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Field Trip for Trusted Advisors

Last week we took a field trip. Not to the chocolate factory. Not to the zoo. This was a "business" field trip. I have always been a huge proponent for letting fledgling accountants have more client contact. I believe the more they can relate to the end consumer of their hard work, the more pride of ownership they will have. I also believe that in order for these young people to become true trusted advisors, they need to understand not just the financial performance aspect of a company, but all performance aspects.

The old practice of occasionally "shadowing" a partner at client meetings just doesn't cut it anymore. We need to immerse our people in real-life business practices to accelerate the development of business acumen they will need to meet the growing expectations of clients.

We headed off on our field trip with the intent of interviewing the owner for a couple of hours and touring his engineering and testing facility. When we arrived, all seven of us were escorted to the conference room. The walls were covered in photos of the projects and products the company had been involved with.

Prior to leaving on the field trip I had everyone review the client's website since most of them had never worked with this particular client. Both the website and the conference room photos proved to be an eye opener for everyone. What emerged was a more interesting and multi-faceted company than anyone had imagined.

When the owner joined us we introduced ourselves and explained that we were excited to learn more about what the company did. We had no set agenda and let the client take the lead. He shared a presentation usually reserved for potential clients and investors. Every first impression indicated that this company had its act together. It was fun to watch the owner beam with pride over what they had accomplished and what the future has in store for them.

As he talked and walked us through the facility, we asked questions, listened, asked some more, and listened carefully. The client loved talking about his business and really opened up in response to the questions we were asking. Before the two hours were over we had identified  three or four distinct ways we could help the client which we briefly discussed and agreed to follow-up on in the next week.

Upon returning to the office, we talked over and wrote up the specific action items to present to the client in a follow-up meeting. In the process of doing this, we all realized that we had stumbled onto a fun and interesting way to learn how we can better serve the needs of clients. A one-time fieldtrip activity was instantly transformed into the firm's new marketing strategy for 2011. We got to work documenting a step-by-step process including:

1. Ideal client selection criteria. Who should we visit?
2. Partner script. How could we position the win-win value of the having the team learn more about the business and the ideas and strategies that would likely surface as a result?
3. Advance preparation. We asked ourselves "Wwhat can we learn about the business and industry before the field trip?"
4. On-site Roles and Responsibilities. This included who would facilitate the discussion.
5. Post field trip debrief with team. This involved formal identification of ideas and strategies to help the client, select a book to give as a "thank you" to the client that is relevant to their issues.
6. Client debriefing session. Who and how would the ideas be presented?
7. Follow-through action steps.

It was decided that the team would commit to 10 field trip sessions over the course of the summer. Already the partners are reporting a 100-percent "Yes"  response from clients. Clients like the idea of the firm investing time and resources to better understand their business and the potential for greater support going forward. The accounting staff are equally excited about the opportunity to learn more about the real world of business, not just what shows up on the financial statements.

I will keep you posted as to how this campaign rolls out. In the meantime, I recommend you set up a field trip for you and your team to go visit one of your favorite clients for a couple of hours. Watch the energy and quality of your client relationships improve. I would love to hear from you about your experience when you take your first field trip with the team.

Edi Osborne, CEO of Mentor Plus, has been a leader in training and consulting to the accounting profession for nearly 20 years. Recently named as one of the TOP 25 Thought Leaders in Public Accounting, Ms. Osborne is dedicated to helping firms make the transition from a "service centric" traditional accounting focus to a "client centric" advisory services culture. For more info go to: http://www.mentorplus.com/.

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