How to Create New Accounting Products and Services

Here are steps to ensure the success of your new projects

This is a guest post by Harry Hall, the Project Risk Coach. Harry is a speaker, teacher, and blogger who helps leaders and project managers get results. Harry has managed projects–mainly for insurance companies–for more than 17 years. He also teaches project management courses to CPA firms. Harry lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife Sherri. He can be found on LinkedIn.

Are you wondering how to create new accounting products and services? In this post, I’ll explain how.

how to create new accounting products and services

Imagine an accounting firm (we’ll call it Premier CPAs) that has struggled in recent years. Revenue is down, and the firm has lost several top clients. To make matters worse, the firm recently received a fail report in its peer review.

The partners recently met and were brutally honest with one another. Something has to change.

Premier CPAs has a great team of auditors. However, they are failing to understand their client’s needs, and they are not changing their business model accordingly. Over time, competing CPA firms have created superior products and services.

The partners selected a team to go offsite and develop a strategic plan. The group was challenged to perform an assessment of where the firm is and where it needs to go.

The top strategies identified were to:

  • Implement a more modern auditing software solution
  • Map and re-engineer Premier CPAs’ audit processes
  • Implement a small customer service center

How to Make Your Dreams Come True

Great ideas, but how do we make them a reality? It’s easy to talk about things, but it’s another matter to plan and execute new ideas.

Well, you could do this like many lack-luster firms. Just do the projects willy-nilly. Do it as you have time. Find a few warm bodies who are not busy to do the work. Maybe assign the activities to the IT guy.

Will you get there? Maybe, but how long will it take? How much further will you fall behind your competition?

Take a different approach. Focus on your goals and strategies. Be intentional.

How to Create New Accounting Products and Services

The following steps can put you on a fast track to greater success:

  1. Define your projects. In the initiation of your projects, define them with project charters. Spell out the problems you are attacking, your goals, what you will deliver, the assumptions of the project, the constraints of the project, key stakeholders, top risks, and who will serve on the project team.
  2. Assign project sponsors. Select partners and senior management who will define and cast the vision for the projects. These leaders should have the authority to provide resources and money to complete the projects. While the project team does most of the work, the sponsors are ultimately responsible for ensuring success (and should be held accountable).
  3. Create project teams. One of the most important things you can do for your projects is to staff the teams. Carefully select individuals who have the knowledge and skills to deliver the project in a timely manner. There will likely be some opportunity cost in this equation. You may have to assign some audit personnel to perform the project work.
  4. Kick off projects. Get your project team and key stakeholders together for the project kick-off. The sponsors should share their vision for the project. The individual leading the project (i.e., project manager) should review the project charter, ensuring that everyone understands the project and their roles.
  5. Monitor progress. The project managers should periodically meet with their team members to check the status of the project and to plan their next steps. The project managers report to the sponsors, and in some firms, the sponsors report to senior management and partners. Doing so provides transparency throughout the firm’s leadership.
  6. Celebrate success. Create a robust project culture by celebrating when teams hit milestones or complete projects on time and under budget. Thank your teams.
  7. Perform benefits realization. How do we ensure that the projects produce the desired results? Measure your results at designated times (e.g., six months and twelve months after the completion of each project).

Parting Words…This Is NOT Easy

These steps may require a significant transformation in the firm’s culture. Changing what people believe, their attitudes, and their behavior is the toughest part of creating a productive project culture.

First, leadership is required, not optional. Without a firm hand, people will fall back into old bad habits. The senior leadership team of the firm must consistently communicate their expectations and lead by example. Make sure there is a high level of accountability with appropriate rewards and recognition for high performing teams.

Second, train your teams in project management. At a minimum, identify and train individuals who will serve as project managers. You may want to get a project coach to work with your firm. Many progressive firms require their project managers to get project management certifications.

Lastly, all of these actions must be performed with an eye on your firm’s strategic goals and objectives. Make sure the changes align and support your vision, mission, and goals.

Your best days are ahead!

