What happens when a client starts to think they’re too big for your small firm? Don’t get hung up on being small! It is possible to give clients what they need without changing who you are. Our eight-person firm has succeeded by keeping a sharp eye on client needs and by staying nimble. Our two secret weapons are:
Communication. Firms typically lose clients by failing to maintain an open dialogue that allows the CPA to anticipate their plans and future needs and determine how to best meet them. I recommend focusing on the top 20% of your client base, because they’re the ones most likely to outgrow you. Keep in touch with these clients regularly by sending emails, making phone calls, taking them to lunch, or meeting them for a happy hour and asking what keeps them awake at night or updating them on the full slate of services you provide. Stay in contact all year long, not just when you see them for the annual tax return or audit. Keep an open mind as you listen to their challenges and provide creative advice and solutions to help your clients succeed. Let’s say your client is planning a complicated transaction they think would be beyond your firm’s expertise. They are considering moving to a national firm because they believe it has more credibility in the marketplace. If you know this is on their mind, you can change this mentality and keep that relationship by explaining how you can help them with the transition or by offering to arrange a joint venture with a national firm.
Flexibility. Small firms are actually well suited to keep up with growing clients because of our flexibility. Our firm was created 18 years ago and focused primarily on individual tax returns. As time passed, clients sometimes got into disputes or went through a divorce, so we added forensic services. We also added a specialized niche in pension plan audits to further assist clients in that specific area. As their assets grew, we deepened our services for high-net-worth and high-income clients, and we added financial planning and a wealth management company that’s not part of the CPA firm. We thought we could assist clients better than their existing financial services providers because we understood their tax situations and their financial lives.
How can an eight-person firm provide this vast array of services? Two strategies enable us to respond to clients’ changing needs as they continue to grow their businesses.
- Strategic alliances. We have an alliance with a larger firm in Atlanta that reviews some of our complicated pension plan work and enables us to bid on large consulting engagements. We also have a buy-sell agreement with another local firm, so through them, we can refer work when we don’t have the bandwidth to complete the engagements in-house.
- Virtual and outsourced staff. Although our firm is located in New Orleans, my assistant is about to move to Maine, and she will stay with our firm as one of several virtual employees we have had over the years. We also outsource work to people outside of the region on an as-needed basis, enabling us to expand and contract based on our workflow and the services needed. By staying nimble and finding the staff we need when we need them, we were recently able to tackle a $250,000 consulting project that ballooned into an even larger engagement adding to our bottom line.
You don’t have to change your practice to keep up with growing clients, but you may have to change how you provide services. Even if you can’t meet every client’s needs, you can be the quarterback who oversees the work of other professionals and enables a successful process to get the job done. If you keep a steady dialogue with clients, you can determine how to remain a valued member of their team.
Eric Rigby, CPA/CFF/PFS, is a partner of Rigby Financial Group in New Orleans, La.