As part of our Bookkeeper’s Year End Bootcamp webinar series, Peter Cook, Co-Founder of Pure Bookkeeping, offered us his expertise on implementing systems in your bookkeeping business.
We’ve taken Paul’s advice and turned it into a blog, so that you can benefit from his recommendations right here and learn the 5 most important systems in a bookkeeping business.
To watch the video version, scroll to the bottom of the page.
In 2001 I was a business coach and I started working with a woman called Debbie Roberts who had a bookkeeping business.
Debbie came to me and said she had a full set of books and more people coming to her asking for help, she wanted to grow but she didn’t know how to hire someone new into her business who she could trust with her clients.
She had had bad experiences with having to clean up messes caused by other bookkeepers and didn’t want to deal with that again.
I suggested to Debbie that if we could take what was in her head, put it into a system and have someone else follow that, she might then be more comfortable hiring someone to do bookkeeping for her.
I gave Debbie a book called The E-myth by Michael Gerber, which talks about how to create systems in a small business.
I coached Debbie for about a decade, helping her build systems in her business for how to do the bookkeeping, how to do the sales and marketing and eventually she had the best systems in the industry.
By this point she had grown to having 12 bookkeepers in her business and was only needing to work herself 1 day a week.
Following on from her success, I said to Debbie let’s take what we’ve learned and help other bookkeepers grow their businesses. So in 2010 we launched Pure Bookkeeping with the mission: To transform the bookkeeping industry by helping great bookkeepers grow their businesses.
We started in Australia, we’re also now in Canada and the US and have helped all sorts of great bookkeepers grow their businesses.
We also had the amazing honour of being invited by Michael Gerber to write The E-Myth Bookkeeper - a version of his book, The E-Myth, specifically for bookkeepers.
I look at the bookkeeping business journey on a scale of profit, which is how much money you take out of the business, and leverage, which is typically having other people in the business looking after your clients.
The first stage when we start a bookkeeping business is the start up phase. Usually it’s just you and because you’re just starting out, there’s not a lot of profit.
From here, we want to increase our profits so that we can move up into becoming a successful practice.
Our benchmark for a successful practice when you’re working on your own would be turning over around $100,000. Some people stop there and are happy to carry on at this stage - this is where Debbie was when I met her.
Some people decide that they want to grow, which involves a stage I call ‘transition to business’.
This is where your leverage or your number of staff grows to 2,3,4 bookkeepers. What we often see is that this is where the profit drops, especially when practices don’t have good systems in place for the bookkeepers to follow.
There’s this risk where you’ll have 2 or 3 other bookkeepers in the business, you’re looking after your own clients, you’re then checking their work, you’re then working way harder than you were on your own and actually making less money,
When we can get through the difficult Transition to Business phase and end up in the Successful Business phase, this is where we see the business starting to turn over $300k - $1m+, taking home $150k-$400k, turning your business into an asset you can sell.
I think the theme to most of these challenges is that we’re trained as bookkeepers, most of us go into the industry as bookkeepers, and that’s what we know how to do well.
Suddenly, we’re running a business and that’s a whole different thing.
We have to do marketing and sales and management and recruitment, which we don’t have experience in, so the business side of the bookkeeping business can be challenging.
We often hear things like
“To be honest, I don’t really do any active marketing. I just do a good job and hope more clients show up.”
“I wish someone else would just do the marketing and I could just do the bookkeeping.”
The difference between marketing and sales is, marketing is what attracts a prospect and sales is how we convert that prospect into a customer.
We hear things like:
“I don’t really know what I’m worth. I think I should charge more but I don’t know how, and I don’t like talking about money.”
“I don’t really have a good structure for my sales conversation, it’s just a bit of a chat.”
“I have a certain way of doing things but it’s not documented anywhere.”
“I know having good systems is the key to growing my business and I’ve made a start, but I just don’t have the time.”
“I’ve cleaned up messes left behind by bad bookkeepers, I don’t know if I could trust anyone else to look after my clients.”
“I’ve tried putting on another bookkeeper once and it was a disaster… and anyway, my clients all love me.”
How do you give your clients the assurance that having someone else do the bookkeeping will be just as good as having you do it, and how do you maintain that relationship.
“It’s becoming harder and harder to keep up with all the changes in the bookkeeping industry, new legislations, even keeping on top of my professional development hours.”
“I’ve got lots of experience and skills bookkeeping but I’ve never studied business and this is my first time running a business.”
It’s a very different thing managing a business and all the domains of a business than doing the bookkeeping.
“To be honest, my biggest challenge is my lack of self confidence.”
“I can see how other people can have a successful bookkeeping business but I don’t quite believe it’s possible for me.”
This is one of the things that people probably don’t share in a first conversation, but when we’re working with people this is a common thread.
How do you have the confidence to say this is what I do, this is how much it costs. To deal with all of the things that come with running a business.
“I’m not that committed to growing my business, it’s more of a hobby to me.”
“I’m retiring in a few years and I’m just looking to keep myself busy until then.”
The fact that you’re actively reading this article, means that this challenge probably doesn’t apply to you.
These are all challenges that we faced in Debbie’s business, and what we tried to do was come up with a system each time to solve the challenge.
A system for how you do sales so that it happens the same way every time. A system for how you do the bookkeeping, a system for how you recruit bookkeepers.
All of these systems kept increasing the confidence.
This meant that the problem was solved permanently within the business, not temporarily through some insight.
I think about systems like an aeroplane.
My brother in law is a pilot, he’s trained to be a pilot. You can put him in a little plane and he knows what to do, he knows how to take off and land, but all planes are different.
