espite a year of bad headlines, we all know that most CPAs are “good guys”—that is, intelligent men and women of character who respect their role as the cornerstone of the U.S. capital formation process. Nevertheless, recent company failures caused by a few bad apples have vividly demonstrated some of the profession’s weaknesses and brought a spotlight to bear on the quality of audit and attest services. The public has said it’s fed up with accounting lapses, and the marketplace is urging CPAs to do a better job. The remedy—the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s internal control certification requirements—has expanded CPAs’ responsibilities. Here’s how your firm can undertake a cultural tune-up, improve partner and staff performance and reduce risk and the potential for related litigation costs.
MAKE A COMMITMENT
To begin to correct the culture that had led to those problems, we turned to the CPA profession’s long-established value proposition: The best people with the best leadership skills attract the best clients, which, in turn, provide firms with the financial and intellectual strength to attract, train and retain the best staff. Our risk mitigation program focused on three components: leadership, staff and the client base. By concentrating on developing a climate of excellence, we improved partner and staff performance, the quality of our clients and substantially reduced risk and related litigation costs.
TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER
Is integrity its fundamental operating value?
If they squelch discomfiting information, your firm soon will be in trouble. Leaders who can’t accept bad news surround themselves with people who withhold it. When that happens, exposure to risk increases exponentially.
Partners have a right and a responsibility to speak up if the picture formed in response to the above questions is negative, but getting cultural reform under way isn’t easy. When I had to do it, my goal was to get partners to understand how committing to integrity and excellence—and paying for it—could be cost-effective. I often went to my partner’s office, closed the door, stated the problems and gave details: poor hires, mediocre training, inconsistent audit procedures, including those caused by firm mergers, and lax staff oversight. I cited the cost of the resulting litigation, then made a pitch for a stronger, more positive approach that focused on integrity and offered higher pay for better hires, coordinated training for all staff and included thorough supervision of the audit process.
If something is “broken” at your firm, make fixing it a team effort. Get partners and managers together to brainstorm. A retreat is a practical way to bring leaders together to analyze problems and develop ways to solve them. Use one to refresh your mission statement and organize a strategic plan to achieve the firm’s goal: sustainable excellence (see “ Strategic Planners Lead the Pack, ” JofA , Dec.01, page 26). To get the ball rolling to analyze our firm culture, one question I used was, “Would you want your children to work here?” At any firm, once partners in charge start thinking about it, you’re halfway there. When the firm has a plan, have another retreat for the rest of the staff.
In the ’90s, about 80 university programs in the country produced candidates that consistently met our firm’s requirements. We approached the nearest of those schools, became acquainted with senior faculty and talked to them about our firm’s dedication to integrity. We described the quality of our clients so they could advise their students about how the firm’s business engagements would challenge and teach recruits. We had prepared handsome, informative brochures that described our teaching procedures and our commitment to the best professional training. We brought sample materials and patiently answered questions about the process.
Examine every aspect of your firm’s training program. Does it operate at a high standard? For years, our firm had conducted classes in low-budget hotel meeting rooms, employing as an instructor any staff CPA who wasn’t working on an engagement. After we committed to a culture of excellence, our training began with a 10-day, 10-hour-a-day immersion. Relocating to professional facilities and enlisting only our most talented and articulate people to teach dramatically improved its effectiveness.
Once a firm hires good people, it has to nurture them. Small firms should decide what work product they want to develop, then build training around that. Make sure your program is the best you can make it. If you’re a small firm and renting a teaching facility at Aetna or IBM isn’t possible but you want access to more technology than is available in your office, try to arrange weekend immersions at a client’s corporate headquarters or at a college.
In addition, a smaller practice can woo the excellent student by letting him or her know the firm will
Put sufficient resources into helping the new
hire pass the CPA exam.
The best recruits are ambitious and want to develop skill and range. That’s the opportunity you must offer them. Giving them inferior training and a poor career path is a sure way to lose them. People want to be treated fairly, have a chance to grow and be well paid. Let them know they will be. Make sure your advancement policy is both fair and firmwide to keep the process from becoming political and driving out your “keepers.” To do this, you need to
Define the promotion criteria at your firm (such as length of service, passing the CPA exam and mastering certain skills).
Educate everyone about the firm’s standards.
Have a system of frequent progress evaluations.
PARTNERS MUST BE HANDS-ON
We decided to provide better supervision throughout the engagement. The process went something like this: To plan an audit due on December 31, the partner in charge met in August with the audit team and client CFO and CEO. Based on those discussions, he or she developed an audit plan that addressed the risk areas of the particular business. The plan included scheduled interim reviews of the work in process. At intervals, as work went along, the partner checked it against the plan and kept unpleasant surprises from developing. Yearend fieldwork could begin only after these interim reviews had been completed.
Some partners balked at first, thinking their workload would escalate. However, we were generally paid a flat fee for audits, and the new procedures cut 10% of the staff hours in the first year. In the 1993–1998 time period, no significant new litigation developed, and our revenues jumped to more than $1 billion from $700 million with a substantial improvement in margin. The moral: Build quality into your product from the beginning, rather than trying to add it on or “inspect it in” later.
SERVE ONLY TOP-NOTCH CLIENTS
Your firm’s viability depends on devoting energy to your best clients, not your worst ones. If the risk can’t be mitigated, as in our example, the client belongs in the final category—the 15% pool of clients that should be culled immediately. If it’s any encouragement, bear in mind that these highest risk clients also are the most demanding and least willing to pay a fair fee—all while driving out your best people. In firing them, a firm substantially lessens risk while improving revenues and reducing stress to its staff. The way to do it is simply to say, “We’ve chosen not to work with you anymore.”
To upgrade your service to the clients you want to keep, however, try this: The next time you check over a proposal to a prospective client, ask yourself whether you’re providing your best established clients the services you’re promising the new one? If not, “repropose” to your good clients to offer them even better service—before a competitor does.
In a middle-market practice I once managed, we had promised clients we would deliver tax returns “timely.” Yet we delivered many returns for signing on September 15. In our reproposals, we committed to delivering them no later than June 30—and did it. We demonstrated commitment to quality, and meeting those earlier deadlines generated more work assignments. Your competitor has the same problems you do. Whoever solves them best wins risk-free revenue and marketplace distinction.
The primary source of catastrophic service failure is accepting a client’s questionable accounting methods. Make it a rule that when a professional dispute with a client arises, no partner or group of partners can put your firm, or the entity’s shareholders, at unacceptable risk. If necessary, an audit team must stand its ground and bump a dispute or suspicious practice up to the technical partner for resolution (see “ The Firm You Save May Be Your Own ”).
Most firms want to be the best and serve the best clients, so follow the tips in this article to help ensure that integrity permeates your business. Promote values, policies and procedures that attract and retain the best people. Develop client acceptance and dispute resolution processes that mitigate risk and contribute to the highest standards. Commitment to excellence may not protect your firm from every risk of catastrophic service failure, but without it, a firm is driving without a steering wheel—and a crash is inevitable.