Being Intentional In Your Modern Firm

Twyla Verhelst, CPA, and Kristen Keats, CPA, join the show to discuss what it means to be "intentional" in your firm. From the sort of clients you want, to your firm's values, to the staff that you aim to recruit, being intentional can make a big impact. Learn how to define your ideal client "avatar," select the right technology, figure out what you really want from your business, and more.

Blake: Hi folks. I'm your host Blake Oliver, and welcome to the second episode of the Earmark Podcast. This episode is sponsored by FreshBooks. Thank you so much to FreshBooks for helping to make it happen. By it, I mean this wonderful discussion with Twyla and Kristen. It opened up my eyes to a new, more intentional way of looking at my firm's values, and how those values impact the type of clients and staff I attract as an accounting professional.

I hope you learn something valuable. If you do, wouldn't it be nice to get some CPE credit for your trouble? Soon you'll be able to do just that, and for free. I'm talking about free CPE credits for listening to podcasts. I'm building an app called Earmark CPE that will get you free CPE credit for listening to this show, and many more accounting and tax podcasts. If that sounds good to you, visit EarmarkCPE.com, enter your email address, and I'll let you know as soon as the app is available, coming soon to Android and iOS. Now, onto the show.

Kristen Keats: What was I thinking? I was thinking of — because I do think that we can do things better. Here's my big vision, and you want to talk about scaling; you want to talk about my big vision ... My big vision is that any of our what we call our client service managers here in the U.S., I would like those people to be working 32 hours a week. I would like to have—

Blake: Hold on, hold on. I think we need to repeat that because that is not standard—

Kristen Keats: 32 hours a week including during tax season. I think we can do it. No, this is what I'm saying. I don't just want to have a tax firm. I want to really change, and we can do it because here's how we're going to do it ...

Blake: As an accountant, there's no way around it. You need to collaborate with your clients and that can become pretty complex. Imagine if you could provide them with a platform that's intuitive, and easy to use. That's where FreshBooks comes in. FreshBooks is not only built for owners, but also for accountants to work with owners. You'll feel right at home with features like bank feeds, financial reporting, journal entries, and an easy-to-use interface.

They also offer one-on-one onboarding for you and your clients. If you're concerned about getting to know a new piece of technology, don't fret. They have a new certification training program for accounting professionals that will make you an expert in no time. Visit FreshBooks.com/accountants to become a FreshBooks Accounting Partner or sign up to their newsletter to learn more. Work better together with FreshBooks.

I am very excited to be speaking today with two of my favorite accountants, CPAs ... Twyla Verhelst, CPA. She is the head of FreshBooks Accountant Channel and the leader of the Accounting Partner program, as well as the creator of the Women in Accounting Mentorship program. Welcome to the show, Twyla.

Twyla Verhelst: Thanks, Blake. Thanks for having me, and what an honor to be one of your favorite accountants, along with Kristen. I feel so humbled and honored.

Blake: Also joining us is Kristen Keats. She is the owner of Sherwood Tax and Accounting, the founder and chief executive at Breakaway Bookkeeping & Advising. Kristen, thanks for joining us.

Kristen Keats: Thank you, Blake. Again, yeah, I'm in good company, so thank you for having me.

Blake: We accountants and bookkeepers can learn a lot from each other. The idea is to have a conversation, and we're going to talk about ways that we as firm owners, advisors, anyone who works with clients to actually help them be better, not just complete a tax return, not just get a trial balance put together, but actually help our clients grow their businesses — today's topic is being intentional in your modern firm. Twyla, what does it mean to be intentional in your firm?

Twyla Verhelst: Perhaps we should start with what it means to be unintentional, which really is what we hear a lot. I've felt it a lot as a firm owner myself where we didn't necessarily have this clearly carved path as to where we were going and ended up in certain spots by accident. I think that's a lot of people's journey is they end up in a certain spot by accident, or they start working with a particular type of client by happenstance. It wasn't intentional. The idea of being intentional is flipping that on its head and saying, “Where do I want to go? What do I want to do? What do I want to build in my practice?” and carving that out in a very mindful way instead of an accidental way.

Blake: That's how I started my practice. It was my father-in-law knows a CPA who has some clients that happen to need some bookkeeping help. They were all kinds of clients — a film composer; a physical therapist; a real estate developer, what have you, right? Suddenly, I had just had this massive list of clients that had nothing to do with each other.

Twyla Verhelst: You're not alone. Whether it's different types of clients, or types of services that you're offering, or the team that you're building that — again, you just started to build your team, and said, “I need some help,” and you just hired somebody that could give you immediate help, but it wasn't very well thought out and well designed to get you to where you want to be as a firm owner.

I think that's the idea that we're talking about today is how do we take all that we know from experts in this industry that we love, some who have done it by accident, but created some great playbooks, or are willing to share their story that we can learn from their mistakes, or things that they didn't do well, and put that into what is it that we want to do now? It doesn't even mean you need to be at the start of your journey. It could be now is the moment — at this stage, post-tax season — to say, “What do I really want here, and how can I be intentional moving forward?”

