Attracting and retaining clients is essential to the success of any external auditor or consultant. It’s also one of the profession’s top challenges, according to two recent surveys by the American Institute of CPAs and AccountingWeb. Today we have more information, tools, and resources to offer our clients than ever before. But how do you actually leverage all those assets to convert prospects to new customers, and turn existing customers into “clients for life”?
Nothing increases client loyalty and satisfaction (and referrals) more than your ability to help clients solve their biggest challenges. Here are five solid strategies for communicating the value of data analytics to potential and existing clients.
Great executives are not comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. They have to be ready to react rapidly and grasp opportunities, often relying on past experience, instinct, and industry knowledge. As Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox, put it, “Decisiveness is about timeliness. And timeliness trumps perfection.”
Because of their bias toward action, CEOs can become leery of data when it seems to be an obstacle rather than an aid for decision-making. Kevin Rockecharlie, Director of IT Assurance Services with BKM Sowan Horan, describes clients encountering data-centric analysis for the first time. “Some clients haven’t been exposed to the value of enhanced reporting, either for financials or operations. They record only the information they have to.”
You can communicate the value of data analytics by keeping in mind that “less is more.” As Rockecharlie points out, “Analyzing client data is not new for CPAs or external auditors. Only the buzzwords have changed. Essentially, you choose tools that help you become a better service provider.” Give your client concrete examples of how data helped other clients solve their problems.
Clients want to know their external auditor or consultant understand their business operations. They want someone who is working to improve those areas and help reach their goals. Data analytics has proven highly effective in helping auditors gain deeper insights, and deliver better results – two areas that help external auditors and consultants shine.
Another key tip from Rockecharlie is requesting the data with plenty of lead time. “The ultimate point of an external audit is for the client to rely on their own record keeping. By working way ahead on data requests, the client builds understanding of what you need and why you need it, and begins to see the value of analyzing it in the first place.”
Talk about specific goals your client has and strategies for using data to meet them. “Actionable data” is a powerful phrase that will help you focus your discussions on how you can help leverage your client’s data into useful insights, actions, and outcomes.
Your goal is not to “sell” your clients on data analytics but to get them to tell you about all the great things that would happen if they had actionable data to address these big issues. You will find out what data points truly matter to your clients and be able to build a list of tests that addresses their hopes and fears directly.
As an external auditor, you are in a position to discover the most important problems your client has that can be targeted with measurable tests and hard data. Here’s how. First, do your industry research so you can speak with your clients on their own terms. For example, a manufacturing company will be worried about demand planning, whereas a restaurant will focus on point of sale.
Then, when you have a good potential client, have a conversation to investigate their biggest challenges and concerns—as they see them, not as you see them. Why are these issues important? How do they impact the client’s ability to handle opportunities and manage risk—today and tomorrow?
“When it comes right down to it,” Rockecharlie observes, “there are nuances between industries, but from an audit perspective the similarities are more important. All clients have their numbers consolidated in the general ledger. They all have payables and receivables. All clients have areas #1 #2 #3 where the big dollars come in and the big expenses go out. And since all clients have budget constraints, that’s where you want to focus the lens—where you can drive value to the bottom line.”
If you follow the business press, you already know that the backlash against big data is in full swing. In short, executives have discovered that having another off-the-shelf report on their desk or a dramatic-looking graph in their dashboard doesn’t make them any smarter or more competitive. Chances are your clients have heard all about how the right data at the right time can be worth millions of dollars, impact thousands of lives, and prevent critical mistakes. But they might be frustrated by past attempts with products that promised timely, relevant information and then didn’t deliver.
“Some clients have invested in robust reporting systems, but others have not,” Rockecharlie says. “Regardless, they’re going to conceptualize their data as it exists in the reporting system they’re familiar with. It’s going to be up to you, the practitioner, to master the methods for extracting the data for the audit and help the client through that process.”
Tailor your plan to the areas where you can deliver analytics that support quantifiable business results. What actions can your clients take to prevent problems before they occur? What corrective steps does the data indicate? How can analytics help direct the team to where the efforts are most needed?
Data analytics is a fascinating field of study in which there are always new ways to learn and grow as a professional.
Consider taking courses in statistics and modeling as part of your professional portfolio. Audimation Services offers a robust lineup of hands-on courses, distance training, and free webcasts and videos to support your development.
Rockecharlie is a believer in investing in expertise in datacentric analysis. “We request a very diverse set of data when we perform our audits, and we haven’t yet encountered a system or situation where we couldn’t figure out how to make it happen. Not every firm can say that.” All the same, he notes, fundamentals never fail. “There’s nothing like the impact of finding delinquent payments or uncovering fraud to make a believer out of even the most resistant client.”
Another advantage clients appreciate is the assurance that data integrity is maintained. Purpose-built data analytics tools offer read-only access to data, so the accuracy of audit assessments and disclosures in published financial statements is guaranteed, which gives clients an automatic comfort level. Clients are also impressed when the auditor finds a way to report information that was not readily available in the financial reporting system. When you can get a client asking, “How did you do that?” you’ve earned both their attention and respect. Rockecharlie, and IDEA users like him, are elevated in the eyes of the client.
The more you use data analytics software such as CaseWare IDEA®, the more well-versed you will become at designing calculations, samples, filters, sequences, and other information points that reveal insights and important changes. Investing your time and effort into mastering data analytics and developing the right communication skills to convey its value is a high-value proposition for any external auditor. The success stories you build with your clients using data analytics will enhance your reputation, lead to great referrals, and cement your relationships with clients for life.