The Unintended Damages to the Firm when Work is NOT Constantly Pushed Down
By Bill Reeb, CPA, CITP, CGMA
As we said in Part 1 of this series we are picking up this article talking about how firms will need to alter their thinking regarding outsourcing, administrative support, and the administrative time of partners and managers. We discuss how the lack of delegation impedes competency development, why partners working more hours end up creating a weaker bench, and more.
In this case, we are talking about outsourcing off-shore. For many years, firms turned away from this idea because of the fact that they need to inform their clients that the services they provide were not 100 percent made in America. And most of our firms would say something like, “Our clients won’t tolerate us shipping their data overseas” or “Our clients will leave us if we outsource some of our work to India or China.” Both of those statements continue to be proven wrong every day.
Actually, no one is “shipping data.” These people in other parts of the world are no different than your employees who work remotely either in your city or in another state in the U.S., including those who simply VPN into your system over the weekend to do a little catching up. So, the risk of a data breach is virtually the same, because whatever security protocols you are using and following to allow your U.S. workers to have remote access is the same access you are providing for your off-shore outsourcing. This is not to say that you may need to improve your security and access protocols. Rather, you simply have a similar data breach problem for those who are accessing your systems occasionally from their homes.
The people doing this off-shore work typically are not contractors. They are your full-time workers who happen to be located outside the U.S. You have control over what they do, access they have to your system and data, the hours they work, etc. And based on the experience of our client firms, you get all of that – full time with office, equipment, management, and benefits – for about 20-25 cents on the dollar of what you pay for just the employee here. That magnitude of savings is hard to overlook. Here is a summary of an experience one of our clients has had with their outsourcing:
“Our firm uses an outsourcing solution in India to support audit, tax and our back-office accounting team. We currently have audit staff and tax/back-office accounting staff in India. We have been utilizing India for about five years, so we are well through the learning curve. The people in India only work for our firm and here are a few points we are willing to share.
There was a significant investment in developing training and going to India to train (typically twice a year – we send trainers). We also had to develop very significant checklists to guide them through their work. For example, a new hire in the U.S. might require a 20-point checklist, but to get that same task list ready for India, it would be 50-60 steps.
Our team in India is, and is treated, the same as any member of our team. We evaluate them regularly (which drives their raises in India) and if they are not performing, we let them go, etc. It is critical that we provide this level of feedback.
The training programs developed for our India team have greatly improved our internal training session in the U.S., including mock audits, mock tax returns, detailed instructions and checklists, etc.
We have an individual who spends approximately 30 percent of her time leading our team in India. She has weekly calls with the team leaders and monthly staff meetings (via Zoom) with them. She also visits India with our other trainers twice annually.
In terms of our U.S. new hires, we have maintained our new hire numbers here. We have seen that the new hires in the U.S. are doing less “busy” work (inputting data, formatting, etc.) and more meaningful work. This has resulted in their ability to learn things more quickly and be reviewing work about six months after they are hired. Their value to the firm increases more quickly and promotions are coming sooner, as well.
Overall, our U.S. team is happy to have work done while they are sleeping and have items ready for review/updating in the morning. It makes various audit and tax return processes move much more quickly. It has also lowered our cost structure.”
This is a common story that we hear as we work with firms around the country. Yes, as with any change, there are complications. But we have heard from firms that not only are the outsourced employees cheaper, but they are more efficient because they don’t have access to anything at work but “the work.” No searching the web, shopping online, answering their phones, etc., because their phones are checked at the door and their system’s access is limited to the work at the firm.
Some firms don’t send their limited partnership and limited liability company tax returns, or other returns that have numerous SSNs or EINs involved, for completion due to the requirement of getting a signoff from each person when sending those overseas. But the overall point is simple. Every firm we have is looking for people. Here is a solution that is not only less expensive, but it provides for a 24-hour shop turning work around faster, along with creating benefits for all staff by elevating the training and development opportunities for both local and off-shore staff.
This option is not going away; it is moving downstream more and more every year to smaller and smaller firms. Why? In the past, you had to be a very large firm to be able to have the resources to send people overseas to set up an office, recruit people, manage the staff on an ongoing basis, etc. Now, however, organizations are popping up to facilitate this employment opportunity for firms that might only want to hire just a couple of people.
For the past several decades, CPA firm leaders have found solace in being able to say, “I know my competitor has been taking work away from us because they are buying business, bidding it so cheaply. And they will likely get in financial trouble trying to live up to that pricing because we weren’t making much money doing that same work for 40 percent more.” The problem now is that you might already be losing business to a competitor, or will be soon, and using that same old tired excuse to justify the losses. However, today, if that competitor is leveraging outsourced staff, they might be doing the work 40 percent or more cheaper, and making more money than you are when you do the work at your current pricing.
The ultimate advantage from outsourcing is that it forces a firm to think about pushing work down. The U.S. staff knows that, before they go home, they need to load up their team members in India or China to make sure they have productive work to do. When this happens, you start improving your firm instantly. Now, the entry level staff coming into your firm, while reviewing the work done overseas, start screaming for work to be handed down to them. And when this becomes the culture, we start loading from the bottom, instead of from the top and pretty soon, the partners and managers actually have enough free time to do their jobs. This is in stark contrast to what happens all too frequently in firms where many of our people are busy filling roles a level or two below the ones they are paid to deliver.
This conversation, which occurs with every firm with which we work, baffles us. I am going to start with this question. How many firms have very talented managers looking for something to do? How many firms have very talented partners looking for something to do? Our experience is that if you have managers and partners looking for something to do, it is because you have a partner or manager who is NOT VERY TALENTED, which is why you are contemplating firing them, but you haven’t gotten around to doing it (although the odds are you have been thinking about it for at least the past three or four years).
