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Lessons Learned: Client Onboarding

Published by Summit Marketing Team on 09 Feb 2022

The Virtual CPA Success Show: Episode 53


In the first quarter of 2020, we published an episode and talked all about client onboarding. We wondered what has changed at Summit CPA since? And thought why not circle back on this topic to discover the lessons we've learned.

In this episode, Jamie Nau, our host and Summit CPA's Director of Accounting/Virtual CFO; Adam Hale, our COO and Co-founder; Lydia Rapp, our Project Manager takes a step back to look at how far we've come in terms of onboarding clients and deep dive into the fundamentals of having a reliable process in place.





Jamie Nau: Hello, everybody. Welcome to today's podcast. Very excited about today's topic and today's guest. So almost two years ago, we did our first podcast on onboarding. It was our 11th episode. If you want to go back and re-listen to that episode, you can get a little bit more of the details at that time. I think as Adam told us before this podcast, we're a little more structured, a little bit more robotic in the way we approached the podcast. So, we thought this time we would go into a little bit more detail and talk about our lessons learned. As as we mentioned in that podcast, it's been a while since I've listened to it, but one thing we always talk about when it comes to onboarding is really being flexible and being adaptable. So, we've learned a lot of lessons. So hopefully our listeners can learn from us and move forward. So today we are joined by our Project Management Specialist, our Onboarding Specialist, the one that gets all our clients started, Lydia. So welcome to the show. 

Lydia Rapp: Hi, good to see everybody. 

Jamie Nau: And of course, Adam Hale, who is the overseer of all things accounting. All right, Lydia, let’s get this started. I know you started shortly after we did that podcast and you've really helped our onboarding process. 

Adam Hale : Hang on, Jamie. I have to interrupt though. Hang on. First lesson learned, this is the biggest one. Lydia. So like you said, she started after we put that together and we thought we had everything figured out, but part of that journey was knowing that it really be the CFO or the senior accountant. We really needed somebody outside of that role. So of course the next question always becomes, okay, cool. So you have a Lydia, you know, what are the attributes. By the way she's fantastic. You cannot LinkedIn her and try to steal her away. She's ours. She signed some kind of 10 year contract or something she doesn't know about it. But anyway with that though, what always is said is like, you know, what are the attributes? Of course, she's very detailed oriented and she can keep everybody on task. Like she's very gifted with that. So of course that means your CPA, and Lydia you have about 10 or 15 years of experience in public accounting.

Lydia Rapp: I actually love that being an accountant in this role, it makes the lanes like super defined. And when we get into like a technical conversation with a client, I'm kind of just a traffic director. I say, well, I can tell you where to go to get that question answered and who on our team is the right person to talk to, and how we can build a solution for you? But I'm definitely not the do’er when it comes to the accounting at all. I have enough knowledge to be really dangerous. So I try not to be dangerous and just kind of put people in the right place. 

] Jamie Nau: Adam set that up, but that is a path we went down. I think Lydia is our fourth onboarding hire that we've tried out and the one that's worked the best for us. I think the mistake we made in the past was let's turn an accountant or let's turn a CFO into an onboarding specialist. And we made that mistake a couple of times. I mean, they worked out and we got through the onboardings, but to Lydia's point, having someone that is really focused on project management and organization and can step aside from the accounting stuff has been super helpful for us. So I think that is definitely key for us in the terms of the first lesson learned.

Adam Hale: Yeah. I mean, you know, detail oriented isn't always permission to play with most accounts. So you definitely want to make sure you have the right person, but being a technical PM, you know, one that that knows how to do all that stuff is good. You know, that they can kind of call stuff out, but if the person that you have, like we have Lydia and Miranda who can kind of, you know, see the field and understand and just kind of say, no, that's not the way it's supposed to be. You know, and question things way more impactful because the technical PMs have a tendency to jump in and get swallowed up in whenever you're onboarding a lot of clients at once. You know, that makes things a little bit more difficult. Yeah, what's your number one Lydia. 

Lydia Rapp: You mentioned Miranda. Who's another member of our onboarding team too. So we basically, we took that program that we built a couple of years ago and have now scaled it out into our firm, which has been. It was because we had such a solid structure, it was easy to kind of like drop another person into that and have them kind of just carry forward what we've already built and everything we've already learned. And the other thing I do want to call out is that I learned so much in this first like year. I had experienced kind of overseeing a finance department, but I worked with accountants who did all of the technical accounting. I kind of had an understanding of how processes worked, but I definitely had a big learning curve coming into learning what needed to be a priority and really listening to the clients and listening to the accounting team and figuring out how to dertmine when we're slipping over here and I need to redirect, or this is how a really great process looks and what is happening. Like if the client is asking for something that's out of scope. So there's been a lot of learning and I think a pretty key trait for this role is to be somebody who's really curious and is always willing to learn something new because nothing is ever going to stop. Like every new client is going to bring something in that is a little bit different or have a little bit different personality set when they come into the group or have different expectations. You have to have that knowledge and structure to be able to identify when something is going off the rails. If that's what helps you be adaptable. 

