Women in Leadership: Geraldine Carter

CPAs need to predict opportunities for clients

Zoya Malik speaks to She Thinks Big Coaching founder Geraldine Carter about her consultancy work

Zoya Malik: Who are your target accountancy clients? What size of company do you typically aim for?

Geraldine Carter: Given the mammoth opportunity for accountants to add value to their business-owning clients, just about any accountant can reap huge rewards from business coaching. Many of the challenges that firms – large and small – face are quite similar when it comes to business strategy and growth.

But in order to get the best results for a narrow band of clients, I focus on women-owned and women-led firms typically in the $1m-5m annual revenue range.

Geraldine Carter, founder, She Thinks Big Coaching

ZM: What consultancy services do you provide? How do you successfully help clients to grow their businesses?

GC: In order to operate at full profitability, it requires making a number of changes to the way the accountancy firm operates.

Because the CPA typically wants her life to change quickly, the vast majority of consultancy is done in a one-to-one format. This ensures that the CPA gets the exact advice they need at the moment they need it, without having to sift through reams of business theory only to make guesses about which strategy best applies to their unique situation.

VIP clients also have direct access whenever they need help outside of regularly scheduled meetings, without having to be concerned about being billed for extra time.

Most of my clients make more money than they need, and what they really want is their time – and their lives – back, without forsaking revenue. Getting down to a 40-hour working week is not as simple as simply clocking out at 5pm. Running a firm requires so much more than simply showing up for the day: the partner is responsible for a wide array of initiatives, while also supporting their own clients.

Getting from a 70- or 80-hour work week to a 40-hour work week without dropping any balls or losing revenue is a tall order, but can typically be accomplished over five months with a solid strategy that systematically delegates, standardises, automates and reduces the workload. Careful attention is also given to workaholism and beliefs about ‘working hard’ as venerable and the only path to success.

ZM: What are the challenges and scope in consulting with solo practitioners compared with larger corporates?

GC: Larger corporates have the advantage of being able to make a bigger impact with fewer changes: higher client volume creates a longer lever. For example, when we take a firm from hourly billing to segmented, flat-rate prices for packaged services, revenue increases significantly, and overnight. A smaller firm would see a similar increase in margins, but a smaller overall revenue increase.

The smaller firms have the advantage of being able to make decisions and move quickly, without the change process getting watered down or lost in committee. Solo CPAs especially are at the greatest advantage – improvements to pricing, positioning, and service lines can be made in a manner of weeks, as opposed to the geologic timescale that the corporates move on.

Smaller firms quickly capture revenue and profit that had previously been hidden in the business by reaching out to top clients to serve more of their needs, to recognize the patterns in the needs of their top clients, and quickly spin up new packages that can be marketed to clients farther down the roster.

ZM: How do you advise on building a practice, working with individual client needs, and tech investment?

GC: Tech investment comes last.

First, we understand what the CPA really wants to create with their firm. Too often what they believe is possible is limited to what they witness having been created, for which there is far too little variety and imagination. Most CPAs believe their business model can only look like the old-school version of long days toiling away behind a screen, getting home after the kids have gone to bed.

Nothing could be further from the truth – there is heavy demand for higher-level business consulting and so-called ‘advisory’, for which business owners will pay a premium. When CPAs combine business expertise with burrowing into a niche or industry vertical, they find that their firm becomes easier to run, they have razor-sharp clarity about direction, and they can more easily let go of clients and work that is no longer serving the growth of the firm.

Taking the time to sit with clients to gain a deep understanding of their ultimate goals, and then contributing to their success is what creates value. Because fees are merely a derivative of value, if the CPA wants to offer premium fees, the focus must be on the creation of premium value.

The creation of value is what sets the change in motion, and allows for all the other pieces – including taking Fridays off! – to fall into place.

It is only once we have remodelled the firm to best serve a narrow subset of clients that we ask which tech platforms are required to support and produce the results the clients seek. The house is not designed around appliances.

ZM: How much demand is there for succession planning consulting for solo practitioners?

GC: It is astonishing just how often succession planning is overlooked as an opportunity to create value, for few things are as certain as business succession. The owner will either sell, pass the business down to the next generation, or close the doors and turn off the lights.

While countless business owners dream of selling their business and reaping the reward from the effort, the risk, the fretting and all the late nights mean that too many just close the doors, exhausted from the effort and unable to muster the energy required to sell at market value. “I don’t have another five years in me,” says the business owner who broaches the conversation only once they are depleted.

The CPA who did not see the entirely predictable opportunity to help their client move into a strong position to fund their retirement or leave a meaningful legacy stands on the dock wistfully waiting for a ship that will not return to port.