eliminate mystery through communication

what could be shared that isn’t?

by rita keller

improved communication can be achieved with many different approaches. some tactics may primarily affect intrafirm understanding and teamwork, while others focus more on increasing clarity and frequency of communications with clients. no matter where they are directed, when these efforts are successful, they benefit the firm and its clients.

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when i begin to work with a new cpa firm client, one of the most common issues i encounter is the lack of open, honest, ongoing communication between firm leadership and team members.

often, leaders are still in the mindset that many of the management and partner topics need to remain confidential. i can remember when staff members in some firms did not even know their own billing rate! despite this, it is my observation that very little, if anything, inside a cpa firm is actually confidential.

over the years, some firm leaders have become more enlightened and evolved to a point where they realize the importance of continual communication and respect the critical need for leaders to develop their personal listening skills.

recent research has revealed that there is a major disconnect between more mature firm leaders and younger accountants working inside growing cpa firms. that is why i wanted to share a success story.

in order to conduct my own research, i interviewed bernard n. ackerman, cpa, founder and ceo of bernard n. ackerman, cpa, pa (bna) located in rock hill, south carolina. i also interviewed jason l. ackerman, cpa, who joined the firm in 2012 after spending three years with kpmg in new york city. yes, jason is bernie’s son.

bernie has always been a very progressive ceo, trying to keep pace with change and build a firm where people will want to stay and build their careers. the addition of jason was like icing on the cake.

when i asked them to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being horrible and 10 being awesome), how communication was within their firm, the older generation said 7 and the younger generation said 8. that told me a lot of good things were happening at the firm.

here are just some of the forward-thinking things going on at bna:

  • two years ago they began sharing all firm financials with staff except for detailed salary information.
  • they are a value-pricing firm and abandoned the timesheet in october 2013.
  • clients’ communication has improved because their gold and platinum clients actively schedule meetings and make telephone calls to staff.
  • they periodically conduct client surveys.
  • they survey staff often about various firm issues.
  • their facebook page is great (and current).
  • they utilize instagram and twitter.
  • they have “how to” videos for clients on their youtube channel.
  • two years ago they changed to google services so they are using more instant messaging and google hangouts.

while bernie and jason are a generation apart, their desire to improve the firm is aligned.

“i think the biggest divide between the younger and older generation is the mindset on information sharing. the old way of thinking is to only tell employees information they need to know. the new way – and i think the best way – is to share everything possible with employees. employees want to be a part of something and they want their jobs to matter. if you make them feel like they have input and they start thinking like owners, their productivity and happiness increase.” – jason ackerman

“communication must be practiced every day. getting rid of timesheets so that clients now call us and are not worried about getting billed has helped immensely. it also encourages team members to communicate more with clients since they do not have to worry whether they have to bill them or not.” – bernie ackerman

discussion questions

  1. what information is currently confidential at your firm that could reasonably be shared?
  2. what are some of the barriers to effective ongoing communication within the firm, both for client matters and internal issues?
  3. what strategies could you use to further open lines of communication? (this is a good topic for brainstorming, with wide-ranging suggestions invited for exploration that can then be prioritized and implemented.)

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