Six steps to tackle staffing challenges

September 4, 2019

Finding qualified staff. If we didn’t already know it was a challenge, that fact was confirmed in the 2019 CPA Firm Top Issues Survey. In that unique study of the challenges facing firms of various sizes, virtually all firms identified it as their top concern, now and over the next five years.

Staffing was an issue I dealt with in my own six-person firm and one I now hear about from practitioners around the country. And I know of CPAs who are sole practitioners who may have a significant staff, so it can truly affect firms of all sizes. Based on my experience and that of other CPAs I’ve spoken to, there are several steps you can take to alleviate the problem.

1. Be flexible about time. Staff appreciate having greater control over when they work. I know many firms that have successfully allowed their staff members to pick their own hours or have instituted core hours that allow some flexibility on when people arrive or leave. The focus isn’t on being in the office all day every day, but on getting the work done when it’s needed. Think about it: Clients don’t care when your staff works, they just want timely delivery of services. And your flexible approach can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool.

2. Think outside the office. While you’re at it, why not allow staff to work remotely, at least some of the time? Once again, their location is not important as long as performance and output remain the same. Any costs of setting them up remotely are minimal compared with the value of having a staff that will likely be less stressed and more productive.

PCPS has a number of tools to help your firm implement flexible policies on time and place, including:

3. Set an example. Have you instituted flexible policies on where and when people can work, but found that very few people take advantage of them? It may be because they’ve noticed you’re not using them yourself. If qualified people are going to enter and remain in the profession, those of us in leadership positions must demonstrate that you can be successful while still maintaining a balanced life.

4. Get rid of timesheets. The firms that have taken this step say their people are happier and their firm culture is more cohesive. And as one CPA told me, “We no longer track utilization or realization, and all I know is that I have more money in my pocket.”

Measuring staff performance by output rather than hours is part of a larger effort to shift your business model from a focus on time spent to one on value delivered. Not only will your people likely love it, your clients may really welcome it, too. When your billing discussions focus on the difference that your services can make, your clients have a more positive perception of what your work means to their businesses. Check out this Small Firm Philosophy podcast on value pricing for some tips on how this can impact recruiting and retaining great staff.

We’ve got some great related resources available in the Trusted Client Advisor Toolbox:

5. Emphasize training. I’m a strong believer in encouraging staff to partake in continuing education even before they pass the CPA exam. The education they receive is well worth whatever you pay for it. In addition to enhancing their technical competency, meeting other professionals at a workshop or conference helps them develop soft skills they will be able to use with current or prospective clients and makes them really feel like part of the profession. At a recent conference that I attended in Alaska, I met participants who were just a few years out of college and they were engaged and excited to be there. A firm’s commitment to training can broaden your firm’s skill set and boost your chances of attracting and retaining good people.

6. Assess your clients. Cutting 10% of lower level clients, for example, will allow you to offer more services to those that are a better fit for the firm. It will also probably help your firm become more profitable and a more enjoyable place to work. Use the PCPS Client Evaluation Tool and the Good Fit Client Tool to identify clients whose needs no longer really match your services or that are difficult to serve for one reason or another. And be sure to include staff in the process, since they are often the front line in dealing with clients. In my firm, we asked every person to nominate one client to drop each year.

Focus on Engagement

While the search for great people may continue, the tips and resources I’ve mentioned can help you overcome staffing challenges and keep your firm productive and profitable.

Carl Peterson, CPA, CGMA is the Association’s Vice President of Small Firm Interests. Have questions for Carl? Contact him directly at carl.peterson@aicpa-cima.com or 651-252-4618. And be sure to sign up for Carl’s Small Firm Update webcasts. The next one will take place on September 26 at 2:00 to 3:00 PM ET.