How the iPad Pro + Pencil Can Change Your Consulting Workflow

Last week a friend of mine showed up to a meeting with an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil and declared, "Joey, I'm a believer, man!" A month earlier he had watched my meeting workflow, and decided he wanted something similar. During that same meeting I showed another iPad Pro/Pencil owner some of the apps I use to get the most out of the hardware. What makes the iPad Pro so much different from its predecessors?

I need to preface all of these comments by saying that I'm not out to compare the iPad to the Microsoft Surface, laptops or Android options. What you use is what you use. If your hardware produces comparable results you know what I’m talking about. The platform doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just talking about what I know. I’m currently using a 12.9” iPad Pro with 128GB of storage. In addition to the Apple Pencil I use the Apple Smart Keyboard cover and the Apple silicone case.

I started using an iPad pro because a client asked me to get familiar with it. We were developing some software for use in the field and the Apple Pencil was a better option than a finger when it came to interacting with customers. Within two weeks I was hooked and using it everyday for the majority of my workflow.

The Pencil

Since I've had an iPad, and even before with tablet computers, I've tried to use a stylus. Every stylus I have ever tried wasn't responsive enough or just didn't work as expected. So I reverted to using my finger on the iPad for hand writing and drawing. And I bought into the Steve Jobs mentality that nobody wanted a stylus. If my free, God-given finger was better than anything that cost money he must have known what he was talking about. But then Apple took a stab at making a stylus.

It is about as close to writing on paper as you’re going to get…today. And I love to write on paper. It's still not a fountain pen, but my handwriting looks exactly like my handwriting. It's hard to describe how good it is, because most of the time you don't even notice it. The Pencil just gets out of the way and you can write or draw on the screen without thinking about the tool in your hand.

Notability as the killer app

I have been an avid user of Notability for several years. On the iPad it is hands-down the best handwriting, drawing, and PDF markup tool I have used. For years I have carried a day book/journal with me to all appointments, but I am noticing that even that is starting to change. If much of the agenda for a particular meeting is based on PDFs that I'm bringing to that meeting I am more likely to push the PDF into Notability and keep all of my notes there.

I have always had a hard time giving up my paper habit because seeing my own handwriting and diagrams gives my notes a context that typewritten text will never achieve. Within seconds I can recognize the content from a meeting that took place weeks or months ago. And Notability (when paired with the Apple Pencil) preserves this context.

I give my notes descriptive titles before they are archived in Evernote and sometimes I will include a couple of sentences of typewritten text in the Evernote document. As a general rule I don't need to search through the body of my handwriting, so text recognition is not something that I'm looking for in this app. I know there are several competitors to Notability, but after trying all of them I keep coming back to this app.

One other nice “feature” of Notability is that it sync’s across the iPhone and Mac with separate apps. It’s something you don’t think you’ll need…until you do.

Screen size

The iPad Pro, the large 12.9” version, is huge. It takes some getting used to and plopping all of that screen real estate down in your lap can be intimidating. But once you start using it you find all sorts of uses for the extra space.

The split screen mode works really well and switching between applications using the split screen is easy to get used to. For years my carry-around iPad has been an iPad mini. The iPad Pro in landscape mode is like putting two mini’s side-by-side. In addition to putting iOS apps side by side I can remote into my 27” iMac and it’s actually usable without having to constantly zoom in and zoom out.

In the traditional paper document paradigm the iPad Pro is the perfect size. It is almost exactly the size of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. When you are marking up the document it feels like you are marking up the actual document, but with all of the added benefits of different ink colors, different highlighter styles, the ability to drop in a picture or sticky notes, etc.

The screen size and portability also makes the iPad Pro the perfect device for giving presentations to small groups. When I deliver proposals to prospects they are always presented using Keynote. The iPad Pro is plenty big enough to stand up at the end of a conference room table to present to three or four people. If the presentation includes any kind of video the speakers in the iPad Pro are so good it isn’t necessary to carry around a separate Bluetooth or other external speaker.

Round tripping between apps and workflows

iOS share sheets have become a staple of my workflow. It's very easy to go into a client file in Dropbox, pull out a document, send it to Notability, annotate it, email a flattened PDF back to the client, and send the archived meeting notes to Evernote. There are parts of my workflow like this that are faster on the iPad then they are on a desktop computer, if they are even possible on the desktop.