Blake: Well, we're lucky because we actually have Kristen Keats here, and she's running a firm right now; recently purchased a firm. Was that intentional?

Kristen Keats: Ha, ha, ha. Depends on the day that you ask me. Yes, ultimately it was intentional, and it's interesting listening to you guys talk because I feel like with the two businesses I have, we have done both things. At Breakaway, we're starting from scratch without a client base. We've put that out to our advisors — because they're building their own book of clients — to make sure that they are intentional. Part of what we do with Breakaway is we have this Marketing and More. Every week we cover different topics.

One of the topics one week was creating your client avatar and getting really specific about who that client avatar is — female, age, income bracket, type of business. Not just a matter of picking a niche or something like that, which is important, if you wanted to have an industry niche, but also what does that whole client avatar look? That's really different from acquiring a firm. I acquired Sherwood Tax about a year ago. Then, of course, I purchased a book of business that was somebody else's client base who may or may not have been intentional about their client base.

Blake: Most likely not intentional.

Kristen Keats: Yeah, right, exactly. Now, I'm in your boat, Blake, where you jump in, and you look around, and you’re like, “Is this the clients that I want to have?” Even with that, we have a very specific plan, after October 15, to go through that client list with a really fine-tooth comb and make sure that these are the people we want to be serving; this is the people who embrace our methodologies, and value our services.

Blake: Breakaway is building practices from scratch. That's where you work with advisors who want to build a practice, and you help them get the clients, and set them up on the process, and the tech, and all that?

Kristen Keats: Yep, you got it. We just provide all the resources for someone to have their own practice.

Blake: That can be very intentional because it's been designed from the ground up to help people do that. Sherwood Tax is the firm that just acquired this other firm.

Kristen Keats: Correct.

Blake: That is ... Well, you're just trying to survive until after the deadline, and then you're going to — you have a pretty short time frame to implement all those new systems, right?

Kristen Keats: Oh, yeah.

Blake: What are you tackling first? What's the situation on the ground there? When you walk in—

Kristen Keats: It's surprisingly easy, Blake, for a lot of them because it's people that don't pay us; like literally don't pay us. We actually keep a — I was calling it the naughty list. A few people thought that was too negative, we have — we call it the Shine Elsewhere list of our clients that we don't think are a good fit for the firm anymore. These are people like, if you get yelled at by a client, if they're nasty to you ... Like I said, the easy part is that part, and then we'll get more difficult from there. There's a lot of this in this firm that I found, like, “Oh, he's such a great guy.” They literally haven't paid us in the year, or they literally never give us their stuff on time.

Blake: They haven't paid. Those are obviously the first clients to go after. Why have they not paid?

Kristen Keats: That's a great ... Do you want to talk about processes, like how is this even happening?

Blake: Yeah, because we're talking about being intentional, and part of that is setting up your processes so that your firm isn't a total mess—

Kristen Keats: Charity?

Blake: Yes, charity. Charity is very good. Yeah, so we don't want to be a not for profit. We want to be a for-profit firm. The client's not paying. That's obviously something that's top of mind for you.

Kristen Keats: In my ideal world, every new client that I sign up, I tell them I price the relationship. I'm saying, “You're paying a monthly fee to have access to our team, to call us whenever you want. Yes, we get the tax return done, but that means you get planning ...” I'm selling the full-meal deal, right?

The clients that I inherited, we get tons of checks in the mail. I'm like, “What is this?” We invoice them through Xero. Some of them, either an automatic invoice goes out through Xero, or we get the return done, and send out an invoice. It has a payment link. It couldn't be easier, right? Yet, checks come in the mail. I have a Relay account. I’m not set up for this at all, so those are the ones, too, that I [INAUDIBLE 10:35] just change.

Blake: The old practice, the legacy practice was billing clients in arrears. Clients were sending checks. You have switched them to, now, they're paying every month, monthly subscription, or ...?

Kristen Keats: We’re in the process of switching—

Blake: In the process. Okay, but that's your intent, right?

Kristen Keats: That's my intention. Yes.

Blake: That's one way that you're modernizing this practice. How are the clients responding to it? Are they pushing back? Is it good? Are you signing them up for recurring credit-card payments? How do you do it?

Kristen Keats: For the most part, I will say the prior firm owner had started to have these conversations before she left, so that was good. They kind of already — it’s not like, “Oh, this new person is coming in and doing this thing that I never heard of.” That was good that some of the conversations had been teed up. There are some that have dug in their heels. There's a couple that actually accepted on Practice Ignition, but they refuse to pay through Practice Ignition; some weird things that we're having to deal with.

Honestly, I'm at the point where we're so busy, we're just — like you said, we're just trying to survive through this deadline, so I'm going to be really just ruthless about our processes because we can't take it. We don't have the staff. I'm literally looking for two to three full-time positions right now. We can’t handle it. Yeah, we're just going to pair it up.

Blake: If you're listening, and you're looking for a job, go into the show notes and connect with Kristen. She’s hiring.

Kristen Keats: Please contact me! Anyone who's listening to this podcast, I just feel like you're our people, so come on down. Let's talk.

