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[Podcast] Accounting Services Best Practices with Susan Steele-Ward of PBMares

Topic: Podcast

In this episode of the AI in Accounting Podcast, you will meet Susan Steele-Ward, Co-Leader, and Director of the Pathways Accounting Services team at PBMares, based in the Harrisonburg, Virginia area.

PBMares offers domestic and international clients a full range of financial and business advisory services, including audit and assurance, cloud accounting, consulting, cybersecurity, tax services, pension plan design, and third-party administration. Additionally, PBMares is a member of the RSM US Alliance, a network of like-minded firms across the U.S. that has access to accounting professionals worldwide.

Susan is a big advocator of technology-forward accounting services, and she urges new firms to prioritize their tech stack, no matter how small their team is. In her words:

[Podcast] Accounting Services Best Practices with Susan Steele-Ward of PBMares

“…develop your tech stack fairly quickly because we have the resources now that it’s easy to develop that and to develop the training—even if it’s only two people—to put that team in place … and have them trained and … ready for when those clients come on.”

Susan also urges firms to counsel new clients on the benefits of switching to the digital landscape:

“A lot of times, I think the people that are usually … in the worst shape are the ones that are not ready to use technology. If they’re … using the old-school … accounting side, they’re just pushed way behind … and so then it takes us longer to get them to where they should be.”

Listen to the episode in full to learn more about the importance of:

  • Putting together a customized tech stack that will fit your firm’s needs and court desirable clients in your specific niche,
  • Training your initial staff and determining which staff member(s) will guide clients through the process of moving to the cloud, and
  • Ensuring that your internal stakeholders are up to date on your value proposition and can confidently discuss your firm’s offerings with potential clients.
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All this and more are discussed in detail in this episode of the AI in Accounting Podcast. To learn more about Susan Steele-Ward and contact her with any questions about client accounting services, you can check out her LinkedIn profile and visit her bio page. Susan also invites you to send an email to pathway “at” pbmares.com to start a discussion with her division directly.

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A lightly-edited transcript follows below:

Susan Steele-Ward:

We had our team in place. Already, we have five data coordinators, and two controllers, and an implementation specialist, that are full-time on our team, and they were all in place, all working, all used to working completely without any paper, any of that, and so, it worked out great, and it's a great marketing tool at this point on how easy that was for us, that it wasn't any issue, that for those clients, there was no change.

Speaker 2:

Welcome to the AI in Accounting podcast, which helps accounting, bookkeeping, and finance professionals prepare for the future of outsourced accounting and accounting technology. Plus, you'll learn how to use artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and machine learning to scale your accounting practice. Now, here's your host, Joshua Feinberg of vic.ai.

Joshua Feinberg:

Hi, it's Joshua Feinberg from the AI in Accounting podcast, and I'm being joined today by a very special guest. I have with me today Susan Steele-Ward from PBMares. Susan is the Director of the Pathways Accounting Services team, and co-leader, and she's based in the beautiful Harrisonburg, Virginia area, and I'm thrilled to have you with me today, Susan. Thanks so much for joining me.

Susan Steele-Ward:

Thank you for having me.

Journey to Outsourced Accounting

Joshua Feinberg:

Awesome. The first place I'd like to start is to get a little bit of a feel for your background. Can you walk us through your journey? Did you always want to go into accounting? What was your road that led you to PBMares and leading a group focused on accounting services?

Susan Steele-Ward:

Well, I always use my description of, “I have a colorful accounting background,” and that I started out with a degree in teaching, and with a concentration in the math area, and then a few years later, I moved to the accounting area and passing the CPA exam, and so that's where my accounting career started, and I just thoroughly enjoy the accounting area, and I worked initially a lot in the tax area, and I still work in the tax area, and, of course, we're always getting clients’ books in, and QuickBooks, and initially, when QuickBooks first came out in whatever year it was, I remember the firms thought because you could make changes other than just a journal entry, they didn't want anything to do with it, and I really pushed that forward with our firm to do that. I do need to work with QuickBooks and become knowledgeable in that area, and so, then I moved forward with that and teaching classes with QuickBooks at the community-college level, and then also with our small business development center, we did a partnership with them in teaching QuickBooks, and so that developed my accounting area, but then the wheels started turning when—how many years? Five, six years ago, about—people wanted this outsource accounting area, and how we could be in more in charge of what we have, and what we do with our clients, and be able to offer more advisory work there. I was very excited, so we jumped on that, initially working a lot with Sage Intacct because we had wanted to go with a software that was able to give clients more reporting, better reporting, with the dimensions, and all that you can get with QBO, and QuickBooks, and so we moved in that direction, and we have our Outsource Accounting Division with Sage Intacct, and that’s mainly concentrated in the not-for-profit area because Sage Intacct works so well in the not-for-profit area and is able to provide that reporting, and also it seems like a really good area just to concentrate on for the outsourced accounting because their boards are always changing. It's difficult for them a lot of times to keep someone consistently. So, that seems to be a good niche in that area.

Joshua Feinberg:

Yeah. I imagine having a teaching background must be incredibly valuable, not only because soft skills are so important for working with small business owners and entrepreneurs for transferring knowledge, but just training your own team on a regular basis internally.

Susan Steele-Ward:

It is. It's very helpful—even though I'm not sure how successful I was as a teacher, but...

Joshua Feinberg:

We're all teaching, always learning, always teaching.

Susan Steele-Ward:

Right, right. But it is, and to have that background, like you said, the soft skills of being able to work with people at any level, and so that's always been very helpful with clients also.

Joshua Feinberg:

A background with working with two of the small business development centers—I had a little bit of contact with them years ago—worked a little more closely with SCORE, but just getting really to entrepreneurs and understanding their struggles and trials and tribulations has got to be super helpful for helping them with the accounting and finance on an outsource basis.

Susan Steele-Ward:

Right. Right. Yeah, and I know in that time period, I think CPA firms were looking at that as almost more of an accommodation provided to clients—early 2000s, maybe—before starting to look at it as actually a service, to be the outsource accounting, and then when that came along, I think the thought there for a while was that, “We could teach clients how to do this,” but we've decided, “No.”

Joshua Feinberg:

It's interesting—when you start getting into professional services and start getting into software—how many times there's many iterations, and many pivots to figure out the way it would actually work. I remember 20 years ago; I was doing some contract work for Microsoft, and one of their early forays into getting networks into small offices is they thought people would buy this piece of software at Sam's Club. They actually codenamed it “Sam”, and they envisioned that it would be so simple and straightforward that non-technical small business owners would buy the box and go ahead, and, a lot of times, they figure these things out, but the growth that we've seen in client accounting services, plan accounting, advisory services, and outsourced accounting, and clearly, there was significant demand going back two, three, four years, and it seems just massive acceleration of this need in last eight or nine months, during the pandemic.

Susan Steele-Ward:

Right. Right, and we were very fortunate in the fact that our Outsource Accounting Division is called PBMares Pathway, and that we had our team in place already. We have currently five data coordinators, and two controllers, and an implementation specialist, that are full-time on our team, and they were all in place, all working, all used to working completely without any paper, any of that, and so it worked out great, and it's a great marketing tool at this point on how it wasn't any issue, that there was no change for those clients, and they recognize that well, too, when they're talking to their other business partners that had an accountant in-house, or they were trying to do things on their own, or whatever, on how they're talking to them, like, "How's it going with you all?" and they're like, "No change; our accounting is going on." So, that was very nice to be able to see that and also transfer that to the other service areas in the firm to see that if you're working in the cloud, if everybody's already working at that level, how easy it is, just a transition when things happen.

Advice for Getting Started in Client Accounting Services or Outsourced Accounting

Joshua Feinberg:

Oh, Susan, thinking about your success in growing Pathways, what would be the single-most-important piece of advice that you could offer to someone that's building out a new accounting services or CAAS team, outsourced accounting practice, outsourced CFO practice? What is the single-most-important concept for them to get right?