Using applications like Airmail I can stream together workflows that create new Trello cards from messages, PDF emails to Evernote, create appointments and a bunch of stuff I still haven't played with yet. Integration with hardware features like cameras and microphones and GPS means there are many things (and the list keeps expanding) that are much easier to do on the iPad than they are on a traditional desktop computer or laptop. This has been the case with iOS devices for a while, but the additional screen real estate means you find yourself in this more productive ecosystem for a bigger portion of your workday. And the more time you spend in iOS the more things you discover you can do with it.

Sometimes it is hard to describe exactly how this piece of hardware changes and improves my main workflow of working with and following up with clients. But when people see it in action they start to see the possibilities in their own workflow habits. It's something you need to experience for a few weeks to really grasp, and if you have the ability I would encourage you to try it out. It seems particularly well-suited to anyone who is working with clients and needs to be mobile.

Stop Writing Reports

I remember the very first full fledged consulting engagement I sold. The partners in the firm didn't know what I was up to. It was summer time and they were just glad I had my own work to do. I eventually came back to the office to write up my recommendations and sent a draft to the audit partner. That started a three week ordeal.

My list of recommendations did not fit in any of the pigeon holes identified in the AICPA or PPC guides. And the partners didn't think my two pages were substantial enough. Even after we figured out what kind of report to attach we went 'round and 'round about needing to beef up the package so there were at least enough pages to run through the binding machine.

This is a sickness in many public accounting and law firms. You would think they were charging by the pound instead of the hour (forget about value pricing). And it is something you must address before you start adding a bunch of consulting clients.

Our approach is built around strategic consulting and execution. Aside from one-page strategic plans and quarterly campaigns there is not a lot of "reporting" that needs to be done. But we also do a lot of special projects that require us to document recommendations or findings. And here we have a very specific report writing policy. WE DON'T DO IT.

This is not my idea. I took Alan Weiss's advice in Million Dollar Consulting and stopped writing reports more than ten years ago. If the client wants a report they can provide someone to write it and I'll tell them what should go in it. But writing reports is almost always a waste of everyone's time. Not only is it unnecessary. It's a distraction.

Last week I sat in a dive bar on the island because it was the only place open while Hurricane Hermine blew past Southwest Florida. With an iPad and a couple of burgers between us, I walked the client through several weeks worth of work, presented my findings, and closed with a plan of action. It was 100 times more effective than any report I was forced to write so we could justify that expensive binding machine. Here are the ground rules I try to follow.

  1. Write no reports. I offer to make myself available to someone on the client team (for a fee) so they can debrief me and write the report themselves if they wish. So far no one has taken me up on the offer.
  2. Present findings, recommendations and next actions. "Present" means face-to-face (either physically or virtually). I don't email anything before presenting it. The reason for this is that most of the value for the client is in being able to discuss the issues and what I propose to do about them. From my side I want to make sure my work is put to good use. In a real, live conversation I can gauge the level of understanding and make sure what I mean to communicate is actually what the client is hearing.
  3. Leave behind a succinct, bullet point overview. I don't give this to the client ahead of time because I don't want them reading point #5 while I'm trying to make sure they understand point #1. But I think it is important to give them all of the substantive points in writing before we part ways. Our discussion usually follows a Keynote presentation on the iPad. I never just print out the slides because I think it's silly to leave behind 10 pages when you can fit the same bullet points on one sheet of paper? So I reformat the presentation in Word and give it to the client after we are done going through the presentation.
  4. Close with action steps. The last thing we talk about and the last section of my leave behind are proposed action steps. This is my opinion of what they should do next. Sometimes it includes a bullet point to hire me for help with execution. Other times it's a laundry list of things they need to do to make progress. If you don't tell your client what to do next they will feel cheated and their view of you will be more ivory tower know-it-all than in-the-trenches colleague.

The last thing I usually ask is "how will I know when you've done anything with this?" Resist the temptation to answer for them or to guess. You'll be suprised at the answers you get.