How to Identify and Manage Audit Stakeholders

Identifying your audit stakeholders can assist in identifying audit risks

This is a guest post by Harry Hall. He is a Project Management Professional (PMP) and a Risk Management Professional (PMI-RMP). He blogs at ProjectRiskCoach. You can also follow Harry on Twitter.

Some auditors perform the same procedures year after year. These individuals know the drill. Their thought is: been there; done that.

Imagine a partner or an in-charge (i.e., project manager) with this attitude. He does little analysis and makes some costly stakeholder mistakes. As the audit team starts the audit, they encounter surprises:

  • Changes in the client stakeholders – accounting personnel and management
  • Changes in accounting systems and reporting
  • Changes in business processes
  • Changes in third-party vendors
  • Changes in the client’s external stakeholders
Identifying audit stakeholders

Picture from AdobeStock.com

Furthermore, imagine the team returning to your office after the initial work is done. The team has every intention of continuing the audit; however, some members are being pulled for urgent work on a different audit.

These changes create audit risks–both the risk that the team will issue an unmodified opinion when it’s not merited and the risk that engagement profit will diminish. Given these unanticipated factors, the audit will likely take longer and cost more than planned. And here’s another potential wrinkle: Powerful, influential stakeholders may insist on new deliverables late in the project.

So how can you mitigate these risks early in your audit?

Perform a stakeholder analysis.

“Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.” – Brian Tracy

Are You Using Slack for CPA Project Communications?

Slack replaces email as a way to isolate project communications

Do you ever find yourself digging through hundreds of emails to find one message? You know it’s there somewhere, but you can’t put your electronic finger on it. Use Slack to communicate by project–that way, you’ll have all messages (by project, e.g., individual audit engagement) in one place.

Using Slack to Isolate Project Communications

Picture from AdobeSotck.com

What is Slack?

Slack is software designed to allow project teams–e.g., audit team–to send and store messages. Why use Slack rather than traditional email? Messages are stored by channel (by project), making it much easier to see project conversations.

The Slack website says the following:

Most conversations in Slack are organized into public channels which anyone on your team can join. You can also send messages privately, but the true power of Slack comes from having conversations everyone on the team can see. This transparency means it’s quick to find out what’s going on all across the team, and when someone new joins, all the information they need is laid out, ready for them to read up on.

How CPAs Use Slack

How can you as a CPA or auditor use Slack?

Create a channel for each project, and ask all team members to communicate using Slack (rather than email).

In CPA firms, some activities are year-round such as quality control reviews (we perform several hundred a year). Other activities are a true project, such as an audit engagement. Either way, you can use a separate (Slack) channel to communicate and store all related messages.

Using Slack for Quality Control Reviews — An Example

Below you see an example of how Heather, my associate, and I use Slack to communicate about file reviews in our quality control department. By doing so, we can see who is doing what and when. Also, all of the messages are searchable by channel. So, suppose I’m wondering when we reviewed the ABC Bank engagement. I can search the CPR (cold partner review) channel to see who performed the review and when. Notice, in this channel, Heather and I are posting status comments. We do so for the following reasons:

  • To create a history of each review
  • To notify each other that the review has commenced (Slack automatically sends a notification message to those included in a channel)

To select our quality control channel, I click the CPR channel on the left (where all the channels appear). Once I click CPR, I see the most recent messages for this channel.

 

Slack

Made with Stitcher

Audits – Another Example

Think about a typical audit. You have three to five team members, with some individuals coming and going. To maintain continuity, you need a message board that allows all audit team members to see what is going on. That’s what Slack does when you create a channel for a particular audit. Think of it as a message board in the cloud since the designated personnel can see the audit communications with their PC, iPad, or cell phone.

Other Advantages of Slack

Advantages of Slack include the following:

  • Accessibility from all devices, including cell phones and tablets
  • Shareability of documents such as PDFs and spreadsheets
  • Integration with other apps such as Trello and Google Calendar
  • Configurable notifications of messages to team members
  • Private messaging (when needed)
  • Basic plan is free

Give It a Try

The best way to see how Slack works is to try it yourself. You don’t need any training since it’s easy to use. To see more information about Slack, click here.

