Project Management for Accountants: A Definitive Guide
Author: Financial Cents
In this article
Project management is about getting things done efficiently. To succeed at it, the project manager needs to understand what needs to get done, how to do it, and how long it’ll take to get it done.
Getting these components right is more complex than it appears, but thanks to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK), any project team can access the guidelines and best practices they need to execute projects from start to finish.
Maximizing this framework, however, depends on your ability to tailor it to your specific industry.
What is Project Management for Accountants?
Project management for accountants is fairly straightforward and is different from accounting workflow management, because most accounting projects are recurring. So, the average accounting firm has templates that they customize for each client that comes through the door.
Where project management gets harder for accounting firms is performing those projects that are not recurring. Each firm has to decide whether they can create templates for every process or create some things from scratch each time they need them. Getting this (decision) right puts you ahead of other accounting firms. Figuring out how to
Download the Accounting Project Management guide as a PDF. – Co-authored with Tonya Schulte.
What Does Effective Project Management for Accountants Entail?
The PMBOK categorizes the project management process into five steps: initiation, planning, execution, controlling, and closing. But managing accounting projects does not require all of these steps. You need the following stages:
The project initiation stage is where you work with clients to define the details of their projects. These details should include project goals, the scope of work, start/due dates (schedule), and deliverables (work breakdown structure).
What You Need for the initiation stage:
- Engagement Letter and Client Onboarding Questionnaire:
The bookkeeping or accounting engagement letter defines the relationship between you and the client. It spells out the goal of the project, the services your client should receive, the deliverables, and what you should expect from your clients.
The client onboarding questionnaire helps you learn more about your client to serve them to the best of your ability.
The project planning stage is where you define how your team will execute the project. This includes creating the work in your project management software by adding the start and due dates, the relevant tasks (and subtasks), assigning it to someone, and establishing the order that tasks should be performed (dependencies).
If it’s a recurring project, use the recurrences feature in the project management software to automatically repeat it across the relevant future dates.
What You Need for the Planning Stage
An accounting project management software to create work, assign tasks and track progress.
This is when your team takes action to complete the project you have created according to the information you entered into your project management software.
The success of this stage depends on your ability to see where the project stands, help your team to communicate (and collaborate), and manage capacity to boost productivity and efficiency.
What You Need for the Planning Stage
- Your project management software dashboard for a bird’s eye view of all projects, processes, and team members.
- A tool that can create how-to guides (with screenshots, instructions, and clicks) for implementing your accounting workflow templates. Tonya suggests Scribe.
- A decision tree-type tool that lets an assignee know when to skip a step (and which step to take next) in your workflow checklist.
Examples of Projects in Accounting
The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as “a temporary endeavor to create a unique product, service, or result.”
This qualifies most accounting work (from the monthly bookkeeping to payroll to client onboarding) as projects.
Why Do Accountants Need to Gain Project Management Skills?
Between completing the day-to-day tasks in client work, getting more clients, and adding new revenue streams — growing an accounting firm requires project management skills to help you:
Delegate Work Effectively
By knowing who to assign work to and monitoring progress to provide accountability or support where necessary.
Meet Client Deliverables Consistently
By providing workflow templates to standardize processes and remove guesswork, which allows your team to do more work in less time and deliver work that meets your firm’s standards.
Manage Busy Season Overwhelm
By creating processes, providing the right tools, and assigning work to people who can use those tools to achieve your project objectives efficiently.
Project management skills also help you nail your product offerings so that you’re not taking on work you’ll struggle with.
Construction accounting expert, Tonya Schulte, recommends being “Very clear on your product offerings and ensuring that you’re only taking on projects that you and your team know how to do and that you’re not just taking anything that comes through the door.”
This helps her firm “respect the calendar” to ensure their employees don’t work more hours than they should–even during busy seasons such as the tax season.
Scale Your Firm with Ease
Because effective project management empowers your firm to do more work, get more clients, earn more and move to the next level.
Common Accounting Project Management Challenges
Project management for accountants takes on a different level of difficulty when accounting teams struggle with
Effective communication breaks down organizational silos, promotes clarity, and helps team members understand what to do, when, and how. This keeps accounting teams up to speed and aligned with project goals.
Missing this component will lead to confusion, human errors, and missed deadlines.
