I’m a huge fan of working anywhere except my office. In fact, one of the main reasons I started my own business almost 10 years ago was to have no one to boss me around (just kidding)! Actually, the real benefit of running my own office was that it was a way to have more flexibility and control over my own schedule. Back then, I had a not quite 2-year-old daughter and sending her to daycare all day, every day was killing me. Not to mention the stress if she was sick and I had to call in. I know that many of you are contemplating moving your practice online, so hopefully my experience and what I learned along the way will help make the transition a smooth one for you and your clients.
So how did I make the jump to moving my practice online? Well, it was 2003, and I was working full time as a bookkeeper for a plumbing company, and while I really liked the people I worked with, I found that I could still do my job effectively without being in the same office with them or eight hours a day. The afternoons were mostly spent calling in building inspections; I had a Palm Pilot with a database of all the active jobs we had going on and all the critical information – Lot numbers, building department phone numbers, and permit numbers. When requests for these inspections were called in by crews, I realized I could easily manage them by updating and syncing them from my Palm Pilot to the file on my computer. Basically I COULD TOTALLY WORK REMOTELY. I let my boss know this, but unfortunately, he didn’t understand and thought I had to be in front of my computer to track everything. He wanted me at the office – so while I waited for that handful of calls to roll in every afternoon, he paid me to sit in my office, playing Euchre on Yahoo.
In 2004, after working as a contracted bookkeeper for a number of clients as a “side job” for about a year or so, I realized that I needed to make a major decision: it seemed I wasn’t going get the raise at my full time job that I’d been promised, and my client list was growing. I wasn’t quite at a place where the clients replaced the job’s income… But I was CLOSE. As soon as I joined the ProAdvisor Program and became certified, I was able to get enough to make the jump. I gave my notice, formed my company and was on my own!
It wasn’t until 2007, when I was pregnant with my son and wanted to take more than the one week off that I had with my daughter (yeah, you read that right, I got to take a week off while I worked for that plumbing company), that I really began to understand how everything I was doing for clients could be done from my own office – or really anywhere. I wanted to recover and take care of this new little person, but still wanted to serve my clients, all of which I had long term relationships with. Knowing that moving my clients online would enable me to do both, I started the process of converting clients to this model. I offered my clients a 5-10% drop in monthly fees, since I didn’t have the unbillable drive time, so they immediately saw a benefit. I was able to stay home with our son and spend so much more time him and our daughter, so my family immediately saw a benefit as well
The most surprising thing was that because I had more spare time, I was able to start posting answers to help forums, which people from all over were seeing. I started getting clients who were scattered across the country and whom I immediately set up remotely. With this new business model, I went from having a 100% local client base that I used to have drive all over the place to service, to having about 75-80% out of state, the rest local and all but one client was remote! My transition to an online business was complete – and I’ve never looked back.
If I could do it, you can do it. Here’s my step-by-step guide to moving to a remote practice. Some parts may work for you, and some may not. You may find that you need to switch the order around. Each practice is different, and we all have different clients, but there are certainly similarities in their expectations of us, and “I’ll get back to you tomorrow when I’m in my office” doesn’t really fly anymore. That being said, I really hope this is helpful to you!
Step 1: Join the QuickBooks U.S. ProAdvisor Program or the UK/Australia ProCloud Partner program, depending on your global location. I truly recommend this. Both programs offer resources to grow your practice. While I can’t speak to the specifics of the ProCloud Partner Prorgam (it’s brand new), I can about the ProAdvisor program. As a member, you get product discounts, ongoing training & product certification, free QuickBooks Online Accountant, a dedicated account manager, assistance with marketing your practice and much more. Within two months of joining the U.S. ProAdvisor program, I had billed enough through engagements facilitated by the FindAProAdvisor.com website that my fees to join the program were paid for!
Step 2: Find the technology that will allow you to work remotely. This needs to be in place before you can really start. For me, it was generally a combination of QuickBooks Online and using Teamviewer.com to remote into client computers. QuickBooks Online (and QuickBooks Online Accountant) have allowed me and my clients to work on the data independently – even at the same time if necessary. Unless I’m doing support or training, I don’t log into a client’s computer to for bookkeeping tasks. As much as I truly love the Teamviewer program (and still use it to log in to my home computer), I found that the logistics of logging into a client computer was sort of buggy because sometimes they would forget to leave the computer on, or the program wouldn’t be running, or they might still be working when I tried to log on.
You also need to consider the hardware. I decided to switch to Mac in 2012 so that I can support all of my clients. The ones using QuickBooks Mac, QuickBooks Online I can do this with native software, and I service QuickBooks Pro, Premier and Enterprise clients with a hosting service.
Step 3: Offer an incentive for existing clients to go remote (if they resist). Explain that you are still able to serve them, and possibly serve them even better, because you won’t be wasting time traveling from one appointment to the next all day. I determined my savings in fuel, time and mileage and passed it along to clients as a reduction in their flat monthly fees. They liked that! I asked the ones that were REALLY resistant to try it for one month, and if they really didn’t like it, I would be more than happy to refer them to another local QuickBooks expert. Out of all of my clients, I ended up only losing one after the switch to remote.
