Keeping up to Speed

How a small firm offers a higher level and quality of engagements to clients.

  • TWO CPAs HAVE INTRODUCED advanced technology, high standards and professional activism to their six-person firm in order to expand the horizons of the firm and their clients.
  • THE PARTNERS OF Pielech & Pielech upgrade their technology regularly, make sure staff members know how to use it and encourage clients to evaluate their own automation needs. They believe that if clients can perform basic services themselves, then small firms will be able to offer them more sophisticated services to expand their businesses.
  • TAX PRACTICE REVIEW has improved productivity and profitability at the firm. Clients and staff have a better grasp of the process.
  • INVOLVEMENT IN PROFESSIONAL activities offers small firms a chance to gain a wider perspective and brings fresh approaches to their small business clients needs, the CPAs report.
Anita Dennis is a Journal contributing editor.

How can a local firm offer a full menu of services to small business clients? Marilyn W. and Robert M. Pielech, the partners of Pielech & Pielech, a six-person CPA firm with offices in Cumberland, Rhode Island, and New Bedford, Massachusetts, have found that advanced technology, high standards and professional activism make it possible to expand the horizons of their firm and their clients. The Pielechs, a married team whose firm dates back to 1977, perform a variety of engagements for individuals and small business owners, particularly those in construction, manufacturing and transportation. They offer a number of tips to practitioners on ways to enable small firms to provide the same quality and level of service as their larger counterparts.

Many practitioners worry they will lose business as clients become more computer literate and are able to perform basic accounting functions themselves electronically. The Pielechs believe its best to encourage clients technological sophistication. Marilyn Pielech says many entrepreneurial clients are very excited about enlarging their businesses and gaining greater control over them, and the CPAs try to help them do this through engagements in which they evaluate automation needs, replace or improve systems, convert existing data onto new systems or give computer training. "We try to teach them to do as much as they can on their own, because the more they do on their own, the less they pay us for. Then they come to us when they really need us for more complicated problems," she says.

The partners and their staff keep up-to-date on new computer developments through regular training. In addition, the firm, which has a Novell network and Pentium computers, replaces one-third to one-half of its technology every year. "Weve always embraced technology," Marilyn says. "It was a big commitment at first, but it really paid off, because what was advanced has become the norm."

Ten years ago, technology-related engagements made up less than 5% of the partners business, while today it accounts for more than 35% of the practice. At the same time, regularly upgrading the firms own technology has meant that a staff member no longer must manually update libraries—which, instead, are updated in the form of new disks—and has made it possible to deliver data more quickly and in a larger variety of formats, depending on clients needs.

The firms Web site (www.pielech. com) has helped establish credibility with clients, too. When clients wonder about the value of creating their own sites, "we tell them that we already have one and can help them. It demonstrates our expertise and shows were on the cutting edge," Bob Pielech says. The site also helps in new client development. "A person will call and say, I saw your ad in the newspaper; can you tell me something about your firm? Ill mention the Web site, which they can use as a firm brochure because it has information on the firm and our pictures. Many people who call back to make appointments tell me theyve visited the site," according to Marilyn. Among other things, the site contains the firms two-page newsletter, Pielechs Pages, that is also mailed to 200 clients.

Sometimes the firm calls in outside experts for help on engagements. "As a smaller firm weve had to learn to do that," Bob Pielech says. But the partners also strive for self-sufficiency. For example, they send all staff, including non-CPAs, to technology training courses. "We get better mileage out of people if theyre trained," Marilyn says. "A client can call our office when he or she has a basic problem with a program or system, and most of the time theres someone here who can answer questions. Why? Our staff members have been trained and use the technology everyday."

The Pielechs encourage other practitioners not to overlook the benefits that technology can offer. When helping clients to automate, "dont look at it as taking business away from you, but as a way to help clients grow," Bob advises. At the same time, enhancing a clients computer literacy "allows small practitioners to practice a higher level of accounting and still serve small business clients. You dont have to be involved in lower level services because youve taught the client how to do them," Marilyn says. They also urge CPAs not to be intimidated by computers. "Dont worry about what you didnt learn in the past 10 years," Bob says, because the standard changes so frequently that even experts must renew their technology knowledge.

Bob, a member of the task force that launched the AICPA tax divisions voluntary tax practice review program, is a strong advocate of systematic reviews for tax practices. "By integrating such a review into our firm, we have increased our profitability greatly," he says. The voluntary tax practice review program, in which firms implement quality control policies and procedures for tax practices, encourages the use of checklists, questionnaires and coherent plans for tax form processing. With such systems, Bob says, "things are not done haphazardly. And if you dont have procedures in place, you cant be competitive in the tax business." The partners send individual engagement letters detailing the aspects of each tax engagement they perform. They use routing and header sheets to keep forms under control as they are processed and develop a flowchart to map the progress of returns. "We track how to get the information from the client to the person processing the return and then through review as efficiently as possible while still maintaining quality," Bob says.

The firm has undergone one tax practice review and performs four or five each year. Being involved in the program "has increased the level of education, quality and professionalism for everyone in the firm, right down to receptionist," Marilyn says. "Because we use such standardized procedures, staff members understand the work better." Although the added procedures are time-consuming, the partners insist they enhance productivity and improve services. "We have far fewer errors" because of the review process, Marilyn says.

Both Pielechs participate in professional activities on the state and national levels (Bob is a member of the American Institute of CPAs tax executive committee and Marilyn is on the professional ethics executive committees independence-behavioral standards subcommittee), and they believe such involvement can greatly enhance a small practitioners career. "The interaction with other CPAs from all different kinds of practices deepens your understanding," Marilyn says. "You see that an approach you have taken to a small client—because thats just the way youve always done it—may not be right. You are better able to educate the client about other options." Although they admit that involvement in professional groups can be time-consuming, both partners insist it is worth the effort. Volunteering in local activities, such as Little League, has been an unexpected practice development boost. "When people get to work with you side by side, they develop respect for you and feel comfortable coming to you as a professional," says Marilyn.

Although community involvement has been a worthwhile practice development tool, another marketing effort was not as worthwhile, the partners report. A few years ago, they paid $12,000 to a referral service that promised to bring in prospective clients over the course of six months. The service made cold calls and set up appointments with local small business people who expressed an interest in talking to a CPA.

"When we went to meet the possible clients, we realized the only reason they had agreed to talk was because it was a free opportunity to get advice," Bob says. The partners did not get a single client from their investment—and the service declared bankruptcy before they could demand repayment. "I don't think there's any easy way to build up a practice other than hard work and quality," Bob says. The partners now rely on marketing efforts such as newspaper advertising, community involvement and their Internet site.

The partners' practice is built on premise that it's possible for a local firm to offer a range of basic and sophisticated services to small companies. "You have to be flexible to meet the needs of clients," Marilyn says. That can mean many things, from providing a host of services to responding differently in various situations. "It can involve meeting a banker in a three-piece suit in the morning and changing into jeans to meet a construction client in the afternoon," she observes. But she believes that it's important to put the clients' interests first. "Offering flexibility to your clients is more important than maintaining a niche."

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