For any firm considering starting a client advisory services (CAS) practice, or just looking for ways to refine and grow one they’ve already launched, there are some obvious questions.How should our pricing work? How should the practice be staffed? What types of technology investments should we plan on making? You get the idea – fundamental, important business-plan level questions. We’ve already published insights designed to help firms thoroughly consider and answer those questions, including our most recent CAS benchmark survey drawing from the insights from practitioners across the US, a detailed white paper on establishing and running a successful CAS strategy, and much more.
On our recent CAS Top Performers webinar participants posed many of these questions to our panelists – more than we had time to answer. Below are answers to some of your peers’ top questions that can help inform your CAS processes and decision making.
1) Many CAS practices focus on industry niches. Won’t clients ask how we can provide the best support and advice to them when we’re also helping their competitors?
If your CAS practice explicitly focuses on specific industries, sectors, or other niches, then yes – some prospective clients will probably ask. Fortunately, there’s a good answer. “Some (prospective) clients don’t like the idea of our working with their competitors,” says Beth Allen of Greer Walker. “But then they learn the benefits of the knowledge we can share across similar clients, without breaking confidentiality. Ultimately, that value outweighs any initial concerns.”
2) How should CAS practices amortize investments in developing new service offerings and efficiencies that aren’t specific to clients?
Firms with CAS practices typically don’t track or amortize the cost of CAS service offering development related investments. Instead, they establish monthly pricing based on overarching time and materials estimates. The goal: Billing based on the value delivered rather than on month-to-month costs that could shift. “The idea is that if we invest time on the front end, we’ll recoup it on the back end”, says Scott Lazarone of Faulk & Winkler. “For example, newer clients shouldn’t receive a discount just because we’re becoming more efficient,” Jason Miller of Dean Dorton notes, “When it comes to IP (Intellectual Property), we don’t amortize or track it. We treat it as something that we can generate from serving one client, then leverage with others – that way, all clients benefit equally.”
3) I know good staffing is a key part of a successful CAS practice. What are the best practices for finding and retaining CAS talent?
The best place to look for talent may be internally – CAS could provide the perfect opportunity for professionals who are already on your team and open to new challenges and a chance to develop new skills. “We’ve had tremendous success in staffing our CAS practice with assurance and tax folks who are looking for something new,” says Beth Allen. Scott Lazarone says, “We have a lot of people who were previously on the audit and tax sides, but want a more consistent workload year-round, with less overtime at peak times. For these professionals, CAS offers a great blend of CPA work and industry-level experience. Meanwhile, both the firm and CAS clients benefit from people who understand what clients need and expect from the firm, and how to deliver it.
Entry-level CAS positions are a different story – some firms recruit for these positions out of school. “When we recruit out of schools, we’re looking for degreed accountants or finance majors,” says Jason Miller of Dean Dorton. “For experienced hires, we tend to look internally.”
Just as in other parts of the business, it’s important to have clear career progression milestones in place for CAS professionals. “All our teams have a clear career path, from Finance and HR to Marketing, Office Administration, and IT,” says Jason. “CAS is no different.”
4) How will CAS clients assess the value of our offerings?
“What would it take for us to do this work on our own?” This is the most fundamental calculation clients are making as they engage with your firm’s CAS offerings. It’s not just about the cost of hiring someone to take on these tasks, either. Anyone in that role will need dedicated technology solutions in order to do the job right, which also adds the cost of ongoing tech support in addition to whatever it takes to purchase the solution. And what if that person leaves? When clients start asking questions like these, they will often conclude that engaging with a CAS provider is the most efficient, least risky approach over the long term.
There’s also the issue of competition – clients may be looking at other firms who offer the same services for a lower price. “We’re frequently asking ‘what do our competitors charge for this service’”, says Scott Lazarone. “If our price is higher, what additional value are we generating for clients? We need to have a good answer – and we need to make sure we convey it to the client.”
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Got more CAS questions?
If you’ve watched CAS’s upward trajectory in the profession and want to take steps to build or grow your CAS practice, we have a breadth of resources to guide you. Visit our CAS resource page to access our latest surveys, workshops, on-demand classes and tools, including our new firm self-assessment, recently recognized by Accounting Today as a top educational resource for 2022.