A good accounting project management software should let your team communicate and collaborate (in context) within client work. Financial Cents does this well in addition to an email integration that helps you stay on top of client communication.
- Defining Project Scope (Scope Creep)
Once clients start asking for more work than you promised them (without paying more for the additional services), you may end up over-investing your resources into their work for fear of losing them.
This will not only make your firm unprofitable but will also burn your team out because they’ll be doing more work than they should be doing.
Once you sign on a new client, let them understand what services they’ll be getting and what they wouldn’t be getting.
Accessing Client Information
Working with accurate information is critical to effective project management. Your client information has to be organized in one place and accessible to relevant team members when they need it.
Using the wrong client relationship management tool makes this difficult for everyone. It takes much time to find information, which delays projects and reduces your team’s focus, and accuracy.
Deciding on the right client relationship management solution will save your accountants time and energy. Instead of digging through your firm’s data, they can find what they need in one central place.
Lack of Visibility into Projects
When you can’t easily see all project-related information to understand where projects stand, who’s working on which project, and what is nearest to the deadline, things will naturally fall through the cracks easily.
That is because holding all this information in your head will overwhelm you and keep you from doing the work your firm needs to grow.
Using a project management system that puts this information at your fingertips empowers you with the big-picture view that, Tonya Schulte believes, will help any accounting firm “connect how to get from point-A to point-Z.”
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What You Need to Manage Your Accounting Projects Successfully
Every project needs the right people, processes, and technology to achieve its objectives. The right process and technology may differ from firm to firm, depending on your firm’s size and the clients you serve.
Standardizing your accounting processes means creating systems, forms, and templates to help your employees deliver work quality that is consistent with your standards. That way, your clients will not know when you did their work or assigned it to your newest employee.
To create effective processes for a project, you need to
1. Understand the Project Scope
Each accounting project involves completing a list of tasks and subtasks to get the results clients want. Defining project scope helps your team complete work within the budgeted time and resources, which keeps your firm more productive and profitable. If you don’t do this, you might end up doing work you didn’t sign up for.
If a client buys your tax services, tell them whether it includes planning, advisory, and strategy. Or they need to pay more to access those services. Once you agree on this, document them in the engagement letter to guide the work you do for them.
In this Thomson Reuters podcast, Paul Miller suggests drawing a line between selling transactions and being a trusted advisor. He recommends asking “If I provide payroll, what do I do and what is it that we are not doing? We are not a benefits provider, we’re not your plan administrator, etc.”
That is how you create boundaries around your projects. If the boundary needs to move, you and your client should understand what that means for your fees.
If you’d like to nail your pricing strategy to avoid over-investing your resources without a proportionate increase in revenue, learn more about accurate pricing in this resource.
2. Understand Project Goals
Confidence and peace of mind is the ultimate goal of most accounting clients, but you need to understand what that means for each client project you take on. This will help you find the right strategy to meet them.
This goal has to be
- Specific (clearly state what needs to be done).
- Measurable (can be tracked).
- Attainable (you have what it takes to deliver it).
- Time-bound (has a due date).
3. Set Up Timelines
The project timeline outlines the steps (tasks) that go into completing the project with their start and due date. This aligns everyone involved toward the common goal.
Defining project timelines also helps flexible working teams thrive by stating (upfront) when tasks are due so that assignees can complete them at a time that suits them best—within the stated time.
Here’s how you can create a project with a timeline
- Organize the Project Scope
By listing out all the steps (tasks) that go into completing that project. If need be, break these tasks into subtasks.
- Estimate How Much Time Each Task Should Take
Estimate how long hours or days each task will take to complete.
- Define Task Dependencies
By establishing the order to perform the tasks in projects that pass multiple hands before completion.
- Track Progress
Establish a way to monitor projects against their deadlines.The best accounting project management software have progress bars that increase as team members check off their tasks.
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4. Assign Work
This helps you to easily give responsibilities for tasks in the client project to free you up to focus on growing the firm. With this, you can focus on tracking work and managing your team’s workload to eliminate bottlenecks and prevent burnout.
If you’re going to hand anything off to a team member that they are going to be 100% dialed in, you have to give them the right tools to do their job. If you don’t create processes, your team is going to be systemically frustrated and if they have to constantly come back to you to get answers, then you’re going to be that bottleneck in your firm’s processes."Tonya Schulte, The Profit Constructors
Here are a few tips to help you delegate work more effectively.
