To become more effective and provide greater value, most finance organisations are striving to better understand business, provide relevant analysis and insights, and enable strategic decisions. But in today’s world, these capabilities are just the table stakes. To truly elevate their game, leading chief financial officers (CFOs) are turning their organisations into indispensable business partners. They’re doing so by changing the way they think about their internal customers – and how to deliver the services that matter.
Indeed, customer centricity isn’t just for marketing departments. If you’re trying to increase the value and credibility of your finance organisation, take a close look at the needs of your internal customers.
Understanding business customers
What challenges do different functions and business units face in executing their responsibilities? What kinds of insights do employees in these areas need to do their jobs better, and at what level of detail? To answer these kinds of questions, you need to understand not only what your internal customers value — but also what their customers’ value is. This kind of knowledge is the beginning of a meaningful business relationship.
For business partnership to be most successful, finance employees need to hone their softer skills such as influencing, negotiating and listening
To improve your value, apply a commercial mentality to the management of each relationship. For example, consider assigning each customer a relationship manager, who can regularly assess the customer’s needs, resolve concerns and provide the customer with a single point of contact – all while improving their interaction with the finance organisation.
Moreover, consider developing ‘service statements’ that define the services your organisation will provide, the goals, roles, timeframes and, importantly, the customer’s responsibilities during the relationship. Each customer should be actively involved in defining the responsibilities and objectives of their finance partner, but your organisation will need to communicate clearly the kinds of services you will provide – and the kinds you won’t – in step with your strategy for business partnership.
In addition to determining your customers’ needs, make sure you have the capacity to meet them. Building this capacity may involve some changes to your operating model, so you can free up your staff from their core finance work to serve as business partners. In fact, according to our conversations with CFOs, true business partnership requires a minimum of 15 percent of the finance team’s time, and business partnering should not be viewed as a part-time or secondary role – but rather a core part of the team’s responsibility.
Another consideration for capacity is the location of your finance employees. For successful relationships, business partners should be co-located with their internal customers. This way, customers feel that their finance partners ‘belong’ to them and are an integral part of their team – which positions finance as a creator of business value.
Meeting customer needs
Your employees also need to have the right skills for business partnership. That is, your internal customers will assume their business partners have technical skills in finance, but do they also have the ability to challenge the business in a firm and constructive manner? Can they balance empathy and customer service with an ability to say no to certain requests, explaining why the focus needs to be on other areas? Are they easy to do business with?
For business partnership to be most successful, finance employees need to hone their
softer skills such as influencing, negotiating and listening. A team that operates in this way can be fully involved in a customer’s decision-making versus merely providing information, so it’s important to consider your employees’ training and development.
To complement their soft skills, good business partners also need strong commercial skills, as well as a broad understanding of the business. So you might look to MBA-qualified employees to supplement your more traditional CPA-qualified team members. To build your team’s knowledge of the enterprise and experience in different functions, rotate your business partners through a range of different roles – ideally on two- to three-year assignments – so they can develop their skills and learn different parts of the company.
Of course, to succeed with business partnerships, finance must excel at core competencies, which are critical to building credibility. Otherwise, if you’re creating management reports with errors or not completing payroll on time, the business is unlikely to seek you out for decision-making advice.
With this foundation in place and a focus on customer centricity, the finance industry is in a prime position to add value as a strategic business partner. Leading CFOs are going beyond a numbers-focused roles to make their organisations a key player in strategic planning, growth and operational efficiency. Will you be one of them?