If you’re a bookkeeper reading this, chances are you might already be offering some outsourced controllership services.
You just don’t know it (and are likely not charging for it!)
You have the technical skills, you have the client’s that need help, so what can you do to transition towards outsourced controllership services?
Before we jump head first into turning you into an outsourced controller, let’s get some key concepts out of the way to make sure we’re on the same page.
In a very basic and traditional sense, bookkeeping is the process of recording and organizing all of the transactions that run through a business. In a typical outsourced setting, you find bookkeepers recording receipts, entering sales earned, handling payroll and processing and remitting sales taxes.
Controllers, on the other hand, are typically tasked with ensuring the proper functioning of a business’ accounting system. And we don’t mean proper functioning of just software, controllers ensure the business itself is running as efficiently as possible. They help answer questions like:
Is there enough money in the bank? Are customers paying on time? If not, how is that affecting financial plans? Is the business meeting its near term strategic goals?
From these we can see that bookkeeping is very much transactional in nature, with the bulk of the work resting in data processing, whereas controllership is managerial in nature.
If our starting point is traditional bookkeeping, where you are being hired to process transactions, we can simplify the transition to being an outsourced controller to just three steps:
- First progress to owning and managing the bookkeeping process itself
- Next, utilize that accounting function to help the business plan out its future course (think budgets and forecasts)
- Lastly start reporting back to the business on how it is performing relative to those goals
Performing all of these core functions for your client, on an ongoing basis, you are ensuring the proper functioning of their business’ accounting system, and the business itself. And as you may have noticed that is…exactly what a controller is supposed to be doing.
The Controller's Mindset
The hard part of this progression isn’t the technical aspects. You probably read that list and went “hey, I could do that!”.
And you're right! Most professional bookkeepers will know how to make a budget or forecast, and manage their own bookkeeping process, so it’s usually a mindset shift that is the real hurdle to becoming a controller.
The real problem is that professionals in accounting are continually trained to look at past data, and provide hard, quantifiable deliverables to our clients. To become a future focused manager though, you need to understand what is “truly valuable” to your client. Something much more intangible.
When it comes to what is “truly valuable” we often see 2 mindset issues with professionals
The first mindset issue is that we professionals focus too much on static deliverables
Q: What’s a static deliverable?
A: A process or service offering that is being carried out to simply satisfy a client request.
Yup, that’s super vague, how about an example!
Based on a client request, you create a simplified cash flow forecast from the last twelve months of accounting data and provide this as a spreadsheet to the client for feedback or review.
This process is straightforward to carry out and satisfies a client's need in a general sense - job “done”.
This is what we like to call the “static deliverable trap”.
The real question we need to be asking ourselves is:
What did the client want from the cash flow forecast?
The job is “done”, but if we haven’t addressed the core problem, we haven’t actually delivered anything of value. So even though we have carried out the service, the job isn’t actually ‘done’ from the client’s perspective - which is why it’s a “trap”.
So how do we avoid this trap? First, take a step back and appreciate what your client is facing every day. What is going on in their business and what is changing? What would be useful information for them?
Secondly, you need to remember to spend our time on what matters. You can spend a lot of time modeling out information, or you can spend more time collaborating with your clients figuring out their needs (see how Helm can help you deliver fast and accurate forecasts). The latter is much more valuable to your client, and extremely important for you in helping run their business better.
To progress into a controller role you need to be providing the opposite of static deliverables. You need to be operating in a dynamic, collaborative, iterative process.
Here, it’s useful to remember the typical decision making process.
There’s usually six steps:
- A problem is identified
- Information is gathered
- Potential solutions are brought forward
- Alternatives are compared
- A choice is made
- Action is taken
If you and your client can quickly and efficiently do these six steps within the functions you are managing, you are providing dynamic service, and you will be light years ahead of your peers!
The second mindset issue we see professionals run into is a focus on reactive deliverables.
At first glance ‘reactive’ sounds good because, well, reactive is dynamic, right?
However, we could be effectively collaborating and interacting with our clients, providing a dynamic deliverable, but still a very reactive one. One that still requires too much client input to carry to completion.
Bill payment services are a great example here, where you and your team handle your client’s accounts payables, all the way to actual payment processing.
This process could be fully interactive and collaborative. But, if you are still asking questions like, “when would you like to pay this bill?” you are offering that dynamic process in a reactive state. Put another way, you can’t fully “own and manage” the accounting function of your client because you still need too much of their input in the decision making process.
To eliminate reactive deliverables you need solid systems and processes in place, as well as an in depth understanding of your client’s business.
In our bill payment example, you need to advance your knowledge of the client to a point where you are providing suggestions to them:
- Which vendors are a priority?
- What are each vendor’s terms?
- Who is the squeaky wheel?
The more information you have, the more decisions you can make, the less your client has to think about and assist with, the less reactive, and more dynamic your service offering is.
Gaining the level of knowledge required to provide dynamic service
The short answer is: it takes time - not quite the answer anybody was hoping for.