Blake: That's one obvious way to be more intentional is change the way you bill your clients. In this cloud accounting world of CAAS practices, practices that are doing modern bookkeeping in the cloud, we have embraced this, this monthly subscription model. Not that many, though, practices in the whole space of our profession are doing it. I just saw a survey that showed that something like close to 60 percent of firms are still billing in arrears and only after they’ve filed the tax return. I always wondered how do you actually get people to pay once you've already done the ...?

Kristen Keats: Yeah, we don't do that. We do collect payment, unless it's some of them that really go down to the wire, and it's a judgment call about whether to file that return on the extended due date, but for the most part, that's in our process flow — make sure we receive payment.

Blake: We've got process. That's one example of a process; doesn't even really need a ton of technology to do it, although you are using Practice Ignition proposal software. You mentioned you're using Relay for banking. Just easier ways to facilitate that process. What are some other ways that we can be more intentional in our firms?

Twyla Verhelst: You did touch on niching (neeshing), or niching (nitching), depending on where you're from. I think that niching is important, and I don't necessarily think that it's just about industry. I think it can be about type of client, where they're at in their process of being a business owner — are they new? Are they scaling? Are they international? Also, the types of owners that you work with. Kristen, you talked about identifying your avatar. I would love to hear, and I'm sure others are the same, what have you identified as your ideal avatar because your avatar can be your niche, as well?

Blake: What is the avatar? I used to play a lot of video games, and in old RPG games, your avatar was your character that you played in the game. Does it have anything to do with that?

Kristen Keats: I think in a way it does. I think we use that word because it's like you want to be very specific. Blake, if you think about your game avatar, the color of the hair, and the clothes that they wear, and you could maybe even design their outfits or something like that, from a client perspective, mine's probably too general.

I think about Michelle Lopez, one of our advisors. She's very specific. She wants a woman-owned business. She is looking for people under 40 that have started within the last five years and have under $10 million in revenue. She's gotten pretty specific, and she wants them to have kids. She's really specific about what she wants that to look like.

I'm not specific. I'm more about aligning with values. I'm thinking about one of my really good clients that I appreciate. He actually is an executive coach. I can tell that his values align with ours, and he has the same goals, and ideas for his business that we have for ours. Those are really my ideal clients because then I know that we're going to see eye to eye, and he'll get it. He'll understand when I say, “Hey, Dave, you know what? I really need you to do this payment through Practice Ignition because it helps our workflow.” He's like, “Yeah, totally get it. I'm in.” Those are the people that I want.

Blake: That's interesting because most of the time when we think niche (nitch), or niche (neesh), we think about industry revenue, location, all those — I wouldn't call them personal ways of categorizing our clients, but you're saying that we can niche by the values our clients have. What do you mean by values? Give me some examples of values.

Kristen Keats: One of our core values in Breakaway is radical honesty. That means we say stuff even when it's hard, even when it's not comfortable to say stuff, because we have that trust with each other and with our clients that we can just talk about really hard things. That's something that, if the client just wants me to blow smoke at them all the time, it's not going to be a good fit.

Blake: Not a good client.

Kristen Keats: Doesn't fit my personality. It's not ever going to work. It doesn't work with our culture. That's just not going to work. That's why we're really clear about, on our website, and in any of our client communications, about what our core values are. We're super clear about it. We talk about it all the time. It's not just like our core values just live on our website. Literally, we make decisions all the time through the lens of our mission and our core values.

Blake: You mean it's not just some activity you do and then ignore the rest of the time when you run your firm?

Kristen Keats: Right. I've worked at those firms, and it's frustrating. It's like what is the point of all this because you say that integrity is a core value, which I think is dumb because shouldn't integrity be everybody's core value? Then, you see the decisions that are made, and you're like I guess it's not really a core value.

Blake: Yeah, our core value is realization and utilization—

Kristen Keats: That would have been more genuine, yeah—

Blake: I would like to see a traditional firm actually put that on their site. Actually, I worked for a firm where one of our four pillars, core values, was “Firm first.”

Kristen Keats: Wow.

Blake: It took me a long time to process that and realize just how messed up that is that it's not client first. It’s not do what's best for the client, it's do what's best for the firm. To their credit, that was actually what we did—

Kristen Keats: Well, they're living their values then, right?

Blake: Yes, we were encouraged to do that.

Kristen Keats: Partners first. Firm partners first!

Blake: That would have been more honest — partners first, yes.

Kristen Keats: Then clients; then employees; then community, maybe, if we have time.

Twyla Verhelst: If you think about an avatar, I was not a gamer, but my brother was, so I got glimpses of the gaming life through him — an avatar, I think, isn't just the color of their hair, and the shirt that they wear, but it's also their superpowers. What can that avatar do that others can't do?

Kristen Keats: Oh, that’s a good one, Twyla.

Twyla Verhelst: if you think about the superpowers relating to something that differentiates them as a business owner, that's where the values become important. It's not just the widget that they produce or the service that they provide as a business owner that identifies them as being the right business, or client for you; it's that superpower, that core value.

