Four top experts lay out action plans.
by Rick Telberg
Accountants and finance executives are finding a newly complex and competitive landscape that requires new strategies and determination, according to a sampling of leading experts.
James C. Bourke, CPA.CITP, partner at WithumSmith+Brown, tells me that "keeping competitive and profitable at the same time" is one of the three key challenges he sees facing accountants today.
In addition, he says, accounting and finance managers are struggling to keep "staff busy" and stay "on top of client confidentiality rules and regulations." Some 47 states have now passed privacy security rules that CPAs need to understand, Bourke says.
To be sure, the opportunities for accountants are just as broad as the challenges.
Bourke sees potential leverage at firms that can:
1. Re-educate staff on how they too can help to cross-sell services to clients
2. Work to re-engineer how jobs are done and deploy new technologies to help increase realization rates
3. Educate staff and clients about new privacy rules and regulations and deploy procedures and systems that ensure a higher level of security.
Bourke talks about website client portals "to show firms the value" in the new method of information delivery and storage of confidential and private-client information.
Greg LaFollette, CPA.CITP, a senior manager at Eide Bailey, wants to get CPAs prepared for the next era in disruptive technological change: Software-as-a-Service, or SaaS, also known as "cloud computing."
"The big thing for 2010," LaFollette says, "is that the question about the cloud is no longer 'if, but when'"? It's here. It's gaining traction and it will be bigger than the switch from DOS to Windows."
Resistance, he might add, is futile. And SaaS is swiftly spreading from a small coterie of early adopters to the mainstream.
Cloud computing has risks if mishandled, according Lisa Johnson, CPA.CITP, CISA, CISM, CGEIT, of TWM Associates Inc., which caters to business and government clients. She wants CPA firms to "understand some of the risks and concerns with cloud computing."
Michelle Golden of Golden Practices Inc., a marketing agency for CPA firms, agrees that "competition is fierce."
"Without other distinguishing factors that buyers can readily see and know, clients resort to looking mostly at price for making their decisions," she says. "This, in turn, drives down the firm's revenues, which impacts the attitudes of those performing the work."
Furthermore, "Without high enthusiasm for the engagement, customer service is not at its highest and this, in turn, reduces the quality of the customer's experience, which makes them less likely to rehire the firm, and certainly less apt to refer the firm to others."
"It's a vicious circle," she says. "Ironically, while the opportunity for firms to articulate and convey their distinctions via the Internet is more ripe than ever and costs almost nothing, especially relative to advertising, it is unfortunate that most firms are reluctant to embrace the advantages that the social media and an improved Web presence afford them."
Golden aims to get firms hooked up. They need to "become more comfortable with the tools available," she says, through "education to reduce fear of the unknown and thoroughly understanding the "real versus imagined risks."
She plans to urge firms to "be open to trying new things when it comes to positioning the firm, messaging and exploring new communications channels."
Golden will address the changed marketplace and opportunities for CPAs to really succeed with better positioning. She says "the opportunities are enormous," including:
1. Being more easily findable than ever before;
2. Making geographic boundaries disappear;
3. Illustrating uniqueness as an individual, and as an interesting person with character and personality;
4. Supporting your positioning in expertise and specialization;
5. Demonstrating thought leadership;
6. Conveying accessibility with evidence of it; and
7. Painting a strong, consistent picture of yourself and your firm in various places around the Web.
Another scheduled presenter, Randy Johnston, executive vice president of the Hutchinson, Kan.-based Network Management Group Inc., agrees with Golden, putting "marketing services" at the top if his list of challenges for CPA firms this year, followed by "holding the line on competitive price pressure and maintaining market share."
His advice: Firms need to "proactively work on business development while staying in touch with existing clients."
If you add up the three suggestions from Bourke, LaFollette's urging to jump on the cloud computing train, Golden's seven marketing strategies and Johnston's focus on proactivity, then you have at least a dozen good ideas for the competitive battles ahead.