Shifting a CPA firm from a compliance to a consulting mindset is similar to any other major change. It requires leaders to make a conscious effort to slow down so that they can speed up later.
A successful transition requires time and patience. While consulting provides the opportunity for significant growth and profits, that growth in enabled by three “sets” of resources, as CPA Consultants’ Alliance member Sandra Wiley explained during a 2017 panel discussion about the growth of consulting services in the CPA profession.
To build a thriving consulting practice, CPAs must embrace completely different thinking. What drives a consultative mindset is a natural curiosity. It’s the desire to learn more, to do more, to take what they already know and find innovative ways to apply it to a client’s particular problem.
Consultants are comfortable with uncertainty and not having all the answers—traits that are rare among tax and audit CPAs. And while they must have a solid foundation of deep technical knowledge, they also possess an aptitude for seeing the story behind the numbers.
This shift can be hard for legacy tax and audit partners who are comfortable with the status quo. But the status quo is changing. Businesses are becoming more complex, and buyers of accounting services expect those providers to do more than just keep them in compliance with laws and banking covenants. They expect help navigating the rocky terrain of competitive global market.
Fulfilling this consulting role requires a very different set of skills than a compliance role. Consulting service lines require passionate leaders who immerse themselves in the subject matter so that they can develop a roadmap for clients to follow. This deep subject matter expertise may not be so different than the specialist auditor or tax professional. However, consulting leaders also need skills in areas such as how to package and price a new service, how to ask the right questions, how to be a good listener, and how to scope a new project.
For the most part, these are not skills that are taught in the accounting profession. For that reason, many consulting-focused accounting firms are recruiting operational leaders from outside the profession. For example, a regional CPA firm hired a restaurant operator to run its restaurant niche, and as a result, experienced phenomenal growth in that niche.
Along with a consulting mindset and strong technical and consultative skills, no practice is complete without the right tools. Robust CRM, project management, performance management and data analytics systems all accelerate the growth of a consulting practice and reduce the amount of time spent at the starting block. While identifying and implementing the right technology can be a challenging hurdle—especially for firms that have suffered through previous difficult or failed technology implementations—these systems will soon become a cost of doing business for aspiring consulting firms.
The truth of the matter is that shifting from a compliance to a consulting focus is a must for any firm that expects to stand the test of time. Neglect any one of these critical components, and you will stall out quickly. But with some focused time and attention in these three areas, you will position your firm to move to the front of the pack.
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