When our firm started to grow, we learned early on that our team needed a project manager. Currently, we have four full-time project managers, and our team could not run as efficiently without them. Early on, we didn't think about or know that we needed a project manager. Managing the project and relationship seemed like a natural and expected part of a partner, manager or virtual CFO role. It wasn't until we started to accelerate our growth that we found that an accountant, or anyone directly involved in the work, was probably not the right person to keep things on track.
The idea of employing a project manager was inspired by the clients with whom we work. We have a deep niche working with creative agencies. Most creative agencies work on larger project-based teams that require a nontechnical project manager to keep the project on track and the communication with the client active, and make sure the project stays on budget. It took a while and a few rough onboardings with new clients before we could see the parallel need. Many accounting firms have administrative support staff or client engagement staff to do billing and a few trivial administrative tasks for clients, but I had never seen a true project manager within an accounting firm.
An opportunity presented itself when a current client was downsizing their team, including a project manager position, who happened to be a person with whom I worked very closely. This person was very smart and hyperorganized and had great project management skills. This was the exact profile that I would have envisioned for the role. The obvious big concern was whether or not she understood accounting. The answer, of course, was not at all! This is what made her perfect for the role.
Our experience with bringing in accountants to assist with onboarding is they would get sucked into the work and lose sight of the big picture. Even though she was smart and organized, I didn't need her to know how to do the work; she just needed to understand the pieces required and how to put them together to meet the deliverables. I was confident she could do that.
Now the hard part. First, I needed to convince my partner this nontechnical role was not only important but essential to our growth. Luckily for me, my partner is relaxed and forward-thinking so this proved to be a simple task. Next, I needed to speak to my client to see if they were OK with me hiring their former employee. Again, this was also easier than I imagined because they were parting on good terms, and they wanted to see her land someone good. They also had the ability to tap into her institutional knowledge if needed because she was on our team. Lastly, I needed to convince a nonaccountant to come to a public accounting firm. Surprisingly, that also was not a big hurdle. We had a great relationship and she could see the value we placed on our team members, so she was up for the new challenge.
So for a firm, you might be wondering what a project manager does. You might even think a PM is a luxury your firm can't afford. If you're reading this and thinking your firm doesn't need — or can't afford — a PM, read on.
Traits to look for
It's important to note what traits to look for when hiring a project manager. We have found that having a nontechnical/nonaccountant is the ideal person for the job, someone who is really focused on project management and organization can step aside from the accounting stuff and see onboarding through a different lens. We have had accountants in this role before, and it was never a good fit. Your project manager needs high-level communication skills, but even if you find an accountant with high-level communication skills, their expertise actually can cause lane confusion: If a client has a technical question, you want the virtual CFO to answer, not the project manager.
Since our project managers don't have a technical accounting background, they understand we don't all speak the same language or hear the same thing. That means they spend extra time ensuring our clients and accountants are on the same page, avoiding any confusion down the line.
One of our project managers is a self-proclaimed "process nerd." In fact, there is also a professional certification out there where individuals can become a project management professional (PMP) through the Project Management Institute. Regardless of the certification, look for someone with an eye for process and procedures who knows how to work with different types of stakeholders. In addition, someone with a strong sense of curiosity will serve this position well because nothing is ever going to stay the same. Every new client is going to bring something in that is a little bit different or has a little bit different personality or different expectations.
Your project manager has to have that knowledge and structure to be able to identify when something is off track. And when something does go off track, they need to be flexible and adaptable to work through it.
What does a project manager do?
Now that you have the traits needed for your project manager, let's talk about what they do and why your firm needs one, or two. If your firm is like ours at Summit, it's always changing. With processes, procedures and technologies constantly evolving, you want to ensure someone is in place on every project. From sales calls to scope creep, the project manager wears many hats.
Sales process: Our project managers watch videos to learn what types of conversations are common during the sales calls. That helps lay the foundation of the client relationship, which you want to be rock solid before the onboarding process.
Sometimes there can be disconnects between the sales call and the ultimate delivery. During the sales process, the project manager helps educate the potential client about what to expect. This ensures a smooth onboarding process.
Onboarding: Our project managers are heavily involved in onboarding new clients. They start the relationship by leading from the front, telling clients what to expect and listening to them. Although 80% of the kickoff call is the VCFO and the client getting to know each other, our project manager is there too, listening (as the nonaccountant in the room) for things that are important to the client that might not be related to finances — building the foundation for that consulting relationship. This is their opportunity to start digging into some of the things that the client is looking for.
Make sure your project manager knows the onboarding process inside and out (our PMs helped design ours). If they know the structure of the process, it will be easy for them to execute it with a client; furthermore, if a process needs to be updated or becomes obsolete, they can easily rework the onboarding process so that it better serves the clients.
In addition to new-client onboarding, our project managers help onboard new technology, software and tools to our clients. At Summit, we are constantly looking for tools to make us better and more efficient. This often means changing and adding to our technology stack. When we have clients who aren't tech savvy, our project manager comes in and oversees the transition to help them get acclimated. And because the project manager onboarded them, they are familiar with them and trust them.
Client liaison: Onboarding is over, so what next? At this point the project manager has built a relationship with the client, so it's a natural transition to have them foster that relationship going forward. This liaison role may be the most important.
At Summit, we prioritize client feedback and actively pursue it. Our clients are interacting with their team on a regular basis so hopefully they receive feedback along the way, but we have found that an additional outside touch point goes a long way. That said, we also do not want to waste time or stir up issues where none exist. Accordingly, we use a monthly survey tool to check in with our clients to ask for one simple rating, and a comment section if they feel so inclined. Survey fatigue is real, so we keep it light intentionally. That said, feedback means nothing if you're not monitoring and communicating with the team and reacting in real time.
Our project managers monitor the feedback, report good and bad feedback to the team, and reach out to the client if we have not heard from them in a while. If we do receive negative feedback, the project manager immediately responds and schedules a call to diagnose the issue with the client. This is critical. Prior to having a project manager, days or possibly weeks may have gone by before someone had time to assess what was going on internally and reach out to the client. Now it happens immediately, which shows our clients our commitment to serving them well.
Once the project manager has met with the client to diagnose the issue, they communicate it to the client service team, who works on a solution. The resolution management was also slow to happen or incomplete prior to having the project manager team. Now, it's much more streamlined.
Scope creep monitor: If you're able to bill hourly for every hour you work and maintain your client relationship, good for you. For the majority of us scope creep (AKA realization) is a common issue in the professional service space.
Our project managers understand the work we do. They oversee the beginning of the engagement and help monitor the relationship along the way, which also makes them a safe place for the team. Our team knows they can reach out to the PM team if they need help working through an issue or a project with the client to make sure that we stay within the scope of our engagement.
Can your firm afford a project manager?
I think the bigger question is, can your firm afford not to have a project manager? In addition to the onboarding processes and internal duties, a project manager oversees so many tasks and, most importantly, ensures they get executed. They see a project through from start to finish and hold others accountable for getting stuff done. So while you think you might be getting by without a project manager, ask yourself: Who, if anyone, has a hand in internal projects? Who oversees that projects are being completed in a timely manner? Who ensures scope creep isn't taking place on any of our accounts?
If you can't name one person (maybe two), or if you think your CFOs and accountants are wearing that hat, then you can be sure your firm isn't running as efficiently as it could. Because if everyone owns a project, then nobody owns it.
Co-founder, Summit CPA Group