Jamie Nau: Oh, that's really important. I think having that baseline part of the question really makes it easy. If I were to pop into an onboarding process and ask the same question you’d get different answers because you can ask it this way. So I'm not an accountant, but can you explain why we're doing these 12 steps? Can we just get by with six and people have to explain it to you. Then eventually you get to the right point and it's like, oh wait yeah, six would've worked. I think that's really helped our processes become way more efficient. 

Adam Hale: Yeah, I would also say we didn't feel that learning curve though Lydia with you. And the reason being is because you over-communicated. So that's another thing that, you know, most accountants we're not the most effective communicators in the world. You were, and so whenever things didn't seem right or didn't sound right or things were off the rails, you were very quick to start pulling other people in either the people directly on the account or Jamie or somebody else and saying, hey, like this doesn't pass the sniff test what do I do next? And you were able to then take that direction and run with it. So learning curve again, we didn't feel it because of your ability to also communicate in that role. So a lot of times people are like, that's great that you can afford to have somebody in this role, but what do they do the rest of their time? Because apparently you're super bored Lydia. I think we somehow, for some reason we pay you 40 hours a week, but you probably only work what like 10 or so. Is that right? Or does Jamie keep you busy. 

Lydia Rapp: I like sipping margaritas.

All: Laughing [in audible]

Lydia Rapp: Yeah. I think the other thing that we spent a lot of time on was evaluating the systems and making sure it's delivered outcomes that we want. So Miranda and I actually like, at the end of last year, we did a big kind of evaluation where we went in to see what can we change and tweak to make it more efficient and effective for the client. Then the other thing that happens, Adam and Jamie you all tagged me in it lots of other projects internally for the firm. So you know, how do we roll out this new tool or system really effectively? Can you build some resources for our team? How do we track it? I think like having that skillset of just knowing how to work with a lot of different types of stakeholders. I think the other skill to have that's been really formative for me. My whole life is a sense of urgency that I was taught way back in the day when I was working in restaurants, like how to hit that gas pedal when you need to realize when things were going off the rails. I think the reason you didn't feel my learning curve is there were parameters in place when I came on onboarding. So once I put the tools in place and I could see, oh man, this thing is going to take five weeks and we're going to be really far off. It just gave me some guideposts to be able to ask the right kind of questions. That translates into a lot of other stuff, which is why I think you keep giving me more projects. So I'm very heavily busy, 40 sometimes plus hours, 

Jamie Nau: Yeah. I think the project manager is something that if you're a firm like us, that is always changing, like you want to make sure you have them in place on every project because we’ve learned accountants aren't the best project managers. I want to get to lesson number two and you mentioned it in the first way you answered that question about structure. So, I think lesson number two is that when you come into onboarding you have to come in as the experts. You have to say, we've done a 200 onboardings over the past seven to eight years. We know what we're doing here. Trust us. This is our processes. So how do they work. Do you want to expand on that a little bit. Of how we introduced that to the client? 

Lydia Rapp: Yeah, I think one of the big things we do is in that kickoff call, we start the relationship by leading from the front. And that's a really big deal kind of telling them what to expect. Really spending some time listening to what it is that they're looking for and starting to build that consulting relationship. This is in our kickoff calls to see a focus, the opportunity to really start digging into some of the things that the client is looking for. And honestly, the way we've structured our kickoff. 80% of the kickoff call is just letting the CFO and the client kind of start to have those conversations, which is huge. We listen and we hear the things that are most important to them. And that's what lets us take a look at our structure and go, okay, how do we call out those things for the client that they can start to feel the progress. Even if we're doing something that's really boring for them, like cleaning up account reconciliations, you know? Because that has to be done no matter what we can't deliver. Good financials. So, yeah, I think that kickoff calls are really, really key. I mean, you touched on it earlier about how we set expectations for communication and just about everything else. Then I think the sales process is pretty critical for that too. We always watch the videos that Adam and Jody make during their sales process. And that really gives us some good information about what types of conversations have happened already to kind of lay the foundation of the relationship. For instance, we had a client recently who came on and we batch work, right? So in Virginia for accounts receivable means we're not sending invoices out every day. You know, we're sending invoices out weekly and there was a sales conversation about potentially tweaking their AR process to kind of fit into the batching. And that was important to the client. The time came to actually have that conversation about changing the process. There are all these roadblocks that were thrown up and people saying no, no, no, we can't change anything. And we were able to kind of go back to that source conversation and remind them, well, we talked about this initially and here's where the rubber meets the road. I think setting those expectations really early in terms of how we're successful. And the way we deliver our services is so key and so critical. And then referencing back to the client, because we do so much in onboarding. You know, it's really easy to maybe forget some of those little details, but once you have that core structure and knowledge, and the team is really knowledgeable about it and engaged, it makes it easy to navigate those bumps when they come.

