Though viewed with certain strengths such as agility, the small accounting firm has its own unique set of challenges due to size. At the forefront of those challenges is staffing, and how properly outsourcing affects your firm’s client relationships.
In this episode of Pulse of Practice “Get big! A chat with Chris Papin”, Paul Miller, Owner of Business by Design, and I are joined by Chris Papin, owner of Papin CPA, PLLC. Together, we discuss strategies for the small accounting firm to think big, grow their business, and strengthen their client relationships.
Strategic partnerships, not referrals
Chris Papin and his firm have mastered the art of having a big service level for a firm that is not that big. Being also an attorney, he helps small businesses with anything they get their hands into until he goes to the courthouse. From talking about taxes to being a therapist, small accounting firms seem to understand fully the diverse needs of a business owner. But how, with such a small size, can we still be involved when something may need outsourced?
“My desire in terms of my role with business owners is to sit at the board of directors table with you,” says Chris. “With the key stakeholders, I want to guide the path, which fits nice into the advisory services world, because that is where a lot of planning and conversations come from.
“If there’s something we cannot do, I use the term strategic partnership. These are trusted people we work with on a day-to-day basis. We have a handshake agreement to share information back and forth, but we try to quarterback the relationship for the clients.”
“A lot of firms think when you outsource, you hand off the work and that’s it,” adds Paul. “We own the client’s story, so we help facilitate that story and stay involved with that. That’s an important part of managing a client relationship. You have to stay involved in the benefit.”
Take note that Chris used the term ‘strategic partnership’ rather than a referral relationship. When you work with someone on an ongoing basis, you know how they’re going to approach certain things. Having that rhythm is important to making a unified front. There is value in facilitation, and there is a difference between a handoff and facilitation work. It’s about how much I can do before we go to my strategic partner to make sure they are teed up well, and the client has the best experience.
Know your value, regardless of firm size
A lot of business owners assume when they work with a small CPA firm, the firm must be agile or nimble. But there is more to it. Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you can’t have the same strength of partnered relationships. You can set up things you aren’t versed in well so that it can be done, and the goals can be achieved together. A lot of unstated value for the business clients comes from that. If you want to act as a firm bigger than what you are, it’s not about the referral. It’s about action.
“I think the value of leading an advisory relationship in some ways is just simple having these strategic relationships, and knowing what questions I need to ask,” says Paul. “It’s so comforting for clients and that’s why you can’t just drop things and walk away. You do have to see it through, and that should be reflected in your pricing—why you charge what you charge. Your engagements should be more than just selling a transaction.”
“We have what we call a top 10 list internally,” says Chris. “I don’t care what the priority is or the timeline. What I care about is that we’re all executing towards the same vision. By working on that top 10 list in a collaborate fashion, we don’t have an issue qualifying value. We don’t have an issue getting paid for those things.”
It becomes very circular in terms of what we expect and what we need. We tend to gate knowledge because we perceive ourselves to be busy, especially as a smaller firm. We think we only have so many hours in the day, several clients to serve, and we must serve them all. But if you can structure things so you’re on the front end of facilitating, you do have time. And now, suddenly, your client relationship is at a very different level when you start to become freer with that facilitation and stronger in that area.
“So many accountants resist moving the client relationship because they’re only dealing with questions that are right in front of them, or what is asked of them,” notes Paul. “We have all this data. We have all this knowledge, but we only hand it out when people ask for it. It’s so weird to me how that happens.”
I see from firms all the time, as they have more advisory conversations, they have more enjoyment in what they do. Advisory is the fun part, not just getting the minimum done and shoving the client through because you don’t have a lot of resources.
“We’re so used to dealing with facts and being right, and your top 10 list is not always going to be right,” adds Paul. “You have to put yourself out there a little bit and predict what is going to happen, making the shift in thinking from that context, the client will know you’re not going to be right all of the time. But they do value your perspective. And having these resources available, it adds to the length of your client relationship.”
“It’s not about getting it right upfront because my crystal ball is as broken as anybody else’s,” says Chris. “It’s about painting the expectation of something that is going to happen, and when it does, we have to figure out what to do next. That’s when you call me.”