emember the excitement of being a kid, when life was full of possibilities and little pleasures were a really big deal? A managing partner can use such feelings as the basis of an effective approach for creating teamwork and momentum. For a small firm the effort to make a more exciting workplace can reward modest expenditure with a generous payoff. It’s not a stretch when you think about it. Interested, confident, well-informed staff are ambassadors who make clients look forward to your visits. Camaraderie and energy among employees and owners extend outward to everyone connected with your business. Think of it as marketing through office culture.
If you want to rally your firm’s staff and get them energized, it’s fairly easy to do. Here are a few simple steps to generate, maintain and build on enthusiasm. We follow them at our three-partner, 11-person firm in East Brunswick, New Jersey, but they apply to any type of business—yours or your clients’. A firm whose staff and principals are focused, efficient and happy is likely to have excellent growth and profit prospects.
1. LOOK FOR NEW IDEAS AND SKILLS
Fresh ideas help to create a more dynamic office culture. To assist clients with the changing world (not just the changing accounting profession), a firm needs to learn new ways of thinking and doing. Look around: Regularly check new business books in major bookstores, scan bestseller lists and read the cover stories in business magazines.
Our firm’s ongoing CPE policy encompasses more than the profession’s minimum requirements. Our partners attend or send staff to conferences with state-of-the-art leaders and visionaries, which have included business gurus Tom Peters, Peter Lowe, Gideon Malherbe, Guy Kawasaki, Bill Gates, Ted Turner and Steve Case.
Seminars, workshops and conferences are an important opportunity to learn and network. Vary the types you attend so you learn something new. To avoid a rehash, call and ask questions about the content and speakers before signing up.
We consider speed-reading, time management and motivational courses—even though they offer no CPE credit and no chargeable time—worthwhile staff training. The firm pays for those programs and gets significant value from them. The partners look for improvements in staff work patterns and client relationships, and we find such training imparts or improves skills needed in business as well as in everyday life. Speed-reading courses not only teach how to read faster with greater retention but also how to be more selective about what to read. Motivational courses foster enthusiasm and teach ideas and techniques that add energy to many people’s workdays.
Our partners attend motivational refresher courses two or three times a year, and we take our staff at least once a year. Staff and partners discuss the content of them. When we spot employees using techniques learned at programs, we compliment them. We encourage the staff to discuss new ideas with clients; it lets clients know we are improving our skills to better serve them.
In general, the partners decide on the program to attend, although staff occasionally make recommendations. If there’s a conflict, the employee chooses. Exposure to a variety of courses expands imagination and widens our scope better than annually repeated programs can. The opportunity we give people to learn skills that aren’t job specific is valuable to them. It sets us apart from our competition and helps us retain staff.
Another way our firm cultivates fresh thinking is by subscribing to interesting professional publications, such as Fast Company, Business 2.0, Wired, Red Herring, Christie’s International Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Strategy and Business, Success, Bottom Line/Personal, Bottom Line/Business and PC World. Staff and partners choose the office subscription list. You can’t get outside-the-box ideas if you don’t expose yourself to the most creative thinkers and doers.
2. ROLL OUT NEW SERVICES
When staff and clients feel they are at the forefront of change, they are engaged and positive. New products and services that expand your firm’s scope of influence create excitement. Clients look forward to learning new strategies, techniques and creative ideas about their businesses from your firm.
Hot issues include branding opportunities and techniques, Internet strategies, novel employee compensation methods, gauging customer satisfaction, pricing and bundling products and services, communications, using technology to make life easier, applying standard practices for one client to another in a different type of business and tomorrow’s business models.
To start a new service, introduce procedures or adopt new software, be systematic. First get your staff revved up for the change. Take everyone in the firm to training courses. Find out who is most interested in learning about the new service. In addition to training, give him or her articles to read to reinforce commitment. Learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It needs context, enthusiasm, immediate application, feedback and results. Reinforce outside training with in-house knowledge-sharing sessions.
Don’t forget to reward an outstanding effort—and to tout the new services in firm newsletters.
3. BRAND YOUR FIRM'S CULTURE
Whether you know it or not, your firm has a brand and a culture. If you don’t realize it, it’s likely both are unsatisfactory.
A brand connotes consistency, shows what you stand for and creates expectation of a level of attention, quality and service. It has meaning for everyone connected with it, including clients and vendors.
A culture is the personification of your firm. Does your culture encourage knowledge growth, personal development, time for family life and openness with the partners? We think it should, and many of our human resources and CPE policies are intended to strengthen not only our practice but also our lives. If a staff member needs something out of the ordinary—to bring a child to work, for example—we accommodate him.
