The day before we spoke to him, Steve Piascik saved a client half a million dollars.

Actually, it was the night before - at the very last minute, the client wanted Piascik, a CPA and founder and president of the Richmond-area firm that bears his name, to look over some contractual agreements that it was about to sign. So at 10 p.m., Piascik found himself reviewing the terms of the deal, and suggesting some revisions that would save the client $475,000.

"We do not know the word 'No' here," he explained. "All we need to know is how to get it done. If I'm a client looking for a vendor, I don't want to hear excuses - I just want to hear, 'We'll get it done.'"

Those expectations have led the decade-old firm to focus relentlessly on client service. "We are in a service industry, and we outperform and we shine, or we're going to lose that client," Piascik said. That ethic applies in all its service lines, from its bread-and-butter work with corporations, partnerships and high-level tax planning; to the tax and financial planning services it offers professional athletes; the specialized financial, administrative and back-office help it offers foreign companies looking to operate in the U.S. through its Piascik Passport program; and the outsourced accounting services it's offering clients through one of its most recent service lines, Piascik Outsourced.

 

INTO OUTSOURCING

The premise of Piascik Outsourced is straightforward - hiring a full-time senior-level finance executive can cost a company anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000, and that's often before benefits and training costs. Piascik can do the same work on an outsourced basis for around a third less, with the firm assuming all the risks of hiring, training and maintaining the talent.

"They're looking at $150,000 for a comptroller, and we're coming in at $90,000," Piascik said. For that, clients get a wide range of services - including accounting, bank financial statements, depreciation, sales invoicing, debt collection, bill pay, loan reconciliations, and even executive concierge services - with CPA-issued financial statements as the end result.

It was client demand that led Piascik to create the service line in 2007. "I had so many clients say, 'Steve, we just need you to take care of this.' And I said, 'I have to charge an extra fee.' You're talking about large companies that don't have the time to go and hire a comptroller, plus it'll cost them $100,000. So Piascik Outsourced does it for $70,000, and does it all."

Between layoffs and hiring freezes, many companies are reluctant to hire full-time employees in the current economic climate - but that very reluctance can be a significant barrier to growth, preventing them from expanding into new areas, whether it's local businesses looking to grow in sales, or international businesses looking to expand in Virginia and the U.S. That group, with which the firm is already familiar from its Piascik Passport line, is of particular interest. "The sweet spot that we prefer is the $80,000-$100,000 client - the international client that has heard about us and wants us to take care of things," Piascik said.

The firm has a "handful" of extremely major clients (which Piascik describes as 50 million euro companies in Europe), and a lot of smaller companies. "We're probably adding three to four major clients per year," he said.

How scalable the service is depends on the size of the client. One staff member can handle three $90,000 clients, or six to seven smaller ones. But each client has three Piascik employees assigned to their account - two staff and one manager - to make sure there's always someone the client knows who's available to answer their phone calls. Said Piascik, "We're constantly available to them - weekends, nights."

 

TAKING IT ON THE CHIN

That level of involvement is important, because even though the firm may sell clients on Piascik Outsourced by citing the cost savings, it can't keep them without providing quality services, which means carefully balancing its pricing and service strategies to maximize both.

"In the beginning, I constantly underestimated how much time it would take to do these jobs. We really took it on the chin in the first few years, in figuring out what the pricing should be," Piascik remembered. "Now, having made that investment in the client, I have a very loyal client base."

Piascik Outsourced operates on a "not to exceed" pricing model, where the firm budgets the time it will take to perform the agreed-on services, and won't charge more, even if the work takes more time than expected. "If the client does more of the work - say, they don't want us to do invoicing - we check our time at the end of the year, and we'll credit next year's engagement letter," Piascik said. "If we spent more, the client is capped, and saves. We also don't increase our fees [annually] more than a percent of the cost-of-living adjustment."

The firm takes these commitments seriously. "If we haven't used the hours, then we give them back to you. We did that for three clients this year," Piascik said. At the same time, the firm works hard to make sure it doesn't have to pay back any time. "Every year, the engagement letter gets sharper - plus they ask us to do more. In the second year, we pretty much hit on the mark - it's usually less than a $1,000 difference. Once you're with a company for 12 months, you understand what you're going to be earning."

So while longer-lasting engagements are always a goal, they're particularly important for Piascik Outsourced clients, so that the firm can learn to serve each individual client as efficiently as possible. The flip side of that is that staff retention also matters even more than normal. "We do not like staff rotation," Piascik said, since staff members who walk out the door take efficiency-creating expertise and relationships with them.

Thus far, the firm has done well on the staff front, hiring four accountants specifically for Piascik Outsourced since the program began. "Highly experienced staff equals less time incurred and more efficiency, which creates a better product, which creates a happy client, which then creates more profit," he said. "If the client is happy, then it all trickles down."

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