Michelle Kinnee’s friends jokingly call her the “Coupon Lady,” because she is known for finding deals. Her co-workers at Albero, Kupferman & Associates LLC, a Delaware-based CPA firm, call her by a much cooler nickname—the “Savings Ninja.” Kinnee is one of the people behind the firm’s innovative service that examines client expenses. These cost-cutting reviews are well-suited for small firms working with small business clients. Within those parameters, the reviews have something for everyone:
Staff. New learning opportunity and easy billable hours during slow time. It can be challenging to find work for junior staff at certain times of the year. Cost-cutting reviews are an attractive option because they aren’t too difficult and allow junior staff an engagement they can run with.
Partner. More business from existing clients with little personal supervision needed.
Client. Easy ideas that save money.
Firm. Increased feeling of loyalty from clients.
What are cost-cutting reviews?
Cost-cutting reviews are microsize, one- to two-hour engagements in which staff examine a client’s bookkeeping and build a list of easy ways for the client to save money. Staff follow a predefined process and refer to an internally prepared template to spark ideas. This template is full of common areas where businesses overspend, along with the firm’s most highly recommended go-to solutions. The ideas are summarized in a report and presented to the client in a short brainstorming meeting. The firm can make money from the reviews and from expansions, which are engagement opportunities uncovered during the reviews. More importantly, the firm strengthens relations with clients, who appreciate the extra attention and effort from their accountant.
Process makes perfect
It is important to follow a clear path with these engagements. Taking the time upfront to think through the steps will save your team many hours in the long run. Documenting the process (see Exhibit 1) will move your staff up the learning curve quickly.
- The person most familiar with the client (e.g., the one who prepared the tax return) should conduct the analysis in most cases.
- The accountant who has the relationship, usually the partner, should take the meeting.
- It is OK to ask the client some clarifying questions, but steer clear of letting any ideas slip until the meeting.
At Nagy & Associates PA (my old CPA firm; I am now a director with Albero, Kupferman & Associates), good processes allowed us to control scope overruns. Despite that, we could invoice in good conscience only about half of the time. Additionally, the spending reviews spilled over into “expansions” or additional work about 20% of the time. The top three engagements were QuickBooks consulting, the development of KPI templates, and clients asking for ongoing quarterly advisory meetings. Combining the billable hours from the spending reviews with the expansion work provides a reasonable return on effort, particularly if it’s done during the slow time of year. What’s a reasonable return? At my firm, we charged about three hours of time for every hour that was not chargeable. That was broken down on a per-client basis, as follows:
- Cost-cutting review. This was a two-hour engagement on average, with a full write-off in about half of the engagements.
- Expansions. One in five cost-cutting reviews would spawn additional work. Those engagements generated eight billable hours on average. Multiply those eight hours by the 20% conversion rate, and the average cost-cutting review produced 1.6 billable hours from additional engagements.
How do you approach the client to pay for the cost-cutting review and/or engage your firm for an expansion? Take the following steps:
Send out a marketing email blast that says, “Dear Client, you are great, and we appreciate you. We’d like to do a cost-cutting review to see if we can find any easy ways to save you money. If we find an idea that you like, we may ask you to pay for our time (maximum of two hours), but you are under no obligation to pay. Can we do this for you?”
Follow up with a phone call to the client. While a small percentage of clients will immediately reply “yes” to your email, most will require a phone call because they will need more assurance that they are not incurring any billable charges. Once the service is explained, most clients will agree to let you do the review.
Ask for the payment at the meeting to discuss the review’s findings. Face-to-face meetings are the best place to share cost-cutting ideas with clients. When you have found a cost-cutting opportunity for which you’d like to be paid, you can ask for the payment by saying something along the lines of, “Mr. Smith, it seems like the workers’ compensation idea is a good one. We estimate that it will save you $1,000 a year. I’ll follow up with sending over a template for how to implement the idea. Our firm has spent about two hours on this engagement. Do you mind if we bill you for it?” In our experience, clients always agree to pay because we don’t seek payment unless our ideas will save the client more than the two billable hours we intend to charge.
It is important to note that while our firm almost always finds ways to save clients money, we bill for our hours only about half the time. We do not ask for payment when we believe the ideas don’t save enough money or are too obvious.
Close the deal on any expansion opportunities. If you have identified potential engagements, make sure you get the client to agree to that work before the end of the cost-cutting review meeting. It’s best to get clients to commit to the work while you have their attention and they are happy with you for saving them money.
Even if a cost-cutting review doesn’t produce any billable hours, it still provides value to your firm. Think of it as nonbillable client-retention work similar to taking a client to lunch. Hopefully, you find something worth billing for, and you get some chargeable time for what can be viewed as a marketing effort. Ideally, you also uncover additional expansion projects (e.g., the client is factoring receivables and needs a line of credit), which are higher-margin or larger jobs. Even if you can’t find anything, you should let the client know what you did and that things look good. Clients appreciate when their accountant works proactively to help them.
Mistakes to avoid
- Charging thousands of dollars to tell the client what he or she already knows. If you don’t have any good ideas, don’t charge the client. Tell the client that he or she is doing a great job as is. If you make an honest effort, your hard work won’t be forgotten, and future referrals will follow.
- Presenting ideas that are too complex and/or require a fundamental change in the client’s business. Save these ideas for a different engagement—one in which you can set new expectations regarding time, client responsibilities, and fees. Give away the small, nonpriority ideas (e.g., using a mileage app for better automobile expense tracking) and refer out the ideas that you’re not suited to help implement (e.g., an attorney needs to draft better payment terms on a contract with a big customer).