Susan Steele-Ward:

I think to develop your tech stack fairly quickly because we have the resources now that it's easy to develop that and to develop the training—even if it's only two people—to put that team in place, the team that's completely dedicated to those, and have them trained and be ready for when those clients come on, that you're not stumbling around with this and don't look like you don't know what you're doing as far as that, and then also if you're working with a large firm, that's more with that. Getting the buy-in of the firm, of the partners, of the managers, we are still working on that, but once you get a couple, really, they're your salespeople, and so once you have those, it makes it easier for your marketing, and all, but those are a couple of things I just think that are very important.

Joshua Feinberg:

It's getting the technology stack correct, getting the training in place for the initial staff, who's going to provide these services, and then making sure that the rest of the stakeholders internally are in a place where they can recommend your services because they know what it's all about and the value proposition?

Susan Steele-Ward:

Right. Right.

Advice for Growing an Outsourced Accounting Practice

Joshua Feinberg:

So, fast-forwarding ahead to somebody that has been leading a practice like this for five or 10 years, and they're figuring out what to do next. Maybe it's been a really difficult year for them, that they're feeling a sense of burnout; their team is really struggling; it's been a really difficult year. Maybe they're heavily concentrated in industries that got hit really hard last year. What advice would you give to someone in that role to help them get back on track?

Susan Steele-Ward:

I think that probably at that point, they need to maybe develop a new product, a new service, or something just to get people—and even themselves—excited about what they're doing, or what's going on, and our team has been a big advocate of always being connected to all the resources we have with the cpa.com, Sage Intacct—even now with QBO—to stay really in touch with your representatives at all of those—or even with bill.com—because they can get you excited again; they can let you know what new is coming on, and that might spur you to think about what else you can be offering. I know with bill.com, they're going to be offering the family office, I think, different segment there, and so those types of things excite me, but I'm a nerdy accountant. So, anyway...

Joshua Feinberg:

That's been an interesting segment that I've been watching for the last year or two, as well as the overlap of where family office intersects with outsourced accounting, and client accounting services, because depending on the size of the accounts, they can be fairly similar in responsibilities, depending on the nature of the executives that finance who's involved, similar kinds of roles, but I still see in most CPA firms that they're putting different teams in place.

Susan Steele-Ward:

You mean different teams for the family offices?

Joshua Feinberg:

For a family office, as opposed to working with small businesses.

Susan Steele-Ward:

Oh, okay. Yeah. Yeah. We're sort of keeping it the same. We haven't really gone to that arena yet. We have a wealth management division to try to team up with the family offices. So, it hasn't happened yet, but I see that as a great place to grow also.

Outsourced Accounting Mistakes to Avoid

Joshua Feinberg:

Yeah. In general, with most of the people that I interviewed for the podcast, and the panels that I moderate, it seems there was an enormous amount of bullishness and optimism about just the whole nature of outsourced accounting, and client accounting services—especially with the acceleration, and all things digital in the recent months. I want to ask you about another area with how you interact with clients, and when you think about when you're bringing on a new client that either worked with another accounting firm or was handling accounting internally, and maybe they had a controller, or a bookkeeper, or someone internally that was handling things. What's the single biggest mistake you see clients make before they arrive at your doorstep to have Pathways work on their accounting?

Susan Steele-Ward:

The mistake they make before they talk to us or transition to us?

Joshua Feinberg:

Yeah. What do you end up spending a lot of time cleaning up that you wish they'd just got right before they got to you that would make that a smoother transition?

Susan Steele-Ward:

I think sometimes, using the cloud already. Some of our clients—the ones that I felt like that had been the smoothest transition to us—they're glad that they were already using maybe bill.com or using some of these cloud services, and so I think that they should really start to just really gravitate to some of those, and the technology. I think a lot of times, I think the people that are usually, to me, in the worst shape are the ones that are not ready to use technology. It's just built-in now because with people's POS systems, or whatever their AR systems are, all of that—especially if there's some type of franchises, all being pushed by the franchisors to use those—and then if they're back here, using the old-school part on their accounting side, they're just pushed way behind, I feel, and so then it takes us longer to get them to where they should be, and, of course, also internal controls we feel like is always a big issue—especially with small businesses—that they just cannot put that into place, and some people really see the importance of it. A lot don't but do not realize how important, and what a value that is that we are able to add, to have those internal controls.

