Welcome to another in a series of profiles spotlighting the 2016 Firm of the Future finalists. This edition features Barbara Agerton of Tax Time Services. Stay tuned in 2017 for details on how to enter our next Firm of the Future contest.
Kim Amsbaugh: Welcome, Barbara! Tell me a bit about you and Tax Time Services.
Barbara Agerton: I’ve been a CPA for a while, but in 1990, things took a turn when I became a member of the “Navy Spouses Club.” I didn’t know it at the time, but my orderly and predictable life as a CPA was over. Every time I started a job in public accounting, I was soon forced to leave to move to yet another duty station. After about 15 years, I decided it was time to go into business for myself. I opened a tax and accounting office in California with one employee and one client. My intent has always been to make my career portable so that I could work from anywhere and still service my clients in a professional and consistent way.
KA: Share with us a little background about your firm. What type of clients do you serve – tax and accounting? What are the services you provide?
BA: Our clients consist of military families and government contractors who also move around. We have clients all over the United States and abroad.
KA: What makes Tax Time Services a Firm of the Future?
BA: Tax Time Services has embraced the latest technology, which makes it possible for us to work with our clients no matter where in the world they might be.
KA: How are you using technology to help your clients with tax preparation and planning?
BA: QuickBooks® Online allows us to have real-time information regarding our client’s business financials. We use that information quarterly to determine if the client is on track with paying in estimated tax for the year. We also look at the client’s tax situation prior to year-end to take advantage of tax-saving strategies before it’s too late. This includes taking advantage of accelerating expenses into the current year. At the end of the year, we are ready and can complete the tax return in a timely manner.
KA: What is your number one recommendation to your clients with regard to tax planning?
BA: Tax planning is not just about the income statement at the end of the year. As the tax professional, we look at the bigger picture: not only whether the business is profitable, but also if it is set up in such a way that the business owner has the best tax position available. Also, it might make more sense to be an S corp rather than a sole proprietor – or maybe it’s time to divest of unproductive assets. We also look at the other sources of income that business owner may have and how all of that works together for tax purposes.
KA: What’s your best advice about getting online today and adopting online technologies?
BA: A few years ago, two of my key employees announced they were moving. I had a big problem. Should I just let them leave, or should I take the leap and let them work from home? I chose the latter and moved operations to a cloud-based server. We installed VoIP phones and [Microsoft] Office 365. It was not without problems, but we worked through them and my team is still going strong two years later.
KA: How do you choose software and app partners before recommending to your clients?
BA: I’m a firm believer in testing on my own company before I put anything out to my clients. But, if that is not possible, then I always ask for feedback from my clients. I’m always surprised by how open and accepting they are, and the criticism I do get is always helpful to improve our process.
KA: What apps do you use for your firm?
KA: You mentioned in your contest entry that 67 percent of Tax Time’s clients are using QuickBooks® Online. Did you start them on the cloud or have to transition? What is your advice to clients, or other accounting professionals, who are hesitant to adopt cloud technologies?
BA: Most of our established clients were desktop-based, and we moved them to QuickBooks Online. It was easy to move those clients who did not do their own bookkeeping. The clients who needed a little encouragement soon came onboard because they liked the idea that we could see their books and help them at any time. They liked the real-time bank feeds and instant information that became available to them. I also found that many of our new clients were already using QuickBooks Online; therefore, the transition to using Tax Time Services as their trusted advisor was easy. I am convinced that our data is more secure on a cloud-based server than on a server in our office. With no client data in our office, there is nothing physical that can easily be stolen.
KA: How has using real-time data changed the way you work with your clients?
BA: Our tax season has gone much smoother this year since our year-end financials were practically complete at year-end. Unlike other years, when we had to wait on the financials, we were able to move ahead in a timelier manner.
KA: How did you introduce value pricing to your clients? What was their reaction, and what changes have you seen in the way you collaborate with them?
BA: I don’t call it “value” pricing. I package our services together and give our client a quote because I don’t like surprises and neither do they. We use engagement letters to define the scope of work and our clients understand that anything outside the agreement will be a new engagement.
KA: Do you use wholesale billing? If so, why? How have your clients responded to that?
BA: We do use wholesale billing with our monthly clients. They like that we bundle it in with our services.
KA: What advice would you give those thinking about transitioning from hourly fees to monthly fixed fees?
BA: Our clients like to know what they are spending every month, and they like the idea that they have access to us without the fear of getting a bill for every phone call.
KA: You mentioned that your clients get a unique package of services, including tax and bookkeeping. How does offering these unique packages impact your firm’s profitability and ability to serve your clients well?
BA: It takes some of the guesswork out of our services. If you think about it, bookkeeping and tax preparation are much like the transmission on your car. We know that “D” means to drive forward, but most of us don’t really know how that works. When you hire a CPA, you know that data goes in and a tax return comes out, but you don’t really know what happens when to your data behind the scenes. By creating packages of service, our clients know they will get bookkeeping and tax services and that is really all they care about. They don’t want to know all the details.
KA: How do you find new clients, or how do they find your firm?
BA: Referrals are by far the best source of new clients. We also have a great web presence.
KA: How do you find the balance between marketing and run-the-business type work?
BA: Ah, that is a great question that does not have a good answer. We work when we have work and we market all the time. It is not about balance. There is no such thing. Technology allows us to schedule our marketing in ways that were not possible before. We use quarterly newsletters and weekly blog posts. We can schedule all of these in advance to make the process easier to keep up with. It is a great way for our potential clients to get to know us better.
KA: What are your plans to continue growing Tax Time Services?
BA: We will continue to make our services available online to our current client base and through referrals, and with great service, we will keep on growing.