We don’t have a whole lot of extra time in our back-pocket and we doubt you do either. Taking this time though, to understand their business, learning their processes, their key customers, key vendors and key pain points will result in higher value for you and your client.
You should also take the time to get to know the business owners themselves. While the business has its own nuances, you are also talking to a human with their own complexities. You need to know what is important to them at a personal level to provide advice that genuinely resonates.
Spending time to gain knowledge about your client can be done over two time frames:
In the short term, where you spend a half a day or a day really digging into your client and their business with questionnaires, process mapping, business plan reviews, etc.
In the long term, where you gain information and understanding over time after working with the company at a deeper level.
In either case, valuing your time is extremely important. We talk about this a lot, but if you try to compete too much on pricing with your services, you won’t have enough margin to properly understand your client and actually perform your services properly.
Proactive deliverables are incredibly valuable from a client’s perspective, something that’s easy for us to forget. Reactive and proactive bookkeeping and accounting processes are exactly the same from our perspective, the only difference is that proactive services take it one simple step further where we provide advice and insight, gleaned from our experience and knowledge of the business.
This single additional step provides a tremendous amount of incremental value to the client.
From a client’s perspective they get:
A reactive service offering where they are continually hounded to dig up receipts, explain spending, decide on vendor payment priorities, etc.
A proactive service offering where they are rarely hounded and are simply asked for final approval on an already well-laid-out plan.
Every businessperson we know is insanely busy, so there is no question which service offering has more value. Proactive services win by a landslide because they take so much pressure off. Could you charge an extra $10,000 per month? Probably not in all cases, but an extra $200, $500 or $1,000 per month isn’t a stretch at all for proactive service offerings. The point here is don’t short change yourself in terms of creating the time and capacity you need to truly learn and understand your client’s business for these service offerings.
Right, so those are the two mindset hurdles we see. If you can make that mental mindset shift, and frame things up properly, you can quickly make the transition to an outsourced controller. Again, the technical skills are always there, or can be learned quickly.
Bookkeeping to Outsourced Controller Steps
With those hurdles out of the way, let’s walk through the progression to being an outsourced controller in a little more detail:
- Our starting point: traditional bookkeeping, where you only process the data
With your experience and skills, and by taking the time to truly know the client and their business, it would be very easy to progress to the second step, where you would own and manage the entire bookkeeping process itself.
- Manage the entire bookkeeping process
Here you would be:
- Telling the client which software systems should be implemented to improve their business processes.
- Telling them the step by step procedures required of every stakeholder to get financial information produced in a quick, efficient and timely manner.
While you are still operating well within the “bookkeeping” wheelhouse, there is a big shift here in terms of who is controlling that function. This is important to note. To progress into a controllership role, YOU need to be providing the ultimate vision and plan, with the business owner taking on more of a “follower” role where they can focus on more operationally sensitive issues.
From this second step, it is a very natural progression to using “your” accounting department to start:
- Providing more future looking information.
You’ve got sound processes in place. Quality data is there. You simply need to collaborate with your client more on what they want and expect to see happening with their business in the future.
This information, along with that produced from your accounting function, can then be used to create budgets and forecasts for clients. And to be clear here, budgets are what you would like to happen in the future, setting parameters around cost controls and sales expectations.
Whereas forecasts are what is actually going to happen. If your client’s advertising costs are continually blowing budgets there is no point in forecasting the budgeted amount - you should be forecasting reality. This is why forecasts are usually more frequent and important to business owners, because they are a more accurate picture of reality.
In this step, you can see how having a dynamic and proactive relationship with your client really matters. You could easily create a budget and forecast from past data, but does it incorporate new plans for the future? Better yet, do you have knowledge of those plans so that you can build the budgets and forecasts out with less input from your client? If so, you can quickly become an indispensable member of their team because of the additional work and effort you are saving them.
Once you have started creating budgets and forecasts for your client in the third step of our progression, you can move on to the final step:
- Reporting on progress of the business relative to these forecasts and budgets
The work involved here is fairly straightforward. There is a lot of variance analysis relative to budgets and forecast updates in terms of how reality differed from the last forecast created.
This step is much less involved in terms of client input, and relies much more heavily on dynamic, proactive services when done properly
That said, there is a lot of room for you to provide feedback and advice here (this provides a ton of value to the client in seeing where they are headed!).
This step also provides a lot of value to you, the practitioner, because the exercise of going through how performance is tracking relative to expectations gives you even more information and insight that can be used to help your clients in the future.
If you’ve progressed through all of these steps your service line will fit the true bill of controllership, as you will be the go to financial steward for your clients’ business.
One small note here, the actual bookkeeping work could be done by someone else once you are at this point, whether they are employed by you, your client or another third party. If you are owning and managing the accounting function from end-to-end, the question of who does the actual bookkeeping work is less important than if they are following your processes and procedures
So, those are our steps for becoming an outsourced controller. Of course, there’s a ton of topics that could come off the back of this discussion, like how do you price and market these services, or how do you implement them from a technical standpoint.