My home state of Nebraska was in a major recession when I graduated from school with an accounting degree. I couldn’t find a job so I sent letters to friends offering to do their bookkeeping. Twenty-four years later, I am the satisfied owner of a growing financial services firm, but that wasn’t always the case—three years ago, I was considering getting out of the business.
In 2011, after 20 years of running my practice, I woke up and realized I couldn’t do it anymore. After all that time, I was still just breaking even and barely covering my bills. My staff accountants were making as much money as I was.
Discontent filled my office. The employees were divided into two warring factions with the motto, “Anything I can do to make someone’s life miserable, I will do.” Because of their negativity, we had client retention problems. When I asked why we had lost a client, the staff would point fingers at each other—it wasn’t their fault, it wasn’t their problem and it wasn’t a big deal.
One of my employees acted as a friend to my face and an enemy behind my back. When I asked her to do a project or get something done, she would say, “This is great”; then she would tell the staff, “This is stupid.” Even though she worked in just one of my three offices, she still managed to spread her dissatisfaction throughout the entire firm. I was the one who had hired her. During her job interview, she had a negative attitude about her personal life but I hired her anyway. For some reason, I expected her to have a positive attitude in her work life.
Not knowing what to do about my personnel issues, I let them fester. The stress got to me, making me mean and crabby in the office and with my family. I wasn’t ready to get a job working for somebody else but I couldn’t continue in this way. Things had to change or I would get out of the business altogether. That’s when I contacted Sterling and became a client.
Sterling’s program began with a two-week visit to the company’s headquarters for consulting and management training. While there, my consultant and I immediately started tackling the staff issues. My first step was to fire my receptionist who was so down in the mouth, I got depressed just talking to her. Then, when I returned to the practice, I held a meeting to let the staff know about the changes I would be making. As expected, the staff member who criticized me behind my back bucked the program from day one. I sat down with her and let her know the bus was changing direction; she could either find a new seat or get off at the next stop. She didn’t come around, and I dismissed her a month later on February 20th. With her gone, the staff bickering declined drastically. These days, I hire good people using Sterling’s personnel testing; I am shocked by how well it works.
To address profitability, my consultant recommended a compensation plan based on billings. Some of the staff were costing me more than they were making, others were only billing 1½ to 2 times their salary and none were productive enough. I gave them each a production goal and those who bill 3 times their compensation get a nice bonus. Now they track their billings and have to report on their progress in a weekly staff meeting. If they lose a client, they have to find other work to make their goal. When we first started with Sterling, a staff member walked into my office and asked, “Now that billings are important, should I bill for this?” I told him, “Billings have always been important.” “Not to us,” he replied, “We didn’t get paid for them.”
I, too, went through some changes. I no longer let things fester; I watch for frustration points in the practice and address them. Plus, I keep training my employees. My consultant delivers training sessions from his office in California via video-conferencing to my staff in Nebraska. He’s covered topics like customer service and sales. As a result, the staff are more concerned with how clients are treated and have actually started selling new services to existing clients. I have also brought some employees to Sterling’s workshops which are free for clients. This keeps the staff tuned in to what is going on in the practice and why. I also attend the workshops because they give me a mental break. I come back refreshed and with a half a dozen good ideas for the practice.
Three years ago I was barely making it and was thinking about getting out of the business. Since signing up with Sterling, my billings have increased 25% and profitability has gone from just breaking even to six figures and I now make more than my staff accountants. It’s so much easier to run the practice when the staff has a positive attitude. The quality of our work has gone up, and so has our client retention. As for me, I feel much more in control and in charge. My stress level is lower, I can sleep at night and I am much happier at work and at home—life is good.