A brand is not a logo, and a culture is not measured in free lunches for the staff on Saturdays during tax season. A healthy office culture is established by frequent and effective communication between partners and staff and respecting them as responsible people. Pleasant working conditions are part of our culture, too. The result is a consistent focus on quality.
To convey an aura of strength, consistency, creativity, innovation and community, we sponsor
First day covers—postage stamps—denoting our support of worthwhile causes. Envelopes are specially produced by us and canceled by the U.S. postal service on the day of issue. (We supported breast and prostate cancer awareness when stamps were issued for those purposes—and received the most compliments and thanks for the breast cancer awareness first day cover than from any other promotional mailing we did.)
Newsletters that show personal warmth by using a folksy, individual style. We never use canned material. We discuss firm issues and offer information tailored to our clients’ concerns.
Annual contests (with periodic updates) in which clients guess where stocks, bonds and currency will be at the end of each year. We have become identified with the contests, and clients have told us how much they learned by following them. The contests—which have awarded winners shares of stock or chunks of gold and silver—are an easy-going form of marketing as well.
April Fool’s letters. We start by pulling the client’s leg, but we include current or historical information about subjects such as social security, the politicization of the income tax and current politics.
4. USE YOUR LOGO TO "OWN" YOUR FIRM'S STYLE
When we yielded to the times and switched to casual dress, we set no rules for partners or staff. The firm gave the change a seal of approval and kicked off the switch from suits and ties with gifts to our staff of high-quality Land’s End T-shirts with a multicolor firm logo. We also gave everyone attach cases, sweatshirts and golf shirts with the logo. We probably saved the partners more than 50 hours of trying to create rules (such as whether to allow blue jeans and, if not, what about sharply pressed black jeans). Now we have logo sweaters, polo shirts, golf towels, golf balls and paperweights. A few clients have even requested a logo shirt for themselves.
We apply our style in other areas, too. The tax returns and financial statements we send to our clients carry a brief personal note and are tied with a blue ribbon. We are working on getting wrapping tissue with our logo for the financial statements and tax returns. Why not? A nicely presented package is always exciting. Once in a while, a client calls to say how much he or she has liked the personal touch we provide.
5. TAKE A BREAK WITH TEAM-BUILDING ACTIVITIES
Out-of-the-ordinary departures from the schedule can be energizing. At our firm, tax season overtime doesn’t start until February, and we show appreciation of the staff’s upcoming effort on the last Saturday of January. While colleagues at other firms are already into their fourth weekend of work, our staff is spending a fun-filled day: We treat employees and their spouses to a private tour of a New York City museum, then to dinner and a Broadway show. Most museums will provide a guide for an hour to an hour and a half for about $10 to $25 per person, including admission. For the theater, we try to pick something that no one has seen, so we usually choose a newer show about three months in advance.
It’s unusual, but our firm’s policy is to close the weekend after March 15 as well as the day after April 15. Our staff chargeable hours from January 1 through April 30, however, are as many as—if not more than—those of firms that impose mandatory Saturday and weekday overtime from the beginning of January. The difference, we think, results from professional treatment and attitude. Our staff is told how much work needs to be done and the deadlines. (Other firms tell their staff how many overtime hours they must work.)
Our annual “I-Power” luncheon reinforces team spirit and acts as a formal mechanism to solicit good ideas. Every staff person brings two ideas that would make his job better, more interesting or easier. Each idea is written on a sheet of paper. We shuffle them so there is no special order to the ideas and then read them one at a time over lunch. Everyone discusses the ideas and we try to decide whether to implement them immediately. Good ideas are rewarded with a crisp new $2 bill on the spot. Afterward, we type up all the ideas and distribute the list.
6. BOOST YOUR PRESENCE
Firm members—partners and staff—should share professional knowledge by publishing articles and speaking publicly. It reinforces our image to let clients know when our ideas are published or to circulate important information, even when we’re not the source of it. Our firm does this by
Mailing clients our article reprints from, or entire issues of, newsletters and magazines such as Bottom Line/Personal, Tax HotLine, Black Enterprise and Success.
Making sure we list staff publishing credits in our newsletters.
Sending clients copies of speeches when we have speaking engagements.
Distributing reprints when we’re asked questions about topics we’ve written on.
Distributing reprints from publications such as the Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal and Strategy and Business on useful topics and issues, even when we did not write the articles.
We also have the staff prepare a written agenda for every partner-client meeting. We have an 80-item checklist from which we assemble the agenda, and something designed to help the client better manage her business is introduced at every conference.
The partners give our staff copies of every article, course handout and booklet we write or are quoted in. Our efforts are part of their work environment, so our successes are theirs too. Why shouldn’t they know about and feel pride in them? Partners or managers who get published but don’t inform their firm’s staff risk creating resentment and jealousy instead of solidarity.
