This article was co-authored by Drew West of Deltek and Ken McCall of Boomer Consulting, Inc.
Assignments in the Busy CPA Firm
Even firms that have fine-tuned
their staffs with the best and brightest may find a full plate of client work
waiting as business picks up after a few slow years. For many firms, the challenge is best
matching the staff with the job requirement.
An ideal match ensures the best possible client service, rewarding and
challenging staff development, with efficient operations that yield higher
profit for the firm.
But imagine this scenario: You’ve proposed an engagement with a very
specific client need: a mix of online
and catalog sales all over the U.S. with the resulting mix of state sales tax
liabilities. Laura is your staff’s true
expert in this area and you’re counting on her expertise to turn a profit on
this complicated job. However, because
your job assignment and tracking system is the Staff Scheduler’s Excel
spreadsheet, you can’t know Laura is already assigned to another job at the
time you need her. David, who’s done
something sort of like this once before says "I can handle it,” So the
scheduling manager assigns him to your job instead. (Do you already know how this ends?)
David, in over his head,
constantly calls Laura any time that he can reach her, distracting her from her
own job and slowing down the work on yours.
In the end, the job takes longer than planned, the client is frustrated
with the delay, you’ve got accrued hours you won’t be able to bill, both David
and Laura are annoyed by the situation for different reasons, and you’re left
doing damage control. All simply because
the assignment grid was locked away, unable to support your engagement-planning
Why not avoid this kind of
engagement nightmare? Build in staff
planning and scheduling right from the beginning, during the proposal
process. Think for a moment about the
keys to getting the right person on the right job at the right time.
Availability. Consider whether the person you need or want
is even available. In the example above
Laura would have breezed through that job but she was already booked on other
work. At other times, the best person
may be in CPE training, other professional development, or simply recharging
away from the office. Any issues that
impact staff availability need to be visible while you are planning your
In today’s always-on, web-enabled
and virtually mobile workforce, physical location is another important
consideration in balancing workload.
It’s common for multi-office firms to share staff between offices,
either for volume of workload reasons or for special skill requirements as in
our example. For this to work, of
course, it’s critical that staff availability and skill inventories can be seen
across all offices and not just where a person routinely works.
Expertise. In our example, we needed very specific
expertise. Not everyone is equally good
at everything, so we want to maximize both efficiency and client satisfaction
by getting the right person on the job.
The hidden corollary to expertise is cost– people with advanced and
specialized skills may be the more senior staff, commanding higher billing
rates and salary costs. Protecting
margin on the job means assigning the needed skills but not over staffing, especially
if a lower rate general staff member would suffice. Of course, you might
intentionally accept a lower level of efficiency (and net billings) on a given
job so David could work and learn alongside Laura and begin to leverage that
skill set to a broader base of staff.
Balance. One of the great risks in making job
assignments is always going to the people you have the most confidence in. We’ve all seen this syndrome at work: the best people get overloaded and the rest
are underused. This is a risky strategy
on both sides. The overloaded staff– the
ones everyone wants on their job– risk burnout, while underutilized staff are
frustrated by uneven workload and less challenging jobs. Both situations could lead to the loss of
valuable staff if the overloaded ones look for relief and the under-utilized
look for more challenging opportunities elsewhere.
Transparency. Finally, resource planning is effective only
if it’s transparent enough for anyone with need to see who’s available. Approaches lacking transparency are ripe for
two adverse effects: silos of privileged
information that only one or two "specialists” can view and interpret, or the
aggressive partners gaming the system to get who they want for "their” jobs
(regardless of internal cost) while other partners get what’s left over.
Firm Leaders Should Care
Firm leaders must please at least
three constituencies: clients, owners,
and staff. Clients want work done
quickly ,accurately, and fairly priced.
Owners want the firm to be profitable.
And perhaps the most complex of the three, staff members, want
interesting and challenging work, with a chance to grow professionally while
being recognized and compensated for their skills and expertise. Satisfying each of these groups requires that
engagements be staffed with the right people, with the right skills, on the
right job at the right time. In today’s
competitive environment, managing these nuances with outdated, siloed
approaches just isn’t going to work.