Seven Deadly (Audit) Sins

Sometimes we sink our own ships

Seven deadly audit sins can destroy you.

You just completed an audit project, and you have another significant write-down. Last year’s audit hours came in well over budget, and at the time you thought, “This will not happen again.” But here it is–again.

Here are seven deadly (audit) sins that cause our engagements to fail.

Seven Deadly Audit Sins

Picture is courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

1. We don’t plan.

Rolling over the prior year file does not qualify as planning. Including PPC programs–though I use them myself–is not planning.

What do I mean? The engagement has not been properly scoped. We don’t know what has changed and what is required. Each year, audits have new wrinkles.

Are there any fraud rumors? Has the CFO left without explanation? Have cash balances decreased while profits increased? Does the client have a new accounting program? Can you still obtain the reports you need? Are there any new audit or accounting standards?

Anticipate issues and be ready for them.

2. SALY lives.

Elvis may not be in the house, but SALY is.

Performing the same audit steps is wasteful. Just because we needed the action ten years ago does not mean we need it today. Kill SALY. (No, I don’t mean your staff member; SALY stands for Same As Last Year).

I find that audit files are like closets; we allow old thoughts (clothes) to accumulate without purging. It’s time for a Goodwill visit. Are all of the prior audit procedures relevant to this year’s engagement?

Will better planning require us to think more in the early phases of the engagement? Yes. Is this hard work? Yes. Will it result in less thinking and work (for the overall project)? Yes.

3. We use weak staff.

Staffing your engagement is the primary key to project success. Excellent staff makes a challenging engagement pan out well. Poor staff causes your engagement time to balloon–lots of motion, but few results.

4. We don’t monitor.

Partners must keep an eye on the project. And I don’t mean just asking, “how’s it going?” Look in the audit file. See what is going on. In-charges will usually tell you what you want to hear. Their hope is to save the job on the final play, but a Hail Mary pass often results in a lost game.

Charles’ maxim: That which is monitored, changes (for the good).

Or as Ronald Reagan once said: Trust but verify.

5. We use outdated technology.

Are you paperless? Using portable scanners and monitors? Are your auditors well versed in Adobe Acrobat? Are you electronically linking your trial balances to Excel documents? Do you use project management software (e.g., Basecamp)? How about conferencing software (e.g., Zoom)? Do you have secure remote access to audit files?

6. Staff (intentionally) hide problems.

Remind your staff that bad news communicated early is always welcome.

Early communication of bad news should be encouraged and rewarded (yes, rewarded, assuming the employee did not cause the problem).

Sometimes leaders unwittingly cause their staff to hide problems; in the past, we may have gone ballistic on them–now they fear the same.

7. No post-reviews.

Once our audit is complete, we should honestly assess the project. Then make a list of inefficiencies or failures for future reference.

If you are a partner, consider a fifteen-minute meeting with staff to go over the list.

Your Ideas

What do you do to keep your audits within budget?

Solving Project Management Problems

Online course by my twin brother--just this week

Click here to see Harry’s course: Six Proven Ways to Boost Project Success. You’ll see his Click Here to Buy Now button in the top-right part of his site.

I’ve watched his videos, and they are well done. If you’ve ever been a part of a failed project, you’ll relate to Harry’s solutions, and you’ll find helpful information for making your future projects successful.

Using Basecamp To Manage Audits

This post provides information about using Basecamp to manage audits.

Most auditors do not plan. We repeat, using the same prior year procedures and processes.

The result: increased audit risk and lower engagement profit–just what we don’t want.

Using Basecamp to Management AuditsThe Problem

We make carbon copies of prior year work papers with updated numbers. By performing the same audit steps and not incorporating procedures responsive to current risks, we leave ourselves exposed, with the potential for issuing errant unmodified opinions. Also, our profit margins lessen as engagement time balloons–auditors tend to add audit steps and don’t prune away the old. It’s the worst of both worlds: increased risk and lower profit.

