How CPAs focused on advisory services can answer several common questions

Hosted by Neil Amato

Robin Thieme, CPA/CITP, CGMA, the founder and CEO of KBS CFO, has gotten all kinds of questions over the years from clients. As an early adopter of offering advisory and fractional CFO services, she's someone well versed to share the insights that simply getting those questions can unearth.

This episode includes some hypothetical CPA-client Q&As, where Thieme answers these and other questions:

  • "Have you finished this project yet?"
  • "Can you oversee my accounting team?"
  • "Can you find me a lender?"

Thieme appeared on the JofA podcast in early 2022 and spoke about the importance of clear, concise written communication.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Thieme's reflection on a decade of Digital CPA.
  • The "joy and fear" she felt at one of the early editions of the conference.
  • How Thieme answers the question, "Can you find me a lender?"
  • Ideas for making client meetings more useful.
  • Why Thieme says it can be important to clarify and synthesize the value offered to clients.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at

Neil Amato: Welcome back, podcast listeners. This is Neil Amato with the Journal of Accountancy.

Today's episode is with CPA leader and speaker Robin Thieme, one of the first accountants to offer client advisory services and an early attendee of the Digital CPA Conference. She's reflecting on a decade of that conference and answering the very real questions that firms get from clients. Robin, thank you very much for being on the podcast.

Robin Thieme: Hey, Neil, I'm really glad to be here. Thanks for having me back. I enjoyed our conversation just about a year ago, and I'm excited for what we're going to unpack today.

Amato: Great. First, in reflecting on Digital CPA, it's been about 10 years that the conference has been going on. I would like for you to talk about something you mentioned in your session. You felt joy, but also fear the first time you attended Digital CPA.

Thieme: It was about 10 or 11 years ago, and I was attending the conference because it had the word "digital" in it. That's what attracted me because I have always been tech forward and most conferences for CPAs seemed backward to me. I was really excited. I got there and all of a sudden I realized there was some actual content that as an early adopter of client advisory services that actually applied to the work I'm doing. It was really exciting, so that's the excitement part.

Amato: That was the joy.

Thieme: That was the joy. I was like, I have plenty to learn, I love learning, and at a certain point, I felt like I was in an isolated island, I was having to figure out everything. It was exciting to be in a place where I could start to do what I love to do, which is learn. That was the excitement part. Then all of a sudden, I realized that the AICPA was embarking on teaching all my colleagues to compete against me. It gave me a little trepidation because I was like, OK, you better up your game because there's some good people in this room that are listening in on this newly acknowledged industry and fast-forward to today, it's absolutely the fastest-growing industry. There's plenty of competition.

The great thing is that most of the time when you're talking with a prospect, they literally are calling you because they want the services, they understand fractional CFO, they understand it. I had to do a lot of explaining [previously]. There's more good than bad, but I was a little nervous. The other thing I would say, the other element of fear that occurred was, I care greatly about small business. I live and breathe it. I want every business to succeed. I didn't want one client to be underserved because people were coming to learn how to sell client advisory services, but they didn't know how to perform and really embrace it, which is very different than today.

Amato: It's funny you mentioned that you had to explain fractional CFO. Jody Grunden, who I recorded with just earlier today, he said we put out this virtual CFO service, and we're all excited about it, and no one understood what it was. Yeah, so it's kind of interesting.

Thieme: We were doing the same thing, right about the same time, I believe. I started in 2004, but exactly. You would get these calls, and it would be so apparent that you could make an impact with the business, but you would have to paint the picture. That can be challenging for a business owner to understand.

Amato: Speaking of questions you might get. I thought we play a game of sorts where I give you questions that it would seem likely a client might ask a firm engaging in these services, these nontraditional CPA firm services. I thought I'd start with this one. Have you finished the project? Let me go back, sorry. I'm going to ask the question of you and then you're going to tell me, what are the best ways to answer these questions. Have you finished this project yet?

Thieme: All right, fictional client. We do get those questions and when I get those questions, it's a sign that we haven't done our job. I start right at that point, right away when I'm prompted to outline what the expectations were for the project, including when they can expect that we'll be finished and what does finished look like. That's really what I spoke about at the Digital CPA Conference this year about what does finished looks like, and how is that going to be delivered to the client in a way that's meaningful for those, as you said, projects that we're working on? Sometimes that "Is the project finished," It might be something we're doing all the time, and they don't even know it.

Amato: Next question. Of course, totally hypothetical. These could never happen in real life. Can you oversee my accounting team?

Thieme: First of all, I would love to oversee your accounting team. We do it all the time, and we are the most competent at doing so because we know what the finance function needs. I always start with customers first. We definitely get a lot of questions like that where organizations are acknowledging some of the strongest leaders that I work with, acknowledge what they're good at, and what they need help from outsourced providers. One of the most common services that we do get asked for in this growing economy of fractional service providers is overseeing the finance and accounting function.

