Client Assessments: The CAS Secret to Success
Client Advisory Services (CAS) is one of the fastest-growing practice areas for accounting firms. CAS teams go beyond traditional bookkeeping services to help business clients manage their financials, plan for the future, and achieve their long-term goals. This in-depth level of partnership adds significant value for businesses and creates a longer, recurring revenue stream for the firm. However, in order for that revenue to be profitable, the relationship needs to be priced appropriately for the higher level work being done. How can firms assure they price accurately? The client assessment.
One of the critical aspects of a successful CAS practice is conducting a thorough client assessment. Client assessments are a crucial tool that advisors use to better understand their clients' current financial situations, future needs, short and long-term goals, and risk tolerance. By conducting client assessments, advisors can provide more effective and personalized recommendations and demonstrate the value the partnership will bring to the business on an ongoing basis.
In this article, we will explore the importance of client assessments in CAS and how they help teams better understand their clients' needs and preferences.
What is a Client Assessment?
A client assessment is a process that CAS teams use to obtain information and data from a prospective client to inform pricing, identify value-added services, and determine if they are a right fit for the firm. The information gathered and used for client assessments varies widely in the industry, but typically high-level financials or tax returns are the minimum amounts of data needed.
Client assessments may involve the use of various assessment tools and software that help a CAS team analyze the client's financial data and identify opportunities where their expertise might be able to help. At the end of the assessment, information is presented to the client as a project proposal that includes the price and other key terms for the engagement.
Why are Client Assessments Important in CAS?
Client assessments are essential in CAS for several reasons. First, they help teams better understand their clients' needs and expectations. By gathering information about the client's financial situation, the team can provide more effective and personalized recommendations for things that need to be addressed, trends that deserve attention, and areas of opportunity for the client. This initial assessment essentially provides a roadmap for the engagement.
Additionally, a thoroughly run client assessment is essential to ensure the financial health of the CAS practice as a whole. While clients on the surface may think they are in one financial place, when the CAS team gets to work, they may find a completely different picture. The amount of work needed may be significantly higher than originally discussed. This puts the firm in the position of either a) having to do costly work for free or b) going back to the client with a much higher price tag than previously agreed upon, putting a damper on the relationship. A proper assessment at the onset helps prevent this situation.
Finally, client assessments help build trust with clients. Having a solid roadmap that is priced accurately helps to prevent the awkward situation of having to ask the client to pay more. By taking the time to understand their financial situation, CAS teams demonstrate that they care about the client's financial success and are invested in helping them achieve their financial objectives moving forward. This helps to build trust and strengthen the accountant-client relationship.
How to Conduct a Client Assessment in CAS
Conducting a client assessment involves several steps that vary greatly from team to team.
In general, however, here are the basic steps that CAS teams typically follow when conducting client assessments:
Gather Financial Information About the Client: Begin by gathering basic financial information about the client, such as their income, expenses, assets, and liabilities. You may want to look at income statements, balance sheets, cash flow reports, tax returns, or other pieces of financial data, depending on the needs of the client. The easier you can make this process for the potential client, the better. Tools like Strongbox make it possible to gather this information securely in a single click.
Review the Financial Information: Senior leaders should then review the financial data to assess the financial status of the business. Are the books clean and in order or is there work to do before you can even begin your services? Does the story the client tells match what’s in the books or do the numbers lead a different way?
Prepare and Share the Pricing Proposal: Based on what you uncover in the financial data, prepare a proposal for the client. Sharing data visualizations may be helpful for clients to relate to and understand what you’re telling them. Remember – not all clients will have financial backgrounds and may need some extra explanation, not just on what services you recommend for them but also why – and what benefits there will be as a result. Demonstrating expertise and value here will justify the price presented and make it much easier for a client to enthusiastically say yes.
Sign the Engagement Letter: Based on what gets discussed and agreed upon during the pricing proposal, prepare an engagement letter that encapsulates the responsibilities and obligations of both the CAS team and the client, including the price of the services being agreed to. It never hurts to include a clause or two about additional work that may need to be done and the hourly rate that will be billed – separate from the engagement. This way, if you do find skeletons in the closet that need to be addressed, you’re not pigeonholed into the original price and the client has advanced notice that additional costs may occur.
Review and Update the Assessment Regularly: Most likely, the engagement will involve some form of monthly reporting and/or check-in meetings. These touchpoints are not only crucial for delivering the promised results to the client, but they can also be useful to a) track the status of any goals or objectives identified in the assessment and b) identify opportunities for upselling (or even cross-selling to other teams at the firm.)
Best Practices for Conducting Client Assessments in CAS
The various steps for an assessment may change from firm to firm. Regardless of the process, there are some tips to ensure your assessments are setting up both the individual engagement and CAS practice for success. Here are some best practices that you can follow when conducting CAS client assessments:
Establish Clear Objectives: This tip is twofold. First, establish clear objectives with your team for the client assessment before beginning the process. This will help ensure that the assessment covers all relevant areas and provides the necessary information to make informed recommendations. And second, establish clear objectives with the prospective client. Understanding their ultimate goals makes sure that you keep your work and recommendations focused on helping them to achieve those objectives.
Use Standardized Tools: The reason CAS is such a growing, vibrant practice area for firms is because CAS has the ability to scale sustainably. At all stages of an engagement, standardized processes and tools will make growth accessible. This also applies to the assessment process. Tools like Strongbox not only provide a consistent output so that you can easily train your team on what to look at and where, but it also makes looking at detailed financials easy for you and the client. Utilizing tools that give you full financial information rather than relying on partial reports will ensure that your price is right, your client is happy, and your firm can grow.
Ask Open-Ended Questions: Encourage the client to provide detailed and informative responses with open-ended questions rather than yes or no responses. Not all clients are going to be financially savvy so they may think you mean X when really you mean Y. With open-ended questions, you get to hear what they are actually trying to accomplish and then can provide custom solutions to help them get there. Open-ended questions can also help you understand the client's thought process and decision-making style, which can be helpful in navigating the relationship over time.
Consider Non-Financial Factors: While they may be seeking help with the financial side of their business, not all clients have strictly financial goals. They may be looking for ways to provide better work-life balance to themselves and their team. They may be struggling with succession planning because of a troubled familial relationship. It can be easy to get lost in the numbers and forget to discuss the human side of their business that matters most to them. By knowing both the numbers and the story, you’ll be in a much stronger position to provide options and insights as an ongoing advisor.
By following these best practices, CAS advisors can conduct effective and thorough client assessments that start the client relationship off in a strong position where everyone benefits.
Save Your Practice Hours with Strongbox
Strongbox is the secret weapon to successful CAS client assessments. Potential clients can connect with a single click, giving you a standardized output in Excel that paints a complete financial picture right off the bat. You can use their real-time data, from cash flow analysis to KPIs to financial statements, all there to ensure an accurate price for the engagement and to prove your value by sharing actionable insights before any ink is signed.
Entrusted by the majority of the Top 25 firms, including the CAS team at Cherry Bekaert (read about their success), Strongbox integrates with the most used accounting systems and ERPs, from QuickBooks Online to Netsuite. With SOC 2 and GDPR compliance, customer data is kept safe and secure from beginning to end.
Contact our team today to find out how your firm can save hours in the data extraction and formatting process of your CAS client assessments.