After staggering through one of the toughest years on record, the profession continues to face imposing challenges, but by seizing on market opportunities and renewing a commitment to providing superior client service, accounting firms may inch gradually forward during 2010.

“We spent a lot of time last year with cost-cutting and furloughs, but now it’s time to up the ante on the marketing side and service your clients like they’ve never been serviced before,” said Gary Shamis of Ohio-based SS&G Services and a member of The Advisory Board. Shamis led a session on the state of the profession from a practice management perspective, at the opening day of the Winning is Everything conference in Las Vegas.

“Niche marketing is a phenomenal place to be. You need to sit down and figure out what you do well,” he continued. “If your firm doesn’t offer value, then the lowest bidder for client services will win,” he said disdainfully of the rampant price cutting occurring throughout the profession in order to win client engagements. “You don’t need to get into that [low-balling]. I don’t see the pros and there are too many cons.”

Shamis noted that too many firms lack formal succession plans and often turn to M&A as their silver bullet. “If it doesn’t work out, then they’re left with nothing but an education. Many firms are not making an investment to become “next generation,” so they’re looking to merge.”

At SS&G Shamis told attendees about their partner success educational training program, which is open to all members of the firm.

However he predicted that M&A, especially for firms in the $2 million to $4 million range, will continue at a brisk pace in 2010.

He also predicted that one of the toughest areas to hire in over the next year will be international tax, due to the softening dollar and the influx of foreign investments in the U.S.

With regard to the volume of layoffs that resonated throughout CPA firms in 2009, Shamis said that many times, it often was not done with the long-term future of the firm in mind.

“We didn’t really cut staff properly,” he said. “We would let go, eight, 10, 12 people, but sometimes it will be senior-level people that had become non-productive and had to go and that means severing long-term relationships. It’s a difficult decision, but that creates opportunities for the younger people.” The opening day also saw noted consultant Chris Frederiksen, head of Frederiksen & Co. and the global 2020 Group, honored as the 2010 inductee into the Advisory Board’s Hall of Fame.