Accountants tell all: How they built their people-first CAS strategy

Accountants tell all: How they built their people-first CAS strategy

Hey. I’m Jaclyn, and I lead ProAdvisor Training and Certification at QuickBooks. It’s an honor to build the education that empowers our community to deliver bookkeeping, accounting, and advisory services to clients.

Having been of service to accountants for more than 7 years, I’ve experienced the evolution of Client Advisory Services (CAS) firsthand, and witnessed how successful firms differentiated themselves from their peers by taking a people-first approach.

The future of CAS is people-first is a five-part series that lays out the benefits of investing in your people, and empowering them to excel through a mix of professional development, mentoring, and community. My hope is that it inspires you to put your team at the heart of your strategy, and through doing so, enables you to deliver the meaningful services clients so desperately need.

In this series, I’ve focused a lot on why it’s so important to build a people-first CAS practice. I’ve talked about the link between business strategy and people strategy, the importance of continuous learning, and even firm organizational structure and how that structure impacts job performance.

We’ve gone over some different resources for tracking progress toward individual and company goals, as well as tips for identifying and growing your team’s craft skills. I’ve also shared some inside knowledge about how our leadership team here at Intuit guides and supports professional growth.

Now, I’ve asked three experts from separate accounting firms to share a little about their company’s Client Advisory Services (CAS) experiences and strategies:

Accountants tell all: How they built their people-first CAS strategy


Number of employees: 137

Location: Atlanta HQ + remote

Kenji Kuramoto, CEO & founder of Acuity, started seriously building out his firm’s CAS offering in 2004. “... before anyone, including me, knew what CAS was,” he says.

“We were 100% focused on building an outsourced accounting firm from day one. So all of our firm’s roles have been geared toward that instead of roles at traditional accounting firms. As we have grown and scaled, new roles have been created.”

At Acuity, that includes an onboarding team that’s solely focused on onboarding new clients, account management to focus on retention of clients, pod leaders who “break our teams up into smaller more intimate groups,” and a dedicated outbound sales team.

Over time, upskilling has remained a priority. “Our upskilling has been in two areas,” explains   Kuramoto. “First, many of our transactional accounting roles are beginning to disappear due to technology improvements, so we've had to train up to higher-level skills that haven't been automated. Second, as our team has grown, more individual contributors have moved into managerial roles, so we've had to upskill in leadership and managerial training to help them make that transition.”

To keep track of his team’s upskilling efforts, Kuramoto says his firm uses a formal annual review process, involving each employee’s manager. Less formal goal-setting and tracking occurs within teams, and is led by pod leaders all year long.

“It affects our company growth initiatives significantly because it gives us data on how many team members are looking to grow into new roles, and how fast we'd need to grow as a company to accommodate their personal growth plans; 100% of new roles are always offered to existing team members internally before we post for it externally, so balancing individual and company growth goals is very important to us.”

As for Acuity’s own culture of learning, Kuramoto says professional growth and learning are two of his team’s top priorities.

“Helping facilitate their learning is critical in remaining an employer of choice,” he explains. "One of our core values is ‘curiosity,’ which we define as being ‘forward-looking, future-oriented, and highly adaptable in the way we pursue creative ideas and think about new solutions.’ Said another way, we have a culture of being continual learners, which is the best way to help small businesses in this fast-paced world.”

CLA (CliftonLarsonAllen LLP)

Number of employees: 8,500+

Location: Nearly 130 offices across the United States

Heidi Grinde is CLA’s CAAS nonprofit principal (CAAS being an alternate acronym for CAS). She says the firm first began focusing on CAS approximately 15 to 20 years ago. “At that point, we weren’t just dabbling in it, but instead it was a key area we were building out,” she explains. 

As for how the initiative began, Grinde says the process was absolutely people-first. “CLA leads with an entrepreneurial spirit, meaning when the decision was made to really build out our CAAS practice, opportunities were created for our teams. Many people who historically focused on audit or tax had the opportunity to shift and help build out an entirely new service offering at CLA.” 

It’s a tradition that has continued over the years, as the firm—and its CAS offerings—has grown. “Roles created have really evolved and changed. We have built out staff accountants to CFO roles, as well as various technology roles, internal leadership roles, quality roles, and others.”

To help team members take on those new roles, Grinde says it was important to make upskilling available and accessible. “I was one of those people who made an internal shift to help build out our CAAS practice. For myself, I had the technical knowledge, but I needed to learn how to actually book the journal entry in the various systems we needed to make.”

Grinde says CLA also made the decision to look outside the firm for new hires with existing CAS knowledge. “We have also hired externally for talent, as needed, to help us build out our CAAS practice. There are many talented people that have come into CLA with a CAAS background that were really impactful, or came from a different industry, bringing with them all of their lived experiences, lending our CAAS practice a diverse collective of backgrounds and voices.”

