Tiered huddles help firms manage busy season

Accounting

In this age of Zoom, telework and 24/7 connectivity, it’s tempting to keep everyone at your firm on call all the time. But tech can be counterproductive when too many people are pulled into too many meetings to discuss too many issues that aren’t commensurate with their decision-making authority — or their expertise.

That’s where “tiered huddles” come in. Tiered huddles are regularly scheduled meetings between people at the same level of an organization to discuss common issues they’re facing. The objective of each huddle is to determine which issues the group can handle on its own — and which issues need to be escalated to superiors.

Hospitals and the military have used tiered huddles for years. Now they’re becoming more common in the business world. Here’s how the tiered huddle system typically works:
1. The first huddle of the day is for frontline workers only. They do their best with basic issues and escalate the ones they can’t solve (with supporting data), to their supervisors.
2. Thirty minutes later, a supervisor’s huddle takes place. Supervisors decide which issues received from frontline workers can be resolved — and which need to be escalated to their managers.
3. Next, the managers huddle up. Most issues can be resolved; a few need to be escalated to the director’s huddle.
4. At the directors huddle, they review issues sent up by the managers. Most are resolved; a few prickly ones must get escalated to the executive team.
5. When the executive team finally huddles, they don’t waste time on anything that could have been resolved by their reports. It’s not uncommon for them to push issues back down to the director’s or manager’s huddle.

Huddling for CPAs

To utilize the tiered huddle pyramid at your firm, the first daily meeting should consist of the client service associates only. Here CSAs try to solve as many basic issues as possible without getting the rest of the firm involved. When empowered to collaborate and make decisions, you’ll be surprised how many issues your CSAs can solve on their own. Only issues they cannot solve together will be escalated to the associate’s team. Issues that the associates can’t solve on their own will get rolled up to the seniors. Only issues the seniors can’t solve on their own will get rolled up to the managers and then to the partners and the owners if needed.

Got the idea?

By the time an issue gets to the partner level, it better be pretty serious — something that couldn’t be solved by all the teams below them. Manager and partner time is very expensive. The last thing you want is for seniors to be asking themselves: “Why am I at this meeting? This issue has nothing to do with me.”

If there’s a minor issue on a military base, you don’t run to a four-star general to deal with it. There’s a process in place. Same goes for CPA firms.

Benefits of tiered huddles

First, they free up partners and senior managers to focus on complex client issues and big initiatives for the firm.

Second, they teach your firm how to solve its own problems.

Without a tied hierarchy in place, no one is learning anything from anyone else. People are wasting valuable time seeking answers to questions that have already been answered at the firm — issues that are way below their pay grade.

Even when it’s not busy season, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed if you’re bombarded with questions all day long from impatient clients and colleagues. A tiered huddle process will prevent lots of random people from coming to you all day long with questions that could (and should) be answered by others better qualified to do so at your firm. It’s also going to create a system in which your teams are learning how to solve their own problems by teaching each other and by learning from their collective experience — and mistakes.

Over time, this self-guided approach will have a powerful multiplier effect on your organization’s bottom line. That’s because everyone is focused on what they do best — and not wasting time on issues that are way below (or way above) their pay grade.

For example, suppose clients keep emailing a CSA for instructions about logging in to the client portal. Chances are the client’s questions are pretty routine. The CSA is either going to randomly ask around the firm for help, or bring up the issue at the next tiered huddle of CSAs. A partner is not equipped to help the client portal and, frankly, it’s way below their pay grade. But when the CSAs get together, chances are someone else will say, “Clients are asking me for help with the portal too.”

When multiple team members are facing the same issue, you know it’s time to answer that question once and for all by developing a “best practice” response. Someone at the CSA level who enjoys working with technology gets tapped to draft a best practice document. Their peers review it, and then it gets shared around the firm — and disseminated to clients. Next time a client needs help with the portal, there won’t be a mad scramble for a solution. The answer is already there.

Isn’t that better than wasting time on routine issues at large group meetings — meetings in which 80 percent of the people in the room have nothing to add and have no idea why they’re in attendance.

Sound familiar?

Keeping the client portal issue within the CSA huddle accomplishes several things:
1. It’s best for the client since CSAs are most qualified to handle the issue and to communicate instructions to clients.
2. It’s the most cost-effective way for your firm to address an issue, since CSA time is less expensive than partner/manager time.
3. It creates best practices for a learning organization. When CSAs huddle with their peers, they can share best practices quickly and efficiently, with no wasted time from other people needing to sit there (or pontificate).

Tiered huddles are not just for busy season. They work all year round to help your firm “learn how to learn.” Even better, they empower junior members of your team to take responsibility. And they free up your seniors to spend quality time with clients and to focus on big-picture initiatives. Isn’t that where they can contribute the most value to your firm?

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