Grow Your Firm

Accountants and the People Platform: A New Way to Serve Small Business Clients

Caleb Newquist Editor-at-Large, Gusto 
Accountants People Platform

Hello, good and fine accountants. How have the last couple of years been for you? A little nutty, to be sure. Just about the time you think things are going to calm down, something RIDICULOUS happens, and nothing makes sense anymore. 

Introduce your clients to payroll they’ll actually love.

Then you think, “Well, next year—NEXT YEAR— will be different. Next year, things will really change.” 

And it’s true! Next year is a very important year because it’s the perfect opportunity for you to shake off the challenges of the recent past and to embrace a hopeful future. 

What are we talking about, my accountant friends? We’re talking about the opportunity for you to make a significant choice. Yes, 2020 will be the year of the PEOPLE…PLATFORM. Yep. Your firm + The People Platform = 2020 being the best year ever. Great. See you out there.

Oh, wait. Should we explain this a bit more? Sure, we can do that.

You’ve probably noticed that many experts are telling accountants to become “trusted advisors.” That’s great and all, but they’re giving virtually no guidance on what being a trusted advisor even means or how to do it. 

Understanding and using the people platform does both: You’ll help your clients with a critical area of their business: their employees. By becoming experts in payroll, benefits, and HR, you’ll give them the peace of mind they need for managing their employees, and In the process, their trust in you will grow even more.

Sound good? Let’s continue.

Why the people platform

If you’re reading this, it’s safe to say that you’re curious about learning more about the people platform and how it can benefit your firm. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; anything worth doing is worth doing right. That means you need to understand why the people platform is the right thing for me, for you, for everybody!

Perhaps it’s obvious, but we can’t talk about the people platform without talking about…people. Until the robots take over, people will remain integral to every business, big or small. And conversely, work will be integral to people’s lives, too. Yes, work is key to providing financial means for individuals to live their lives and provide for their loved ones, but it’s also critical for other reasons. 

Good work fulfills people, giving them a sense of purpose and belonging. 

In short, businesses will have to put people first. Putting the needs of employees first gives them peace of mind, a great work environment, and the opportunity to prosper. By virtue, a business that prioritizes their team will have happier, more productive employees who will remain loyal to the business longer. 

In your role as an advisor, you can guide clients toward this vision. You can help them start businesses, grow those businesses, and stay in compliance with minimal hassle. From there, you can show them how to create work environments where people thrive, creating value along the way. This approach will generate prosperity not only for the business, but for themselves as well. All of which shows how work can help people live better lives and plan for a better future.  

That’s some good feels, right? Read on for more.  

What’s the people platform?

Now that you’ve been sufficiently inspired, let’s talk details. The people platform is designed to address an array of small business challenges that reside in four critical areas.  

Payroll

If you stop and think about it, it becomes abundantly obvious that the people platform flows through payroll. That is, if a business has employees, it will have payroll. Along with payroll come obligations to withhold a portion of that pay for federal, state, FICA, and other income tax purposes. Payroll also makes it possible for employees to pay their share of health insurance premiums and other benefits. 

Payroll is the linchpin to the people platform. Your understanding of, and advice about, the people platform will help ensure that your clients keep these pieces neatly together, making for a cohesive and secure system. 

Benefits

Benefits have become an indispensable part of every business. Notably, guiding clients on how best to navigate requirements under the Affordable Care Act and providing health insurance can make your firm a dependable source of truth to their businesses. 

Health insurance, along with tax-advantaged financial arrangements such as flexible spending and health savings accounts, is essential to helping employers provide peace of mind to their employees, a vital mission of the people platform.

Beyond health care, benefits is about giving people the chance to save for retirement or their children’s education. Planning for the future provides them the opportunity to prosper in a time when many Americans struggle to save. Your firm has a unique opportunity to steer clients and their employees to a more financially secure future merely by providing accessibility to a retirement plan. 

Overall, benefits will be critical for your clients to successfully hire and retain the people they need.  

HR 

Human resources gets a bad rap. It’s one of those back-office functions that many businesses overlook because it’s tedious, or seems unnecessary. By keeping your clients focused on the people platform, including HR, and it can serve their employees, you will open their minds to a new way of thinking about their business. 

Accountants are well-positioned to advise their clients on human resources, and therefore, the advantages of the people platform. Why? For starters, there’s a need. HR isn’t just a big business function. Smaller businesses need it too, but probably don’t dedicate much time to HR. 

An accounting firm can step in to support these efforts and provide immense value in the process. When the nuts and bolts of HR—offer letters, onboarding, employee handbooks, etc.—are handled via the people platform, businesses will be more likely to not only build a great company but a great workplace, too.

