7 Critical Success Factors for Professional Services Firms

Discover 7 critical success factors that belong in any professional services strategy. Read on to learn more.

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    In today’s data-centric digital landscape, intelligence is central to any business strategy.

    But — it’s a matter of life and death for professional services firms where the “product” is a combination of insights and expertise.

    Professional services firms have always known this, given that profits depend on their ability to provide specialized insights and solutions you can’t get anywhere else.

    Human experts – and the knowledge and skills they bring to the table – are responsible for generating business value and differentiating their firm from the competition.

    What’s different now, though, is that firms need to prove that their expertise gets results. Critical success factors (CSFs) represent the key areas or conditions you need to master in order for your business strategy to be successful.

    Here, we’ll quickly define critical success factors and explain why pro services firms should care about them. Then, we’ll look at 7 critical success factors that belong in any professional services strategy. Read on to learn more.

    Microsoft Dynamics 365 Buyer's Guide for Professional Services

    This guide will provide an overview of the entire platform and answer questions about features, selection, purchasing, implementation and support of the Dynamics 365 suite of solutions.

    What Are Critical Success Factors for Professional Services?

    CSFs can literally be anything — whether that’s improving customer satisfaction, increasing revenue, reducing operating costs, or something specific to a particular project or deliverable – making them somewhat difficult to identify – let alone define in concrete terms.

    Critical success factors are often confused with another performance-based acronym, the key performance indicator, or KPI. Like KPIs, critical success factors play a key role in setting goals and driving improvements – but they’re far from interchangeable.

    Microsoft Dynamics 365 Buyer's Guide for Professional Services

    This guide will provide an overview of the entire platform and answer questions about features, selection, purchasing, implementation and support of the Dynamics 365 suite of solutions.

    CSFs focus on general, high-level goals, whereas KPIs measure the impact of the actions you take to achieve a specific outcome.

    For example, if your CSF is improving service quality, you might use KPIs like average resolution time, first-time fix rate, or customer satisfaction scores to understand how you’re performing in this area. Basically, critical success factors are broad categories – KPIs allow you to measure those factors against different dimensions.

    With that in mind, here are seven key areas you’ll need to focus on in order for your firm to not only achieve critical goals, but ensure that it survives.

    1. Unity

    Firms need real-time insights into the entire business – finance, project accounting, sales, everything – otherwise multiple versions of the truth will start showing up in budgets, estimates, and forecasts.

    Many pro services firms still use fragmented systems or analog methods like spreadsheets to manage projects. This leads to poor visibility, inefficient processes, and, worst of all, inaccurate data.

    Bad data, in turn, leads to inaccurate timelines, estimates, budgets. It prevents you from generating reliable cash-flow forecasts and makes it incredibly difficult to manage resources.

    Determining if your system is truly “unified” starts with looking at your core processes to determine if they’re working. So here, you might ask yourself the following questions:

    • Are teams aligned around shared objectives?
    • Is everyone on the same page re: standards and procedures?
    • Can everyone access the information they need? Is it easy to communicate/collaborate with colleagues and clients?
    • Do processes produce the right outcome?
    • Are compliance/governance rules working?
    • Are forecasts/estimates/budgets accurate?
    • Do you have the visibility you need to maximize resource utilization, track project status, schedule new work?
    • Are project operations, sales, customer service, etc. directly integrated with core financials?

    2. Data Maturity

    When it comes to data, professional services firms need to move beyond basic analytics tools and generic client reports. Everyone – from C-suite leaders and IT to SMEs, service techs, and sales reps must learn how to activate and operationalize their data.

    It’s not enough to interpret insights, professional services firms can’t compete unless they’re able to effectively leverage that information to produce a specific outcome. That might mean working with Power BI and Power Apps to solve a specific problem. Or – maybe it’s using AI to find patterns within disparate data sets that might help clients secure a competitive advantage.

    When pro services orgs use data to make decisions, rather than gut feelings, they’re in a better position to drive long-term growth.

    Here, you’ll measure success by looking at things like:

    • Does your system include internal and external data sources?
    • Do employees understand how to combine insights from different sources to generate more accurate predictions, model scenarios, find unexpected correlations, etc.?
    • How are people using data/technology to perform tasks like tracking resource utilization, reduce manual data-entry, or improve forecasting models?
    • Can you effectively match the right people to the right projects?
    • How are you currently using data to optimize processes?

    3. Human Experience

    With client expectations and technology evolving at a break-neck pace, pro services firms need to adapt their business models, processes, and strategies to the current digital reality.
    IBM experts advise organizations to focus on “human-centric” experiences, rather than following a “customer-centric” approach, which frames the relationship as transactional.

    Instead, all transformation efforts should focus on providing value to all end users — including employees. Here are a handful of questions you might ask yourself to learn how you’re doing on the experience front:

    • Can you define client goals, pain points, challenges?
    • Do you understand their current needs and expectations?
    • Do service offerings align with client priorities?
    • Do projects deliver the desired outcomes?
    • What do project profit margins look like?
    • Are clients churning or sticking around?
    • What kind of feedback are you getting?
    • Can you automate manual processes? How would that help employees improve client experiences – directly or indirectly?
    • Do employees have the tools they need to create value for clients?

