How Small Firms Can Stand Out Among the Crowd
Small CPA firms, those with fewer than 10 employees, are accustomed to operating with less and tapping into more of their resources.
To keep up with large and mid-size CPA firms that have staff ready to help with everything from fielding routine tax calls to niche advisory services, small firms need to compete on what they can— client relations, retention and growing their own practices.
While larger is not always better, the sheer size of large CPA firms enables them to offer more services and develop niche practice areas. But that does not always mean “better” service. Relationships still matter, and that’s where small firms can have an advantage. A long-term customer will only keep coming back until they see value elsewhere. Therefore, small firms need to still sell their value to customers all the time — even ones that have been there since the practice first started.
While small firms may be able to compete on price in some instances, they cannot rely on that discrepancy forever as more large firms pass down certain savings to customers as they merge, expand services and operate certain areas, such as tax, more cheaply. In short, as larger firms keep using their size to find better economies of scale, small firms will have to find their own ways to hold onto business.
So just how do small firms make themselves irreplaceable to clients? By offering the best service around. Small firms can use a “personal touch,” agrees David Lopez, CPA, David A. Lopez and Company, LLC. “New clients often complain that large firms are stuck in their ‘stiff’ pinstriped-suit personality. Small firms often have less internal ‘red tape’ and can be more nimble.” Some tend to identify themselves more as business people and not just CPAs, he says, which makes them attractive to a large pool of potential clients— typically those younger in age.
According to Sally Glick, principal and chief growth strategist, Sobel & Co, LLC, how a firm gains a competitive advantage is taking the “time and commitment to pamper clients, to visit regularly, to call when there is something to share (e.g., alert clients regarding the latest cyber scam — helping them avoid a major compromise and the financial hit or the community embarrassment that could result).” This, she says, sets small firms apart since larger firms have many internal responsibilities, administrative tasks and other roles that may distract from client service.
And it’s important that entry-level staff, in particular, understand the value of good client relations. Young professionals in a small firm, notes Benjamin Aspir, CPA, manager, EisnerAmper, are often the ones who work directly with small-business clients. This can be daunting at first, so a partner or manager at a firm should make an effort to introduce the staff member to a business owner when the opportunity strikes, he says. These same staff members should also not be afraid to admit they do not know something; it’s acceptable to tell a client “I am unsure. I will get back to you.”
Maintaining good relations and retaining clients go hand in hand. To maintain good relations, small firms must offer great services. But to retain clients, small CPA firms must prove their value, not simply justify their fee, and continuously make sure clients are satisfied. Proving one’s worth involves making sure you stack up highly against the competition and all their specialty niche areas. “One of the greatest competitive advantages of a small practice is that partners and managers are flexible enough to spend quality time with clients. They have a presence at the client,” says Lopez.
And even though accounting is becoming more automated in parts, Glick notes the personal touch is still the better way to do business. “The best way to retain a client is to find out exactly what they value most. The firm’s leaders can actually ask ‘What are we doing that you most appreciate? What do you least care about? What should we be doing that we aren’t?’”
David Rubin, managing director of Credit Management Group, adds that clients who realize a return on their investment in your services are more likely to remain a client. If you can help a client grow their business and make more money, they will value the relationship that they have with you. “A wise consultant once told me if you do one thing that someone values, you will have a client, two things and you will enrich the relationship you have with that client, three things and you will cement the relationship and have a client for life,” he says.
Growing Your Practice
Small practices do not have large marketing and advertising budgets, so they need to rely more on referrals and word of mouth to increase their number of clients. “For any service business, there is a magic moment of access when you can and should ask for referrals or introductions,” says Andrew Gole, president, Bombadil LLC.
Referrals are key, adds Glick. “Staying in front of bankers, attorneys, other CPAs, consultants, trade association directors and others with influence helps to maintain ‘top-of-mind awareness’ so that the firm is best positioned should an opportunity arise.”
Knowing when to grow a practice is almost as important as how to grow. Putting time and effort into gaining new customers can be a challenge. As Gole reminds, setting and holding oneself to goals is essential to success. Particularly for partners of small CPA firms, it’s wise to set a goal of making one introduction per week to a prospective client, he says. And if someone misses a week then he or she must introduce themselves to two next week. “We call this a ‘do or die approach’ as compared to a ‘best efforts’ approach,” says Gole.
Sally Glick is principal and chief growth strategist at Sobel & Co., LLC.
This article appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.