I think it's going to be really tough to identify the core value, or the superpower that you're looking for in that avatar, if you aren't super clear on your own core values, and you don't live those core values. Without that, you're just shooting in the dark as to who you think it is that aligns with you. I think that's an exercise in itself that's very intentional with thinking about: who are we as a firm? What are our core values? Then, who do we want to work with? What are their core values? Likely, it’s core values that align with one another.

Blake: Kristen, one of the changes you're making at the firm you've acquired is that you are changing where the work is being done. You're going to use outsourcing to an office in Mexico. Is that right?

Kristen Keats: Yes, correct. We have staff in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Blake: How do you get the clients on board with that? Is that a values thing? Some clients are going to be okay with it; some aren't? How do you ...?

Kristen Keats: It's really interesting. Again, because we are all about transparency, we don't just say we work with an offshore team. No, we work with Raul, and Julia, and Lisbeth, and they're on our website, and we're super clear about it. We don't ever try to hide it. This is the first year, though, from a tax perspective — because when you send tax work over there, we have to get consents from all the clients.

So far, it's just been something, on the business taxes, we can just bake it into our engagement letter, and we just have the disclosure in there, but for individual taxes, you really have to get an increased level of disclosure, so we're going to have to really be having a conversation with pretty much all of our clients this year about working with this team.

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Blake: You know what an ideal client is. They've accurately issued their invoices on time, kept track of every expense, and electronically saved, and organized all of their receipts, but that's not always realistic. Clients are busy. They're running empires big and small with a thousand more pressing matters than keeping track of their finances. Some might even do a pretty good job at it, but they get intimidated by the software that many accountants use. Let's be honest, sometimes the tech we use doesn't always set them up for success. Accountant Megan Justice of Crayon Advisory knows this all too well. In her experience:

Megan Justice: Clients who don't do their accounting, a lot of times, they don't do it because they're intimidated by the software.

Blake: That's where FreshBooks comes in. Thanks to FreshBooks’ award-winning support and intuitive interface, FreshBooks is already a favorite for small business owners who need an easy way to manage their finances. It's built for owners, after all, but here's the kicker — it's also built for accountants to work with owners. Megan Justice says:

Megan Justice: It's very intentionally designed and accessible for people of different neurotypes to really see what they need, and for me, as an accountant, to be able to train them.

Blake: The team at FreshBooks has spent countless hours working with accounting professionals like Megan to get this right. They've drilled down to every detail, and it's only the beginning. They're constantly listening to their users and introducing new product features. Through dedicated support, FreshBooks will have you feeling right at home with bank feeds, financial reporting, journal entries, and an easy-to-use interface. They can even set you up with one-on-one onboarding for you and your clients. If you're concerned about getting to know a new piece of technology, don't fret. They have a certification training program for accounting professionals, so you can feel like an expert in no time. As Megan says:

Megan Justice: It's not just software. FreshBooks cares about the actual people using it, and that comes through in everything they do.

Blake: Visit FreshBooks.com/accountants to become A FreshBooks Accounting Partner or sign up to their newsletter to learn more. Work better together with FreshBooks.

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Blake: Well, that's very different than the way I've seen it done in other firms, where they don't really disclose the outsourcing is happening. They obfuscate that, and a lot of clients have no clue because it's just buried in their engagement letter somewhere, so your value—

Kristen Keats: Right. It’s funny because I think about, all the time, if you remember a couple of years ago, with the one of the firms that said the bots were doing the work, but it was actually the offshore team. I’m just like, “That is the worst ...” First of all, it's terrible PR because it's always going to come out. The information always comes out one way or another, so it looks terrible for you, but how does that make your team feel? How does it make these humans that work for you that happen to live in another country feel, if you're just not talking about them, or you're not ...? When they are critical to ... They’re critical to our whole business model.

Blake: It's literally dehumanizing.

Kristen Keats: Literally, yes. That’s right.

Blake: When you call — when you hide them behind tech and say that it's automation technology.

Kristen Keats: Yeah. That was the opposite of however I ever wanted to be. With Breakaway, we work with a team in India. Same thing. I've been really clear about that. We have a YouTube Channel for Breakaway. I had a whole YouTube video that I talk about why we work with an India team, who the India team is, and how we set that all up.

Blake: We've got the human element there. Your philosophy is, or your value is transparency, and so, you're clear about that with your clients, which I think most clients would like honesty and transparency. What about the tech? You've got proposal software. You've got cloud-based accounting. Twyla, maybe this is a good one for you — what areas of technology should we be looking at and intentionally looking at? Do you have any tips for how accountants can be more intentional when it comes to tech?

Twyla Verhelst: Yeah. First, and foremost, it is being intentional; actually being mindful about the technology that you use. I've been guilty of, prior to joining FreshBooks and having our own firm, we get guilty of chasing the tech, meaning that, “Oh, that's really interesting. Maybe I need that, or this person is using this technology. I should start using that.” There's a lot of technology coming our directions, and it can be very distracting.

You should utilize tech to create these workflows, and create these client experiences, and ladder up to your core values, but don't always be chasing the tech because that's not comfortable for yourself, your team, or your clients. Then, it's actually then being mindful about what technology you do need not just for yourself and your team but for this client experience that you're creating. I think that even comes back to thinking about your core values, thinking about where you want to be as a firm, what services are you offering, what services are you delivering?

