The real value of CPAs: guiding clients to business success

How many CPAs only have contact with their corporate clients at tax time? If you’re guilty as charged, you’re undoubtedly doing a disservice to your clients and leaving money on the table, too. Business owners want their CPAs to help them better manage their finances and the impact of their finances on their personal lives, not just fill their compliance needs. These expectations require CPAs to become more involved, partner with their business clients and truly evolve as trusted advisors. To accomplish these goals, it’s important to transform CPA practices from compliance-based to reliance-based service businesses.

Reliance-based relationships
To develop reliance-based relationships, CPAs need to develop specialized services, and planning is the number one service clients seek. CPAs are uniquely positioned to evaluate the true worth of a client’s business and determine what they really need for their retirement years.

Secondly, CPAs can provide the link between day-to-day activities and long-term success by developing performance management systems and business dashboards to monitor the numbers that drive the business and ultimately their clients’ dreams and aspirations. Typically, this starts with a focus on strategic planning to define the goals and long-term objectives for the business owner.

While many CPAs have never billed themselves as advisors on this level, the numbers of CPAs providing services beyond compliance speak for themselves. For example, over 80,000 CPAs in the U.S. see themselves as financial planning providers, but most don’t advertise themselves as such, according to an AICPA estimate. A recent survey by Tiburon Strategic Advisors showed that nearly 40 percent of CPAs said they would begin offering personal financial planning services by the end of last year, compared to just 14 percent in 2002.

Also, a recent poll by Bay Street Group LLC revealed that 47 percent of those CPAs surveyed saw the need to "expand revenue/client base" as their top goal, while 27 percent said they would expand into new services in the next year. Whether planning for business success, financial independence or retirement, CPAs are uniquely qualified to help their business clients.

Forging new partnerships
Traditionally, clients have accepted the notion that CPAs only provide certain services at certain times of years. Marty Fox, a CPA with the Modesto, California-based firm, Grimbleby Colman CPAs, Inc, notes, “Because (our reliance-based) services are not traditionally provided by CPA firms, many clients have painted a box around our profession that only ‘allows’ us to prepare tax returns and financial statements.” That means CPAs have to work hard at breaking through the barriers and become known for non-traditional services. In discussing his firm’s approach, Fox said, “In order to emphasize the point to our clients and to our team members, we scheduled two new roundtables for clients in January. Our delivery of non-traditional services will not be dictated by tax season.”

Who benefits?
Generally, small to medium sized companies are the most receptive to relationship-based and less rigid and bureaucratic ties to their CPAs. This includes businesses that have been successful but haven’t reached their full potential or businesses that have hit troubled times.

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“Our CPA had been refining and providing these ‘business analysis and development’ services for a while and I'd been thinking, ‘Well, that's interesting but probably not for me,’” said Gary Dunn, president of Applied Process Cooling Corporation, a California industrial refrigeration systems provider. “Then we hit a stretch of rough water that revealed to me how much I had yet to learn, and that's when I listened more carefully.”

In addition, relationship-based services appeal to the younger generation of business owners who grew up in a world where outsourcing and specialization were the norm. They are aware of their own shortcomings and expect to hire experts in their areas of weakness, unlike many older business owners. “Our CPA advisors have become rich resources of techniques, processes, analyses and focused reading to help guys like me fortunate enough to be operating a business with no formal business training — I'm an engineer and a salesman,” added Dunn.

Risks and rewards
Partnering creates a much more loyal client who is no longer just a seasonal visitor. This type of relationship provides the CPA with year-round cash flow and balances their annual workload. Referrals increase as CPAs create “raving fans” who spend more money with the firm too. Many CPAs also find it personally gratifying and even spiritually rewarding to help make someone’s business a success.

The greatest risk for CPAs is doing nothing because they become vulnerable to their competitors, including computer programs and online services. These quick-and-dirty shortcuts don’t come with that wealth of experience and wisdom that a CPA brings to the table.

The right match
CPAs who have always felt they could do more for their clients are more likely to jump on board. Typically, these CPAs consider themselves “mavericks,” or bill themselves as “not your typical CPA.”

“Sometime in the early ‘90s, I realized that I still had a long career ahead of me and that my passion as a professional involved much more than preparing tax returns and financial statements,” said Fox. “My passion was to help business owners tap into the potential they had dreamed of when first going into business.”

A recent article in California CPA provided valuable questions for CPAs to ask themselves before transforming their business into a reliance-based firm. Among the questions asked were:

  • “Do you like learning new skills, such as acquiring knowledge of investments and insurance?”
  • “Are you at ease discussing highly personal subjects with clients?”

The answers to these questions are key. CPAs who are uncomfortable with change or getting to know the client behind the numbers may need to adapt or become dinosaurs in a new age.

As competition increases and business survival becomes more challenging, increasing numbers of business owners will be looking for trusted advisors to help them make important financial decisions. Don’t wait for them to come to you. With tax season over, it’s a great time for CPAs to contact clients to discuss their goals and dreams and begin to build a deeper relationship.

Written by
Edi Osborne, CEO and Steve Osborne, President, Mentor Plus
Exclusively for
AccountingWeb.com
Submitted by
Trade Press Services
May 2007

About the Authors:
Edi Osborne, CSPM, is CEO of Mentor Plus and co-author of the book Driving Your Company’s Value. Steve Osborne, MBA, CPBA, CSPM, is President of Mentor Plus. Mentor Plus is a Carmel Valley, CA-based firm that provides turnkey training and consulting to help CPA firms and their clients achieve extraordinary business success. For further information, please call 831 659-7587 or email inquiries to steve@mentorplus.com or edi@mentorplus.com

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