Step 4:. Bring any new clients on as remote right away. Find a system that works for you, and explain to prospective clients that is your process and what the benefits are from their perspective. I let possible new clients know that we will most likely be working with QuickBooks Online and some SaaS add ons like SOSInventory.com and Bill.com. In those early days, if I encountered reluctance, I’d offer a “first month free” option. These days, if the prospect resists, I simply very politely offer to refer them to someone else.
Step 5:Provide value/flat fee pricing. Back in the days of having to go from one onsite appointment to another, I billed hourly. It made sense. These days, with the automation options available in online software, combined with the always-on access, I offer flat fee pricing and monthly billing. I have an in depth interview with the client regarding options, expectations and existing workflow. Together, we determine what roles and responsibilities each of us will have, and then I determine a fee per month. We both sign an engagement letter, then the client signs an authorization form allowing me to charge their credit card or do an EFT payment each month. This simplifies billing for me, establishes clear expectations between me and the client, makes budgeting easy for them, and doesn’t penalize me for being super efficient and therefore billing fewer hours!
Step 6: Specialize. Find a niche – whether it’s software applications (like I did with QuickBooks Online and other mobile solutions), a feature (Inventory) or an industry (health care providers), find something to specialize in and become an expert in that area. Get to a point where when people in your community think of this specialty, they think of YOU and only you!
Step 7: Market yourself! Guess who had NO advertising/marketing budget when she started out? THIS CHICK. Today, with social media, marketing is so much easier. As some of you may know, I’m also the cohost of Radio Free QuickBooks. Using primarily social media, we were able to go from 12 listeners a week to over 10,000 in less than two years and we did it with nary a dime to spend on marketing. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and blog posts are very cheap, and the ROI is phenomenal! Help forums are also HUGE to build your brand! I have had so many clients contact me to say thank you because an answer I posted on a help forum or a blog article I’ve written helped them with a similar question. YouTube, Vine, iGivit and other video options are also a great way to show the world all the stuff you have to offer!
Step 8: Use video conferencing apps, to “meet” your clients. One prospect I had been emailing back and forth with a bit was slightly hesitant to hire me – until we did a short Google Hangout. There really is nothing better than getting to actually chat face to face with people – even if it’s remotely. (For the record, one of the things that finally sold them was my nosy cat that ignores me until the webcam turns on, then she paces back and forth in front of me on the desk!). With so many choices, and many of them free or very low cost – Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangout, Fuze, iVisit, Webex – it shouldn’t be hard to find one (or more) that works for you and your clients.
Step 9: Create your own network. I wouldn’t be able to support my current group of varied clients without a strong network of colleagues – people that do what I do, but not exactly. For example, I’m not an expert in ecommerce, but Jim Savage is. I refer people to Dawn Brolin when they’re looking for help with a Not for Profit. For franchise setup and training, my girl Christine Galli is the go-to. It works both ways as I also have colleagues referring clients to me with questions about best practices with QuickBooks Online or other mobile applications.
Step 10: Form strategic alliances. Work with people outside your industry – quality service providers and products that you can use and feel comfortable recommending to your clients, and with which you can trade referrals. For instance, I have a business coach that I can refer clients to if I see they need help with focus and planning, and she refers clients that need help with their back office technology or processes. Become an expert in a software application and build a relationship with the developer; join an affiliate program, such the ones Avalara.com, Acctivate.com or Mavenlink.com each have.
Step 11: Build a good website, and put a blog on it. You don’t have to update it every day – once every week or so is fine. Ask people to contribute content to it – clients, vendors, and colleagues – I guarantee almost everyone that you ask to write a 300-400 word piece will most likely gladly do so. Who turns down free advertising? I know I don’t!
Over the next few weeks, I plan on doing additional posts to expand on each of these items here, so keep checking back for updates!
I want to close with a few quotes from colleagues on ways to look at and take on this process:
Peter Cullen recently wrote for the Intuit Accountant Blog and offered a great bit of advice onhow his practice made the transition to online services: “…we start out by communicating the value to our client of performing accounting services in the cloud. We educate the client on “the cloud” and exactly what the transition means…”
Christine Galli (the co-author of the original U.S. ProAdvisor Certification exam, something her and I have in common, although my only claim to fame is being one of many original co-authors of the QBO Certification!). Christine gave me this nugget: “Think of QuickBooks Online as a meeting place for your professional team. Don’t hold the information hostage from others that can help elevate your practice and your client’s business.”
My last bit of advice comes from colleague Jim Savage: “The best way to get your practice online is to find someone who you respect and do the same thing they did.” Yep. Pretty much.
No go do it! Start with one client and see how it goes. You won’t be disappointed, and my guess is you’ll never look back.