How to Coach Your Accounting Clients to Self-Serve (While Growing Your Practice)

Chances are that there’s an opportunity for your clients to take on at least a little bit of their data entry or admin work. Here’s how to help your clients succeed with self-serve—while boosting your own productivity.

Three professional women talking over desk with laptop and financial documents

Are you looking for ways to increase profitability in your accounting firm? Who isn’t? Providing excellent client service is a great place to start. But excellent service doesn’t have to mean handling a client’s books from beginning to end. Incorporating self-service into your client accounting services can actually improve your client’s experience while benefiting your practice.

Thanks to technology, most people are used to serving themselves without any input or interaction from other people. For example, they likely visit ATMs, pump their gas, take advantage of self-service checkout at hotels, and order everything from groceries to theater tickets online. It’s the same for your small business clients.

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    What Does a Self-Service Business Model Look Like?

    Self-service doesn’t mean clients are left to their own devices. Instead, it’s about providing easy-to-use tools, training, and other resources that allow them to handle some of their own data entry and administrative work.

    In reality, most small business owners don’t want to pay their accountants for basic bookkeeping work they can easily handle themselves. However, they’re happy to pay for expert advice, tax planning and preparation, payroll services, cash flow management, and other services.

    In self-service accounting firms, accounting professionals help their clients get their books set up (or cleaned up), train them to maintain their bookkeeping and payroll, then provide monthly, quarterly, or annual financial statements and coaching.

    Many firms provide bookkeeping, accounting, and tax returns for an hourly rate. But a self-service business model focuses on delivering value by keeping accurate and up-to-date numbers, making tax season a breeze, providing wealth-building strategies for the business owner and their family, etc. And you charge a monthly retainer based on the outcome, not an hourly rate for performing tasks.

    Benefits of Self-Serve Accounting Clients

    Let’s look at some of the biggest benefits your accounting firm and your clients stand to gain from fostering a collaborative accounting model.

    Empowers Clients to Take Part in Their Business Finances

    Knowledge is power. It’s empowering to find information needed to make decisions or manage cash flow without relying on another person.

    While they’ll still rely on you for high-level guidance and strategic advice, teaching clients how to use their accounting software to record transactions, send invoices, and access their own client data helps them better understand their small business financials and build trust.

    Reduces the Need for Staff/Keeps Costs Low

    Using technology to provide your small business clients with self-service functionality means you don’t need to hire as many employees, so your operating costs will be lower.

    While you’ll need to invest in technology, it’s typically much cheaper than hiring employees, paying benefits, payroll taxes, workers’ compensation, providing office space and laptops, and other costs of hiring.

    Gives You More Time for High-Level Advisory and Consulting Work

    The value you bring to client relationships is more than knowing how to classify transactions or reconcile a bank account. Yet accountants spend hours of every day on these lower-level tasks, leaving little or no time for proactively helping clients work toward their goals.

    Leveraging technology and encouraging clients to handle their own administrative work gives you the capacity to work at a higher level.

    Improved Client Satisfaction

    According to research from Zendesk, 67% of customers prefer self-service over talking to someone on the phone.

    When clients know how to access their accounting data, they can figure out whether an invoice was paid, find out how much they paid for supplies last month, or quickly check their year-to-date budget to actual numbers, even outside your office hours.

    How to Coach Clients to Self-Serve

    If you’ve been in business for a while, your clients may have come to expect a full-service experience. Introducing self-service into your relationship takes careful planning.

    If you don’t implement your new solutions and processes correctly, clients may avoid them, and you won’t reap the full benefits. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you through the process.

    Understand the Client’s Journey and Common Pain Points

    If you neglect to consider how clients interact with your services, you’ll struggle to implement self-service in your client relationships.

    Gain an understanding of how customers work with your firm, focusing on the following factors:

    • What are the touch points—from onboarding through active service—that you want clients to be able to handle on their own?
    • What are the common pain points or obstacles they face while completing tasks or finding information?
    • When clients have a problem, what channels do they turn to first to resolve the issue?

    Select Tools That Are Easy to Use

    Not all accounting software platforms are alike. Some are designed for accounting professionals and use language accountants understand, while others use plain language geared toward customers. Take FreshBooks: it’s always kept its roots as an easy-to-use platform, and a lot of small business owners don’t even realize they’re doing accounting when they use it.

    Ensure any tax software, secure file sharing app, document management tool, mobile app, or client portal you expect your client to use is designed with the client experience in mind. If the technology isn’t user-friendly, clients simply won’t use it.

    Automate Simple Actions

    You’re not interested in spending hours recording and classifying expenses or following up on invoices, and neither are your clients. Help them handle their bookkeeping and admin work by automating simple actions.

    For example, FreshBooks can automate payment reminders, securely charge customer credit cards, automatically calculate sales taxes, track inventory billed on invoices, and connect to the client’s bank account or credit card to track and auto-categorize business expenses. These basic automation save time your clients can spend growing their small businesses.

    Provide Training During Onboarding

    Ensure your clients have the information they need to be successful by providing training during the onboarding process and when they hire a new employee. Self-service education must be proactive, and providing training and resources before problems arise increases trust and buy-in.

    Offer Ongoing Resources

    When your clients have a question or problem, where can they go to find a solution quickly? Share your knowledge on your firm’s website, newsletter, or other client communication channels. Write white papers answering common questions, or create a knowledge base of frequently asked questions.

    Speak the Same Language as Your Customers

    Try to speak your client’s language, whether you’re providing training, answering questions over the phone or email, or sharing resources. Don’t point them to highly complex and technical content that confuses them or assume they have the same knowledge of accounting as you.

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    Learn and Evolve as Your Business (And Your Clients) Grow

    The easiest way to encourage self-service is to build a system that truly benefits the client. Make it easy for them to answer their own questions and solve their own problems, but also make it easy to reach you if the issue is more complex or they need personal assistance.

    Remember that excellent client service never stops. Technology and client expectations are always moving forward, so continually look for ways to improve your processes and resources to offer a better experience.

    Get Help From the Accounting Community

    There isn’t a one size fits all solution to helping your clients and you might find that you need a little support yourself along the way. Through the FreshBooks Accounting Partner Program, you can join a peer network and connect with other professionals for their tips and tricks on managing client services.

    It’s worth noting that Partners also get access to a library of on-demand training and dedicated support from Accounting Specialists if you need more technical assistance.

    Janet Berry-Johnson

    Written by Janet Berry-Johnson, CPA and Freelance Contributor

    Posted on September 12, 2022