Great workplaces don’t just happen by accident. The approach that business owners take with their people should be as intentional as any aspect of their business. From the hiring phase through retention, how a business owner engages their employees will set the tone of the company. It can be the difference between a successful business and one that struggles to keep its best people.

Accountants who embrace this opportunity will become indispensable advisors to their clients. Who knows, you may even make your own firm a great place to work, too.

Compliance

Everything we’ve covered so far has a heavy dose of compliance to wrestle with. Whether it’s navigating government regulations around health insurance, state requirements for workers’ compensation, rules around hiring, or taxes, many businesses will have to comply with several different agencies or authorities to operate their business. 

It’s fair to say that many business owners consider most compliance of one stripe or another to be a burden, so it presents an opportunity for you. The obvious piece being that compliance, in its many forms, is a core competency for most accountants. You’re wizards at navigating rules, building systems to deal with those rules, and keeping them efficient. The underappreciated piece is that you have the opportunity to educate your clients on these areas. 

Now imagine the possibilities when you couple these strengths with the people platform. You’ll be simplifying more key processes, lightening the load for your clients, while simultaneously deepening your relationships with them.  

Small business challenges

Most small businesses share a number of challenges that don’t fit squarely in the four areas of the people platform that we’ve discussed so far. Mastering these areas will be critical to the success of any enterprise, throughout its existence. 

  1. Cash flow is a business’s lifeblood and will be the determining factor in its success. 
  2. Likewise, economic conditions are inescapable; no business is entirely immune from the many factors that have an impact on the production, distribution, and consumption of consumers and businesses. 
  3. Finally, every business will bounce back and forth between growth and maintaining or improving the quality of its product or service. The desire to grow may distract a company from upholding the quality of its product, and conversely, growth may slow or cease when refinements are being made to enhance it.

The people platform and your firm

From a more practical standpoint, you might be wondering just how viable an opportunity advising on the people platform can be. Fortunately, a recent study gives us a good idea.

accountants people platform
Xero 2018 Accounting and Bookkeeping Industry Performance Report.

As you can see, firms that offer complex advisory services—i.e., beyond mere financial statement and budget analysis—focus mainly on Virtual/Outsourced CFO and application/software services. 

By contrast, a relatively tiny number of firms are offering HR advisory (aka people platform advisory). This means that it’s highly unlikely that there are legacy players for your to contend with. Your firm has the opportunity to be a leading player in an emerging area of advisory services that few occupy and even fewer are thinking about right now. 

Here’s proof of that last point:

Advisory ServiceRated as a top serviceRated as 1 of top 3Rated as 1 of top 5
Budgeting, cash flow forecasting, business planning, etc.56%88%96%
Virtual CFO16%57%70%
Software setup9%34%68%
Startup mentoring7%38%73%
Biz performance6%40%68%
Accounting software implementation5%25%48%
Capital raise/financing0%8%20%
HR advisory0%5%19%
Succession planning0%1%11%

So when it comes to the people platform, fewer than one in five firms consider it to be one of their top five services. One in twenty believes it’s one of their top three services. And no firms— not one—considered it to be their top service. 

There are a couple of ways to look at those results:

  1. The people platform is an unproven area for accountants. Few accountants consider the people platform to be a viable opportunity. Accountants stick to what they know. 
  2. The people platform is an opportunity. Firms that want to blaze a new trail for themselves and their clients and have room to do so.  

Sure, your firm could take a traditional path and run with the herd, and that would probably be fine. But firms that want to stand out will embrace the people platform, and in the process, know the key to unlocking the benefits and become genuinely trusted business advisors.

Onward

For a while now, you’ve heard experts talk about how accountants need to “become advisors” and “embrace advisory” to secure their firms’ future. What few of these experts get into is precisely what any of that means. Very few examples are offered, or even vague notions of what advisory is supposed to mean to you or your firm.

You can’t say that about the people platform. The key components of it—payroll, benefits HR—are clear, but so are the principles behind its philosophy and mission. 
By working with Gusto, you get a real chance to make a real difference in the lives of both your clients and their employees. That’s what people mean when they yak about “creating value.”


EOY Checklist(s)

The following checklists are intended to help your clients get organized for 2020. Download and share them with your clients. They’ll cover a lot of the critical topics that are central to the people platform. They also include co-branding instructions for adding your firm’s logo to the checklists.

With a little guidance from these handy checklists, their end-of-year accounting, tax preparation, and employee data will be ready for 2020. After checking off each step, Gusto can make it even easier to follow compliance requirements by automating the most complicated and stressful tasks.

See you in 2020!

Updated: November 8, 2019

Caleb Newquist
Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, daughter, and two cats.

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