Maybe the offering is tax returns, or financial statements, but then what services are you delivering through advisory, or other consulting, and what tech do you need in order to enable that, enable your team, and importantly, enable your client to do their best work as well, because we all know you can't do any of this work — tax return through to advisory — if your client needs to do a piece of the workflow, and they're stuck doing their piece of the workflow.

That's where the intention comes in around looking at the full picture of yourself, your team, and your clients; not being “firm first” all the time, but rather thinking holistically, and the tech plays a big part of that because these services that we're offering need technology. If you want to work with a team, this outsourced team, you need technology, and you need technology you can count on, but your clients, who are also an outsourced part of your team, also need good technology.

Blake: You're telling me that I shouldn't just be looking at tech from an efficiency standpoint — how many hours it's going to save me. I like what you said about client experience. Tell me more what you mean about focusing on client experience, and Kristen, as the owner of multiple businesses with client experiences, perhaps you could also give us your take on that.

Twyla Verhelst: For us, inside of our firm, I would say, in retrospect, that there were times that we weren't as intentional as we could have been, now, in hindsight. One of those times was how quickly we did change some technology and the impact that that had on our clients, and especially our team because we like to move at rapid-fire pace to change technology to create better efficiencies.

We had a really huge learning when we grabbed on to this this idea of creating a client experience that your clients can't live without. That became our motto inside of our firm, when one of our clients, who was referring other people to us, we asked them, “What are you saying to them that's getting them to come to us?” They said, “I don't really know what it is that you do, but I can't live without you.”

It was creating this client experience that a client can't live without. That became part of our core values; everything laddered up to that. Then, the technology was a piece of that because if you give them bad technology that doesn't suit them, how do you create that experience? It's a friction point.

Blake: Wait, step back for a second. You're telling me that your client experience was good that you had a client that said they can't live without you? That doesn't sound like the way most firms interact with clients. We need all the details. What were you doing that was so miraculous with this client?

Twyla Verhelst: I will share that we were doing this “advisory,” and I say that with air quotes because it's such a term that gets thrown around so loosely, and so vaguely at times, but we were doing that advisory work, perhaps ahead of a lot of the curve of accounting, and we didn't even really believe it. We were quite detached from the industry at large. It was our Xero business development manager that said to us, “You're doing what other people are trying to do.” We basically said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever ... We're doing what works for us and our clients.”

At the time, we were creating that advisory experience, where it was a flat monthly fee. We handle as much of the workload as we possibly can. Invoicing was always that spot where it's really challenging to do invoicing on their behalf because you're not in their business, day to day, but we tried to do everything else — just take away that stressor from them, so that they could run their business. That's what then created that experience because they know we're in the driver's seat of running their business.

They knew that all of the other things needed to be handled, but they also knew they were being handled. That gave them that assurance that it was being handled. We met with them at least monthly, sometimes weekly, depending on what they were going through in their business. Were they going through rapid change? Were they scaling their firm? Were they starting a new line of business?

We met with them regularly and talked to them in a very human, business-owner type language that allowed them to get insights into their financials that they just hadn't seen before. They had done the one-and-done tax return. “Here's your taxes. Here's what you owe. You should’ve leased that piece of equipment instead of bought it. See you next year.” Instead, it was a very interactive approach, and more of a partnership where we wanted them to connect with us and reach out to us regularly.

It set us up for a spot where we became really personal with them. My business partner had this philosophy of, “They won't fire your friends.” Business owners won't fire their friends,” so if you're in a relationship with them, and they feel like you're a friend to them, they'll struggle to fire you. Then, on top of that, it's more that you're their business partner and they need you. That was what we strived to deliver to all of our clients once we heard that line.

Blake: You answered the question I had in my mind which was, was that intentional, or are you, and your business partner just great people, so you actually cared about your clients? Creating a relationship was intentional.

Twyla Verhelst: Creating a relationship was intentional, but there were certainly parts of that that happened in a successful accident, in terms of how did we deliver it? We did some things that weren't intentional that didn't always go as well. That was one that worked in our favor, and we developed a type of firm, and offering to our clients that they really valued. Then, they started to refer more clients to us that were just likeminded; people refer people that are like themselves. That's how we grew our firm was through those relationships that then referred us to other people. There was some intention in there.

In hindsight, if we'd caught it sooner, or learned that sooner, or realized that's what we were wanting to create, then we could have probably saved ourselves some time, and some effort, and some clients, who didn't get that experience, that didn't necessarily keep working with us because we weren't delivering what they wanted, and they didn't see the value in it, and we weren't the cheapest accounting firm in town, so we just didn't align. I think some intention before that — that's where I think there are so many great people in this industry who are willing to share. It's like, darn it, learn from everyone else's mistakes, and go in with intention, and take that time to set yourself up for success.

Blake: This doesn't mean that every firm has to become like your firm was, where you have these super deep relationships. Some clients want that, but others don't. I see plenty of firms who have found a niche just doing the compliance work, or the transactional type of work, but just doing it really well, and really efficiently, and really transparently, so that — certain clients just want that. They just want a tax return done. They don't want the advice. Understanding what your clients want and getting those clients is really critical to building that great customer experience.

