Do you think of a public accounting firm as a product company? If not, perhaps you should.

Audits, tax returns and financial statements are all critical products that CPA firms deliver. With the rise of client accounting services (CAS) offerings, the number of a firm’s “SKUs” is expanding.

At the same time, the consumerization of professional and financial services continues, with clients expecting a seamless experience and exceptional service. The result is that delivering accurate, compliant “products” is no longer enough—clients expect more.

Just like Apple delivers software updates and Gap updates its spring clothing line, CPAs should be focused on continuous improvement and innovation. In short, firms of the future need a product roadmap.

This idea may sound daunting. With the current staffing shortages throughout the profession, many firms lack the time and resources to serve current priorities, much less add new ones. But not addressing these challenges may also be limiting firms’ growth or ability to succeed, however it is defined for a particular firm.

Developing an Accounting Firm Product Roadmap

A successful product roadmap starts by developing the right strategy. Most firm leaders are already thinking about their clients’ business challenges and how to help them better manage their financial stressors, save time, and make more informed decisions. This means the first step—understanding clients’ needs—is done. The next step is simply write them down and organize them by topic, service, or technology.

Then, use the “rule of three:” If at least three clients are asking for help with something—payroll, faster closing, or business combination tax strategy—there is a business case to invest in developing a new service or enhancing a current service.

One mistake companies often make in their product roadmap is overlooking one critical input: their employees. For CPA firms, this would be a grave mistake because talent is in short supply and in high demand. Employees are among a firm’s most important stakeholders for success: Can technology like automation or AI make employees’ quality of work and life better? Can it save them time? Is it easy to use? The latter is critical: If a firm’s employees won’t adopt a new technology due to lack of training or bad user experience, clients cannot be expected to use it.

Once a set of client, employee, and company needs and opportunities has been determined, the next step is to prioritize them. No accounting firm can do it all at once.

Balancing New Development versus Existing Service Enhancement

One of the first decisions firm leaders will face is whether they will generate more or faster return on investment by developing net-new services or focusing on improving the delivery of existing ones. The answer will differ for each firm.

For net-new opportunities, consider that CAS offerings have been a major growth strategy for accounting firms over the past several years. Firms offering proactive spend management, data analytics, and business advice are growing at a faster clip than others because they become “stickier” and more essential to business owners’ day-to-day decision making (http://tinyurl.com/3a65eaz9).

If that kind of change may not be in the cards for a firm in the current year, that’s okay. Firms can still improve what they are currently doing. Most firms have low-hanging fruit that gets overlooked. Even small improvements to speed, client experience, or accuracy will pay dividends in client loyalty, employee engagement, and time saved. Some questions to consider could include:

  • ▪ Can the audit practice streamline the prepared-by-client information intake process through a cloud portal that integrates with engagement folders?
  • ▪ Could the tax practice automate client reminders or communications on upcoming deadlines?
  • ▪ Would moving toward a continuous close reduce staff stressors?
  • ▪ Are data entry and bill pay automated?
  • ▪ Does staff spend time chasing documents like expense reports from clients?
  • ▪ Can reconciliation happen faster with automated dashboarding for flux analysis?

When thinking about priorities, balance the loudest cries for help with the most-urgent needs. Put another way, consider if the squeakiest wheel is the best place to apply the grease, or if there is a structural issue with the chassis that needs to be addressed first.

Measuring Results

A silver lining of the past few years has been a healthy dialogue on the meaning of success. For some CPA firms, growth is the primary impetus for decision making. For lifestyle firms or solo practitioners, success may be defined in free time and flexibility. The right results—and return on investment—will be firm-specific.

In the accounting profession, people are not only valuable assets; they are an important component of the firm’s product. It is critical to make sure that the firm’s team is healthy, set up for success, and able to see personal growth from their work.

Most consumer-facing companies closely track their net promoter score (NPS), which is measured by the percentage of customers who would recommend that product or service to a friend. But by only focusing on client NPS, what is being overlooked?

Accounting firms should be focused on two types of scores—client NPS and employee NPS. Would a firm’s employees recommend the firm as a workplace? Don’t overlook the return on investment (ROI) of more engaged, happier colleagues.

Here’s a sad but true example from the author’s time as a CPA: When I married my wife, we selected the second week of the month over the first week as our wedding date. so I wouldn’t spend every anniversary dealing with month-end close. Every year, I still see too many posts on social media with parents bidding their children a sardonic goodbye until the end of busy season or missing “crystal ball” moments due to month-end close. Offering a product that enables continuous close helps staff take time off when they want to, as opposed to when they’re on the brink of burnout. The ROI for such an offering will come in quality of work, longer tenures, and a happier culture that will boost those employee NPS scores.

ROI calculations also need to consider input costs. Pricing has been a focus in the profession for many years, as firms look to get off the billable hour tracking treadmill. Value or costs cannot be measured in backward-looking billable hours alone (plus, junior staff aren’t logging every hour; their realization percentage is on the line after all). Proactive “product packages,” which could leverage newly developed services or technology solutions to enable efficiencies, can help to avoid reactive monthly billing and build in more of a cushion in terms of a firm’s time, talent, and technology investments.

A product roadmap is just one way to help ensure a firm reaches its unique success goals and tackles the most pressing challenge the profession faces: Talent acquisition and retention. Even with busy season coming up and many firms short on time and long on opportunity, setting product priorities for the year ahead will help firms maximize time and effort.

Richard J. Corn, CPA, is the director of product management, accountant ecosystem at Bill.