Teaming Up for the Bottom Line

What’s in a game? A tool for personal and business growth.
BY PHAEDRA BROTHERTON

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
FOR A MODEST INVESTMENT within reach of any small to midsize firm, a 48-member, seven-partner office of J.H. Cohn drew on football as a model for a team incentive program (TIP).

THE FIRM'S GOALS WERE to bring in new business and develop a team approach, encourage nonpartners to market the firm, increase the number of marketing activities performed by all employees and get partners to work with all levels of staff on marketing activities.

THE BASIC TOOL WAS A PLAYBOOK— which was chock full of information and helpful tips. Handouts included checklists, a prospect data sheet, sample letters to prospects and follow-up letters, information on how to increase referrals, a list of the services offered by the firm and many pointers on marketing tax and financial services to clients.

EMPLOYEES LEARNED A NEW APPROACH to and attitude about marketing, learned the benefits of improved teamwork and morale and got an unusual opportunity to collaborate with partners and grow professionally.

THE FIRM GOT MORE BUSINESS and refined better ways to do business, both internally and externally. It obtained 22 new clients and 39 new projects, which resulted in a 22% increase in revenue for out-of-pocket costs related to the TIP amounting to $5,600.

BESIDES NEW ENGAGEMENTS, the TIP resulted in important intangible benefits that can help retain valuable employees and bring new CPAs into the fold.

Phaedra Brotherton is an Arlington, Virginia–based business writer who specializes in career, management and workplace issues.
 
magine your employees working together in teams, having fun competing yet bringing in serious business for the firm. Unrealistic? Not for the 48-member Ocean Township, New Jersey, office of J.H. Cohn LLP, an independent 59-partner, 400-employee firm. The seven-partner office used resources that any small to midsize firm might have when it drew on football as a model for a team incentive program (TIP). The goal was to motivate everyone—from managing partner to administrative staff—to go out and get new business. It paid off. During the four-month program, the firm got 22 new clients and sold 39 new services to existing clients. Nonpartner employees pulled in 10 percent of that business. Want to play, too? Here’s how they did it.

KICKOFF TIME

The idea of linking a major marketing push to a football theme was the brainchild of Ocean Township partner-in-charge Solomon Greenspan, CPA. The fall traditionally is a good time for marketing activities, he says, and it was a natural choice since many in the J.H. Cohn office are football fans. But “it could have been any sport,” he says. “Considering the time of year, we felt that football would work pretty well.”

Marketing director Eileen Monesson had long thought that a firmwide marketing culture could bring in more business, while Greenspan was interested in strengthening staff members’ skills. To plan the program, she headed a nine-person committee that included Greenspan and a cross-section of staff from all levels. They refined the details of the “Kick Off to Success” program over a three-month period. The idea was to develop a scheme that would encourage involvement and give everyone, regardless of level in the firm, an equal opportunity to win.

For the opening meeting, the firm distributed team hats, shirts, pennants, bumper stickers and other promotional items to the staff. To encourage a playful spirit of participation, the committee dressed up as football players, cheerleaders and coaches and decorated the office with pennants and posters.

Most important, everybody received a marketing playbook. Put together by Monesson, it was the basic tool for the game and contained rules and tips on networking and selling firm services. The playbook—a standard binder divided into sections—included checklists, a data collection sheet for prospects, sample letters to prospects and sample follow-up letters, guidelines for asking a client for referrals, a list of the services offered by the firm and clues to identifying tax and other financial services that might be needed by clients.

And the Winner Is …

The 2000–2001 marketing program described in this story won

The AAM Marketing Achievement Award in the incentive program category.

The Practical Accounting Practice Innovation Award.

The committee assigned employees randomly to teams (all with actual NFL names) whose members worked together to gain “yards” toward a group goal. A broad range of 59 different activities qualified as yards. (For example, attending a trade show might give an individual two yards, while chairing a firm committee might yield five.) There were seven teams with six members per team: a partner, administrative team member and four other team members. At the kickoff meeting each one picked its head coach, assistant coach, established team goals and developed an action plan.