Strengths are all that matter

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Developing Employees’ Strengths Boosts Sales, Profit, and Engagement by Brandon Rigoni, Ph.D. and Jim Asplund in the Harvard Business Review is worth your time and attention as a consultant. Many times clients will want you to work on making people better. But you are working to take them from just being mediocre to being borderline proficient. This is what happens when you focus on coaching someone through their weaknesses. They may improve, but only marginally. And their improvement rarely means much for the company. The worst part is that you have done nothing for the individual. Who goes home with a sense of fulfillment after a day of being borderline proficient? Nobody! 

Here are some key take aways from the article and how I try to apply them in my work with clients. 

Focusing on strengths builds culture

Gallup found that those who use their strengths every day are more likely "to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect." Rigoni and Asplund mention this as an aside before they get into the sales and profit numbers, but I think it should be the central focus of the article. 

My most successful clients are the ones who have the most fun. Their employees smile a lot at customers, laugh a lot with their managers and generally enjoy going to work every day. And the reason is simple. Doing what you're good at produces a very deep current of well being that is easy to share with others. 

It doesn't matter how many foosball tables your client puts in the break room or how many miniature boxed cereals they stock in the kitchen. If their employees aren't going home every day feeling like they were  born to do this or gifted to do that or just really damn good at their job, they aren't going to drive the culture that makes your client standout from all other other companies that do what they do. 

Developing strengths is key to employee fulfillment, which drives culture, which drives everything important in your client's business. 

If you don't use their strengths someone else will

The authors found a 26-72 percentage point decrease in turnover when companies with high turnover implemented a program to focus on developing employee's strengths. Let that sink in for a second. Companies with high turnover were able to drastically reduce it, not by increasing wages, not with performance compensation, not with increased benefits, not with perks, not with free sushi bars and unlimited supplies of Red Bull. They reduced turnover by changing things up so people were spending more of their time in their sweet spot. 

That begs the question. Why were people leaving in the first place? Go talk to them. They'll tell you. I've sat in on lots of exit interviews and I'm sure you have too. Less than 1% say "I'm leaving, but I don't know where I'm going." They have the next spot picked out. They've accepted someone's offer and money isn't the reason they give for leaving. It's always the opportunity: the opportunity to do more, the opportunity to spend more time on their first love, the opportunity to do what they know they were made to do. 

If your client won't put in the time and effort to find a spot where their people will shine the employees will do it themselves, and often that means they will be lost to a competitor. 

What's good for the goose...

Rigoni and Asplund suggest that step one is to start with leadership. In most small businesses the leader is not spending the majority of the time in their sweet spot. If you are trying to help your client improve sales, profit and engagement starting with the person whose time is most valuable is a pretty good idea.  How you do this could fill a book, but here are a few things that have worked with my clients. 

  1. Come up with a "will not do" list. This will include a lot of stuff that still has to get done. If you work with your client on building a culture of focusing on developing strengths you get to ask them completely different question than most business. Most CEO's look across their group of direct reports and try to decide which silo this soon to be delegated responsibility should land in. That's the wrong approach. Get them to think about the whole organization and ask "who's really good at this already?" It might be a manager, but it also might be an intern. Rather than just trying to get it off the owner's plate, think about who will develop the most if it lands on their plate. 
  2. Limit everything else to 20%. We would all like to spend 100% of our time in our sweet spot, and their are people who do, but getting there is a journey. Start by limiting non sweet spot activities to 20% of the owner's time and budget them as such. Make a list of all of these non-sweet spot responsibilities and shoe horn them into the week. You can squeeze them into a 2 hour block every day or carve out an entire day of the week just for them. This is a very effective tactic. At first your client may not think they can squeeze it all in, but if you force them to they will find out the things that aren't absolutely necessary just go away without much pomp or consequence.
  3. Be transparent. Use Strengths Finder, the same tool used by the authors, to identify your client's strengths and then get the owner to open up with their team. Get the to ask the team what things the owner is doing that don't fit into his or her top 5 strengths. Ask who would be better at these things or how the owner can play a smaller role in getting them done. Most business owners won't do this because it sets them up for accountability from their team. But those who do will find an easy out for things they didn't think they could stop doing. 