Our anecdotal number to answer this question based on 30 years of working with CPA firms is ZERO. Yes, our experience is that none of our client firms have talented managers and partners who are looking for work to do. Our talented managers and partners are more likely stressed out by the never-ending barrage of work coming their way with no relief in sight. So, if this is the case with your firm, why would you ever have your high-level people, certainly your partners and managers, doing work that much less expensive people who are more available in the job market could do?
Yet, that is the standard. Firms actually take pride in how few administrative people they have. This is crazy. How did we get this way? We don’t work with a single firm that isn’t currently looking to hire seasoned CPA employees. Yet, we are happy tying up the seasoned CPAs we have with work that administrative personnel should be doing. Even worse, we have partners doing tons of administrative work that they, too, have no business doing. In many cases, we have partners and managers doing work in other fields, like marketing, human resources, technology, etc., rather than hiring people who are actually trained in those fields to lead those departments.
To summarize, we utilize professionals whose skills and capacity are in short supply to do the work that others, whom we could find more readily, should be doing. And these others actually have the training and background to do the work, at far lower payroll costs than the experienced professionals we’re using. I’d like to know what very bad book we read that suggested we do this. There was a best-selling book I read years ago called, “Buy Low, Sell High, Pay Late, Collect Early.” This makes sense as a strategy. But it seems that the book many firms are using to guide their staffing for administrative work would have to be named, based on the outcomes they are reaping, “How to Allocate the Most Scarce People Resources You Have, Taking Them Away From What They are Trained to Do So They Can Do Work They’re Not Trained to Do: How to Efficiently Get the Least Benefit Out of Your People.”
What we suggest is simple. Take every administrative job or task that a non-CPA professional can do, which a partner or manager is doing, and hire skilled non-CPA professionals to do it instead. Find a way to free up every minute of time you can from the people who you need more time from. Stop defaulting to asking every talented person you have to work more hours doing stuff other people can and should be doing, which ultimately causes them to leave you because of their lack of work/life balance in your organization. Stop taking pride in your low administrative to CPA professional ratio. I am not saying go hire an assistant for everyone – that would be silly. But allow your firm to hire enough administrative personnel to free up your critical talent so that those skilled people have the time to do the work that only they can do.
That is, hire people who are trained in the various administrative areas and functions, like firm managers or a COO (see CPAFMA), marketing, human resources, learning and development, and many other functions, to do the jobs they are trained to do, and allow your managers and partners to spend more time doing the jobs they are trained to do. For example, if you have four managers and each one is doing 350 hours of work a non-CPA professional can do, and you hire a non-CPA professional to take that workload away, you have effectively hired another 10-year or more skilled manager for a lot less than the market price of that person.
Don’t misinterpret what I am saying. This is not just about billable time. As you know from my recent series of articles on change management, the senior people in our firms should have almost all of their time allocated to billable or non-billable goals. So, when I say that if you freed up 350 hours from four managers’ time by adding non-CPA professional assistance, that doesn’t just mean that those managers should now fill up those 350 hours with billable time. As a matter of fact, it might be best if none of that 350 hours of freed-up time per manager be focused at billable work, but rather, maybe spend it developing their people or managing the tax or audit machines that crank out better and more timely products and services for clients.
How the Lack of Delegation Impedes Competency Development
Here is a bizarre idea. While it is natural to expect workers to produce a standard number of billable hours for their level, falling short of those billable hours for no pre-agreed-to trade off of billable time for other non-charge priorities would be viewed as bad. But to most firms, extra charge hours would be viewed as good.
What everyone is missing in this assessment are two critical factors. First, the person exceeding their expected billable hours at their level is probably not performing some important non-billable function that could provide great long-term benefit to the firm. And second, every time people do more than is expected, in a way, they rob the people below them of the chance to do the more challenging work they have hoarded. Therefore, the people below the overachievers will develop more slowly, with large competency gaps forming between the levels because they are not getting their fair share of challenging work.
The lack of constant delegation with proper monitoring of progress and leveraging training opportunities with that delegated work actually hurts a firm’s ability to fully develop people with all the expected competencies at every level. Many times, the people we put on a pedestal for their heroic work effort are the people who are making us money today, but are also creating a weaker firm tomorrow because of the way they hoard and manage their work. We regularly say, “The stronger the partner, the weaker the firm!” This is because the capabilities of others are not developed to back up that partner.
The fact is that, in many cases, our strongest workers, our workaholic workers, often create a weaker team around them because they are willing to carry so much of the load. I am not suggesting that you don’t want strong partners and strong people throughout your firm. On the contrary, I am suggesting that you absolutely do want strong people. But just as franchise athletes learn when they are trying to build a championship team, while they can DO IT ALL, they won’t be a contender for the championship games until the strongest players take ownership of the fact that they need to work every day to make the players around them better, rather than only working on developing themselves, thereby creating a larger competency gap between them and their next teammate.
I hope these two articles help you think about why it is important to embrace the need to make it a firm-wide focus to push work down every day. If you do, you will find a world of opportunities opening up to your firm – talent, growth, retention, competencies, work/life balance, compensation and more. And if you don’t, you will find that with each passing year, while your title may go up, so likely will your work hours while your pay may flatten because you will be relegated to do more and more work beneath your level, which ultimately will take its toll on the long-term viability of your firm. This is an easy solution to embrace.
Change your life today. Start 2019 with the commitment to change your firm for the better forever! From all of us at Succession Institute, LLC, happy holidays!!