- Communicate the expected results to assignees.
- Establish task dependencies.
- Find a way to notify your team members of their assigned tasks.
- Use internal due dates to help your team complete all processes leading up to the final due date.
Establish A Structure for Your Project Team
Your team needs a structure that ensures every team member is not just doing their jobs–and maximizing your tools and processes while at it.
If you need inspiration to structure your team, here’s how Tonya, a Certified QuickBooks ProAdvisor, structures her project team.
- Quality Assurance Manager
We quality have a quality assurance manager that ensures that all teams have:
- Access to the right tools (like Financial Cents, Scribe, and decision tree) in place.
- And can use them effectively (by training them on the tools).
She also checks in with her team regularly to see where their work stands and ensures they get all the help they need and understand why certain things are not getting done. She does a bit of quality control as well.
- Accounting Managers
These may have team members working under them. They decide who will do what and ensure the project is going in the right direction. They can also speak to the client about the work being done.
- Team Members
“These are the ones checking off all the tasks,” Tonya says.
You can assign the responsibility for managing the entire project to a team member. The project owner should have the right skills and experience (or support) to meet expectations.
Your team needs the right tools to manage your processes to consistently achieve your project goals. Like Nancy Wilson, Managing Director of JNW Group said, “the right tools will help your firm stay on top of customer service by tracking all work being done in the office from annual tax returns, monthly bookkeeping, and payroll to just returning a call to a client.”
For Tonya Schulte, Scribe, Flowcharts, and Financial Cents are her go-to project management tools.
A tool for a visual, step-by-step guide to implementing workflow templates.
Tonya Shulte says her firm “creates procedures with screenshots and exact directions for everything. We create a project task list in Financial Cents and go to Scribe to see the full procedure, including every button they have to click to complete that task.”
Diagrams that represent a work sequence. They allow you to create decision tree-type project templates for team members to know which tasks to do each time.
If a team member needs to skip a task in a project, they can look at the decision tree to see which one they should do.
Tonya says her team is currently building flowcharts out of their processes.
We talk about accounting flowchart with free templates and diagrams here.
Accounting firm owners, like Tonya Schulte and Christi, have picked Financial Cents as their most important tool—after their tax and accounting software.
Being a project management software that was built specifically for accountants, it helps accounting firm owners to coordinate the many moving parts of their accounting projects so their teams can focus on quality client service.
That is because it gives firms the ability to
i. Manage Workflows with:
- Workflow Dashboard that gives you visibility over staff and projects to know where each project stands, the causes of delay, and keeps things from falling through the cracks.
- Filters that enable you to find information (in the dashboard) by a client, project assignee, or due date.
- Recurrences to automatically recreate those projects that you need to perform for clients in the future.
- Task Dependencies to establish clear order for the performance of tasks in a project.
- Team Collaboration features like comments, notes, and @tags for teams to share files and ideas and gain clarity within the project.
ii. Track Time with:
- Start/Stop Timer to track time in the background.
- Reports that give insights into where your team members are spending their time.
- Time Budgets to know when your team spends more time on projects than they should.
- Invoicing Integration to bill clients easily.
- Effective Hourly Rate to see how much your firm spends to execute projects versus how much you earn from them.
iii. Manage Clients with:
- Document Storage to make project files secure and accessible to your team.
- Activity Timeline to show you what your team is saying to your clients, so you can stay on top of client communication.
- Client Groups let you sort your clients by the type of projects you do for them.
- Client Vault to protect your client’s sensitive data (like usernames and passwords) from unauthorized access.
- Client Portal for clients to send their documents (they don’t need to create usernames or passwords).
- Client Tasks to set up a list of things you need from your clients.
- Auto-Reminders to auto-remind your clients to send the information you need to do their projects.
v. Manage Capacity to:
- To see how many hours each employee is working.
- Set a capacity limit for your employees so they don’t exceed their limit.
- To redistribute work between employees.
vi. Integrate Your Emails to:
- Read and send emails from within Financial Cents.
- Pin work-related emails to work on client projects so that nothing slips through the cracks.
- Turn emails to projects and assign and track them in your workflow tool.
Use Financial Cents for Your Accounting Project Management Needs.
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