2021 is a special year for Gusto. On Oct. 21, the all-in-one people platform hosted their first ever conference: Gusto Next.
The conference was held from 9am to 1:30pm (MT) and in typical pandemic fashion. It was all virtual, except for the speakers and panelists. While they hope to see it as a full, in-person annual conference in years to come, the turnout was still incredible! Over 2,200 people attended online.
As one of the panelists, Acuity CEO Kenji Kuramoto flew out to Denver, Colorado, for the conference. He sat on a panel with two other firm owners – Michael Ly of Reconciled and Nikole Mackenzie, CPA, of Momentum Accounting.
— Twyla Verhelst, CPA (@TwylaVerhelst) October 21, 2021
The panel discussion focused on Gusto’s new People Advisory Accelerator program, which is designed to help accounting firms launch an entire people advisory practice. The three of them shared their experiences after recently piloting the comprehensive program from start to finish.
“The thesis around this program is that most of us accountants do payroll compliance, but we probably don’t do enough people advisory,” Kenji said.
“The largest and most important spend that most businesses have is people. Yet, historically, accountants haven’t done the best job with helping clients look at the best benefits or monitoring metrics,” Kenji continued. “It’s really trying to move firms from compliance-based payroll work to advisory-based payroll work. It’s more forward thinking in, ‘How can we help small businesses financially maximize the value of their employees?’”
— Gusto (@GustoHQ) October 21, 2021
And on Oct. 22, from 9am to 3:30pm (MT), Gusto actually offered a Live People Advisory Certification for 100 people. Participants earned 6.0 CPE credits and an official certification badge, too!
You can visit Gusto Next to watch recordings of the sessions (including the People Advisory Panel). You can also learn more about what’s included in the people advisory services that Acuity offers or reach out to Kenji with specific questions.
Watch the full video here (1:02:32) or read the transcript below.
What was your firm’s experience before the people advisory accelerator and how did it change post-accelerator?
Nikole: Before the accelerator, we were looking at payroll as a compliance service. Didn’t think about what we were actually providing for our clients. After the accelerator, I sat down with my team, and we went through all the different things we’re doing for our clients — onboarding and offboarding employees, helping them set up PTO policies, answering questions about parental leave, helping them get health insurance and 401K plans set up, etc.
So we were doing a lot more than just running the payroll, but we weren’t really charging for it. I like that accelerator gave us a framework for how to price appropriately, package it, and sell it.
And it also helped us get our team aligned on what we were delivering. Our team is very helpful — we like to just hop in and help our clients with whatever their needs are. This accelerator got us all in alignment on what we were offering and helped us with sales conversations especially when it came to asking them deeper questions (i.e. “How many employees do you expect to have in 24 months?”). Knowing which questions to ask helped us find indicators that certain clients were ready for people advisory services.
Michael: Before the accelerator, advisory was the wild west for us. We were trying to figure out and experiment with how we could offer what was more than just payroll services and what even overlapped a little bit with HR services. We even experimented with launching our own HR company. We really didn’t know how to go to market with something that was standardized but also made sense for our clients.
During the pandemic, we were getting a ton of requests for help — ”How do we help our people stay with our company?” “How do we get them excited to still work during this tough time?” “How do we retain good talent?”
The accelerator program gave us a common language to use amongst the firm (esp. With our sales people and the people delivering the service itself). It allowed us to position ourselves with a really unique value proposition to our clients and show them that what they were asking for was already there and that we were ready and willing to service their needs.
Kenji, your firm started as an advisory firm. How should other firms approach launching a new advisory practice?
Kenji: It takes courage to step out and do something different. Many times you feel like you’re doing it alone, and it’s a big challenge. But the difference with the program is that the framework is already built for you. It’s much easier to get started and it’s more efficient and more effective for your team.
It used to be the case that we’d have an idea, but we had to figure out the things like the messaging and who was going to fill which roles. But with the program, those things were already built out. I highly recommend it, because it makes launching a practice like this so much easier.
Tell us about early success you’ve had with people advisory and also what challenges you’ve faced.
Michael: In terms of successes, we had one of our sales team members go through the accelerator program, and it allowed them to better present what we were currently selling. And through this, that salesperson was able to land their first people advisory contract. We were able to take what we were learning from other firms in the accelerator and take the templates from the program and implement these in our sales conversations. We also added two key questions to our sales process to help us better determine if people advisory would be something we’d offer in our proposal.
One of the challenges is continuing this. It’s easy to resort to old habits and speak to payroll as a compliance service. You need to take chances and meet the market and the clients where they’re at.
Have you seen any impact on the client side yet?
Michael: Yes, clients have really enjoyed it, because it helps them with questions and problems that they’ve had that we weren’t able to solve before. But now we have a service offering that makes sense for them.
How do you see the roles of the team members evolving with this?