I read once that in his prime Tiger Woods rarely worked on his driving accuracy, one of his few weaknesses. He preferred to focus on improving his short game, a noted strength, and his extraordinary conditioning. Before Tiger very few PGA players hit the weight room as part of their regular training regimen. When asked about those choices and whether his lack of driving accuracy was holding him back he said that he usually hit the ball so far off the tee that he was well beyond most of the hazards golf course architects put in place to penalize less accurate players. And with his short game he was able to get back in a position to post birdies with less than stellar driving. As in golf, so it is in business.  If you develop your strengths most of your weaknesses become irrelevant.

Bookends: The Consultant's Secret Weapon

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When working with clients, specifically client appointments, there is a habit I call bookending that increases my engagement and determines how effective my time with the client is going to be. And like bookends, this involves doing something before the appointment starts and something after the appointment ends. It doesn't matter whether you are meeting in the office, outside the office, or virtually. The practice can be adapted to each situation.

The front end of the bookending habit involves just 5 minutes before the appointment starts. If I am meeting a client somewhere I try to arrive 8-10 minutes early and complete the front bookend sitting in my car. If it's a video conference or phone call I stop what I'm doing 5 minutes before the start time.

What I do next is a combination of agenda review, mental rehearsal and pep talk. First, I look over the prepared agenda and make sure nothing has come up at the last minute that needs to be penciled in. There is usually something that pops into my head that isn't on the page.

Next, I think about the space I'm going to be walking into. Where am I going, who am I likely to see along the way. I remember or lookup the names of the receptionist or the sales manager or whomever I'm likely to run into.

Finally, I think about my client. I thank God for them and I tell myself how much I care for them. I think about how much I want what is best for them. I remind myself that their best interest is my first priority and my job is to pursue it enthusiastically.

This exercise does several things. It fully prepares me to do the work I've been hired to do. It helps me present myself and my company well, even to those that might not be directly involved in the engagement. And it puts me in a frame of mind to sincerely and enthusiastically serve my client.

The backside of the bookend is just as important. After I'm finished I crank up the car, turn on the air conditioning and settle in for 10-15 more minutes of serious work. This mindset is important. It's tempting to finish a long appointment, let your shoulders down and breath a deep breath while listening to music or checking email. It's even more tempting to rush off to the next thing on a busy day. But stay with me for a few more minutes. We aren't done yet.

First, I pull out my notes and go through them. I add detail, finish sentences, polish up diagrams and just make sure what has been captured on the page is reflective of what happened during the meeting.

Next I take any commitments or todo items that I committed to during the meeting and put them on my master todo list. And I take anything that the client has committed to and add it to Basecamp.

Last I pdf my notes into Evernote using Scanner Pro and update the Trello card where any project information is kept. I will also append any client handouts or other documents gathered during the meeting so that I know where to find them, and any references in my notes to handouts are easily accessible.

This usually takes about 10 minutes. And it's a great 10 minutes that makes sure nothing falls through the cracks. But about 50% of the time something else happens that drives my productivity through the roof.

It's not uncommon for me to finish that last step, look at some of my action items from the meeting and think "I can crank a few of these out right now." It might be email follow ups to other partners or team members. It might be updates to a forecast or KPI model. It might be tweaks to a database app or a dashboard. It might be setting up an appointment with one of the client's vendors to talk about getting something we need. And right there, in my truck, usually with an iPad propped up against the steering wheel I experience some of the most productive work I'll do all day. It isn't busy work. It is critical, must do stuff, that is as relevant in the moment as it's ever going to get. If you want to feel accomplished spend some time working from your client's parking lot. It's magic.

Bookending isn't so much a discipline as a habit. Once you stop forcing yourself to do it and just embrace it as the way you do things it becomes a powerful practice that makes you standout from all the other people your client will meet with throughout the week.

The CONSULTANT'S Mobile Office: Scanner Pro

If you are doing consulting work there is a very good chance that you are onsite at client locations more than you are in the office. There's a good reason for this. You can learn an awful lot by walking around and seeing what's going on. You can learn the truth from frontline employees and managers, rather than the distilled version that often comes from the business owner.

So being on site is usually a good thing, but it requires a different approach to work. At your desk information and resources are just a click or two away. Cloud apps and mobile devices have given us access to everything in the client file for a long time now. But increasingly these same tools are allowing us to get stuff INTO the client file just as easily.