The team with the greatest number of yards by the end of the program was the winner, and people won prizes for outstanding individual efforts, too. To make scoring fair, partners had to do more activities to reach a given level than managers, staff and administrators.

Besides bringing in business, the program goals were to

Encourage nonpartners to market the firm.

Increase the number of marketing activities performed by team members.

Get partners to work with staff-level team members on marketing activities.

Develop a team approach to new business development.

Goals were posted in the employee lounge. Throughout the “season,” the scoreboard tracked the average yards gained per team for each “quarter” by moving a little football along the board toward the goal.

Team members could get yards for participating in cross-selling activities and attending client meetings and networking events with other members of the team. This in particular appealed to supervisor Debbie Foster, CPA, a staff accountant and one of the team leaders.

“The most helpful thing was the involvement with partners,” says Foster. “They became more aware that we needed practice development. Going to client meetings with partners got us more involved.”

TASKS MATCHED TO PREFERENCES

The comprehensive list of activities ensured there was something for all types of personalities to do. “Introverted people might write letters,” says Monesson, “and because we worked together, for example, someone could write the letter while another made a follow-up call.” The primary goal was to expand everyone’s definition of marketing and to make staff comfortable with the concept, she says.

All team members could gain yards for the following activities:

Participating in professional, social and charitable organizations. The playbook listed organizations chosen for networking value and business development opportunities. Before attending an event the team member would prepare some questions to elicit a potential client’s needs. The more playbook activities an employee participated in the more yards he or she gained.

Writing and public speaking. Team members were encouraged to write articles or speak at local chamber of commerce and professional organization meetings about specialty areas as they pertained to firm business. Monesson located many of the organizations by searching on the Internet.

Developing referral sources. Credit was given for asking for and following up on referrals.

Identifying cross-selling opportunities. Team members gained yards for spotting opportunities to sell additional firm services, such as human resource services and outsourcing.

Participating in CPE. Team members got credit for participating in continuing professional education courses that taught business development skills or enriched their knowledge of firm services.

Internal committees. Participating on committees to develop new services or ways to market the firm also earned yards.

Suzan Casio, administrative assistant to Greenspan, says the breakdown of activities helped her realize she could contribute to marketing the firm. “My first reaction was, ‘This doesn’t really concern me.’ Meeting clients isn’t in our realm [as administrative staff]; I wouldn’t know what to say,” she recalls. But the playbook’s wide range of activities changed her mind.

Casio found newspaper articles about new companies, including some top businesses listed in Business News New Jersey, that she thought might be interested in the firm’s services. She put together a list of these candidates and mailed letters describing J.H. Cohn’s services. From newspaper business sections and other publications, she learned of current clients’ accomplishments and sent them congratulations and a small box of Godiva chocolates from the firm. These marketing activities both brought in business and earned her enough yards to snag the top individual award.

FIRM AND STAFF GAINED

The team incentive program succeeded on many levels, says Greenspan. It increased business for the firm by more than 20% and strengthened the interpersonal skills of partners, nonpartners and administrative staff. Those are lasting benefits that are important in any context, he says. “Accountants have to get beyond the stereotype of just focusing on numbers,” says Greenspan, “and they need networking and presentation skills. This program allowed us to develop people in those areas.”

The TIP benefited employees in some significant ways. Staff members

Developed a new attitude about marketing. The playbook guidelines on how to network and look for clients as well as creative marketing ideas—ranging from identifying prospects by reading business publications to joining local nonprofit organizations—gave employees options for choosing sales-related activities they were comfortable with.

Improved teamwork and morale. The program required people who normally did not interact with each other to work together to meet a common goal. Getting partners to invite managers and staff accountants to meetings with clients or potential clients was particularly good for staff.

Grew professionally. At lunchtime sessions Monesson gave instruction on networking, identifying client needs and making presentations. She did role-playing with participants to help them practice these skills. Firm employees learned how to work cooperatively in teams. Staff accountants and managers learned through observing when they went on client calls with partners.

