The Real Deal Behind CPA Firm Associations
If you think you understand what CPA Firm Associations are all about, think again. We’ve just completed a four-month study of the top 30 associations and the results were startling. The biggest surprise? No two CPA Firm Associations offered the same types of services or benefits, yet many of those benefits were categorized in the same manner.
What Defines a Benefit
We had to distinguish between benefits that were included in the membership fee and benefits that were advertised but actually were discounted rates. An example of this was CPE. Some associations offered CPE at no additional cost. Others afforded a list of members that could pull together for CPE. Some offered CPE at a discount, and on and on. Practice Development benefits were even more complex. While an association could claim that Brochure were included, the reality spanned the gamut between very simple trifolds printed at an office computer and professionally done full color pieces. Networking benefits too, varied widely. Some associations provided a list of members whom you could call while others offered regular contact (monthly, bi- monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or annually) by phone, fly-ins or meetings.
One question you might ask is, "What does your firm want out of an association?" Are you interested in associations for defensive purposes to protect your client base? Is your client base expanding beyond your geographic borders and you want high quality firms to refer to? This is a critical aspect. The technical requirements for membership in associations vary widely! Do you want incoming referrals? If so, are you in a geographic location that would make this possible? After all, an inbound referral will usually only come to a metropolitan center. So if your firm is located in a smaller county, you may have to rethink your expectations.
Most firms fail to conduct an internal assessment before they try to navigate the maze of benefits in these groups. Once you begin examining benefits, stay focused! Don’t get sidetracked by benefits that are not in line with your needs. Does your firm spend tens of thousands a year on training programs that an association may offer at a discount? Are you primarily interested in technical manuals? Are outbound referrals of primary importance? If these are your firm’s core needs and you’ve taken the time to really think through these needs, you won’t get overwhelmed by a flood of information that is provided in an association’s marketing tools.
To make matters more complicated, in our study, very few associations had the geographic territory available that my client needed. Some claimed territorial exclusivity and others did not. Does it matter? That depends. If there are two firms in your area and an opportunity for referrals comes in, who gets it? If you need a question answered and the other firm is much larger, who gets priority? I’m a believer in geographic exclusivity but the value of this aspect depends on your firm’s needs. If you only care about CPE, then exclusivity really isn’t an issue.
Fees vary widely ranging from $2,000 to over $40,000 for a 2.5 million-dollar firm. Are the fees worth it? If you get plugged into the right association for you, then yes. In most cases, this cannot be determined by looking at websites and brochures. And never select an association by default - for example, they were the only ones who returned your call and had the territory open.
Is Bigger Better?
Does size matter? That depends on your needs, but it is wise to go with an association that is comprised of like-size firms. Otherwise, your outbound referrals could be out of the economic range. Conversely, if you are a large firm and your needs are outbound, then smaller firms would fit the bill for services such as conducting inventories.
Can a smaller association fit the bill? Absolutely! Aside from the technical requirements of member firms, most associations are only as good as the people at the helm and some of these smaller associations have dynamic leadership and strong support functions. Support is another important aspect. Over the course of four months, five executive directors changed positions and with them the address of the association. Many association directors are volunteers so the baton is passed every term. This is true even with large associations if they are headquartered overseas. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, but you’ll want to ask critical questions. For example, how often do they conduct member surveys? How many new benefits or services have they launched in the last year? Ask questions which will help you determine how responsive the group will be to your changing needs as you grow.
The bottom line? CPA firm associations each have a very unique focus. Identify your core needs from an association ahead of time. Avoid the nightmare of comparing apples to oranges by finding out if you really want grapes.
Terri M. Sommella, is the president of Sommella Market Strategies, a marketing and sales training consulting firm for CPAs. She can be reached at 410.252.6989 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions from AccountingWEB members will be answered free of charge.