Twyla Verhelst: Absolutely. I think one of the things that's not great in our industry is that there's pressure to become the type of firm that somebody shares that they are. Definitely don't expect everybody to want to be the type of firm that we had. Rather, if you want to do compliance work, or do tax returns, and do great work there, just be really intentional about that then—

Blake: Right, right.

Twyla Verhelst: Don't get distracted by the people who say, “But you should be doing advisory.” It's like, no, I've got a clearly carved path here, and a very successful firm creating a really great client experience for the clients who want compliance, and tax returns.

Blake: I love that. Advisory, like you said, it's such a vague term, but it often gets confused with or conflated with this: “I have to have five clients instead of 500, and I have to be their personal CFO,” which just isn't realistic for all of us. Not all of us have those skills. We don't all want to do that kind of work. For us to be told to go copy that is silly. I guess this whole episode is making me more intentional about thinking about what is it that our customers, or clients want? That's the core of it. Or is it something else — intentional about our firm, intentional about our clients?

Oh, we haven't talked about staff. Kristen, you're recruiting. You are hiring — reminder to everyone, Kristen is hiring, and she's recruiting, for Breakaway, advisors. How are you intentional about bringing people into your firm — because we all probably agree that's even more important than the clients, since clients can come and go, but staff, man, that’s—

Kristen Keats: My philosophy is that if you have the right people, and you treat them the right way, then the clients will come, and the clients will be happy. It's funny, I was just sending out recruiting emails today. My strategy has been — because there's so much noise out there with recruiting — I'm trying to just do it in a way that's different, and I think we are different, so I'm just trying to get out there with my megaphone and just like, “I'm different. I promise you; I really mean it. I'm just not saying the bullshit of work/life balance. I really do mean it!” I just try to grab them by saying, “I'm going to change this industry and I need partners to change it with me.”

I literally put our five core values for Sherwood Tax that we're recruiting for — I put our five core values in that email, and I just put everything out there that we are. If this sounds good to you, and if you're up for the challenge — I don't try to sugarcoat it and say we're there now because we're not there now. I say, “If you want to help me build this, and if you want to change this industry, get on board.” Breakaway is similar. We're recruiting for advisors that really want to start their own business, but we do a similar thing, where we're real clear about our values. When Martin, and I, my partner Martin, and I are really interviewing people as they come through, we're very clear about all that, too.

Blake: You have to be very intentional about the type of people going into Breakaway, which is” I want to own my own book of business, versus the staff for Sherwood, where I want to—

Kristen Keats: It’s totally different. As part of Breakaway, as part of the application process, you need to submit a business plan because we don't just want everybody. We want somebody who's going to be successful. We don't want to set people up for failure, so they need to map that on their own and make sure that this is going to be a viable thing for them to have their own business.

Blake: Going back to the technology discussion, I have mixed feelings about tech these days—

Kristen Keats: Same.

Blake: I've been living it for a long time. There are more apps than ever, and one of the top complaints I hear is: “My team is tired of all the apps.”

Kristen Keats: App fatigue is real.

Blake: App fatigue. My clients also — and I experienced this myself in my own practice — would complain that they didn't know where to go to find what I wanted them to do. They probably had four or five different systems that they had logins too, and they would forget. What I ultimately ended up doing was trying to, at least on the client side, hide the apps from them, and just let them talk to the team, and then we would manage it for them. Twyla, in your role at FreshBooks, you are actively persuading accountants to utilize FreshBooks. How do you get around this app-fatigue question? They don't want new stuff, right?

Twyla Verhelst: You know, what I’ll say first ... I’m going to stop you with I don’t persuade anybody. I'd like to think that I inspire, or educate, but it's not a game of persuasion, or convincing, or defending. I want people to be able to make informed decisions that are intentional. I even go back to the theme of this whole conversation. Those core values you develop as a firm — search out technology that also aligns with those core values because that's also going to help you ladder up to the entire ecosystem, and the team, and the client base that you're trying to create.

Like you said, there's app fatigue. We've got so many apps in this ecosystem. Be choosy, and choosy just isn't always just about, “Will the tech do this, this, and this? Yes, let's move forward.” It's about getting an alignment with that technology company; what they're up to, where they're going. Are they contributing to the evolution of the industry, not just with what they say, but in their actions? I think all of that is super important that, often, we're not intentional about.

We, again, go back to designing the workflow, and the tech stack that we think our clients need. Keyword: “We think our clients need,” and that we think is going to gain the most efficiencies, but that may or may not serve you well. I think there's a lot of opportunity for you to have real conversations with your tech companies that may or may not be serving your needs and make sure that they are going to be part of your team. They should be in partnership with you, not just here's their tech, go use it—

Kristen Keats: There are some companies that don't necessarily want to have conversations with us — I'm just going to say that — some really, really large tech companies that don't want to have conversations with us.

Blake: That's a problem because—

Kristen Keats: It’s a problem.