Adam Nau: Yeah, I was going to say, we definitely want to back that up to the sales process because there was a lot of disconnect a lot of times between sales and onboarding and then ultimately delivery. And so we spent an awful lot of time making sure everybody was educated. Because the other thing that you have to be cautious about bringing in a project manager or somebody like Lydia that we hit early on was, the CFOs or the senior accountants that we have on the account don't necessarily take ownership or responsibility for some things because they have Lydia. They have this project manager in place. So they lean on her naturally through some of her duties to review accounts and to review details and processes and assimilate that kind of stuff for them. Ultimately the CFO still has to understand all that stuff pretty intuitively because they're going to be the architect of the financial information. So making sure that everybody kind of understands their roles and as a salesperson, what that meant was making sure that I take the edges off of what Lydia is going to have to deliver and what the CFO's going to have to deliver during the onboarding process. So having those preemptive conversations about no, we batch stuff, this is how it works. This is what we're going to do in onboarding. This is what we're not going to do in onboarding and being very explicit, I guess, in those calls, and then recording them as Lydia mentioned is definitely a great way to do it. You can send that link to the client whenever you get done with the call. So the client appreciates that, and then we can repurpose that so that the team can hear firsthand from the client the issues that they were talking about. So I definitely think it starts with the sales process and then it should be mirrored exactly. I do think that we had some, I wouldn't say terminology differences because I think we thought we understood each other, but sometimes there wasn't as much clarity there with the clients. 

Jamie Nau: Yeah I think the this is a lesson learned. Hopefully those listening are really taking this from us and not don't learn by losing a client or having an unhappy client. But if you go into a process like AR, like Lydia mentioned. In your mind, AR means, yeah, we're going to batch, we're going to send invoices twice a month and we're going to hold all the invoices until that time. And the client comes in and says, no, we need you to do it daily. Without a project manager that understands those perimeters what's going to happen is we're going to start doing them daily and eventually we're going to fail and it's going to be six months down the road and the client's like, you guys are terrible. And then we go and look at the process and it's like, well, it's because we're spending 35 hours a week on daily AR. Then you end up getting in disagreements with the clients. The client's not happy. Where if we have someone like a Lydia who understands that from day one, the second, the client asks that one question you can squash any issues.

Lydia Rapp: Yeah. We have that structure of onboarding and that's what basically guides that, you know, we go through all of the processes, even if we're not taking them on with a new client and just kind of make sure we have a really thorough understanding as the non-accountant in the room. I always tell everybody I'm going to ask a lot of silly questions and ask tons of questions to this day. I probably will for the rest of the time that I'm in this role. I also ask for agreement, which I think is a really powerful tool to use in a conversation with somebody. I like to make sure that if I say something or present something there's agreement in the room that we're all on the same page, because sometimes it's easy to gloss over a point that might actually be something really important to the client. And we're not all speaking the same language or hearing the same thing. So we do that in person in the conversation. Then we also document and send the documentation over to them and say, here's what we've got. If you have any feedback, let us know. We're hitting the ground running with this. So we always have kind of that breadcrumb trail to follow if issues do come up. One of the big keys that we identify and onboarding is that some services on the SOW might not be a great fit. That's the perfect time to identify that, you know, AR is maybe one of the biggest examples where somebody goes, oh yeah, I can change our process. Like I think we can make this work and hand it off to you. And then they find out that, you know, there's something really specific about the way that they service their customers that doesn't line up with the batching that we would have to do. And that is a valuable process for everybody that makes sure, like Jamie said, that we're not just going, oh yeah, we can do that for you and continuing down the road for six months and setting everybody up for failure. We've learned a lot in the last few years for sure. 

Adam Hale: Yeah you want to be careful because obviously the clients signed the SOW that we're going to do something. So you don't want to always just be really loose about it and say, hey, we may or may not do this. Let's find out, but we try to in the sales call, just be like, hey, you know, assuming these kinds of things this is what we'll be able to do, but just still kind of reiterating the fact that it is a discovery process. And then hopefully Lydia that carries through, again to that kickoff call. It’s like hey, I'm going to dive in here and we should be good. You know, the assumption should be that we're good to go. But then leaving that little bit out that, you know, and if we come back and things can't get change then we might have to revisit the SOW. That kind of a thing, that way nobody's caught off guard or frustrated more than they need to be. 