Joshua Feinberg:

So, being comfortable, embracing technology. See, probably, in many cases, they're really comfortable with that on a personal basis. They probably have an iPhone or Android that they're checking 60 times a day. They probably have Alexa Google Home devices, streaming TV, but yeah, getting them comfortable in the workplace, and then, of course, internal controls.

Susan Steele-Ward:

Right.

The Future of Outsourced Accounting 

Joshua Feinberg:

The final question I want to ask you today is to get your thoughts on where we're headed next. Do you see anything going on in how accounting services are being provided that we're going to look back in 24 months and see that there was just a major inflection point going on right now that was going to reshape the future of this whole business model?

Susan Steele-Ward:

Especially from attending the webinar yesterday, I think that it's all going to be the advisory piece of it, which we already know that's happening. I think it will really blow up—especially with people working at home and needing that advice. I think that piece is going to really blow up. It's not going to be as much just compliance work or needing the reports, but the advisory piece of it is going to blow up, and I don't know; other than a lot of what we're already seeing in that, I think there's going to be more and more just integrations of everything, that a lot are going to be talking to each other, which is already happening, but I think, again, that will be more and more of that type of integration, and we're between apps, and software, and everything talking to each other.

Joshua Feinberg:

Speed of business just accelerates, never stops, 24/7/365, and our thesis on this last couple of years is that technology is going to free up the time and the budget from routine services to allow teams to be able to get more involved in advisory to be the true outsource CFO that they've wanted to do for years, and now they'll have room within the client's budget to be able to do that because they're spending way less time on routine data entry, and coding.

Susan Steele-Ward:

Right, right, because we're getting more worried—especially with the tax compliance area. You know, a lot of that's just going to be more just fed in, you know, not needed that much, as far as the compliance work there, and so all of that's just going to become more of just an advisory area.

Joshua Feinberg:

I imagine the days would have slowed down anyway because of the pandemic, but the days of a clients showing up with a shoebox full of invoices and receipts and saying, "Here, figure this out," is probably coming to a rapid end.

Susan Steele-Ward:

Mm-hmm. Still happening to them, but...

Joshua Feinberg:

The hardest part with digital transformation is people! Behavior change is a big one. Susan, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today and to give our viewers and listeners a sense of how you got to where you are in your career, your favorite tips for those new to accounting services, those that need a little bit of a reboot or recharge, the big mistake that new clients seem to make before they arrive at your doorstep, and where you see the industry headed next. What's the best way for someone to learn more about the work that you do at Pathways and to potentially connect with you if they want to follow up or have any questions?

Susan Steele-Ward:

We have a Pathway email, which is pathway “at” pbmares.com, and then also on our website at pbmares.com, they can also request additional information there or just look on our website. There's a lot of information about what we do also.

Joshua Feinberg:

Awesome. Are you active on social media? Are you active on LinkedIn? Is that a good place for professional colleagues to reach out to you, as well?

Susan Steele-Ward:

Yes. Mm-hmm.

Joshua Feinberg:

Awesome. Okay, great. Yeah, I'll make sure I include links to all of those in the show notes, and the blog that goes out with this but Susan, thanks so much for sharing your words of wisdom and helpful advice. This has been really fascinating to hear from you today, and I wish you all the best in growing your practice at Pathways for PBMares and new clients.

Susan Steele-Ward:

Thank you very much, and I'm sure we'll be talking again.

 

What's your favorite outsourced accounting tip? And what did you find most valuable from this podcast interview with Susan Steele-Ward? Let us know in the Comments section below.

Learn even more about client accounting services (CAS) when you download the free report: The State of Client Accounting Services and Outsourced Accounting.

 

Download your free copy of The State of Client Accounting Services and Outsourced Accounting.

 

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