The quicker items can get into the file the faster they are available for future reference. And the less likely it is that they'll still be on a desk or at the bottom of an inbox when you need to lay your hands on them. When clients hand me paper I try to get rid of it as quickly as possible. One of the tools that I use every day is an iPhone app called Scanner Pro by Readdle. Here are the two things I like about it.

1. Auto page capture. You don't have to press the shutter button or line up the page to fill the frame. Just hold the camera over the page and the app senses page edges and snaps the pic when it's ready. I recently went through a 20 page board packet in about 90 seconds, without even removing the staple.

2. Workflows. Scanner Pro will automatically upload a copy of the pdf to the cloud service of your choice. But the real power comes from workflows. Scanner Pro allows you to setup multiple workflows to do things like save to specific cloud services, email files, rename them or send off to apps like Evernote or OneNote.

In practice here is what it looks like in three different scenarios. 

Meeting notes: I keep meeting notes in a day book/journal. Using Scanner Pro I can take a picture of my notes. Using a workflow the pdf is automatically renamed using my standard naming convention. At the same time the client name is added. And the last step in the workflow it is to send the pdf Evernote and file it away in the appropriate notebook. This beats scanning it at the office, dragging it over to Evernote, assigning the notebook and cleaning up the filename.

Client docs: While I'm onsite people hand me things. I'm not Tony Stark. I have to take them. But I don't like to hold onto them any longer than I have to. I usually just try to find a nearby flat surface, pull out my iPhone, and run through a similar workflow in Scanner Pro. The only difference is that sometimes I follow up with a second workflow that emails a copy of the email back to the client, just in case they want a copy. This happened the other day when a manager produced a copy of a process the owner hadn't seen before. Not only did I have it for my records, the owner now had it for his.

Bills: We partner with contractors and other service providers on big client projects. When I meet with these providers and they give me a contract or invoice requiring payment I scan the document with Scanner Pro and run a workflow that automatically emails the pdf to our company Bill.com inbox. And then I'm [almost] done. From there my assistant schedules the bill for payment, I approve it and the payment goes out electronically.

The best thing about apps like this is they are pretty much always available. It doesn't matter whether you're scanning restaurant receipts or a client's whiteboard. With Scanner Pro you have the ability to get high quality pdf's into the file before you step out of the room.

Building a Successful Week

Photo by Lacklan Donald

Photo by Lacklan Donald

It's Sunday night. You have a vague sense that it's going to be a horrendous week. One more glass of wine, a promise to get an early start tomorrow and just like that, you've set yourself up for failure. We all want to get to Friday afternoon and look back over an incredibly productive five days. But without some groundwork it's not going to happen. 

Most CPAs, and especially those doing consulting work, have such a varied weekly schedule that starting Monday without a plan is productivity suicide. There may be no such thing as a routine week, or a standard daily workflow. That's why a successful week starts days or weeks in advance of Monday.

Step one is thinking about what your ideal week should look like. On what days should you see clients and on what days are you better off sitting behind a desk? Are you more productive in the mornings or the afternoons? Are there standing appointments that should be on the books weeks or months in advance? A template of your ideal week is one of the most effective tools for gaining productivity. It should include  large blocks of time for appointment scheduling, head down work, administrative tasks, business development, etc.

Step two is to get some help. Sit down with your executive assistant and other members of your team and ask them for help. Show them your ideal week template. Ask for feedback. Hone it. Refine it. Then ask for everyone's help in sticking to it. Make sure the people who book your appointments know when they should book them. Make sure they know your preferences for grouping appointments on a single day, if that makes you more productive.

Step three is to train the people you interact with on the methods and practices that work best for your productivity. Do you want to make house calls or do you want to have people come to you? Do you want to work with people who like videoconferences or only those who want to meet face-to-face? Do you like phone calls or email better? Getting in your sweet spot from a productivity standpoint isn't so much a matter of efficiency as effectiveness. How do you work most effectively? You need to train your clients to work with you this way. Come up with a list of the 10 ways you work best. This is a great tool for new client on boarding or orientation, and it sets the tone for your future working relationship.

I am a big advocate of sitting down before the week starts and doing some proactive planning. But the truth is, you can be way more productive right out of the gate if you lay the foundation long before that first appointment on Monday morning.