When CPA Jody Padar joined her father in his practice after eight years in a traditional mid-market firm, she assumed that his clients would become theirs. But Jody's dad had a different idea. He believed his daughter should learn how to build a client base, not just serve an existing one.
The approach may not have been what Jody was expecting, but the experience of seeking out and developing client relationships was formative. In fact, she leveraged it to create New Vision CPA Group in Chicago, which provides complete accounting and tax solutions.
Jody and her firm (three CPAs and several consultants) are part of a movement I've dubbed "the New Accounting." (See "Meet the Innovators" from our August 2014 issue.) Although applied differently by individual practitioners, the movement is generally:
- Highly entrepreneurial.
- Young and diverse.
- Open to new business models and pricing structures.
- Willing to cast off traditional approaches not considered relevant or productive.
- "Abundance" minded and eager to share the pie.
As she started out, Jody kept her feet firmly on the ground, but soon realized the value of keeping her head in the clouds, or more precisely, the cloud. An important shift in her approach came when she discovered software that would facilitate interactions with prospects and clients in any location.
Combining cloud-enabled technology with social media gave Jody a framework for more frequent and more convenient interaction with clients. Instead of sporadic communications, mostly limited to tax season, she began to build partnerships focused on delivering advice and counsel throughout the year. This fundamentally changed the sales cycle from episodic to one with continuous momentum.
As this new model gained traction, Jody realized that she needed a pricing structure to support it. The conventional model of hourly (or per minute) billing no longer made sense and could even get in the way of seamless client service.
Jody instituted a predetermined fixed-pricing structure that permitted her to be paid monthly, delivering service and value any time and anywhere it was needed. The system eliminated the need to chase receivables, as the fee to the client is paid via automatic monthly bank transfer.
Jody delivers "fixed price with a value add" by talking with clients to determine the value of a particular service or engagement. The larger the client, the more customized the value assessment. I have long advocated this type of client-centric approach, which I call looking at the market "from the outside in."
If it's broken, fix it
Based on her belief that much about midsized firms was "broken," Jody consciously steered away from traditional practices, including those around new hires.
"Young staff aren't really trained," said Jody. "Instead, they are given work papers to follow." A reviewer handing back a tax return covered in red marks to someone is not a substitute for training, she added. "It's a negative way to learn."
Jody also disagrees with the practice of keeping young staff at arm's length from clients. This gives new accountants the idea that they have nothing of value to offer, and prevents them from getting to know a client's business.
In Jody's model, members of the service delivery team are visible all year long, which opens the door for discussion of additional needs and services. It also enables young staff to develop client relationship skills much earlier in their career. The strategy has a natural momentum and is an organic way to grow firm revenue.
Finally, Jody and other practitioners of the New Accounting reject the idea that new hires have to be worked to the bone. Because they serve clients all year, not just during tax season, the work spreads out more naturally and less painfully. At New Vision, about two thirds of the firm's work has been moved out of busy season and spread across the rest of the calendar.
It's one thing to develop an innovative business model. But how do you ensure that a legacy client base, like the one developed by her dad before her arrival, will embrace your new ideas?
Jody's approach has been to gradually educate and move clients to the new structure. Her patience has paid off, as New Vision has managed to convert 70 percent of clients to the new pricing system over five years.
Meanwhile, the firm's book of business has grown exponentially with new clients, many of whom find the firm via social media. Jody has found that at the end of the day, price is not the issue. Clients are happy to pay an annual amount above what they paid in the past in exchange for year-round counsel on diverse aspects of their business, not just their tax return. They are also getting a relationship, and for Jody that's what matters most.
Jody Padar is a fascinating case study in the New Accounting. Her business model revolves around the strategic deployment of technology and the robust, ongoing client relationships enabled by that technology. The result is an ability to uncover and meet additional needs, shortening and easing the sales cycle and generating higher revenues.
It may be tempting to dismiss Jody and her cohorts as small, low-end providers whose approach could never work in your firm. But small, low-end trends that can demonstrate success often move upmarket to become large mainstream movements.
Rather than dismiss these concepts, consider how you might leverage Jody's experience. Think about building a pilot program that incorporates some of her ideas.
Don't let the status quo overshadow the bright light of innovation in your firm.
Gale Crosley, CPA, is founder and principal of Crosley + Co., and consults with accounting firms on revenue growth.
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