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Hello everyone and welcome again to the Growing Your Firm podcast. Today’s guest is Jim Bourke, managing director of advisory services at Withum. He also works with the AICPA as a conference co-chair and is a member of the board of directors of MJTC.

In this podcast, we talk about how Withum transitioned from only offering standard CPA services into becoming an advisory-focused firm. We’ll talk about how they managed to learn what their client’s additional needs are and how you could do the same thing at your own firm to offer the perfect advisory services for your clients.

In this episode of the Growing Your Firm Podcast, David Cristello and Jim Bourke discuss:

  • Why firms need to be concerned about automation
  • How advisory services can help you dodge that bullet
  • How Withum discovered which services to provide over lunch
  • Why firms need to get over the fear of asking their clients what they want, even if they can’t provide it
  • Strategies for how you can get additional non-accounting expertise into your firm for your advisory plans


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Getting Your Firm Into Advisory Services Successfully

Adding advisory services to your mix of offerings takes foresight. Each company seems to have a different definition of what advisory services mean to them and this leads to a lot of unclear ideas about which flavor your firm needs to lean into. I’m going to talk about how we did it at Withum, how you can do the same thing at your company, and why it’s so important for firms to get on board with advisory services within the next two years.

Advisory And Automation

Let’s start with the why first. The traditional services that CPAs offer, like audit, review, compilation, and tax services, they’re all changing fast. Many of these services have manual tasks that are at risk of automation. Now, let me be upfront and say that I don’t believe that machines are going to destroy the accounting profession. But it is going to transform how CPAs do their work.

Where a CPA firm can run into trouble is their products are only in these areas that are at risk of automation. So if you only do audits and tax compliance and no other services on top, like advisory, that is a risky position to be in. Even if your clients have a complex situation, eventually the technology is going to catch up.

CPAs will still need to check the final results and make sure the numbers are right, but if you want to continue to grow you’ll need to find a path to advisory services.

Advisory Services

I don’t want to put advisory services into a box and say that all firms need to have these advisory services. The reason is that every firm has a different mix of clients with different needs. A bad way to go about it is to look at your competition and see what they’re offering, then chase after getting those products into your mix. Your clients are not their clients.

The key questions to ask yourself are:

  • What do our clients currently trust us with?
  • What do our clients wish they could trust us with that we could offer?

Likely, as a CPA, you have clients who trust you with doing their taxes and performing audits and all the other usual CPA services. If your clients trust you for this kind of sensitive work, what else could they trust you to do? What services are they buying today from other providers that you could provide?

At Withum, one of our specialties is cybersecurity advisory. All of our clients use technology and cybersecurity impacts all of them. If they get hacked, it would cause all kinds of problems for their finances. Why couldn’t you bring in an outside expert to offer those services and leverage your client’s existing trust in you? That’s what we ended up doing. We brought in a vertical leader to help us address our client’s cybersecurity concerns.

Now, am I recommending that every firm jump into cybersecurity? No! We came to that form of advisory after doing a deep dive on our clients to find what they really needed. In fact, we talked to them directly about what else we could offer over lunch.

Our Luncheon

We invited a number of CEOs from our client base to have a luncheon with us. We serve a small niche, so many of them were also interested in talking with each other. We told them we wanted to pick their brains and discuss what we were leaving on the table as far as services went, with the exception of taxes.

The hook to get the CEOs to come in, besides free food, was the chance to meet with other CEOs. We told them who else was going to be present at the luncheon and there was a lot of interest in getting to meet other players in our niche.

At the luncheon, we told them that we were interested in transforming our firm. We wanted our company to remain relevant to their future and asked how we could do that. They were really happy to talk about their needs with us. Our clients did talk about the positives that we did provide, like with cashflow, expenses, payroll, and the like. But they also brought up cybersecurity and data analytics concerns.

Our clients told us exactly the kind of advisory services they needed. It really was that simple. But, following through on delivering what they want can be tough. When they brought up their concerns, we had to be up-front and say that we didn’t have that expertise right now internally but that we would look into it.

That’s a scary thing to say, to talk to your clients and say you can’t provide what they want. But if you don’t know their needs and where you can’t fulfill them, yet, then you can’t grow. We ended up acquiring a data analytics company near Washington DC and worked with their data scientists to come up with ways to do deep dives on our client’s data.

I’m not a data scientist, so I didn’t have the training to pull out the stories that our client’s data were saying and how they could improve their business operations to get a better bottom line. But with the acquisition, the firm could offer that service and our clients love it.

You might not be able to do an acquisition like that, but you could reach out to a company who can serve your client’s non-CPA needs and work out a deal to refer work or to hire one of their workers as a contractor.

The key to all this is going directly to your clients and asking what they want. If you want to offer a new product you need a client base that will buy it or it’s a waste of time and money developing the product.  So why wouldn’t go you straight to the clients who already trust you to see what more you could be doing? It makes perfect sense, yet so few firms are doing this.

And when you can gather your clients in a room and let them talk, you can learn all kinds of things. Clients love talking about themselves.

After the luncheon, we got together and brainstormed about what we heard and how we could address it. We viewed any changes we would have to make, like hiring or acquisition or outsourcing, as an investment in the future of the company. And given where we were at the time as a company, we knew we had to go all in on advisory to dodge the changes coming through automation. We even changed our tagline to put advisory services first.

At first, just to take advantage while interest is high, you might have to reach out to a company who can offer what your clients want and act as a middleman until you can get what you need. We would find cyber companies that were willing to work with our clients. That let us learn about the business and make connections that enabled us to do it ourselves later. In some cases, we’ve even absorbed companies into Withum whose members have never dreamed they could help with accounting.

We’ve been doing things like this for three years and we’re growing significantly over what we’ve done historically. It’s honestly off the charts. And I think every firm who wants to continue to grow in size and in relevancy over the next two years will also need to examine what advisory services they can offer that best fit their client’s needs.

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