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Lessons for Accounting Firms from the Dentist

Streamlining Workflow, Enhancing Client Service, and Boosting Profitability

Last week I was lying on my back with bright lights shining in my face, watching a television display of exotic marine life above my head with a dentist prodding around with sharp instruments and a drill inside my mouth. It was hardly the time to be thinking about accounting firms and workflow issues. But that’s what I was doing that morning. I know I need a life!

Thankfully it was all over and done in 45 minutes and there was very little pain, apart from the $350 bill at the end. I handed over my credit card and paid on the spot. The paperwork was incredibly simple and the cash flow positive to the dental surgery.

There is the first lesson for accounting firms. You can get paid as you provide a service. To do that you need to create the expectation that’s what will happen, and you need the resources to ensure billing and payment happens quickly and smoothly.

It also made me think what great value biller’s dentists are. I had absolutely no desire to calculate their average hourly rate of my time during my visit there. No desire to manage WIP or consider a write off and certainly no desire to stay there longer getting drilled to get better value for money for time spent. What a great model. You get paid a flat fee even if you are quick in service delivery.

As I left, the dentist told me that he didn’t need to see me for another year, and moments later his receptionist told me she would contact me again in a year’s time and even offered to book it in then and there…which I did and entered in my calendar on my mobile device. That’s another two simple lessons – make sure your customers know what is going to happen and create the expectation that they will continue doing business with you. This is the cornerstone of exceptional client service and opens the door to offering more diversified value-added services.

Something accountants and dentists share is business models based around a substantial amount of repeat business – annual checkups for dentists and sets of accounts and tax returns as well as business advisory engagements for accountants. Where dentists and accountants typically differ in their business models is how they organise their work.

Dentists schedule their work. They have a rolling annual cycle of patients who they contact and book appointments for. Dentists take control of the process. They don’t wait for their patients to contact them – probably because they know so many people will delay their visit. So, dentists send out reminder notes and then follow-up with phone calls. They have the right staff doing the right job at the right pay rate.

By resource scheduling dentists take control of their workflow. If they get too busy, they will delay a little when they contact patients. If work is slowing down a little, they will get their team on the phone and chase people up who they haven’t seen for a while. They manage their calendars to keep a continuous smooth even flow of work.

In contrast, many accountants allow their clients to take control of the process. They let them drop their work off when they want and consequently get overloaded with work thereby extending turnaround time and struggling to meet client expectations.

Many accounting firms I speak to do not know when it would suit the client to bring in their work because they have never asked them. Some clients are habitual in that the work comes in at the same time each year and they really do not worry too much about when it is done. Others have expectations that it will be done in a certain time. Some may prefer bringing in the work later in the financial year to better match their business commitments.

Workflow scheduling is like managing a checkerboard – your only have so many spaces and some tasks take up more than one space. How do you fill up the board given your resources? Maybe it is time to survey the clients and ask the workflow scheduling question!

Dentists manage their capacity very well and schedule work based on the urgency and priority of the patient. A large amount of the dentist’s diary will be filled up with non-urgent consultations booked three to four weeks ahead. The balance of the calendar will be left open for urgent and ongoing jobs.

This is a very simple system that accounting firms can consider using. Schedule your known work in advance. Budget the size of jobs and then divide that work into July jobs, August jobs etc based on the capacity of your team. Then you need to communicate this plan to your clients. When you do this, you will also need to leave spare capacity for the urgent work that you know will come in. You don’t know which clients it is going to be, but you do know that urgent work is going to occur.

When you do this your clients will have reasonable certainty. They will know when their compliance work is going to be done. And they will know that if they have urgent work needing to be done that you can get on to it quickly. You’ll provide timely service – just like dentists.

Why not take the dental challenge and improve your firm workflow, resource scheduling and client service?

If you would like to find out about my Strategy Enabled Program, contact me to book a complimentary 45-minute complimentary assessment to find out what your firm needs to streamline for success.

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Mark Holton

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