No Gurus Allowed: Challenges for Accountants in Making Advisory Work Scalable, Profitable & Sustainable

By Posted in - Public Blog on October 30th, 2014 5 Comments

No Gurus Allowed: Challenges for Accountants in Making Advisory Work Scalable, Profitable & Sustainable

One of our core mantras that we keep sharing with accountants and business advisors is, “If you can’t scale it, don’t sell it”.

There’s no point in promoting (or even offering) your service if you can’t:

  • delegate it to team members
  • systemise, automate and standardise large chunks of the process.

The last time I checked, the bottleneck was still at the top of the bottle. And it’s the same with an accounting or advisory business. The bottleneck—in terms of service delivery—is usually at the top, and so the last thing you want as a Principal or Partner in a firm is to promote high-level
advisory services that only the most senior people in the firm can deliver.

If you do, you don’t really have an advisory business at all. It may look like you do, but in reality all you have is a job where you’re selling your personal labour (and smarts) for money.

And it’s a recipe for advisor burnout.

Over the years I’ve heard plenty of public speakers, coaches, consultants and now-defunct franchise groups offer accountants well-meaning but misguided advice such as:

  • You should be a Business Development Advisor to your clients
  • You should advise your clients around their marketing
  • You should become a business coach to your clients.

Trouble is, all of these approaches have failed. Why? Because these services can only be delivered by ‘gurus’—people who are:

  • Highly experienced
  • Highly intelligent
  • Highly creative
  • Highly skilled at selling their ideas (i.e. advising).

Unfortunately, these types of advisors are:

  • Difficult to recruit
  • Difficult to retain
  • Difficult to manage
  • Expensive
  • Often your future competition.

Pursuing these guru-level services as a growth strategy is a guaranteed formula for wasted time, wasted money and frustration.

That’s why one of the rules we teach at our ’Cracking The Code’ Masterclass workshops is, “No Gurus Allowed”. A key objective for a business is to make its offerings scalable, which means:

  • Gurus aren’t needed to deliver the services
  • The processes can be systemised
  • Training can be consistent and thorough
  • The firm can draw from a much larger available labour pool when recruiting
  • The activities can be delegated to less-experienced people
  • The client experience quality and service standards can still be met consistently
  • Target profit margins can be achieved due to less expensive resources required
  • Technology can be used to eliminate or automate steps in the process
  • The processes can combine the high-tech and the ‘high-touch’ to ensure the personal touch is maintained at specific points during service delivery.

Again: if it’s not scalable, don’t sell it.

So why do so many accounting and advisory firms struggle to grow and scale, especially their future-focused, non-compliance advisory services?

To be effective in the non-compliance advisory space, a firm needs to be competent in a three-step continuum:


1. MARKET: If you can’t market the services to educate your existing and prospective clients as to the benefits, there’s no demand. And that means no leads or enquiries.

2. SELL: Even if you can generate interest for your advisory services through effective marketing, you need to be able to convert those leads and enquiries into engagements. Most firms stumble at this point. (See our last post, The Skills Paradox.)

3. DELIVER: There’s no point being able to market and sell advisory services if you don’t have the people and processes to deliver–in a scalable
way–on the promises you’ve made.

As you can see, each competency is a discrete step in the process. The trick is to start at the DELIVER stage by designing scalable services, and then market and sell them. But don’t even think about moving on from the DELIVERY stage until it’s scalable.

And what’s the process for designing scalable services? We methodically step accountants and advisors through it in our Cracking The Code Masterclass hands-on workshops. (You can find out more about it in our Events Calendar.)

One insight into the process is recognising where you and your team are on The Hierarchy of Advisors spectrum:

–7- Innovation –6- Strategy –5- Accountability –4- Questioning –3- Commentary –2- Clarity –1- Compliance

The highest levels of the hierarchy (e.g. Strategy and Innovation) are very difficult to scale because they break the No Gurus Required rule. But if you focus your service mix predominantly at the Compliance level your services will be perceived as commodities, which means you’ll be competing on price.

And that’s not where you want your business to be.

Instead you can design added-value elements to your firm’s advisory services across the Clarity, Commentary, Questioning and Accountability levels that can be delivered by advisors with five to ten years’ experience. You don’t need advisors with decades of experience to deliver value at these levels. You just need to put the right processes and tools in the right hands. And by ‘right hands’ we mean advisors with good communication skills.

