Using Professional Service Providers to Grow Your Business

Focus on your core abilities by hiring experts to help you with tasks like law, accounting and marketing.

After you have owned your own business for a while, you know how to run it. You've probably done everything from answering the phones to hiring a general manager, and you can justly claim to know your business inside and out, in general and in detail. In case there's any operation you can't personally undertake, one of your employees probably can. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Highly technical matters of law, accounting, management and marketing are usually best handled by outside experts. Attorneys, accountants, and management and marketing consultants have specialized knowledge about niche areas that you couldn't--and shouldn't--hope to duplicate either personally or in the form of an in-house employee.

Having access to legal, accounting and other expertise is important to help your business grow as rapidly and efficiently as possible. Given enough time, you may be able to master the intricacies of law and finance. But why bother? Hand these duties off to professional service providers. They can do them faster and more effectively than you ever could. Besides, your skills are needed in helping your business expand.

Legal and Accounting Help
Why do you need a lawyer to grow? It's generally worthwhile to consult an attorney before making any business decision that could have legal ramifications. These decisions could include setting up or altering the terms of a partnership or corporation, checking for compliance with regulations in new locales where you hope to do business, negotiating loans to fund expansion, obtaining trademarks or patents, preparing buy-sell agreements, tax planning, drawing up or revising pension plans, reviewing business forms, negotiating and drawing up documents to buy or sell other companies or real estate, reviewing employee contracts, exporting or selling products in other states, and collecting bad debts. Many of the same considerations apply to the use of accountants by growing firms. You should at least consider running by an accountant any decision that could have accounting, financial or tax ramifications.

You probably started your business with a lawyer and an accountant available to answer questions, help draw up documents, and solve the inevitable problems of launching a new company. Now that you've been underway for a while and success seems to be a given, shouldn't you keep working with the professionals who helped you get here? Not necessarily, because the needs of a growing business are different from those of a startup. The professional service providers who aided you in the beginning may not be good matches for your current needs.

Giving your professionals a checkup is largely a matter of assessing your need for professional services and judging whether your current advisors measure up. When you were starting up, issues such as the legal form your business would take--sole proprietorship or partnership, for example--were pressing. Today, you may be looking at how you should structure an international subsidiary. The odds are good that the attorney you started with won't be able to provide you with one-stop service as your business grows.

Likewise, accounting problems in the beginning, when your business was funded entirely with your own personal savings, may have revolved around little more than making sure you filed state and federal payroll tax forms and income tax returns properly. As you grow, however, you'll have to deal with depreciating plant, equipment and real property; setting up financial controls; and, most likely, the tax laws of entities beyond your startup state and city. Even if your original accountant was a whiz at the jobs you needed early on, it's not likely that you and your accountant will continue to grow in the same directions.

    Marketing and Management Consultants    
When it comes to marketing and management, many entrepreneurs are on firmer ground than when venturing into accounting and law. But nobody knows everything, even about general management and marketing. There's nothing wrong with admitting that and seeking outside help in an effort to execute your company's management and marketing as skillfully as possible. In narrow disciplines, such as managing mergers and acquisitions and marketing to ethnic groups, the use of an experienced specialist makes even more sense. And even if you feel there's nothing you don't know about a topic, hiring outside experts will allow you to do things you wouldn't ordinarily have time for and don't want to hire permanent employees for.

Hiring a consultant is different from hiring almost any other kind of employee, and it's different from purchasing most outsourced services, too. For one thing, consultants are expensive. They can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars a day. Make sure you know what the consulting fees will be and exactly what you will get for paying them. Consultants should provide a more customized solution to your business problem than most outsourced providers. Make sure any consultant you hire asks lots of questions about your needs and listens to your answers. Be sure your description of your needs is specific, and avoid consultants with preconceived notions about solutions.

Upgrading Professional Service Providers
Referrals are the best way to get a new professional service provider. The best source of referrals is other entrepreneurs. Make a point of asking people in the same business sector (service, retail, restaurant, manufacturing, etc.) for referrals. You can also get good referrals from other professionals. That is, ask your accountant for an attorney's name and your attorney for an accountant's name. Other service providers, such as recruiters and bankers, are also good sources. Don't forget to ask suppliers and customers. Trade associations can also be good places to find names of professional service providers.

The Interview
Once you're outfitted with a few referrals, contact several to gauge their interest in you and your interest in them. Then personally interview at least three prospects.

At your first interview with a professional service provider, be ready to describe your business and its legal, accounting or other needs. Take note of what the provider says and does, and look for the following qualities:

  • Experience: Although it's not essential to find an expert in your particular field, it makes sense to look for someone who specializes in small-business problems as opposed to, say, maritime law. Make sure the professional is willing to take on small problems; if you're trying to collect on a relatively small invoice, for example, will the lawyer think it's worth his or her time?
  • Understanding: Be sure the professional is willing to learn about your business's goals. You're looking for someone who will be a long-term partner in your business's growth. Does the professional understand where you want to be tomorrow and share your vision for the future?
  • Ability to communicate: If the lawyer speaks in legalese or the accountant uses lots of arcane financial terms without bothering to explain them, look for someone else.
  • Availability: Will the professional be available for conferences at your convenience, not his or hers? How quickly can you expect emergency phone calls to be returned?
  • Rapport: Is this someone you can get along with? You will be discussing matters close to your heart with this person, so make sure you feel comfortable doing so. Good chemistry will ensure a better relationship and positive results for your business.
  • Reasonable fees: Attorneys, accountants and other professionals charge anywhere from $90 to $300 (or more) per hour, depending on the location, size and prestige of the provider. Shop around and get quotes from several providers before making your decision. However, beware of comparing one provider with another on the basis of fees alone. The lowest hourly fees may not indicate the best value; an inexperienced professional may take twice as long to complete a project as an experienced one will.
  • References: Don't be afraid to ask for references. What types of businesses or cases has the attorney worked with in the past? Get a list of clients or other professionals you can contact to discuss competence, service and fees.

Evaluating Credentials
Some jobs, such as auditing financials to satisfy the requirements of lenders or investors, simply must be done by a professional with specific credentials. A certified public accountant is a good example. If you're looking for legal advice, you certainly want an attorney with a juris doctor or equivalent degree who is a member of the bar.

You have more flexibility in looking for other credentials. The initials MBA after a person's name suggest that, as the holder of a master's of business administration degree, that person is well-trained. However, highly experienced people may be just as effective even if they lack the diploma and the initials. Evaluating the worth of credentials can be tricky. Check with associations such as the American Bar Association , the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants , or the government agency in your state charged with granting CPA credentials.

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