A small-town CPA

Setting a tone—literally and figuratively—for a practice.

An Old-Fashioned Web Site


I ts just a small firm in a small town by a bayou in Louisianas cotton country. In its 25 years the firm had not offered high-tech services; it was mostly tax with some small business consulting. Founder James W. Crawford had a business model that also seemed a little old-fashioned: He gave anyone who asked a free hour of consultation time, he answered general tax questions for free and he gave free second opinions on tax returns prepared by other practitioners, all with no obligation. But in the spring of 1997, Crawford launched Louisianas eighth CPA Web site, seamlessly merging Java applications, multimedia presentations and a complex e-mail response system with a simple business philosophy that has led to a quarter century of success.

"I dont claim to be innovative," said Crawford. "You really dont have to be to have a successful Web site. But you do have to provide value." Although the content and design of his site are original, he got many of his ideas by viewing other CPAs sites. Accounting Web pages nationwide prompted him to add a photograph of all his employees, a statement of personal philosophy, a description of services and an electronic form to send queries, among other items.

The home page opens with the firms logo, mission statement and a brief description of the firm. Buttons link to other pages, many of which have a theme tune: Visitors with the right software and hardware can click on a musical note icon and hear a song. Some are truly thematic: For the business philosophy page that describes the firms general principles of customer service, the theme song is the inspirational "Tomorrow," from the Broadway musical "Annie." The "About Fees" page, describing the firms policies on fee structure, has the 1960s pop tune "Whiter Shade of Pale." The music Crawford selected ranges from country to classical. Scattered illustrations of popular cartoon characters and shots of northeast Louisiana provide visual decoration.

Crawford has added a page on his firms consulting services. "Were doing more consulting," said Crawford. "Thats where the future is. For example, small business owners give us statements theyve prepared with Quickbooks and we do a ratio analysis and graphics." Visitors listening to the theme from the "Mission Impossible" television show on his "Business Consulting" page can note the firm provides budgeting, loan packages, financial analysis and other financial management services. The free services he has always offered—free questions and tax reviews—are also available through the site. And hes provided answers to several of the most frequently asked tax questions, such as "Can I deduct my country club dues?" and "What are the hobby loss rules?"

Most firms restrict bio pages to professional information, but Crawford adds more personal details than is common, with descriptions of his hobbies and family and photos of his town. He emphasizes his "very active spiritual life" and includes bible quotes (theme tune: "Amazing Grace").

Links, titled "VIP Links," are selective and mostly local: the Internal Revenue Service, nearby colleges and businesses and some Web-building services. Each item is matched with that entitys logo, making this section more visually appealing than a plain, bulleted list.

The Web sites chief purpose is marketing, said Crawford, and in its brief life it already has been successful in attracting attention. The firms free services are bringing in online visitors from around the world. The site is helping Crawford expand his practice to out-of-town clients—a New Yorker asked a question about an accuracy-related penalty on his return; a Tulsa native asked for some advertised free brochures; and an Australian needed general information on minimizing tax.

An online guestbook encourages visitors to describe themselves and their businesses and answer the question, "How might we be of service to you?" This invitation to comment and the other freebies are more than just gimmicks: Crawfords online and offline marketing efforts are extensions of the way Crawford does business. According to his Web page, "We have never, but never, asked anyone to do business with us. If you dont want to do business with us, we are not interested in trying to make you." It sounds low key for a marketing effort, but Crawford wants current and potential clients to feel comfortable, not bullied.

Finally, as other small firms have found, the mere existence of the site also helps: He has a business client in Toronto, Canada, whom he helps with international tax problems. A one-office firm has to depend on the Internets ability to transmit complex documents all over the world. A sophisticated Web site—with testimonials from far-flung clients—shows the firms commitment to widespread engagements handled online.

The fun music and pretty pictures of rural Louisiana set a tone for visitors while they consider his services, and as an additional marketing aid, Crawford has posted testimonials from a number of satisfied clients.


Name: James W. Crawford, CPA.

Personnel: One CPA, 8 consulting and support staff.

Location: Monroe, Louisiana.

Types of clients: Individuals, small businesses.

Client services: Tax, consulting, general accounting.

Web site: http://www.jwccpa.com .


Crawford is proud that at age 57 he is still forward-thinking enough to find himself in the technological vanguard. But although he wrote all the copy for his site and had a hand in the design, he needed some help with the programming. He turned to a Web development company, Technology Dynamics. The initial fee to get the site running was under $1,000, and his Internet service provider charges $99 a month to host his site. When Crawford wants to add some new copy, he just e-mails it to Technology Dynamics for a minimal fee. The company also took care of getting the site listed on all major search engines, with suitable keywords, which explains why so many people found Crawfords site so quickly.

Crawford plans to add some articles hes written and additional photos of his staff. "My hope is to attract more clients and make it more convenient for out-of-state clients to work with me," he said. Hes developing a second Web site to market an offshoot of his accounting services, a doctors financial services company of which hes a part owner. Meanwhile, he doesnt see any problems merging a personal, small-town commitment to client services with a state-of-the-art online marketing effort that lets him reach around the world: Visitors to his bio page can click on an icon and hear country music star George Jones singing "Im a high-tech redneck." Said Crawford, "I cant say he wrote that song about me. But he couldve."


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