Stop Competing for New Business on Price Alone

By Mary Ellen Biery, Research Specialist, Sageworks
 
Competition in the accounting industry is fierce, which can pressure some CPAs to compete for business using pricing alone. But many accountants realize this is a losing proposition: Competing on price means they have to have more clients in order to cover expenses, leaving CPAs less time per client to provide quality services that can retain existing clients, generate better margins, and reduce the immense pressure to add clients. 
 
It can also leave CPAs overworked and stressed out about the firm's future. That's why it's important to consider transitioning your firm from one that offers compliance-related work, such as taxes, payroll, and general bookkeeping, called Type 1 services. 
 
"The successful firm of the future will deliver value-added services to clients and will have won the war for talent," Alan Koltin, chief executive of Koltin Consulting Group Inc., recently said in a published report. He noted that accounting firms' clients will continue to seek less help related to compliance, such as financial reporting, and more advisory help managing their businesses.
 
Offering Type 2 services, or those that go beyond compliance and add value to the client, not only deepen relationships with existing clients, but they also make the firm's services more attractive to the types of clients most coveted  those who pay on time and can afford to pay more for valued services. 
 
Type 2 services provide opportunities to deepen existing relationships through upselling, or selling more expensive versions of existing services, and through cross-selling, or providing new services to existing clients. Type 2 services also can bring in new clients looking for the services you previously didn't offer.
 
"There are incredible amounts of data out there," said Peter Brown, senior consultant with ProfitCents Professional Services. "Businesses have more resources than they know what to do with, and as there are more inputs coming to business owners for decision making, they really need to have that 'so what' explained to them clearly to help them make those decisions. That's where accountants offering business advisory services can come in."
 
What are examples of Type 2 services, and how can a firm benefit from offering them? Here are three:
 
1. Financial and management planning services. Instead of simply offering financial statements to businesses, CPA firms can also advise owners seeking to improve their financial and operational performance. "Financial statements are an underutilized resource, because they're so complex," Brown said. "Most business owners will look at sales and net profit, but CPAs are really able to quickly read between the lines on other parts of the financial statements and give some meaningful, actionable advice."
 
This can be related to reducing expenses or increasing revenues, or it could be providing more industry-specific advice that the CPA has gained from working with other clients, Brown said. "They can say, 'Because of my extensive knowledge in that industry, I've helped clients like you improve their bottom lines by incorporating some industry-specific best practices,'" he said.
 
While many small CPA firms are generalists and may lack industry-specific knowledge that allows them to provide this advice, there are financial advisory software tools available that can help by converting the financial statements into narrative reports. These reports analyze the company's financial condition and offer tips, and they also provide industry comparisons or benchmarks so clients can determine how better to compete.
 
2. Forecasting services. While financial and management planning services often use historical financial data to examine and guide a client's business, CPAs can also offer forecasting and projection as Type 2 services to provide forward-looking data. This involves taking the client's existing financials and showing what can happen in best-case and worst-case scenarios as well as in in-between situations. For accountants trying to develop these services on their own, it could involve hours of additional work to set up the scenarios, but some forecasting applications automate the process. Offering these services can allow clients to model working capital scenarios and to make operating adjustments as necessary, Brown said. It can also help them determine how new capital (from a loan or equity, for example) can impact expenses and growth opportunities.
 
3. Succession planning services. Small and large CPA firms often have clients who are curious about the value of their business as they consider options for succession planning, but many firms don't offer this service because they don't have the background or certification, Brown said. Clients may be paying thousands of dollars to a business-advisory firm to receive a valuation estimate, but they may prefer to use their trusted accountant, especially if the cost is competitive, he added. Certain tools use the discounted cash flow method to help CPAs estimate the value quickly and efficiently. "So for succession planning, you could tell a client, 'Here's what your company would be worth if you wanted to hand it off to family or sell the business,'" Brown said.
 
"Part of the reason accountants are so busy is because they're competing on price," Brown said. 
 
Indeed, market research firm IBISWorld recently forecast that pricing competition in accounting will escalate in the coming years as new firms are established and as outside industries, such as management consulting firms, try to take on some work historically performed by accountants. 
 
"Another reason many are overworked is that they haven't strategically gone after a specific industry that's better at paying its bills," Brown said. For example, companies in industries that have a high failure rate could expose the accounting firm to more risk of slow payments.
 
Type 2 services can help CPA firms "target the right kind of client – the one they want in the future," Brown said.
 
In addition, Type 2 services can help accounting firms retain existing clients being courted by huge, compliance-only firms like H&R Block  firms that use their size and efficiency to offer services more cheaply. "It's the little guy losing market share to compliance-only firms," Brown said. "And with the cost of acquiring new clients well above the cost of retaining one, offering Type 2 services can save not only time otherwise spent on marketing, but also money."
 
To learn more about how to start delivering Type 2 services to deepen client relationships and grow firm revenue, attend Sageworks' free webinar  Type 2 Services: What, Why & How  on August 22 at 1:00 p.m. ET. 
 
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About the author:
Mary Ellen Biery is a research specialist at Sageworks, a financial information company and provider of the Business Credit Report by Sageworks. She is a veteran financial reporter whose works have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and on Dow Jones Newswires, CNN.com, MarketWatch.com, CNBC.com, and other sites.

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