Referrals? No Cash Please


Recommender and referral programs are hard to resist. Over the last few years, company after company has introduced some kind of effort under which CPAs will steer clients to their product.

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Art Nathan, the owner of Solutions Strategist, a Cranford, N.J.-based Best Software reseller, has such an active CPA program that one observer called him the poster-child for CPA/VAR relationships. But in his  years of running such a program, he has paid a referral fee to a CPA partner one time. CPAs don’t want fees, Nathan says, they want business referrals.

A substantial number of CPAs who refer customers to product don’t want commissions. Some do, obviously, but there are enough resisters to call into question the chances of success for any vendor who thinks that commission-based referrals is the doorway to riches. (By commissions, I don’t mean product margin, which for some strange reason often gets dumped into the commission definition in the CPA world. Commission and margin are two distinct things.)

Referral fees were one of the original propositions of CPA2Biz. CPAs would bring their small business clients to the site (which is looking increasingly like the old AICPA).

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Similarly, Microsoft plans to use CPAs in steering business to its Small Business Manager, the stripped-down version of Great Plains Dynamics that it heralds as a package for the masses of small business that need more robust accounting software.

Many referral programs do not seem to make much financial sense. Remember Finance Manager, the online accounting package from Microsoft that was going to be offered via CPA2Biz, before the service was subject to a mercy killing by Microsoft? It was going to be sold at a $30-per-month subscription. Suppose a CPA got 10 percent commission (a high figure, but the math is easy). That’s going to be a small reward. How many successful referrals does it take to equal the income from one new tax or write-up client? Raise the product list price to $3,000 and assume a 5 percent commission, which is Microsoft’s current fee on many of its products. For a lot of firms, that is not worth the effort, risk, or opportunity costs.

Most CPAs prefer to get referrals in return because a new client represents a recurring revenue opportunity, not a one-shot payout.

The return on invested effort is only one of the problems. Many risk-averse practitioners worry that referring a product that does not work (to be fair, there aren’t many of those these days) will harm their reputations.

And frankly, supposing you refer a payroll client. Aren’t most firms better performing their own payroll services and controlling the client and getting a foot in the door to sell more services, instead of sending the business to someone else? The smart firms often see it this way.

Of course, many firms still have ethical qualms about accepting commissions. (However, we never seem to hear about the same reluctance about referring clients to products a practitioner does not really use or understand.)

There’s no doubt referral programs can work. Intuit is doing a bang-up job with its Advisor programs. But it does not rely exclusively on paying commissions. It gives participants the chance to accumulate points that can be redeemed for product, fees, whatever they want. And it gives them the high-touch they need.

CPA referrals can work. But the vendor really has to work at such programs. 

Robert Scott — Editor

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