Lydia Rapp: And is a little bit more rare, but it definitely is one of the big lessons that we've learned over the last couple of years that being mindful of scope creep. That is really important and for onboarding and making sure that if the client drops a priority that we're all on the same page in terms of what success means for that priority specifically. Because it might be something that sounds really broad and big picture. I'm like, oh yeah, we can do that because we tell the CFO consulting umbrella is really big, right? Like, ask us to do that and we'll tell you if we can't or we can. I think what I've kind of learned in my role is that sometimes the team needs help defining if something is in or out of scope, especially if it's high level. Like not a specific ask, like, oh, can you do this one thing for me? Or can you do this other thing for me? So I try to stay really close to it as we're building that relationship and kind of helping the accounting team understand the expectations of the client and making sure that we're staying within this scope.

Adam Hale: Yeah. I think also, I mean, you know, your role as a PM there, you also are kind of playing the role of an account manager as well, right? So you're again, rounding edges, making sure everybody's kind of doing their same thing, but you're communicating quite often with the client. You know, sometimes it's just weekly email updates, but we also have a tool that you use and you kind of monitor on a weekly basis that kind of turns you into that kind of interference person. If the team maybe isn't, you know, backing up what we're saying, we're able to do kind of a thing, right? 

Lydia Rapp: Yeah. We use Ask Nicely for all of our surveys with our clients. So in onboarding, they get once a week or are getting a five-star survey, asking them how we're doing. And then once a month after onboarding, which was really great because sometimes the client and our accounting team has a hard time figuring out what is causing the issue and kind of defining the problem and having someone like me in the account management role who's been there through the onboarding process who can be like another sounding board to bounce a problem off of without, you know, feeling like an attack to somebody. It just really kind of helps move out the relationship.

Jamie Nau: I think having you there during the onboarding helps. It's not like you're a third party coming in and being like, we got a three rating. Let's talk about it. You're there and you can kind of understand that, you know, they mentioned this one thing that isn't going well, and I've seen it, or this is why it's not going well. So I think the fact that you're involved in that makes a lot of sense. 

[00:20:11] Adam: Yeah. If anybody's listening and they're like, how do I afford this role? Remember it's like a PM role and AM. As Lydia mentioned earlier, she helps out with a ton of internal projects. So onboarding doesn't necessarily just stop with onboarding the client. It could be that we're onboarding new services and you do just like a little mini onboarding where you bring in Lydia now in the account manager role saying hey, can you roll out this new SOW for the new service? And then she'll kind of step in and just oversee and make sure that it gets executed and it gets lifted. You know, with our clients we are constantly re-introducing Lydia and the project manager role, because she's still kind of at a high level reviewing the account manager stuff. And then, you know, when we can pull her away from Jamie, cause his tasks sort of project manage everything we roll out because we just like our clients have a difficult time rolling out new software, rolling out new plans, rolling out. So she helps to hold the team accountable to getting that stuff executed. 

Jamie Nau: All right. So let's go to the next lesson learned. What’s another lesson learned that we've learned since you started with us Lydia? 

Lydia Rapp: Oh, man. I think like, just not being afraid to push a little bit and fail and have hard conversations. I think sometimes when we get that like Spidey sense that there's a point of conflict coming, sometimes the natural response is to freeze or just like put it in a bucket somewhere and ignore it for a while. And that is always going to make things worse. I think our culture here at Summit is just so great in identifying problems. 

Jamie Nau: I think it's a great point. If you're sensing it, because again, the project manager is the one who understands the engagement overall, right? Like the CFO knows how their one section's going. The accountant on the job understands how the reconciliations are going, but the, the PM is able to sit back when the CFO is presenting something can see the annoyance in their face or you can just sense that okay this isn't how this is normally delivered. I'm going to get ahead of this and reach out and give a call. Even if you're wrong, like it's not going to hurt because they know that you're thinking about it. They know that you're caring about it. So I do think that trusting your gut as the person. That's kind of the overseer of it is a very important point. 

Lydia Rapp: And the team brings stuff to me now, too, which is great. Like sometimes they'll come to me and say hey, Lydia, can you help with this situation? I can tell the client is getting frustrated and, or I can then put on their binoculars and they can see it kind of coming down the road, which is awesome. I think we're starting to see a good place where we have an understanding of like, hey, if we can identify a problem before it happens that's the best place to be in. And that knowledge of the structure and the services and that alignment with the sales team and everything is kind of what gives us that super power, I think, to put on those binoculars and be able to go, okay, if I don't fix this now, the client's going to be real upset about it in two months. So let's have that hard conversation that we need to have now and figure it out versus trying to kick the can down the road.

