It’s been a little over a month since ExpensiCon 3. I can still see the sunlight beautifully setting on the white-washed Puglian walls of Borgo Egnazia. While memories of the beauty and relationships made there will last me a lifetime, the lessons learned can serve us all immediately. ExpensiCons are meant to be a special kind of conference that creates a special kind of result. Our locations are meant to inspire. Our events are meant to encourage collaboration. Our content is meant to push us further. Our guest lists are put together to shape the future of the industry. It really is a special event. We like to think of it as the Davos of accounting, and it’s getting pretty damn close.
With any great conference, the hope is that you leave much smarter than when you showed up. It had been 5 years since our last ExpensiCon, and this one left me with more important lessons than any before.
1. Relationships matter more than ever. As we’ve gone public, I’ve spent less time on the road. This means that I don’t get to see all my friends I’ve made in the industry nearly as much as I used to. ExpensiCon 3 solidified that I should try to do better. Getting to know people on a human level goes a long way. It allows us to establish trust that will give me/us more candid feedback. It allows partners to trust us that we can help them scale. Putting a face to name, or enjoying a meal together opens up a different realm of possibilities; one that chat, video, and email still can’t replicate.
2. Collaboration is moving fast. At Expensify, we believe that collaboration between firms and their clients is going to change rapidly in the next 5 years. While internally everyone uses some form of chat tool, vendors and clients still resort to email and phone to connect. Yet, the expectations of clients is real-time, because that’s how the rest of their life is set up. New tools are being developed to solve this issue. The firms that adapt more quickly are going to offer a much more elevated level of service to clients, and thus win out. This is why we’ve put so much effort into building New Expensify, which does all the great things we’re known for, but in a much more collaborative nature.
3. Honesty goes a long way. We strive to be perfect. But we are not perfect, not even close. We try to make our product better all the time. This leads to issues or changes that impact customers, sometimes not for the better. We try to improve our support constantly but, of course, we have lapses and make mistakes. Clear, honest communication with customers and partners works incredibly well. When people are upset, giving the honest answer and explaining why we made these changes helps provide much needed context. As a product or service, if people are upset with something you did, tell them why you made this decision and they might surprise you.
Check out the podcast I did with David Leary and Blake Oliver, where I tried to explain some of our support changes in the past.
4. Client adoption is hard. Accountants have been talking about CAS programs for a long time. And it is still hard. Clients are busy, they want change when they need it, not on the accountant’s schedule. So while the firm might be going through a transformation, that does not mean your clients are going to respond immediately. Provide value by making their team more efficient and giving them valuable insights. Fix problems for them when they arise. Be educated on all the best practices. And when the moment presents itself, be there to streamline their business with even more service and value.
5. Training is still a big issue. Getting all accountants on the team educated with best practices is difficult. It hits every firm but as the firm gets bigger, it gets even harder. Vendors spend lots of time educating the practice leaders, but far too little time educating the accountants working with clients. This needs to change. We need to make training more accessible and more hands-on with everyone. Everyone has a great education platform that works for self service, ours is ExpensifyApproved! University. But that’s not enough. Educating hundreds of people on a team takes work. We heard this repeatedly from firm leadership and this is why we give every firm a partner manager to help them scale. As CAS becomes a bigger part of every firm, it seems like everyone is trying to figure it out. We think our updated support model is pretty great. But if you have the magic bullet, share it with the rest of us because training is hitting every firm in this transitional time.
6. Employee retention is even harder. Keeping great accountants is tougher than ever. Everyone seems to be talking about how to keep talent at the firm. People leave for jobs in tech. Millennials (yes, I am one) are discouraged by how slow it can be to advance through the firm. So even when you train someone to be really great, it is hard to keep them there. As a young, driven individual that has stayed at the same company for 11 years, my advice would be:
- Give them responsibility – if they are great, they will be great no matter what you ask them to do. Give them more responsibility than you actually are comfortable with and I bet you they will make you think “that is much better than I would have done.”
- Pay them well – invest financially in the people you really want to retain. People emulate other people. If you have a couple of great talents, reward them well to keep them so everyone else tries to be like them.
- Mentor them – invest your time to develop them further. By just showing up and showing an interest in their career, they will feel valued and grow quickly. They will be loyal to you and the firm because so much has been invested in them.
There is plenty more we could talk about, but those have kept me around.
7. Tech stacks ftw. The difference in firms that have tech stacks and don’t have tech stacks is very clear. It comes back to the training and client onboarding. If a firm standardizes on a few foundational tools (normally accounting package, expense management, and bill pay), everything gets easier. The firm gets better at training, develops more streamlined client onboarding, and offers a better service. We can see how many clients each CAS practice has, and the tech stack seems to be the best indicator of a high-growth CAS practice.
8. People are awesome. Going to something like ExpensiCon is such a refreshing reminder of how awesome people are. People are nice, people are genuine, and people want to help one another. In particular, the accounting industry is packed with people looking out for one another. Without any prompts, conversations always seemed to circle back on how to better serve their clients because that is what accountants want to do. They want to make their clients happy. I personally left recharged and ready to take on the world because of the amazing people I got to spend time with.