He has a procedure and training on different planes - “this is how you fly a 747” or “this is how you fly an A380”, this is how you take off, this is how you land etc.
You study the system, you study the procedure, you have a pre-flight checklist before every flight so that you know exactly what to do every single time you fly.
The metaphor of this for being a bookkeeping business is that you’re trained as a bookkeeper, you already know how to do bookkeeping. You would then have different processes for how you do it using different software, and a checklist on the steps to do, for example, a month-end reconciliation.
Your processes will be different for different software, like it is for a pilot flying different planes.
We recommend using Pixie, which in this metaphor is where all the checklists live.
I interviewed James Clear who wrote a bestselling book called Atomic Habits.
A quote I like from his book is:
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Particularly when you have a team of bookkeepers, it’s critical that everybody on the team does the bookkeeping the same way, that way you can tell your clients that whoever on the team does the work, it will be done the same.
Even if it is just you, it makes it much easier when you have checklists you can follow, you’re not trying to remember the best way to do things.
At Pure Bookkeeping we developed bookkeeping manuals to help with this.
If you’re going to pick one process to start using your system for, I’d recommend starting with month-end reconciliations.
If you’re just starting out, it’s ideally better to have this system in place before you hire bookkeepers. It feels like you don’t need it as much when it’s just you, but if you wait until the time when you’re so busy that you need the systems and you need to hire people, it’s going to be much harder to implement them.
Our perception of what makes a good marketer feels like it’s very different from what a good bookkeeper is. A lot of people feel like to do marketing you need to be very extroverted and loud and out there, so it feels very challenging.
So what we want are some systems that we can follow step by step to tell us how we can go about attracting clients.
Referrals are definitely the best kind of marketing, but we want systems for getting referrals, rather than just hoping you’ll get them.
One that Debbie has, which is in the Pure Bookkeeping system, is in the engagement letter.
The engagement goes over the lists of things that we commit to and that our clients commit to, which gets signed by both parties.
One of the things on there for the client is “if you’re happy, you’ll refer at least one other person to our business”.
It’s a small thing and no one ever questions it, but it means that we’ve already set that expectation.
You then have a system for each time you do a relationship check in, within that is an opportunity to say “do you know anyone else who needs a good bookkeeper”.
Having those little drips systemetized, rather than hoping you remember, means that it happens on an ongoing basis.
We also have systems for how you create a website, how to talk to an accountant of an existing client to get more referrals.
If you have a process to follow, you don’t need to be a different way, you don’t need to be a marketer. You can just be yourself and follow the bouncing ball.
Referrals from accountants is one of our 7 marketing strategies, but isn’t the best way to get your first client.
For good sales you want to have conviction about how it works and have very clear views on who you are, who you work with, what your services cost and that they are effective.
With this you know that a good percentage of the people you talk to will end up working with you, and at the right price.
In a sales situation, you want to be the professional and be in charge of the situation so that the prospect can relax and trust that you know what you’re talking about.
A good example of this is when my wife and I were doing IVF. We’ve had two children through IVF and the second time, we visited a new doctor.
The Doctor talked us through how everything was going to work and exactly what would happen, even performing a test on my wife before price had even been mentioned. There was complete conviction.
The conversation about price didn’t happen with him at all, the receptionist set up the price on the way out and I thought wow what a fantastic sales process.
So with bookkeeping we do this by talking about the challenges the potential client is having, show them the benefits of bookkeeping going well. We say here is the process that we follow, here is what it costs and here’s what happens next .
It takes it away from being a meandering conversation and turns it into a very effective sales process.
The main thing we found with recruiting is that you want to test bookkeepers on doing bookkeeping, rather than just checking credentials and qualifications. In the beginning we got this wrong a lot.
In Debbie’s business, we got the marketing and sales right. We had referrals coming in and accountants sending us business, networking was working. But, we were hiring some great bookkeepers and some who were not so great and it was this really painful process.
We ended up creating a 90-minute bookkeeping job where we could sit a bookkeeper down, show them the dummy files, invoices and receipts and give them their job and they would crack on.
At the end we score them out of 100. If they get less than 80 then they don’t go on to an interview.
We actually found that more than half of the bookkeepers that do this test don’t pass it, and often they’re people that we otherwise would have hired.
Having a skills test is the key recruiting system that you want to build.
Debbie was, as are lots of bookkeepers, uncomfortable putting up prices.
So we created a system where every year there’s an annual price increase. We have a letter and a system for that that outlines what’s happening and the upcoming schedule of fees.
It’s important to keep raising your prices.
The Bookkeeping Manuals - Helps you to best practice bookkeeping and gives you confidence that your bookkeeping is impeccable. This has your whole team doing the bookkeeping the same way.
The Sales and Marketing manual - Gives you the tools to make your business look sleek and professional, like it’s been around for years even if you’re just starting out. It has the step by step stages for going through your sales calls and getting referrals.
Procedures for over 60 popular apps - If there is a demand for an app that people are using, we’ll write a best practice step by step for how to best use it and integrate it to improve the rest of your system.
Pure Bookkeeping Central - This is our community hub, it’s a supporting hub which contains a lot of love and help from others in the bookkeeping community.
Unlimited Support - It’s not business coaching, but anything you need to help implement any of our procedures, we’re always on the other end of the phone.
Initial Strategy call
Regular updates with auto notifications on software changes and legislation changes.
In the unlikely event that you don’t love the bookkeeping manuals after 45 days, let us know and we’ll give you a full refund.
To learn more about Pure Bookkeeping, head to the website here - purebookkeeping.com/bootcamp
Watch the recorded of "The 5 most important systems in a bookkeeping business" here.
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