So while we advocate a ‘No Gurus’ approach to your service design, we also strongly suggest, ‘No Grinders’. (See The People Paradox post for more about Grinders.)

The Clarity, Commentary, Questioning and Accountability elements aren’t based on advisors drawing on a massive ‘knowledge base’ in their head, or ‘being a guru’ and having all the answers.

Instead, it’s about following a process of questioning and a consulting methodology that adds value to business clients by:

  • helping them understand what their key issues are
  • asking them questions that draw out answers and solutions from their own knowledge and experience.

The power is in the clarity you give and the questions you ask—not in the answers you provide.

That’s the key to making business advisory services scalable.

Your business clients have experience. And if you ask the right questions they can come up with their own answers. The challenge for business owners is to make time for the ‘slow thinking’ they need to get perspective on their business, and to step away from the day-to-day busy-ness of it all.

Which is exactly what a well-designed business advisory service provides.

This is why non-gurus can deliver advisory services to your business clients in a way that not only provides value and insights to clients, but is also scalable for the firm to deliver.

Time to take action. Join us at our next Cracking The Code Masterclass to get hands-on with designing your firm’s advisory services. (Here’s where you can learn more about what we’ll cover and who should attend).

  • Aditya says:


    I must say that it was a great post. I could relate to it completely. While we are a full service CPA firm in India, our core area is Tax Litigation and I feel that we end up selling more of partners’ labour.

    I would love to attend your Cracking The Code masterclass – but you might need to assist through a webinar or something of the sort considering our different geographies.

    I was also wondering that in litigation services this would always be the case. Would like to know your comments?

    • Michael Carter says:

      Hi Aditya

      Thanks for your comment. Glad you could relate to the post.

      Regarding Tax Litigation services, many of the processes involved inherently require the Partner-level hands-on services. There’s no getting around that. The challenge is to look at the overall client engagement process and see which aspects could be eliminated, automated or delegated, particularly around communication, data gathering, etc. Only so much will be possible.

      Stepping back from that particular service area, the challenge for an advisory firm is to design their business model and then design individual services that are scalable within the service mix. It might be that one out of five main services the firm provides will require Partner labour, and four could be more scalable services that can have aspects systemised. Is there scope for you in that regard? Other more scalable services?

      And re the December Masterclass in December, you know it’s gorgeous in Brisbane that time of year. :And the region’s surrounded by endless white sandy beaches. 🙂 We’ll see what we can do for our Modern Marketing Academy members like yourself, re filming the Masterclass and then making a training product available via the PARADOX Platform.


  • Chris Hooper says:

    While I agree that gurus and advisory are not scaleable in the traditional practice business model. I am convinced that the trusted advisor status isn’t going anywhere.

    The real issue for me is how do you attract, train and retain gurus for life. I believe I have the answer.

    • Michael Carter says:

      Hi Chris. Great to hear you have an answer to attracting, training and retaining talent. Just don’t build your business model around requiring guru-level advisors. You will have an unstable and difficult-to-scale business otherwise. I have seen it happen multiple times.

      Trusted Advisor status is not going anywhere, agreed. It’s crucial to accept that this status alone, however, is not enough. Accountants rest on their laurels with this comforting status. A Trusted Advisor isn’t necessarily *doing* any advising (and being paid for that advice), if they haven’t learned how to sell that advisory work. We know that only 1 in 10 firms actually provide future-focused advisory services to a significant portion of their clients. Trusted Advisor is just a rung on the ladder. True Advisor status is the next level up, where future-focused advisory work is actually being delivered to the majority of clients… consistently, and core to the processes in the firm. (Have a read of our True Advisor eBook if you’ve not read that yet.)

      Will be keen to hear about your “I believe I have the answer” comment… either here or over a beer some time.

  • Great blog. Provision of services only deliverable by the most senior of staff is definitely unsustainable within medium to large scaled firms.

    In saying this, it’s important to ensure a majority, if not all, staff are capable of delivering these advisory services.
    If you study the changes in demand and global economic situations the available work for taxation advisory services will diminish. The a majority of future services will be in advisory roles, this is why is it so important to ensure advisory services are sustainable and profitable.

    I’m a firm believer it is not only possible but it is necessary to develop of fully trained staff who deliver consistent, high quality service without depending on a single ‘Guru’.

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