Your Firm Operations Guide: The Next Generation

Think beyond the big binder operations manual – creating an interactive knowledge base for employees and clients can be profitable in many ways

From the South Carolina Association for CPAs

There are several important reasons why every CPA firm should create its own operations manual.

Among their essential functions, the first is that it compiles the specific processes and procedures of your firm as a resource for current and future staff. Back in the years when I was in industry, we referred to this knowledge as GIY – “Get It Yourself.”

Perhaps most importantly – the existence of a robust operations manual will increase the value of your firm when you sell.

As we enter the new decade, let’s discuss what I call “Ops Manual 2.0” and the elements of what should make up the next-gen operations manual.

It Should be Digital

The firm of the future will be cloud-based and paperless. A next-gen operations manual should be too. Our firm utilizes a cloud-based ticketing system for internal and external task management, as well as the maintenance of our knowledge base. Current and future accountants, especially Millennials and Gen Z, don’t want to slog through endless pages of a colossal binder of dead trees. In a cloud-based manual, special attention must be paid to the size and accessibility of the information contained therein.

This leads us to …

An example of Frequently Asked Questions about your firm’s services for clients to navigate.

It Should be Searchable in Bite-Sized Information

I was recently at a conference about marketing (my firm’s niche) where I heard several presentations about Millennials and Gen Z. Two takeaways that really stuck out to me came in the form of one statement and one statistic:

Statement: Gen Z doesn’t search. The way they find things on the internet is basically via the

Explore button on Instagram

Statistic: Two-thirds of all mobile searches end in no clicks; two-thirds of all desktop searches end in a click.

Data and knowledge ingestion is becoming more mobile, and your operations manual should be too. Many mobile searches result in “no click” because the information is found in the “Answer Box,” otherwise known as the “Featured Snippet,” and no further digging is required. Featured snippets range from 40-50 words, not nearly long enough to answer complex tax questions, but I point this out to raise awareness about how current and future staff will want to ingest information.

Examples and Hyperlinks Help

In my view, a good operations manual should not be solely text-based. Pictures and screenshots of example scenarios can show staff exactly what “good” looks like, and exactly where to find information. For one client with many investment LLCs, we put together an article with copious screenshots of where to enter the information in our tax software. This arose from a concern of missing one of the many checkboxes needed to complete those returns, and most of those returns were fairly similar.

Additionally, a best practice is to include hyperlinks wherever possible. As an example, our entry for “Why we use DocuSign” includes screenshots taken from the IRS and DocuSign websites, as well as links to DocuSign’s security information and articles discussing electronic signatures.

Consider it to be a Knowledge Base, Not Just a Manual

Our knowledge base has two sections: internal and external. Our internal knowledge base contains articles on firm policies and how-tos, such as the tax client I referenced earlier. It’s essentially a collection of all the interesting situations we run into over time and how to solve them.

However, we also have an external knowledge base our clients can access. We have a link to the knowledge base in their client portal, and they are able to access it to answer frequently asked questions (FAQs). The goal is for clients to have quick and easy access for information without the need to reach out to us and await a response. In that regard, not only is it a benefit to our firm, it’s a value-add for our clients.

We are consistently adding to each knowledge base whenever new and interesting questions or situations arise. Writing knowledge base articles is also a fantastic staff development opportunity, as it includes writing practice and having to step back and think about how to address interesting situations.

Down the line as we build out content, the software we use for our knowledge base will allow us to utilize a chatbot inside our client portal to answer common client questions.

It Should be Continuously Updated

Our firm addresses this in two ways: First, staff are evaluated based on the number and quality of new articles they produce over the course of the year. Second, our knowledge base is monitored based on the last update for each article. As soon as it’s been a year since an article was updated, a support ticket is automatically generated asking the staff member to review and update the entry.

In this way, we are constantly building the breadth of our knowledge base while also ensuring the information therein is up-to-date and accurate.

Small Bites, Big Steps

Our profession should rethink the way we compose our operations manuals. Operations manuals help to develop staff, but also help to increase the value of the firm. The more standardized our operations become, and the better documented they are, the more likely the firm will sell for a higher price when it’s time.

One final thought. I ate breakfast with my grandfather almost every weekend for about 20 years. Grandpa Bob  was an engineer by trade and had passed the engineering licensure exam. When I was studying for, and overwhelmed by, the CPA Exam, he used to say, “It’s like eating an elephant – you have to do it one bite at a time.”

The compilation of a firm operations manual does not need to be an enormous project swiftly accomplished. It can be a living, breathing document that grows and improves over time.

The most important thing is to compile the operations manual of the future in a meaningful and well thought out way, starting today.

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