As for continuous learning, Grinde says, “CLA focuses heavily on ensuring learning is a big part of our culture. The world is changing at an incredible pace, and if we didn’t stay on top of learning, we would not be able to provide the level of service we seek to provide to all of our clients. The more you empower your teams to feel knowledgeable about what they do, the better equipped they are to feel confident in their work. When you feel confident, the sky's the limit.”

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The more you empower your teams to feel knowledgeable about what they do, the better equipped they are to feel confident in their work.

Full Send Finance

Number of employees: 5

Location: Boulder, Colorado

“There's a lot of debate around what CAS is and what it means,” says Roman Villard, CPA and founder of Full Send Finance. “I like to think of our services as having two distribution methodologies. One, we've got recurring accounting work that fits all of the rhythms of an accounting department on an outsourced basis for our clients; and two, we have non-recurring, which is a little bit more strategic, more ad hoc, more customized and tailored to our clients. Both of those approaches fall under a CAS offering, as we believe advisory is a type of relationship with your client rather than a type of service.”

Like Kuramoto at Acuity, Villard started his firm with a strong CAS foundation, right from the beginning. “That decision didn’t impact the team at all, because it was just me,” he says. “Now, five out of the five members of our team are advisors—supporting clients with system integrations, data cleansing, cash management and resourcing, and financial reviews.”

Full Send Finance is a new and rapidly growing accounting firm. Villard says he’s already looking ahead to the next couple of hires, whom he hopes will further elevate his clients’ CAS experience. 

“One of the most critical roles that will come to fruition here in the coming year is an onboarding manager. Every client has its own nuances, systems and products and the way that they've done things historically. Even if you try to put them in the same tech stack or put them in the same category as another client, there's always going to be some degree of friction and challenge to get them into the type of processes that you want to utilize to manage their account effectively. And so I can see a very clear role for an onboarding manager.”

In addition, Villard expects to bring on a head of customer success. “Having a direct point of contact that manages the relationship with the client will support not only our CAS strategy, but the success of our clients." 

Because Full Send Finance is new on the scene and its team members are new hires, upskilling hasn’t been as much of a focus as simply hiring for the right fit and skills. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been significant training, or that a culture of continuing education isn’t already in the works.

“Client management—client service—is definitely one of those things that is a constant conversation and learning opportunity for all of us,” he explains. "We have a core value that's simply, ‘Ship Daily.’ Ship Daily effectively means you're doing everything you can to create something new, to deliver something to a client, to further yourself, professionally or personally, on any given day.”

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We have a core value that's simply, ‘Ship Daily.’ Ship Daily effectively means you're doing everything you can to create something new, to deliver something to a client, to further yourself, professionally or personally, on any given day.

In a physical sense, Villard says that Ship Daily also applies to resources. “It means that we are always going to be open to utilizing the absolute best tools—the best systems—for our clients, no matter how challenging a transition may be. If something new comes along, we want to make sure we are doing our absolute best to understand the landscape that we operate in, within our industry, to ensure that we're delivering the absolute best product and service.” 

As part of his firm’s company culture of fun and continuous learning, Full Send hosts a yearly company hackathon. “It's very different for a CAS practice to have a hackathon, because you generally think of that as something a development team or a tech company would do. For us, what that effectively means is every team member has a full day, and a full opportunity, to work in different styles and with different people. It's also to ask, ‘What are the areas of my day-to-day work, or with a specific client, that feel really sticky? Or that I feel a lot of friction? And what are some solutions that we can look at to break free of that?’”

For Villard, the event is a hackathon in the sense that he’s asking his team to think critically about ways to improve their current state, whether it’s linked to the work itself, to a client, or even to the firm’s way of doing things. 

When asked how he helps his team members grow professionally, Villard says that effort starts during the hiring process. “Ultimately, what we want to understand when we are interviewing and bringing on board any team member, is what their professional and personal goals are. So, professionally, we might ask, Where do you envision yourself in five years? What are the types of clients—the types of industries—that really get you excited?” 

Interestingly, most people don’t have a clear idea of where, specifically, they want to go or what types of goals they have for themselves. Villard says some might have a position in mind, but not necessarily an industry or a fully formed idea of the roles involved in that space. “So we try to take that professional goal and then architect their journey as an employee to align with the direction of where they want to go personally, knowing that it will likely change and pivot and flex over the course of their career." 

On a personal level, Villard looks at what motivates and drives his team, whether it’s time off, money, or even experiences. He then ties those personal goals back to the firm’s goals—linking business strategy to people strategy. 

As a small firm, Villard says his team currently works in 12-week cycles, setting short-term milestones and deadlines. “It's really important for us to ensure that we're revisiting our goals on a more frequent basis than just monthly, quarterly, and annually."

Accountants tell all: How they built their people-first CAS strategy

How will you build your firm’s CAS strategy?

There’s no precisely right way to run a CAS firm or build out a CAS offering. But constructing that offering with a people-first mindset is imperative to success. After all, it’s the people you work with who will uphold your CAS goals and, over time, continue to develop them for long-term success.

Read the rest of our CAS series

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