Won prizes. The prizes were largely symbolic—but not unimportant. The firm gave certificates of achievement to teams in first, second and third place as well as “pro-bowl,” “most valuable player” and “hall of fame” status certificates, representing a given number of yards gained in a month. At the end of the season, the first-, second- and third-place teams received a trophy and a monetary award ($300, $150 and $50, respectively). In the end, first- and second-place winners were only four-tenths of a yard apart, so the winners elected to share $75 of the prize with second place. Individuals who earned the most yards in their division received a gift certificate and an engraved trophy.

Besides getting more business, the firm refined better ways to do business, both internally and externally. The bottom line:

Partners invited managers and staff accountants to 30 client discovery meetings.

In the first three months, an average of 93% of employees participated. For the complete program, participation was still high at 74%. (As tax season approached many staff members were diverted to higher priority work.)

The partners completed 431 marketing activities, and staff completed 1,951 marketing activities.

Five hundred forty qualified prospects were introduced to the firm.

The firm obtained 22 new clients and 39 new projects.

The firm had 22% more receivables than in the year-earlier period.

COST-BENEFIT RATIO

Greenspan notes that such a project won’t necessarily pay off overnight. Direct costs for the program were $5,600, which covered the sports paraphernalia, gift certificates, trophies and other expenses related to rewarding employees. Indirect costs related to time: Meeting with team members, strategizing and carrying out nonbillable marketing activities did add up in terms of hours, says Greenspan, who puts a dollar value on that time of about $30,000. Planning, team meetings and marketing activities aren’t billable, Greenspan says. “A firm has to be willing to accept that. This is a long-range, not a short-range, program.”

Apart from the obvious plus of increasing business for the firm, the program yielded intangible benefits that will help keep valuable employees and bring new CPAs into the fold. “These are lessons and experiences that are going to help staff throughout their career,” says Greenspan. All participants were able to “draw on each other’s strengths and encourage and teach each other. Together they accomplished goals that they set themselves.”

Make it simple.
Make it fun.

J.H. Cohn director of marketing Eileen Monesson says she’d change a couple of things about the program—such as running the program for a three-month period well outside tax season and matching the skill sets of team members instead of randomly selecting individuals for a team—but she gives these tips for a successful team incentive program at your firm:

Obtain buy-in from the partners prior to introducing the program. Partner support is critical to the program’s success. Partners should agree to participate, work with employees, publicly recognize accomplishments and allow employees to invest time.

Get buy-in from managers, staff accountants and administrative personnel. Meet with representatives at each level. Listen to their concerns. Ensure that all representatives agree with the program’s goals, objectives and rewards.

Establish a committee of representatives from all areas of the firm. Include partners, managers, accountants and administrative personnel. Have the committee work on the design of the program. Openly discuss everyone’s concerns and vote on changes. Involve the committee in introducing and maintaining the program. Encourage committee members to promote the program within their peer group.

Clearly define attainable goals for all participants. Establish goals that are realistic for every employee. Partners should have higher goals than managers and administrative personnel. Regardless of level, employees should have an equal opportunity to win.

Develop a list of marketing activities. The list should include a wide range of activities to encourage everyone to participate. Gear the list to individual personality traits and skills. Include enough activities to meet everyone’s needs.

Provide marketing-skills training throughout the program. Start marketing training prior to the introduction of the program. Design training programs for each level. Include brainstorming.

Create an easy-to-use reporting system. Use a simple database to capture the results and provide immediate feedback on a participant’s status.

Offer a feedback mechanism to recognize participation and share success stories. Encourage the managing partner to personally recognize top participants. Distribute certificates of achievement and have participants display them in their office. Issue an e-mail newsletter to share program results and success stories.

Create excitement throughout the program. Develop a theme. Decorate the office. Send teaser e-mails. Have periodic meetings to support the program.

Make it simple. Clearly define the program rules and objectives. Do not leave anything open to interpretation.

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