A small firm finds a Web site




A Web site emphasizes a CPAs commitment to client service.

Being There

By   Richard J. Koreto
 

M ichael C. Gray is a sole practitioner who offers his clients "tender, loving care in preparing their tax returns." He gives them the numbers for his office phone, home phone and pager so hes almost always reachable. In February 1997, Gray launched a new method of communication: Although he cant talk to every client every day, his Web site can.

Gray has found that, with a small investment in time and money, his very small firm can generate a lot of useful copy and information online, thus making him more available than he otherwise could be. In fact, visitors to his site may not even realize until they reach his staff page that Michael Gray, CPA, is only a three-person office.


WHATS ON THE SITE
Grays simply designed home page serves as a table of contents to the rest of the site, including his articles, descriptions of his services and an invitation to e-mail him with suggestions for improving the site. Right under the firm logo is an appropriate quotation, which he changes weekly. (One week it was Ralph Waldo Emerson on taxes.)

Client service. Key for Grays outreach efforts are his articles and advice, which he updates at least once a month. For example, in early July he announced new federal tax legislation in the works and promised a more detailed update in the near future—giving current and potential clients a reason to come back. On a "1997 Developments" page he discusses both federal and California tax changes, such as an increase in the Internal Revenue Services standard mileage rate and new California estimated tax rules. "I try to include items of interest to most of my clients," he said. Gray has organized his articles by subject and posted them: "No Sweat Tax Tips," "Opportunity in Adversity" and "Cash Reporting Audits for Auto Dealerships."

Sometimes his newsletter includes summaries of tax cases, clearly explained for the layman: "IRS Agent Reversed in Proposed Switch to Accrual Method" and "Electronic Tax Deposits Delayed (Again)." He discusses hot topics such as exchange funds, explaining what their advantages and drawbacks are and inviting visitors to call to discuss the topics that interest them. "Over time, as I have more articles and newsletters posted, the Web site will become a resource," he said. "People will think, Oh yeah, I remember Michael Gray wrote something on that several months ago. Hell have it on his Web site."

Gray also has designed an online tax organizer, a series of forms that help clients organize their tax information. It is free, with no password protection.

Firm Profile

Name: Michael Gray, CPA.
Personnel: Sole practitioner, two support staff.
Location: San Jose, California.
Type of clients: Substantial individuals; closely held businesses, especially auto dealerships.
Client services: Tax, business consulting, estates and trusts.
Web site: http://www.innetix.com/~mgraycpa/ .

A Web site can provide a communications link for clients. Grays office is in the Silicon Valley, the unofficial computer technology capital, so naturally his clients are becoming more technologically sophisticated. Although only a few clients regularly take advantage of e-mail right now, more are talking with him about the possibility of sending data files for tax return preparation.

Links. The site has a small but growing list of local and national business and tax links, including the IRS, the Social Security Administration and the San Jose Chamber of Commerce. "When I read about a useful site, I add it."

Marketing. Visitors who come to Grays site for information also find descriptions of his firm and his services to small businesses and individuals. His estate planning page contains an actual case study: Gray saw a potential estate planning problem with a seriously ill tax client. Working with the clients lawyer, he helped the clients family avoid an enormous tax bill at her death. The case study is not only educational but it also shows, rather than merely describes, Grays skills. On his tax preparation page, he offers his guarantee: two-week turnaround on all individual returns or the preparation is free.

Gray offers brief descriptions of himself and the two other firm members: his wife, Janet J. Gray, and daughter, Dawn M. Gray. The biographies are both professional and personal: Michael is a member of the American Institute of CPAs tax section, has served on state and local tax committees and is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Dawn, a recent college graduate, is the firms Web master and is looking forward to a career in publishing. Janet "has a wonderful insight into the kind of experiences clients seek in working with their CPA." She has a psychology degree and has worked with children in the mental health field.

Testimonials from clients emphasize Grays accessibility in particular: "When you call professional people, [often] you cant get beyond the secretary. You [though] have always been available, and that means an awful lot." Gray wants to show clients how they can find him in person, not only online: He signed up, for free, with a company called Mapquest ( http://www.mapquest.com ). His site is now directly linked to a roadmap on Mapquests site showing exactly where his office is located; Grays Web site also provides driving directions to his office.


PULLING IT TOGETHER
Dawn Gray began her foray into Web design with Web Author, a $30 program. "It helped a lot but didnt do everything, so I began teaching myself HTML by reading a book—it wasnt hard to learn." The site has very few graphics: a few bullets and the firm logo, which a local print shop had designed and Dawn scanned. Weekly uploads of the new home page quotation take her about five minutes. Coding and uploading the monthly newsletters takes one to two hours.

Michael emphasized the help he and Dawn received from their Internet service provider, Innetix. "We met an Innetix employee at a chamber of commerce meeting, and he invited us to visit the companys office and talk about the details of setting up a site." Innetix offered plenty of room on its servers for a site and unlimited e-mail for $20 a month. "Innetix gave us a lot of technical support and proved to be very accessible," an important feature for Web novices. After the site was up, Dawn registered it with major search engines, and the firm has listed the site on business cards. In the future, Dawn hopes to add some more graphics for visual appeal but still wants to keep the site simple so it loads quickly.

"We arent expecting to get a whole lot of new business from the site," said Michael, "but it has raised our status in our clients eyes." And the site is well within the firms budget—"Setting up a World Wide Web site just isnt expensive anymore," said Dawn.



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