    4. Talent Development for Professional Services Success

    Building on our last point, optimizing skills is an urgent priority — experts must learn to augment existing knowledge with AI and automation, use data to build valuable solutions, and at the same time, ensure that digital doesn’t diminish the human relationships still at the heart of the service-based org.

    Firms need to ensure that experts’ skills and knowledge deepen and evolve with the times. It’s so much more than keeping up with the latest tech trends – it’s being able to effectively use technology to augment existing skills and ensure that decisions/tactics/solutions produce the right outcomes.

    • Do you provide hands-on skills training?
    • What kind of impact has that training had on client outcomes? The bottom line?
    • What are you doing to avoid future skills gaps? Retain talent?
    • Are upskilling/training efforts driven by customer feedback? Market trends?
    • How do you facilitate collaboration (i.e. fusion development)?
    • What kind of impact has upskilling experts had on client satisfaction/sentiment/retention?

    5. Agility

    Agile transformation represents an ongoing effort to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the organization.

    Leading orgs have the agility and flexibility needed to respond to disruptions, evolve with market conditions, and act on emerging trends without clunky processes holding them back. They also continuously rework processes to better meet client needs, reduce waste, boost productivity, and move faster to stay ahead of competitors.

    For project-based firms, unlocking agility could mean embedding Microsoft Teams, project management tools, and real-time BI into daily workflows. You might automate back-end tasks to save time and reduce errors. Then, later, automate more advanced processes like recurring payments or resource scheduling.

    For distributors, process automation will likely be a priority – even if you’re not quite ready for things like process mining or RPA.

    As an example, Irrimax partnered with us back in 2018 when growth projections pushed them to upgrade from QuickBooks and Excel to a unified cloud ERP. Vice President of IT David Meyer, says that, at the time, finding a solution that would accommodate the forecasted growth, digitize processes, and manage all core accounting and supply chain operations was a top priority. Meyer also wanted to make sure that it could support an automated supply chain solution – so that they wouldn’t need to invest in a whole new ERP when the time came to implement more advanced automations.

    We helped the Irrimax team implement D365 Business Central, integrate critical data sources, and automate simple processes – allowing them to generate accurate, real-time insights they could use to boost productivity and process efficiency.

    Three years later, Irrimax tripled its revenue as predicted – and the team is now able to explore “what-if” scenarios based on sales forecasts, fluctuations in demand, and other variables that make it easier to adapt supply chain operations to real-time conditions.

    You might measure success by asking yourself:

    • How long does it take to respond to changing demands?
    • How often do you release new products/services?
    • How long does it take to bring those solutions to market?
    • Do process improvements support strategic objectives?
    • Does your culture enable problem-solving/exploration?
    • Do employees proactively look for opportunities to improve?
    • Does transformation happen on a continuous loop?

    6. Executive Sponsorship

    Executive sponsorship ensures that the entire firm stays aligned and working together to achieve high-level goals. It also prevents projects from fizzling out either because upper management fails to make it a priority or the team lead from a specific department was tasked with leading adoption efforts (it doesn’t work).

    Ask yourself the following questions to learn more about whether your C-level champion is getting results:

    • Does everyone have the tools and information they need to successfully do their work
    • Do existing tools/tech/partners support the long-term vision? Can they scale?
    • Are processes/technologies implemented as part of a holistic strategy? Or on an ad-hoc basis?
    • Is there a team of champions/power users supporting efforts on the ground?
    • Are people using tools effectively? If not, what kind of support is available to bring struggling employees up to speed?

    7. Project Profitability

    According to a Harvard Business Review piece, What Professional Services Firms Must Do to Thrive, firms need to be able to systematically manage their client portfolio.

    However, managing an entire portfolio’s worth of clients and making sure every complex project is delivered on-time and on-budget is already a lot.

    On top of that, project managers must also maximize project profitability – ensuring that things like discounts, non-billable hours, and poor utilization don’t eat up your margins.

    Firms need real-time insights into the entire business – finance, project accounting, sales, everything – otherwise multiple versions of the truth will start showing up in budgets, estimates, and forecasts.

    Here, you might look into solutions that can work behind the scenes to ensure projects stay on track (and stay profitable).

    For example, D365 users can set custom accounting rules, set payment terms that encourage faster turn-arounds on client payments, and measure financial performance against goals and historical data. They can also add new operating models to the platform and use in-app reporting tools to optimize performance.

    Velosio’s AXIO Advanced Projects for D365 comes with features like advanced revenue management, contract lifecycle management, and integrations that streamline expense management and time-tracking.

    A few questions that can help you get a sense of whether projects are profitable:

    • Can you track both direct and indirect costs?
    • Do actual project costs match planned budgets?
    • Do you have full visibility into all project data, financials, and operating models?
    • Can you identify and fix problems/waste centers that undermine profitability?

    Final Thoughts

    The critical success factors mentioned here represent a very small fraction of CSFs professional services firms might include in their business strategy.

    Professional services is such an expansive category — and even within specific niches such as accounting firms, IT services, or management consultancies, every organization will have their own set of critical success factors.

    Whether you need help identifying critical success factors, putting together a roadmap for meeting them, or implementing the tech that delivers the desired outcomes, Velosio experts can make it happen.

    Contact us today to learn more about how we help professional services firms navigate the challenges of project-based work, resource management, and complex financials.