Blake: Just like with us, if we're not talking with our clients, then we don't know what's going on. We don't know what they want. We don't know their hopes, and dreams, and how to create a great client experience for them. If tech companies don't talk to their accounting partners, then they don't know what we need. I have seen some really great companies just be totally tone deaf when it comes to one little feature that would make all the difference here in the United States, but the company is headquartered somewhere else in the world, and they just don't understand that that is a deal breaker for people, even though it would take a week of some developer’s time to solve and would open up a whole market.

I'm sure there's plenty of things like that in our firms, where if we just talked to our clients more — software companies do this, where you do client customer interviews, and you ask your customers, “What do you love about this? What do you not? What do you want? What features should I build?” Then, you go, and you do that with dozens of customers, and then you catalog that, and you try to figure out what are we missing?

That could be something intentional that we could do in our firms is during our client calls, actually, ask this question: “What are we doing well? Why do you work with us? Why don't you go somewhere else?” I don't think we ask that very much. Maybe we're afraid to hear the answer. It can be tough. You don't want to know if your client is just ambivalent, so you don't ask, but then, you also don't find out that maybe there's this client this super happy that you had no clue and would happily refer you more clients.

Twyla Verhelst: That's one of those situations of what if you don't, right? Any time we have these tough conversations, whether it's about disclosing that my team is offshore, or it's actually being bold, and brave, and saying, “Hey, do you still like working with us, and if so, why? Moreso, why not, or what are your pain points, or challenges, and opportunities for us to improve?” Then, with those hard conversations, I always just use this theory of what if I don't have that conversation?

I think if you go back to your core values, if you don't have alignment with those clients, at some point, you're going to feel it. If those clients really don't enjoy working with you, and you never ask them, then, at some point, you'll feel it; your team will feel it. Then, that becomes an energy, and a focus draw, in not a good way, for your team. Now, your team is getting pulled with this energy from a client who really doesn't enjoy the experience you’re giving them. Then, that impacts the client experiences that you are creating that are really good. There's a lot of consequences to not having some of these hard conversations. One of them being, “What do you like about working with us, but importantly, what do not? Where can we improve and make your experience even better?”

Blake: We've been talking a lot about specific things that we can do now, this year — process, technology, attracting the right staff, the right customers, being intentional about all of that. Let's talk about bigger picture. Kristen, this is going to be a good one for you because you just acquired a practice. You probably have big hopes, and aspirations, and dreams for this. Maybe you're going to go do it again if you can make the model work? How are you being intentional in that regard? Is this a one-off, or is this a bigger plan?

Kristen Keats: You're going to make me disclose my plans for world domination, are you? Yes—

Blake: Or are you just trying to get through the October 15 deadline?

Kristen Keats: There's that. No, but honestly, I actually had this talk with my team — after the first deadline on May 17, I had this talk with them because I said — I was out of this game. I was out of the tax game. I was done; I was free. I was happy for a year.

Blake: What were you thinking, right?

Kristen Keats: What was I thinking? I was thinking of — because I do think that we can do things better. Here's my big vision, and you want to talk about scaling; you want to talk about my big vision ... My big vision is that any of our what we call our client service managers here in the U.S. — for sure, with tax, we have people who have a book of clients that they manage, and they manage the relationship with those clients. I would like those people to be working 32 hours a week. I would like to have—

Blake: Hold on; hold on ... I think we need to repeat that because that is not standard—

Kristen Keats: 32 hours a week including during tax season. I think we can do it. No, this is what I'm saying. I don't just want to have a tax firm. I want to really change — we can do it because here's how we're going to do it. We're going to work with our offshore team to get them highly skilled and trained to support us. They're going to be doing all of that prep and detail work. We're going to leverage technology as much as we possibly can to get those efficiencies built in.

We're going to manage our discussions with our clients because, again, if we're working with the right clients, they don't want to have a preparer that's exhausted. They don't want somebody who who's getting divorced because they're not paying attention to their family life. I want to be really clear with my clients about the experience that we are trying to have for our staff. That's what we're trying to cultivate. I’ll be real quick here, but Martin and I have a joke because—

Blake: Marti’s your partner in Sherwood—

Kristen Keats: Martin’s my partner in Breakaway. When he was the CEO of a really large accounting firm, I came to him because I’d buy these organic eggs — they're hilarious. They're called Vitality Farms, I think, and they have this little newsletter that comes with the eggs, and it tells you about the chicken of the month. It tells you all about the chickens and how happy they are. These eggs are like $6 a dozen, which typically eggs are two or three bucks a dozen, right?

I'm like, “Why do I pay $6 a dozen for these eggs?” Because I know that they're happy chickens, and that makes me feel good about buying the eggs because I know the chickens are happy. We need happy chickens. People will pay more for happy chickens because they're getting better service. They're getting a better client experience. If they're not willing to pay for that; if they buy the sweatshop eggs at Walmart, then they're not our people.

That's my big plan. Yes, if I can do it; if I can make it work, if I can make this work, then yes, I would like to replicate it, and get our processes in place. We get our team in place. How many bookkeepers do we need? How many tax preparers do we need? How many clients service managers do we need? How does it all work? Package it up and CPA firm in a box. That's my world domination plan.