Nikole: We’re continuing to experiment how we price and package the services and trying to standardize the ways we deliver them. Another thing on the accounting side that we’re trying to standardize is the financial reports that we deliver to our clients. What we’ve been implementing is reach reporting, which is an integration with Gusto where we will be able to pull in people data (i.e. employee retention, patterns in hiring, combining employee data with financial data, overhead per employee, etc.)
I actually wouldn’t say we’re changing too much in terms of what we’re already doing, because we were already offering a lot of this. But now we’re getting everyone aligned on what that looks like and price it appropriately.
When you’re doing something new, how do you take it to market?
Kenji: First you have to make sure the entire team is aligned. I remember in our earlier days, launching and marketing something was easier. We’d be at a conference, get an idea, and then be able to execute quickly, because the team was much smaller. But when you’re larger, you have to get the team aligned first. Then we start conversations with existing clients. We looked at our client base to find ones that would be a good fit for people advisory (these tended to be clients that are growing and scaling quickly). Sometimes as accountants, we don’t think of ourselves as the type to do people advisory or HR-related services. But when you look at the P&L sheet and see that the dominant spend is on people, it starts to make sense for us to help in this area. So we look at existing clients with high spend in this area, and those are typically the best candidates for that program. Then after that we go-to-market with new clients.
Where do you see your advisory services going? How do you see it fitting into your long-term strategy
Nikole: I can see people advisory as a separate service line where we have one dedicated role servicing that need. It already is a big part of the services that we offer and I think it will continue to be. And it’s already deepened our relationships with our clients because we are touching so many parts of their business.
Michael: We already have been able to leverage the people advisory certifications. A third to a half of our team is already certified. In the future, I see most of our team becoming people advisory certified, and I expect it to be part of our training for new employees as well. I also see it being more incorporated into our proposals. We’ll see that our team is going to start introducing this into almost every contract — really as a value add but also in response to some of the challenges and questions discussed on sales calls. We also see hiring more people with backgrounds not just in accounting but also in operations and people advising. From a revenue perspective, I really do believe we can see the practice grow to $1M in revenue within our own practice.
Kenji, how does people advisory fit into a larger firm like yours?
Kenji: It’s a huge change to get everyone on the same page when you’re larger. We started as CFO advisory, so advisory is part of our heritage of our firm. However, we did slip into that habit of offering payroll as one bullet point as part of our bookkeeping packages. So we tended to think of it just as compliance, so the mindset change is important. We also found that our clients really benefit when we can take care of compliance but pair that with forward-thinking, proactive work – it’s a much better experience for our clients.
What was the big learning that you took away from the accelerator?
Kenji: The big thing I took away was this is not just CPE. This is not a program that’s showing us how to use Gusto better as accountants. It’s really a full practice line to help you add revenue to your firm. It’s almost an end-to-end launch of a people advisory practice. I also believe it’s a great template for how to launch other advisory practices, because of how comprehensive it is around marketing and sales and pricing.
Michael: It was surprising how put together the whole program was. It takes a concept that really accounts have been involved with but we’ve downplayed and given away for free for a long time. But these services are something that are so valuable to our clients. So really it’s a turnkey process for how to go to market with a new practice within their own firm.
Nikole: I thought it was interesting how each one of us interpreted it differently. No matter where you are in your payroll journey, you can implement this. I don’t do client work anymore, but as a way to test this out, I took on one client, and I run it, and I do the payroll process of being a people advisor myself so that I could see that the process is like. And it really is complex and something that would be difficult for clients to do on their own. So I enjoyed diving in and understand better what my team is doing on a day-to-day basis. Not all of our clients are on Gusto, and when I started talking to the team, I realized how painstaking it is to work with some of the other payroll providers out there. So now we’ve become empowered to recommend Gusto to our clients.
Any advice for the firms out there that are thinking about certification?
Michael: You want to have internal champions that can drive implementation of this. You also want to be the owner, the visionary to help drive adoption. Also don’t just cookie cutter everything. Take what you learn from the certification, from the accelerator, etc. and put it into your own language.
Kenji: What Gusto has done in the accelerator program that I think is unique is think through these different types of roles. When you enter this program, think very intentionally about who would be serving these roles.
Do you think any firm can offer people advisory?
Kenji: Yes. We’ve talked about how many people out there in the market have a demand for this service. The biggest challenge is reframing our own mindset as accountants. As firms, we can’t be constrained as that.
Would you recommend the accelerator, and why?
Nikole: Yes, 5 stars. It just makes you think about what you’re doing. We just thinking about payroll in the way that we are think about it now.
Michael: I definitely recommend it — esp. If you want to enter into this big opportunity to provide a service that customers are asking for. Gusto has made this easy. Go get involved in it, get your team excited, and start bringing in more revenue.
Kenji: I don’t want to recommend it, because I want our firm to get all of the opportunities *wink wink*. But in all seriousness, of course I recommend it. 3500 firms are signing up for this. We’re all as firm owners trying to become more progressive and think differently about how we deliver services to clients. This is a program that will push you and your team to think about what we as a profession can do to impact our clients.