Accounting firms with a burgeoning stable of small-business clients understand their need for attention -- to be both seen and heard.

And not just by their service provider. At a time when the Internet and social media can narrow the competition between small business and their larger competitors, these clients are constantly seeking a wider audience.

Barry A. Crozier, managing director of Delaware's largest locally owned CPA and consulting firm, Belfint, Lyons & Shuman, recognized an opportunity to give just that to a client earlier this year, after receiving an e-mail from the American Institute of CPAs soliciting a female minority business owner for a conference panel.

Appropriately, the session was titled "What Do We Need to Do to Stimulate Main Street?" and was scheduled for the AICPA's 125th anniversary celebration and Spring Meeting of Council in Washington, D.C., last May.

"The managing director of our firm is very proactive," said Kathy Schultz, Belfint's director of tax and small business. "He received the e-mail and immediately sent it to everyone, to see if there was some way we could highlight one of our clients in this."

Schultz immediately thought of one of her small-business clients, Traci Lynn, president of Traci Lynn Fashion Jewelry, who jumped at the chance to participate. "I was honored that they thought that much of me to even invite me to such a big event," Lynn said. "For me, that locked it in. I knew, hands down, they were the right firm for me. It really takes that relationship to another level and locks it in, when they see the value I bring, and my business, and want to celebrate that."

"It gave her an opportunity to showcase her business and gave her the ability to be in D.C. and speak on a topic that's very important to her," said Belfint marketing manager Jenni Fleck Jones. "We look for different things -- we will suggest them for awards and outside media."

 

GETTING SOCIAL

This taps into the more recent practice of "social listening," usually wielded by companies attempting to follow consumer needs and trends though social media accounts, but equally useful for accounting firms looking to offer a more full-service client experience.

As an entrepreneur for the last 22 years, and in her seventh year as owner of her current business, Lynn appreciates both sides of the conversation. "I can read [my customer's] newsfeeds, [Facebook] walls, posts, and they can be so shocked I know small things about them - it's called relationships," she said. And in her role as client, "It's important for accounting firms to know their customers. Social media gives you that inside look without being too invasive. You can stay on their corporate Facebook page or follow them on Twitter."

Memphis, Tenn., accounting, bookkeeping, tax preparation and payroll firm Patrick Accounting uses Facebook to keep in touch with its 500 mostly service-industry small-business clients. There, they promote events and referral contests that have netted their restaurant owner and dental professional clients iPads, televisions, and a free month of services. According to owner Matthew Patrick, the social networking site also functions as a window into the firm's "family-focused" staff of 12 people.

"I think Facebook is the best way to show firm personality," he explained. "That we're not a stodgy accounting firm and we're not trying to be."

Of course, the more casual tone and format of Facebook will not suit every client. "We have a shotgun approach where we do a little bit of everything," Patrick continued. "You never know the best way to communicate; everyone communicates differently, whether through Facebook or networking. It depends on the demographic of the clients."

Belfint's wide-ranging client base, for example, requires a less dominant social media presence. "We listen a lot online," explained Jones, who monitors the Google Alerts they have set up for all clients, allowing them to reach out and offer congratulations on any recent news and awards. "We do more listening than pushing out."

To "push out other valuable info," the firm uses more traditional outlets, like an e-newsletter, instead.

It was through this communication that Lynn, a customer of Belfint's tax preparation and planning services, first discovered the firm's estate planning offering. Though she already had an estate planner, she now has Belfint review some of those documents.

The firm also publishes blogs on nonprofits and employee benefits, with plans to roll out a new Web site in August. "We're completely redoing it and making it more interactive with blogs and a lot more information," Jones elaborated. "The tone will be more casual, but professional."

 

PERSONAL TOUCH

Tone is less tricky when meeting in person, which many declare the ideal method of communication.

A consistent relationship between the appointed CPA and the business owner is especially critical.

This feeds into a larger issue of retention for Holtz Rubenstein Reminick, which reported growth in its smaller-business client base last year and outfits each of its primarily manufacturing and distribution industry middle-market clients with both an audit and tax partner.

"The continuity of staff is of great importance, to the extent we can," explained Barry Garfield, a partner at the Top 100 Firm. "Probably industry-wise, we have a lower rate of turnover in our staff."

This allows deeper bonds to form over time and, according to Lynn, an advisory presence far outside the firm office. "Recently I was contemplating making a large purchase," she shared. "And I said in my head, 'What would Kathy say?' And I laughed, and didn't make the purchase. Kathy would say, 'No way.'"

Schultz had a similarly lasting impact on another of her small-business clients whose dad had passed away shortly after her own mother's death. "She was devastated and needed to go to the recorder of deeds," recalled Schultz. "I told her I needed to do it, too, so if she waited a couple of weeks, we'll do a field trip together. She was so grateful."

 

SPECIAL OCCASIONS

While this level of relationship is not always feasible, hosting events is one way accounting firms can work toward building bonds beyond balance sheets.

Patrick Accounting hosts an annual client appreciation event on -- fittingly -- St. Patrick's Day.

"We go to a little Irish pub in town and invite all the clients, using a PR firm to manage the process," Patrick explained. "This year we had a great turnout. Our staff, a lot of times, haven't physically met the clients and don't always have the chance to meet face to face."

Belfint's quarterly "Belfint Briefings" unlock this networking potential while also promoting the full-service aspects of the firm. The seminars welcome a maximum of 20 attendees to learn and meet other clients; July's session covered the financial and legal considerations of a chronically ill family member.

Overall, it's best for firms to provide their small-business clients with options, both in method and scope of communication.

"Our job is to over-communicate with them as much as possible," said Patrick. "We have a no-surprises approach."

This kind of openness has served Lynn -- and her accounting firm, which gains half of its new business through client referrals -- well.

"Why wouldn't I want to stay with a firm that really sees me?" she asked. "Instead of being a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper and a bill?"

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