A Solution

Could project management help?

Yes.

When I use the phrase project management, I mean a formal method–might I even say discipline–in planning and executing procedures. Yes, I am using the “D” word: discipline. And why might we avoid project management? Let me use the “L” word: lazy. Right now you are probably thinking, “Charles, are you asking me to think more? Don’t you know how stressed I am?”

But would project management require more thinking? Project management requires us to think more early on and less overall. And, by doing so, you will have less stress. With appropriate discipline, we decrease the overall effort to complete the job.

A lazy auditor simply repeats without thinking (no planning). A disciplined auditor plans and then acts. Motion without thought is just wasted energy. It might look impressive but achieves nothing.

The Project Management Institute defines project management as a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal.

Project management for auditors includes:

  • Identifying project stakeholders, their needs, and their participation
  • Planning tasks to be performed (even if you’ve done the job a hundred times)
  • Creating a timeline
  • Creating and assigning tasks
  • Identifying potential bottlenecks
  • Identifying risks (during planning and fieldwork)
  • Monitoring task completion

Most electronic work paper files are used to manage projects. Visually you can see what is complete and what is not. Auditors scan the work paper sign-off list as one way to monitor the project. But what if you have four or five simultaneous audits? Or maybe you’re out of the office with just a cell phone. How do you see the status of your audits? How do you remember all that needs to be done?

Basecamp Project Management Software

What project management software do I use?

Basecamp.

I normally have about a dozen projects (e.g., audits, peer reviews, CPE classes I’m planning to teach) at any one time, so it’s challenging to keep everything moving in the right direction. Basecamp enables me to do just that.

Basecamp allows me to:

  • Carry on discussions with audit participants
  • Create to-do lists
  • Assign tasks to project participants with desired completion dates

Here’s a sample screen shot from Basecamp. (Notice I am not repeating my audit program here–just what is needed to manage the project.)

Basecamp

As a task date nears, the designee automatically receives an email reminder. For an audit project, that person might be a staff auditor, an in-charge, a client, or even yourself.

Many projects don’t get completed on time because we don’t early-identify potential bottlenecks (e.g., your in-charge is assigned to three engagements the week preceding the audit issuance date). And then when they occur, we blame the bottleneck rather than our lack of planning. We act surprised, as if projects never have hiccups. Project management enables you to plan early for problems. Then if problems occur (and they will), you can amend the project plan, and, if needed, change the scope or procedures, or add more resources.

Another nice feature in Basecamp is the ability to post messages. Since these messages are isolated by project, you can see the ongoing engagement conversation without digging around in your email archives. You can also attach documents (e.g., Excel spreadsheet) to a message.

If you have multiple projects going on at the same time, Basecamp enables you to move quickly from one project to another to see the status of each.

In Basecamp, you can categorize your to-do lists. My audit categories are:

  • Planning
  • Fieldwork
  • Review
  • Financial Statement Preparation
  • Exit

Then under each category, I add to-do tasks, assigning each to an individual–usually with completion dates (adding completion dates is optional in Basecamp).

As you complete a task, you check it off and it disappears (archived in the project, but no longer in your visible task list), leaving only those items that need to be completed. So you start out with this full audit project list, but as you move through the project, the list decreases in size.

You can access Basecamp from your cell phone, your computer, or a tablet. And so can all project team members, even your clients (if you add them to the project). Here’s a sample cell phone screen shot, reflecting a few projects I’m presently working on.

iPhone Basecamp

Additional Information

You can also create Basecamp templates (a sample project with a list of normal to-do items) which can be used to set up new projects.

The cost of Basecamp is $50 per month for forty simultaneous projects. Old projects can be archived and are not counted as one of your forty projects.

A cheaper alternative is Trello. I have not used Asana, but I have heard good things about the product. Both Trello and Asana have free basic products.

For you serious project management professionals, check out my twin brother’s project management website at projectriskcoach.com.