7. PICTURE CLIENTS AS YOUR SALES FORCE
Make it your job to motivate clients to be your salespeople, and give them something superior and different to sell. Promote the firm to your clients as if they were valuable prospects. This works best if it’s done in a modest, self-effacing manner.
Clients are active business people. They meet and interact with many other accountants, so assume other CPAs are always trying to second-guess anything a client hears from your firm. Don’t take them, or the relationship, for granted.
Approaching the clients as a “sales force” with us in the role of sales managers puts a different slant on our marketing and selling. Every good sales manager should give a salesperson something fresh and new to discuss with a prospect. When we go to clients’ offices, we informally gauge the shelf life of our newsletters and other mailings by checking whether our newsletters, handouts and first day covers are still around.
We frequently give out current management and “new economy” books accompanied by bookmarks with our logo, and we like to see if those books are handy, too. Through the years we have found out what clients tend to keep and what they throw away as fast as it arrives, so make sure items have significant utility.
Another way to get clients to spread the word about your firm is to invite them to speeches by prominent personalities. They get to name drop and are likely to mention having been your guest.
When a client brings us new business, we let the staff know that if they weren’t doing such a good job, we wouldn’t have gotten the referral.
8. VALUE YOUR STAFF
You cannot succeed without great staff. To motivate them, allow them to succeed in something that’s new to them or innovative for the firm.
Make positive feedback happen. When you send a staff person to an out-of-town conference or seminar, have him or her present a summary at staff meetings. Mention your employees’ trips and accomplishments in your newsletters and make sure the clients they work with are told. Let a staff person write an article or be quoted in one. When they hit a home run (metaphorically), brag about it to clients. Employees are pleased when a client says something to them about what they do.
When a staff person completes his or her first financial statement at our firm, we present a bound copy as a memento. After a particularly difficult assignment, we take our employee and his or her spouse to dinner at a fancy restaurant. When an employee introduces a valuable innovation, we let everyone know by talking it up to the rest of the staff and to clients close to that staff person. We also
Bring staff to meetings and conferences where partners speak.
Send flowers or plants to spouses on April 16 (and occasionally to the staff).
Give teddy bears, plants or flowers on Valentine’s Day.
Rotate staff on celebrity clients so they can all have some “bragging” rights.
We don’t underestimate the power of making sure they have what they need to perform well. When we signed a lease for new space, we took our staff there before the construction started to show them where their offices would be. This minimized anxiety about the move, allowed them to visualize their new offices and let them share in the excitement of something new. To smooth the transition, the first day in the new space we gave them updated business cards and stationery. Be responsive to your staff as people. Even a new chair can excite someone.
9. USE THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
Entrepreneurs are enormously smart people; they also are lonely because, often, no one really levels with the client. As trusted advisers, it’s our job to present clients with alternatives and downside loss estimates. We’re also in a position to help them take a fresh look at their businesses or develop new ideas. If you spot a trend that your clients can benefit from, take the initiative and surprise them.
Push clients. Spur them to do better. Take contrary positions when it’s called for. Make them think. Our firm encourages clients to look carefully at different product lines and profit centers. In some instances
This calls the client’s attention to small product lines that have grown to more than 10% of the business and consequently deserve extra care or action.
The client may have inventory items that can be reduced. The 80/20 rule works well here (80% of the inventory should produce 20% of sales).
We show the relative value of their sales staff and have been able to point out that personnel the client doesn’t favor may be more cost effective than those the client likes.
We help clients to look objectively at what they really do for their customers. Most clients undervalue their role and price products or services accordingly. A fresh look has enabled quite a few of our clients to raise prices and increase revenues.
A good time to spring new thoughts is when a client is pleased about how well her business is doing, but presenting new ideas at a specially scheduled meeting can work well, too.
One time we had a client whose sales were rising each year but who didn’t see that improvement resulted from price increases while units sold were dropping. We prepared a five-year history of the units manufactured and sold and projected it for five more years. We then compared these numbers to industry data showing an expanding market. This shocked the client into action to regain market share. We showed another client, who was maintaining extra inventory and making many frequent shipments to one customer, that although the account had a high dollar value, it yielded a much lower profit compared to more systematically serviced customers. The client ultimately instituted a price increase based on the extra services and cost.
As accountants we have to communicate effectively so we can get our clients’ attention and prod them to take constructive action. Our firm treats clients like the intelligent people they are and takes pride in being one place where they can get valuable feedback—through attention to detail, informed analysis and awareness. Just as we encourage our staff, we also can give clients the confidence to try harder.