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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.
December 1, 2005
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/81408

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:

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.

Negotiating Fees

The professional services marketplace is a buyers' market these days. Here are 10 steps to keep your costs in check without hurting your chances of growing:

1. Choose the right professionals. The key is to match your needs with the skills and resources of the provider. Most small-business owners simply don't need a large, major-city law firm or international accountant. The overhead expenses of such megafirms are passed on to their clients in the form of high hourly rates. Instead of a big name, look for small-business expertise.

2. Examine your fee agreement. Once you find a professional with whom you feel comfortable, read the fee agreement letter carefully. Focus on hourly rates, expenses such as postage and photocopying, and travel time. Ask candidates for a sample of their standard fee agreement for your review. Be suspicious of any professional who balks at this request.

3. Use paralegals and bookkeepers as part of your professional team. Certain legal tasks are straightforward enough that utilizing a paralegal instead of a business lawyer can result in significant savings. The same goes for using a bookkeeper instead of an accountant.

4. Do your own footwork. Keeping organized records, indexing volumes of documents and writing out memorandums can reduce your professional fees significantly. Professionals will do all this for you--but at their hourly rates, and on your tab.

5. Meet with your professionals regularly. At first, this may not seem to be a very effective way to keep fees down, but you'll be amazed at how much it actually reduces both the number of phone calls your provider has to make and the endless rounds of telephone tag.

6. Use your attorney as a coach for minor legal matters. When you have a customer who owes you money and refuses to pay, do you turn the case over to your lawyer? Some entrepreneurs do, but some handle small legal matters on their own by using their attorneys as coaches. Lawyers can be very effective in coaching you to file lawsuits in small-claims court, draft employment manuals, and complete other uncomplicated legal tasks.

7. Demand and examine monthly invoices. While most professionals are diligent about sending out monthly invoices, some wait until the bill is sufficiently large. If yours doesn't bill in a timely manner, ask for a breakdown of the time spent and costs incurred to date, and for similar monthly invoices to be sent thereafter. When the invoice comes, check the work description to be sure you weren't inadvertently billed for work performed for another client.

8. Negotiate prompt-payment discounts. If you're paying a retainer fee, request that your bill be discounted by 10 percent. (A retainer fee is an amount of money that acts as a fee pre-payment; the remainder is refunded to the client.) Even if you didn't pay a retainer, negotiate a prompt-payment discount if you pay your fees within 30 days of your invoice date. You may not get as much of a discount using this method, but even a 5 percent discount on your monthly legal fees can add thousands of dollars per year to your business's bottom line.

9. Don't make impromptu calls to your professional. Most attorneys bill under a structure that includes minimum time increments for repetitive functions such as phone calls. This means when you call your lawyer for a quick question, you'll be subject to a minimum time increment for billing purposes. For instance, if you place four impromptu calls a week to your professional at a minimum time increment of a quarter-hour per call, you'll get a bill for an hour of your lawyer's time--even though you only received five minutes' worth of advice! Keep a list of subjects you need to discuss, and make a single call to discuss them all.

10. Negotiate outcome-based fee arrangements with attorneys. Although this is a relatively new concept in the legal market, more and more firms agree to such arrangements in this competitive marketplace. An outcome-based fee arrangement is a risk-sharing plan. Simply put, if your lawyer accomplishes a particular favorable outcome, the bill is adjusted to increase the fees by a preset formula. But if the outcome is not favorable, the final bill is adjusted downward (though not eliminated.)

Writing Professional Service Contracts
Get everything in writing when dealing with professional service providers. Your written agreement should cover the scope of the services to be rendered, the duration of the agreement and the fees. The fee schedule should state whether fees are to be based on an hourly, daily or project rate, and who is responsible for paying expenses. You should consider having fees based at least in part on performance to protect you from having to pay top rates for shoddy work.

Your agreement should also specify who will be performing the work for your company. Some professional services firms have certain people whose primary job it is to solicit business, while others do the actual work. However, you may not want a lower-level attorney or junior accountant working on your project.

Finally, the contract should explain how the agreement can be ended prematurely, typically with some kind of notice to the other party. This will allow you to get out of an unsatisfactory contract without having to pay the full amount.

What's in it for You?
Having access to top legal, accounting and other professional service expertise is essential to your business's long-term health. With these professionals on your side, you can deal effectively with legal, tax and financial issues that might require years of study to master. So instead of trying to do a professional's job, stick to doing what you do best--growing your business.