- Emailing the final report instead of sitting down and talking. An emailed document with a list of some low-cost dot-com vendors won’t exactly wow a client. You have to set a meeting to discuss the pros and cons of your recommendations, the potential savings, and your possible role in helping to execute the ideas.
- Presenting yourself as a know-it-all. Each idea should be communicated in the form of a question that has merit exploring. CPA: “Can we discuss your insurance? It looks like you’re paying about twice as much as I’d expect. Maybe I am missing something.” There may be a good reason for the expenses. Client: “The insurance company is my biggest customer, so we have three times as much coverage as we need. Thanks for the heads-up, though.” In those cases, being presumptuous can backfire.
A template for success
The key to success with cost-cutting reviews comes down to the ideas template. A good template can be your staff’s guide and often makes the difference between a profitable client engagement and a nonchargeable client networking meeting. It will take some time to develop a content-rich list of ideas, but start by drafting some general probing questions: “Are they consolidating telecom providers?” or “Are they paying a lot in penalties and interest?” Then circulate the list around your office and have your team add to it. Before long, you’ll have more than 50 probing questions and a corresponding list of 50 off-the-shelf solutions. (Our template has 135 items.) Ideally, your staff members will continually research and add fresh ideas, or prune dated ones, as they conduct the engagement from year to year. Your template may look something like the one shown in Exhibit 2.
- Design the template in Excel (or a good customer relationship management (CRM) package) for easy editing, searching, and customization.
- Give staff members some ownership in the process. Have them initial each new probing question and go-to solution that they add to the template.
- Organize the ideas by the accounts found on Schedule C, Profit or Loss From Business (Sole Proprietorship) (e.g., sales, cost of goods, and advertising). This will make it easy for staff to match expense categories from the client’s books to the template.
- Include resource links so staff can read up on issues and forward information to clients.
- Include a pros and cons field to share notes.
- Tell your staff to spend no more than 45 minutes on each client. You’re looking for low-hanging fruit, not a needle in a haystack (allow some additional time for the client meeting).
An ancillary benefit of providing cost-cutting reviews is that they help sharpen junior staff’s problem-solving skills. It takes critical thinking to identify issues and pose solutions, even with the aid of a content-loaded ideas template. Don’t be surprised if junior staff push back and procrastinate on these engagements, especially if they have not developed the confidence to think creatively. As an in-charge or partner, you might find it necessary to:
- Prepare a few reviews with them;
- Have them join in a client brainstorming meeting; and
- Spend more time reviewing and giving feedback.
This will help spark their creative thinking and put them on the path to becoming good problem-solvers, an essential skill in the accounting profession.
What to mind in the meetings
Draft a report for each client, and list two or three of your best ideas. The report is your deliverable. Schedule a friendly “brainstorming” meeting with your client and present the ideas at that time (not sooner or over email). Talk over the pros and cons of each idea. Finally, don’t forget to inquire about expansions and add-on services that you can help with (e.g., calculate the return on investment for the client’s social marketing efforts, advise on employee incentive plans based on the book Drive by Daniel Pink, or maybe help evaluate the risks of accepting bitcoin as payment).
- If possible, include a savings estimate quantifying the value of your idea (e.g., move supply purchasing to Amazon Prime and save at least $100 a month).
- Give your client only two or three ideas and hold the others until successful implementation of your first batch. This helps the client to not feel overwhelmed, like a student who gets nine months of homework on the first day of school.
Facilitating engaging meetings and providing valuable ideas have one more unexpected benefit. These activities may increase your firm’s valuation. Nagy & Associates PA went from a one times to a 1.2 times revenue valuation partially due to this unique service.
Why do CPA firms lose clients? The biggest reason is lack of attention. Clients feel as though we don’t care about them, we’re not proactive, or we don’t ask questions. At an hour a pop, devoting time to cost-cutting reviews is the most economical way to strengthen client ties while also earning additional income. So, be like Michelle Kinnee and start finding those deals. And if you soon discover your friends calling you the “Coupon Lady,” tell them, “Excuse me, I prefer ‘Savings Ninja’!”
Disclaimer: The products mentioned in this article are examples for illustrative purposes and are not endorsed by the JofA or the AICPA. Businesses should work with their advisers to evaluate their unique situations.
Sample idea: Does the client have a high default rate on accounts receivable?
Go-to solution: Euler Hermes trade credit insurance—covers 80% if a customer doesn’t pay.
Expansion: Review monthly cash flow report with clients over Skype.
Sample idea: Do the client’s merchant fees seem high?
Go-to solution: Dwolla.com. Just 25 cents per transaction.
Sample idea: Is the client using GPS tracking to monitor its drivers?
Go-to solution: Introduce Verizon’s Field Force Manager solution.
Expansion: Segue into consulting on refunding the fuel tax for off-road use.
Cost-cutting reviews are microengagements that work well for small firms with small clients. Staff examine client books and build a list of easy ways for the client to save money.
Firms make money from cost-cutting reviews in a couple of ways. When firms uncover cost-saving opportunities, clients may pay the firm for the hour or two devoted to the review. In addition, reviews can reveal opportunities for higher-margin, additional engagements called expansions.
Another firm benefit of cost-cutting reviews can be stronger client relationships. Even if no cost savings are identified, clients appreciate the effort and attention. This can build loyalty and lead to more business.
Cost-cutting reviews provide good off-season work for junior staff. The work isn’t too advanced for junior staff to handle, but it does require critical thinking.
Essential to the success of cost-cutting reviews is the development of an ideas template. The template, which is the staff’s guide, should have at least 50 questions with go-to solutions.
Firms should always present review findings in a meeting with the client. Don’t send the ideas in an email.
To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-402-4056.
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