Training and Retaining Accounting Firm Support Staff
When it comes to accounting firm staff, there’s a lot of glitz and glamour attached to recruiting bright young prospects out of college or grad school, or to luring seasoned stars away from competitors. At the same time, there’s probably a group within your firm that gets less attention and isn’t quite as high profile. These employees aren’t doing the presentations or scoring the big new clients. However, they’re doing something equally important: keeping your firm running smoothly day in and day out.
Your firm’s support staff handles a full range of duties and responsibilities, from the smallest duties like greeting team members and guests when they enter your offices, to the crucially big ones like making sure client invoices are processed and paid in a timely manner. A good administrative assistant or office manager is worth their weight in gold, so how can you make sure that you’re providing them the resources, including training, to keep them engaged and loyal to your firm?
Give them technology that works
It’s not fair to ask your support staff to spin gold from straw, and that’s what you’re doing when you don’t update their technology and force them to work with antiquated programs and devices. As technology continues to progress, there are plenty of different programs and support technologies that can make their jobs easier – from marketing automation to invoice tracking to fee financing. And, that’s in addition, of course, to making sure they have the proper computers, mobile phones (where applicable) and fast internet access to get the job done. For your up-and-coming support staff members, access to technology is a given.
According to Karbon, a workforce collaboration company, the digital natives in your workplace expect to have access to technology and are open to using it, helping others acclimate to it, and improving the way they work with it. When you use technology to make work better for your support staff, you’re also improving your firm as a whole, creating new efficiencies. As an example, implementing technology to offer fee financing to clients can make life easier for your support staff and be profitable to the firm as a whole. Fee financing is a method of payment in which the client is given an extended period to pay their whole balance, yet the firm receives its funds up front. Implementing technology to make this happen relieves your support staff of the annoyance of making collection calls, manually creating payment plans, and having uncomfortable conversations with clients. At the same time, it strengthens the client’s trust and relationship with the firm, potentially leading to additional business.
Create efficiencies in a thoughtful manner
Many times when business leaders use the phrase “Do more with less,” support staff team members know they’re the ones who’ll be taxed with the “doing more” part. In addition, can sometimes use short-sighted tactics like reducing back office staff to quickly effect cost savings, which can create stress and distrust. This approach, if unmitigated, can also lead to a loss of institutional and cultural knowledge.
According to BSMReview.com, an online journal dedicated to improving business services practices, a better approach to creating efficiencies is to “improve the speed of the tasks; remove human error and manual activity; and improve quality as well as reducing cost.” When you make these changes thoughtfully, you can create a win-win for your support staff. You’ll be able to implement technology and automate processes that reduce painstaking manual work, and you’ll be able to retain staff and engage their time in more productive and beneficial processes. When determining where to create efficiencies, look at processes that have the most impact – to customers and to your employees’ overall workday. These processes may include things like client onboarding or payment processing. Implementing a standardized onboarding processes or offering a client-facing payment portal can free up time for staff members and, at the same time, set clear expectations and create additional convenience for clients.
Cover their continuing education
You probably cover the costs and work hours for continuing education required to keep your CPAs current on their obligations to the field. However, your support team members may also have hours or expenses they need covered to stay in compliance with their obligations. Even something as small as renewing their notary stamp or encouraging a certification in their field (through professional organizations for human resources, public relations, administrative assistants, etc.) can show them that you value their work and professionalism, and go a long way toward their overall goodwill.
Give them chances to think about and work toward more innovative ideas and solutions
One of the most frustrating parts of working in a support role is the feeling that you are just taking orders and that you have no agency within the organization. While your support staff shouldn’t be involved in every decision, they should certainly have a voice when it comes to matters that affect their daily work. As an example, if you’re considering technology that might improve processes for them by reducing manual work when issuing invoices or receiving payment, allow them to have a representative that attends demos or collects feedback from the group. Your support team members may seem hesitant at first to offer up suggestions, but don’t take no for an answer. Instead, incorporate a spirit of feedback and innovation into the firm’s culture, so they feel that it’s both a responsibility and a privilege to weigh in on topics related to firm success.
Help them develop leadership skills
There are plenty of opportunities to grow within a firm that may not be apparent at first. While you may not give them the lead role on a client-facing project to start with, you can give your support team members the chance to take a leadership role on internal projects. For example, if you’re implementing new technology, give one of your support team stars the chance to work with the vendor and lead the implementation. When they take on this type of role, they’ll not only gain leadership skills, they’ll also be able to serve as a key advocate when introducing the technology to team members.
For example, when firms introduce services that allow online payment processing and fee financing, some staff members may feel concerned about whether automating these processes may make their jobs redundant. By having someone from the team play an integral role in rolling out the new technology, they’ll be able to explain how it works, grasp the nuances directly related to your business, and anticipate and respond to issues and concerns. In this way, everyone benefits from their knowledge, and you allow them some additional opportunities for professional development at the same time.
Give them the chance to grow with the client
Your support staff will often be in close touch with the client because they’re the ones interacting with their team members. They call to set up meetings; they send and process invoices; they manage the small, day-to-day interactions that typically go unnoticed.
If you have a support team member with a special interest and a good relationship with a client, see if there’s a way to involve them more in projects related to the client. If they have a nose for research and an interest in your biggest tech client, let them use a portion of their hours to support your accountants working the project. They may bring new eyes to the project and help you find additional ways to serve them. You may think this additional visibility for your team members makes it more likely that a client will poach them. But, on the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who knows and is loyal to your firm working on the client side as well?
Teach them cross-functionally
Just because someone isn’t in the accounting world, that doesn’t mean they can’t cross-train within the firm. It’s actually to your benefit to have your employees learn from each other. When an employee leaves the firm, they take with them valuable knowledge and information. In small firms in particular, this change can be painful, because the support staff members are likely wearing multiple hats. Cross-functional training can help your employees feel that they’re gaining valuable new skills and becoming more marketable. At the same time, your firm benefits because you have staff available to assist in the event that someone leaves the firm, moves to a different city or takes parental or medical leave. And, cross-training in the right way can give your team a morale boost as well. Forbes contributor and management consulting expert Chris Cancialosi believes that “cross-training gives employees a chance to build new relationships with people they might otherwise never have contact with.