Art of Accounting: Becoming a Specialist - How to Do It

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IMGCAP(1)]In last week’s column, I described various specializations for accountants. In this week’s column, we’ll talk about gaining the necessary expertise.

Once you decide upon a specialization, you need to go about making yourself an expert. Read, join professional associations, take focused CPE, and try to write articles or give speeches. Accountants who are industry experts become industry thought leaders.

Some specialties require obtaining designations or certificates of completion that require study and time—an investment you and the firm would have to make. There is no easy path to growing and establishing expertise, but it is a joyful ride.

You do not need to be restricted to one specialty, but the more specialties you choose, the less likely you are to establish yourself the way you want. You need to develop an awareness of the scope of the specialties you select. For instance, financial planning could include asset allocation assistance, budgeting consulting, retirement or education funding, estate or succession planning—all different specialties requiring different types of knowledge, training and staffing. Business valuations could include estate and gift valuations, business analysis, due diligence, divorce valuations and forensic investigations.

While pursuing a specialty would require a large amount of time, your current clients still need to be serviced. Now is a good time to start to transition some of this work and especially anything that can be delegated to lower-level staff. You could also step up to more of a supervisory role and take over some of what the partner does. This requires you to be better organized and to spend time learning to train, delegate and review more effectively.

Part of selecting a specialization is to examine your and the firm’s client base to see if there is a preponderance of clients in an industry or in need of certain services, and start positioning yourself as an “expert,” using that to perform additional services and to market to new clients. This is part of the learning and growth process. There is nothing bad about on-the-job training as long as you are willing to do the extra work to acquire the necessary skills and have someone who can oversee and review what you do. A great start is mining your existing client base to provide needed services.

Certain services, such as estate planning and business valuations, are primarily one-shot assignments. The cost of obtaining new clients has to be covered by the work generated. When you develop a multiyear plan, the costs of promoting the specialization and new business acquisition are spread out over a period of time, enabling you to establish a critical mass of referral sources.

Becoming an expert can help you generate higher fees, but you should be aware that some specialties require working under extremely time sensitive or rushed conditions, making it more difficult to schedule around other commitments. For instance, with forensic work a lot of time would be at the command of the attorneys with whom you are working.

One way to explore an industry specialization is to start attending trade group meetings, expos, conferences and conventions, and to read trade journals and newsletters. There are many local chapters where you can attend meetings as a guest.

Once you choose your niche, you need to get involved. It is not difficult, but it takes effort. Join, attend meetings and volunteer to serve on committees and/or make presentations at events or gatherings, or write articles for their publications. You can also further support the group by becoming a sponsor and taking a table or booth at a meeting or event. Many organizations list the sponsors on the advertising material, adding to your exposure.

Keep in mind that only a small percentage of members attend events; however the visibility of your sponsorship will reach every member of the group multiple times. In any specialization or niche you need to demonstrate an expertise, such as writing articles or teaching CPE, which also would require large blocks of time.

If you choose a service specialty, attend conferences and CPE dedicated to that specialty, and read journals and books on those topics. Also, you can learn from partners in your firm and find out what they have done for clients using their specialized expertise.

Staff members and firms that develop niche specializations can better serve their clients by understanding the industry, the dynamics of the dominant companies and suppliers, and relationships with banks, lenders, finance companies, attorneys and other professionals who are experts in the industry. They also need to know about government regulations and oversight groups, offshore issues, personnel requirements and training, compensation, options, fringe benefits and executive search firms, and the special issues and problems faced by those competing in that space. Also, the staff needs to understand the peculiarities of the industry, making the work flow more efficiently and effectively.

Some firms hire non-accountants who are experts in certain industries as consultants. For example, accounting firms with nursing home clients might hire registered nurses to review charts, looking to uncover opportunities for greater reimbursements. Accounting firms that service car dealerships might hire parts and service managers. Accountants with bank clients could hire loan officers and compliance managers. Construction contractor clients might get support from bonding and regulatory experts and those familiar with dispatching, project management and scheduling. Accountants with law firm clients could hire former administrators, and so forth. A lot more can be done where there is a concentration of clients, which also opens up funding for the CPA firm to advertise to obtain more clients and acquire additional resources.

Becoming an expert in an area is a growth enhancer for you and your firm, and if marketed the right way, can be very profitable for you, the firm and your clients. It is definitely worth pursuing.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, published by and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition,” published by the AICPA. Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or

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