I say absolutely, and then let's dig in and really unpack what that's going to look like because it does vary dramatically by each client, and it's really the beginning of a conversation when I'm asked that.

Amato: To make clear on this, this is the small business owner who just says, hey, I've got enough to deal with, I can't be regularly communicating, managing the even smaller accounting team that I have. That's what they're asking you is kind of that virtual controller or CFO?

Thieme: Sometimes it's about bandwidth, and sometimes it's just an acknowledgment of the complexity that they're running into. If you have like certain industries like we work with distilleries and government contractors or general construction contractors. I'll give an example with the general construction contractors because that's something a lot of people can understand. The people that are skilled at providing general contractor services at a certain point, they recognize how complicated their accounting system needs to be to serve their needs, the ones that are growing.

It could be just what you were describing — bandwidth, fear, a lack of understanding, and it could be basically a recognition of what we need to do to move to the next level. Sometimes what happens, I do see this where these leaders are coached by somebody and the coach is like, this is impeding your growth.

Amato: Next question: Can you find me a lender?

Thieme: Neil, I'd be happy to find you a lender. These types of questions come up quite a bit. As you hear from all of the guests and the AICPA, we are truly the most trusted adviser so I do get that question a lot. I also have relationships with a lot of bankers that I've developed over the years. Between those two relationships, our tight relationship and the trust that our clients have with us, and what I have developed is an appreciation by the banker that I'm going to make their job easier.

We love to be a part of that equation because I've been in many situations where the commercial lender is talking to an underwriter and he's calling me and saying, "Can you explain a part of the balance sheet and why the transactions are a certain way?" I'm working in collaboration with the client, but the lender is appreciative of being able to, frankly, close the sale. The lender wants the sale, too.

It's a service that we encounter quite a bit, and it's really needed for sure because the other thing that we've had happen is, we've worked with businesses that are unable to get financing, particularly in the last few years. Sometimes they don't qualify and sometimes it's the presentation, their everyday information that's failing them. That's a winning question.

Amato: That seems like it could be especially pertinent right now as financing is one of the concerns that some of the economic times that we're in right now.

Thieme: Yeah.

Amato: Do you see that changing right now?

Thieme: I do. I think there's now with the layering of the growing interest rates and the interest rates changing, we were in a more stable environment, and change is scary. Even just thinking about financing options, whether you go equity and reach out and sell some of the equity because you're having trouble getting financing through a bank or you want to get the best deal you can.

There are so many different lenders, and types of lenders, there's the whole fintech thing happening, which is really exciting. We're dealing with a place in time, like you were alluding to with the interest rate craziness, but also a place in time in terms of technology and financing options.

Amato: Next question, it's going to be a true-false. It's part of our game. True or false, a meeting is not a deliverable.

Thieme: Can I say true and false?

Amato: Of course and explain. There's no correct answer. I want to hear your thoughts on that.

Thieme: This is a topic we discuss quite a bit at bothat Digital CPA and among the team. I'm going to quote Ron Baker, who I heard speak yesterday. Really sent it home where he said, "Do not waste your client's time." A meeting can turn into a waste of a client's time and, if they think it's a waste of time, it is a waste of time, and then it's a waste of money.

There's a couple different ways of having a high-performing meeting. One, you want to make sure you understand your client and understand what outcomes they want out of the meeting. The other thing that I emphasize with people that have not been doing client advisory services as long as I have, is preparing for that meeting might take three times as long as the meeting itself.

But if you want to have a meeting, as a deliverable, which it can be, then it requires upfront work and you're going to be looking at the information you're going to provide them. You're not going to spend the entire meeting going through financial reports. Most of our clients, they do want the highlights and they are very glad if we share our insights.

That can be a really amazing meeting where we're having a conversation about what we've learned. Then basically action items and sitting down and exchanging what's working and what's not within the organization, within the business. I'm not talking about the work that we do as accountants. That can be part of the conversation, too, but making sure you're having a meeting where you're getting to know what's happening with the business.

The best way to know in my mind, if a meeting is either a deliverable or it's being perceived as a deliverable, is when they say, when's our next meeting? So, it's true and false.

Amato: You know they're excited about it when they say when is our next meeting. Well, anything that you would like to add on this topic in closing? It's been fun to play this Q&A game with you.

Thieme: No, I'm glad to go over it, and I basically want to emphasize to get your head into what's going on with your clients and recognize that they're busy. They value what we do, but at times we do need to be aware they might not know what we've done unless we clarify it, synthesize it, and make a good use of their time.

Amato: I think that's great, Robin. Thank you very much.

Thieme: My pleasure.