Blake: Sherwood Farms. Happy chickens. Happy taxes — Happy tax preparers.

Twyla Verhelst: Happy chickens lay better eggs, right? I love that story. That's so fun. What a creative farm that is. Gosh, we should be hiring their head of their creative team!

Kristen Keats: Right?

Blake: That just gave me so many great ideas. Thank you for that. As a marketing person—

Kristen Keats: I'll send you the little newsletter. I'll send you a picture of the newsletter.

Blake: That is fantastic. Send it to me—

Kristen Keats: We have it on the refrigerator here at the office. Literally, it's an inspiration to us.

Blake: I saw a commercial kind of like that, on that note. I was watching YouTube, and I saw a commercial for Clif Bars, and I did not know this. I figured they were just some big company that made protein bars — not protein bars, energy bars. I love them. Well, I actually find out from this commercial, they're an employee-owned facility in Iowa, and the factory just looks amazing; the bakery, they call it.

They've got a rock-climbing wall on the outside of it that looks like the packaging. People can actually go and do that in their free time. There were interviews with all the employee owners, they call them. That's something that we should be doing as firm owners is really — like you said, it's not hiding the people doing the work. It's helping our clients have a relationship with them.

Kristen Keats: You know what? The old way is dying. That's the thing. I want to do this because it feels good, and it feels right; it aligns with who I am, and what our values are. Also, I look at these traditional firms, like the one you were talking about that’s the “firm first.” That's dying because I'll tell you what, the millennials, the Gen Zs, they’re like, “Why? Why would we do this?” They are more about purpose. They're more about, “Give me a reason to be with this company, and you’d better keep giving me a reason to be with this company.” Not just have it be the things that just sit on the wall.

Blake: It's not just about money anymore, and you really got to give people a reason to want to work for you because the job market’s tight. To be frank, they can demand it, and they'll go to your firm and leave the one that doesn't have good values.

Kristen Keats: Your lips to God's ears.

Blake: Twyla, I want to pivot this discussion to you, and your goals, and aspirations. You have been leading the Accountant Channel at FreshBooks for, what we are coming up on? A year, or two years?

Twyla Verhelst: A year and a half, right now.

Blake: Year and a half in, and you've done a lot in that time. Where is it going? Why should accountants get on board with FreshBooks?

Twyla Verhelst: I'm going to give you a little bit of an “under the hood” sneak peek based off of what we just shared there about happy chickens, and about the Clif Bars, and the facility that they’ve built. When we talk internally about what it is that we're creating, obviously there's product. Technology and its features play a role in how accounting professionals and their clients use the tech. We're evolving the tech and advancing that forward. That probably is a no brainer; that's an obvious, but I will share that we've just done a big round of fundraising, and achieved unicorn status, and we're investing in the product heavily.

More important to that, the piece that's more near and dear to my heart is what I shared with all of you, in terms of your values being in alignment with the technology company. From my firm, I have this experience of creating the client experience that your clients can't live without. That's now come into my role, and my team at FreshBooks, where we are “partner obsessed” is the word that we use, or the term that we use — partner obsessed.

How do we be partner obsessed in terms of the product, the partner program, the community that we're building? Then, how do we create the partner experience that partners didn't even realize they could have? It's not necessarily the one they can't live without. If you can see the resemblance to my previous motto, it's the partner experience they just didn't realize was possible. It's actually being in partnership with the tech company, as opposed to the tech contributes to my efficiencies, and my workflow. It's a change in how we think about the tech.

That's the challenge that we've got as a team. It’s super exciting, and I'm sure you can tell that I’m just slightly passionate about it, and all that we're up to at FreshBooks, and it's a really exciting time for us. It's an exciting time for our accounting professionals to explore their choices knowing that there's a lot being thrown at you, and a lot of things look shiny, but explore it with intention, and perhaps this is a good opportunity to shake up some of your technology in order to create a better client experience for your clients.

Blake: For our listeners, I just want to let you know that I was a FreshBooks user years ago, when I started my practice. It was my first time in billing, and invoicing solutions. Years ago, it was awesome, and I'm sure it's gotten even better and better since then. If you have not checked out FreshBooks, do give it a look for yourself and your clients.

Twyla Verhelst: Thank you.

Blake: I have been speaking with Twyla Verhelst, CPA, and Kristen Keats, CPA. Twyla is the head of the FreshBooks Accountant channel. Kristen is the owner of Sherwood Tax and Accounting, and the founder and chief executive at Breakaway Bookkeeping & Advising.

I've said it over and over again in this episode, but I feel like it bears repeating — if you are unhappy at your current firm and are looking for a change, talk to Kristen. Her contact info will be in the show notes and consider joining the FreshBooks Accounting Partner Program. Link will also be in the show notes.

Kristen Keats: It's also a really fun community, so just join it for the community because we have fun.

Blake: Thank you both so much for joining me today, and I hope to talk to you again soon.

Twyla Verhelst: Thanks, Blake.
Kristen Keats: Thanks, Blake!

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Being Intentional In Your Modern Firm
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