Fortunately, modern resource planning approaches bring the transparency
and control you need.
Resource Planning Solution
A good resource planning approach can address
all of the issues raised above. Properly
deployed and utilized, it can become a profit multiplier for your firm.
Key Attributes. Consider some of the capabilities you need
for advanced resource planning. First,
unlike a stand-alone spreadsheet or wall chart it should be universally
available and visible across all departments or offices of the firm, and
accessible on mobile devices wherever a user might need information. It should provide a view of resources in
three different contexts: Past, present,
and future. The past context is
important for insight into similar past engagements, showing assignment
information along with financial history about utilization, billing, and
ultimately realization on the job. The
current context shows where and how staff is employed today so you can track
progress against budgets and milestones and realign resources when necessary. Finally, the future context accounts for
potential new work, "soft-booking” or reserving key resources at the time they
will be needed. Savvier resource planning approaches even soft-book based on the probability of winning the
business. If necessary, jobs might be
rescheduled during the proposal process to take advantage of critical staff
skills and availability.
What to Look For. If you are
thinking about improving your resource planning approach, here are some
attributes to keep in mind. Concentrate
on three basic concepts: Simple,
Flexible, and Integrated.
Simple. In a
complex world, simple is good! The
approach must be easy and straightforward, both for scheduling and for simple
look-up tasks. Complexity leads to
user-abandonment, and you’ll be back where you are today– with an "expert”
operator building an information empire.
Simplicity comes with efficiency, like pre-populated information or easy
lookups. Be able to rapidly single out
the time period, staff, or partner you want to examine. And make sure reports deliver critical
information clearly and concisely, on-screen or in print.
Flexible. Your firm is unlike any other, so, make
you’re your approach can consider variables which are important to you. Be able to define various attributes (skill
level, niche specialty, billing tier, etc.) and assign them to staff as
capabilities or to jobs as requirements.
Be able to easily search across offices and departments for staff with
selected attributes. You’ll probably
want multiple levels of availability designation to tell at a glance if a staff
member is definitely scheduled for a job, tentatively reserved for a pending
job, away at training, or on some well-deserved personal time off.
Connected. Your firm’s resources are connected in some
way to everything the firm does, so your resource planning approach has to be
equally well connected into the firm’s operations– no stand-alone scheduling
tools or custom designed spreadsheets!
This is where the past, present, and future contexts discussed above can
be realized and used! Allows planners to
easily retrieve past engagements for their financial history and to see how the
most profitable were organized. See into
the future to know about proposed engagements, and the likelihood of winning
these. You’ll also want to be able to
see if staff members have been reserved against a specific need if and when an
engagement bid is won. And, in the
present world of ongoing work, recognize which jobs are nearing completion,
running ahead, or lagging behind– to know if key staff might be released early,
or retained longer than anticipated.
These scenarios, of course, impact the availability of staff in both the
near and far term. Only a completed
connected planning approach can deliver the views you need to make planning
both more streamlined and more reliable.
Remember tools alone won’t solve
your resource planning problems– along with technology comes the need for
firm-wide policies and procedures which everyone must be expected to learn and
follow. Software gives you capabilities;
policies, procedures, and standards move you from capabilities to results!
Steps | A Look Inside
Perhaps by now you are thinking
that your firm’s resource planning could use some improvement. Take a close look at how you are scheduling,
planning, and managing your engagements today.
What tools are you using? How
accessible are they? Can everyone find
what they need from the system on a self-service basis, or are you forced into
reports run by a scheduling expert who is the only one who really understands
the system? Does your system serve the
entire firm, or is it used on a by-office or by-department basis? Does your current system make it easier or
harder to get the right person on the right job at the right time?
If after reviewing your current
process you think resource planning can be improved, look for an approach that brings your firm
the attributes of simplicity, flexibility, and connectivity that we’ve
In today’s competitive environment,
your staff skills and expertise represent your most valuable asset. Make sure you are leveraging them to the
fullest by getting the right person on the right job at the right time. Consider modern approaches to help you
satisfy your three constituencies and enjoy the benefits of delighted clients,
motivated and challenged staff, and increased profits for your firm.