Jamie Nau: Yeah, I think how you measure success of onboarding is key to, you know, I think when Lydia first started we were pushing. We need all onboardings to be six to eight weeks and we want all our clients to make it through successfully. I think that I've kind of changed the way I look at onboarding a little bit differently. I think the biggest thing to me is one, everything being communicated to the client because sometimes you'll be in an onboarding and you'll be on the sales call and this is going to be an easy onboarding. Then you get into the week one opening meeting and everything is going fine, but then you go and look in their books and it's a disaster. It's like books you've never seen before. So that onboarding is going to take a lot longer because we don't have the resources to spend 40 hours a week. It may take us five weeks to even get to the point where most of our clients are in week one. Does that make it an unsuccessful onboarding? No, but what would make an unsuccessful onboarding is if we're doing all that work and the client's not aware of it, then the client would be like, you sold us. 

Lydia Rapp: Yeah, I think that's a really great point because another thing we've really learned over the last couple of years is what does done look like? Because you're going to run into people that have all sorts of different expectations on pacing. Like we've had clients come on and be like, what's the fastest you've ever done anon-party? Those are often the people that I kind of like stop telling them how many weeks, because I don't want them to be like, oh, it will be finished up next week. If we really feel like we need another conversation the forecast can get into like a good place where we have a consistent cadence moving forward. And then there's some clients that just, you know, their decision-making cycle takes a long time. They've got a lot of stakeholders. They want to do some big things during an onboarding, like changing their general ledger system or rolling out a new payroll processor, you know, and those are the ones that we look at and we can go, well, you know, we might have financials for you in six to eight weeks, but we're going to keep onboarding open a little bit longer so we can make sure by the end of onboarding, we're at a place where everyone feels like we can have a solid cadence. Not that we're not doing new projects and tackling these things, but that those core deliverable services that they signed up for can just come roll moving forward and be delivered at the correct cadence. And, you know, we shoot for eight weeks because we want to keep that pipeline open and available to kind of bring them clients. You know, there's some CFOs that like to go really quick and then some that go a little bit slower and I kind of help with that pacing and the gas pedal. And then if I get confused and I can't tell them where we add that I go ask Jamie, you know, cause that does happen from time to time. Like, I don't know what the problem actually is. This thing is taking four weeks and it should have taken one. 

Adam Hale : She knows better than to ask me. It's always the gas pedal. So yeah. 

Jamie Nau: All right. So we we're getting right to the end here. I want to give you guys final thoughts. I think this was a great add on to our previous podcast. I think we covered some of the things that we've learned over the last couple of years, but any final thoughts, I'll start with you, Adam. 

Adam Hale: Yeah. I would say if you want to know more details, definitely go back and check out that podcast. I think this turned into more of like the role of the project manager, which I think again is probably the single most important piece of our onboarding. So definitely thanks for joining us, Lydia, and being a part of the team. 

Lydia Rapp: Thanks for having me. I really enjoy this job. So if you're looking for somebody who is going to be a good fit, I would say like find a process nerd, like someone who just enjoys making things work and has enough knowledge to be dangerous and has a good sense of urgency. Like it might be a skill set that maybe it looks a little bit non-traditional for a CPA firm, but someone who's just kind of like willing to dig in and learn and be adaptable and can stay organized. That is probably like the biggest key skills that you're looking for in someone for this role. I know before I came on at Summit, I was kind of looking at my resume because I've done so many different things and going like, what the heck am I going to do next? Oh, I have an idea. 

Adam Hale: Right. I saw it in action before she came here. So yeah, I was definitely excited about having her on the team.

Jamie Nau: I'd say process nerds. That's who you love working with because it's so fun to have calm conversations with the process nerd, to be like, I just don't like the way this is going. Can you go in and look at it? They're going to come out with a lot of good ideas, a lot of good details, and the process is going to be way more efficient and everybody knows that. We've talked about it a thousand times on a thousand different podcasts about how process is so important in scaling. So it's having at least one process nerd on the team has been important.

Lydia Rapp: Sometimes I have bad ideas and you guys tell me that and it doesn't hurt my feelings. I'm like okay, that's not the right direction shift.

All: Laughing [in audible] 

Jamie Nau: Awesome. Well, thank you Lydia and Adam. I think this was a great episode. 


Lessons Learned in Client Onboarding


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