively transforming, they are reacting on an ad hoc basis.

In practice, transforming the audit is manageable with the right strategy in place – and the results are worth it. Each firm’s transformation can and should take its own path, based on size, client needs, business goals, and current maturity levels in everything from technology infrastructure to processes and methodologies. As firms move towards transformation, they should be aware of three overarching touchstones to guide their efforts – principles that are shared across all other issues guiding their approach. These three touchstones are: Cloud, Connect and Create.

Utilizing cloud technology

While cloud technology isn’t new, its impact on the accounting profession has grown exponentially in recent years. This is reflected in the growth of online accounting solutions and cloud-based file-sharing tools that are capable of better securing files and centralizing client collaboration. Still, most firms today are defining and developing their comprehensive cloud strategies. Having a clear strategy for cloud adoption and use is a critical aspect of audit transformation.

Connecting with clients

What does “connect” mean in the context of audit transformation? From a methodology standpoint, it’s about enabling a truly data-driven audit through a fully integrated workflow. This translates to using client data and auditor knowledge to drive a dynamic linkage to understand the entity, identify risks, and influence any related controls or procedures. Connecting also means finding ways to deepen client relationships through meaningful discussion about key data insights.

For many firms, connecting still requires a lot of manual processes and redundant efforts, which leads to less than optimal outcomes. Transforming the audit will require entirely new ways of connecting.

Creating the Modern Audit

In an audit transformation, “creating” refers to developing a new methodology that maximizes the potential of technology and data analytics to deliver greater insights – to both the client and the firm. A new methodology, enabled by advanced technologies like those mentioned elsewhere in this article, can help auditors do their work more effectively – mainly by helping them focus squarely on the matters most important to the audit. Instead of following a linear, checklist-approach, auditors can leverage data analytics to guide them through the audit, drilling down on the areas that require attention.

Think about it this way: If your firm could create a brand-new methodology from the ground up, enabled by today’s technologies, what would it look like? This is essentially the question firms should be answering in the “create” phase of transformation. Fortunately, it’s a question that a number of leaders in the profession are already seeking to answer. The AICPA and CPA.com, through the Dynamic Audit Solution (DAS) initiative, are creating a clear picture of the modern audit, with an emphasis placed on how audit methodology changes and adapts to address the challenges of the modern audit.

Accelerate your Firm's Journey Toward Audit Transformation

Want to know how your firm can put these principles to work to actively transform your approach to the audit? Start with our whitepaper on this topic, The Path to Audit Transformation: Cloud, Connect, Create. This report offers practical, specific details on each of these cornerstones of audit transformation, including insights from professionals who are already transforming their firm’s audit approach. The key is simply taking the first step because audit transformation is here – stay a step ahead and your firm and its clients stand to reap the benefits over the long term. Contact us today to learn more.

A Closer Look at Our Startup Accelerator Companies

The CPA.com/Association of International Certified Professional Accountants Startup Accelerator is an annual program that finds, invests in, and guides early-stage tech companies with solutions that support accounting and finance professionals. This blog series provides a deeper look at the five companies in the 2021 cohort.