I had become professionally frustrated. I wasn’t seeing it because I had been too close to the fire for too many years. My initial phone interview with the Sterling consultant convinced me that they had seen my problems before and had dealt effectively with those problems. They knew ways to fix them. That impressed me the most.
I went with Sterling because I knew there were problems in my practice that I was either ineffective at fixing or that I was simply not capable of fixing. As a result, I had become somewhat disenchanted with my own profession. There is no question that the CPA profession today is in a state of flux. I wanted to use Sterling as my professional sounding board to determine several things: First, what are the better, thriving practices in the profession doing? Second, what was my practice doing that was incorrect or could just be done better? Third, I needed a foundation or blueprint to provide for the next growth. That’s when I admitted my own weakness as a manager.
In my practice there was a lack of communication as to which responsibility was whose. Frankly, there was a lack of clear instructions from me at the top. I needed to be saying, “This is the way it has to get done. This is the way we communicate internally. This is how we communicate to our clients. This is how we hold ourselves out.” In that sense I was not doing an effective job.
The organizing board was clearly one of the great things that came of the Sterling program. It was something very different. It made our organization very concrete. It really helped us gain a perspective of who should do what in the office. Until that point, that was one of our weaknesses. We were crossing over organizational responsibilities and there was no clearly defined person to wear a certain hat. We needed to bridge and correct that weakness. After we put the organizing board into place, we constantly refer back to it whenever an issue develops in the office. Whose issue is it? Is it my issue? Is it one of the technical staff’s issue? Is it the office manager’s issue? Until somebody says, “Well, here is the way it sits on the org board, here’s who should handle it,” it goes unresolved. I wasn’t very good at getting that clearly understood or communicated before Sterling.
This tax season was the smoothest tax season we ever had. That came from a clarity and a definitive resolution as to which responsibility was whose. Sterling did a terrific job of helping us with that.
Production has increased, no question about it. Income is definitely trending in the right direction. For the year to date we are 12% ahead of last year on billings, and that (if not more) in terms of collections.
The quality of our service has improved in terms of delivery and timing and how we respond to our clients. They noticed that. They were surprised and delighted with how quickly we responded on many issues and many fronts. Where we could have been criticized before for our slowness or inability to deliver, we now know how to channel the communication to the right place so the person can accept it and handle it. Overall, I had a much better feeling about this tax season. There were a lot fewer anxiety conversations with clients about, “You didn’t do” or “You didn’t get back to” all the things that we might get criticized for, rightly or wrongly.
We have always had the policy that if a client got to us by a certain date, we would get their filing done on time, no matter what. What Sterling did for us was to give us a business policy that put in writing what we wanted with respect to our clients’ deadlines. Our clients now know what is expected of them. The fact that they gave us a stable business policy with a simple, enforceable rule, is what I give Sterling credit for.
There’s no question that I am a better manager at this point. It gave me a very clear notion that, despite what other people might have said about it, if you are the managing partner, you need to manage. I learned that lesson by the consultant constantly reinforcing it.
I am using the communications system the consultant set up, and that has dramatically helped to improve the flow of work. Any time there’s been any question about what I did or didn’t say, I can say, “Let’s refer to what I said in writing.” That’s helped a lot. That’s been one of the great benefits, helping us sort out all the communication issues, how communication flows in the office. I learned that I was my own worst creator of unnecessary work. I would pick up a project and start to work on it, then put it down because there’d be another fire raging. Working from the theory of “DO IT NOW!” was the single greatest lesson I learned.
We had always kept decent statistics. Now we have concrete, definable statistics that are the same every month. I’m not the one who is recording them—I’ve been able to hand that off to my office manager. That was a truly great improvement. We still need to work on applying our condition formulas. I believe that you can’t build Rome in a day, but you keep working at it.
Everyone in the office is keeping his own individual production statistics. We go strictly by that. Sterling cleared the road for me to understand why to do that. Bonuses are being paid on the statistics and only on the statistics, not because you look good or feel good, but ‘Did you produce?’ It has clarified and crystallized everybody’s objective about what they have to do. Once that was done it was a huge improvement. We always had performance bonuses but they weren’t as structured, they weren’t as clearly laid out as they are now. I’ve been very happy about that. Sterling gave me a system to implement—I didn’t have to create it or think about it much. I opened a book and there it was, “Let’s go for it!”
Nothing that Sterling has implemented has failed. What we had to sort out was communication in the office and inept management. Nothing that they’ve done hasn’t worked. The consultant said, “Yeah, you’ve got problems, but they are problems we can fix. Here’s what you have to do.” We did them and they’ve all worked.
One of the key things that we’ve learned is that as you grow the practice and let clients know about it, they will respond and give you more work. That’s great because the ideal practice would be to do more work for fewer clients.
Teamwork in the office has definitely strengthened. There used to be clear dissension about who did what, who was responsible for what. Most of that has disappeared. Again, that gets down to org board, responsibility, and the willingness of your own people to cooperate. You’ve got to have that as well. I always knew I had good people; it was just a question of how do you use them the best way? We found the way. There’s no doubt in my mind that the stress level in the office is less. I can say that unequivocally.
From a very subjective level, the feeling of overall happiness in the office has been greatly enhanced. The other personal success is that while I fought and debated with the consultant, I came to realize that you don’t have to work seven days a week in tax season. I have to tell you, at the beginning of our relationship, I would have said, “You guys are nuts if you think you don’t have to do that!’ But she convinced me that by running my practice better I don’t have to do that. That’s a big personal win. We took every Sunday off during the tax season. That was huge! I think if we hadn’t had all the new clients that we did because we were doing a better job, we could have taken even more time off.
I can’t say enough good things about our consultant. She does a wonderful job. Part of the success was her ability both to dialogue and to transfer the concepts of the things we learned into reality. She wasn’t afraid to take on all the tough issues, as unpleasant as some of them were. I’ve never had another consultant in my office. This was the first time. I was professionally, skeptical. I mean, after you’ve been in practice as long as I have, you’ve seen enough clients who have had what amounts to ridiculous experiences with consultants! But you’re also hopeful. Can this person solve my problems? I wasn’t referred to Sterling by some pleased practitioner, a classmate or buddy. I did this by following ads in the professional journals, contacting them and doing it all myself. While they give you plenty of references to call, the fact is you still have a situation where you ask, “Gee, can they deliver for me?” Sterling really did deliver. I have to take my hat off to them.