Thursday, March 5, 2015

Call in a pro

Although few will admit to needing help in any of the many aspects of running their snow removal and ice management business/operation, few snow removal contractors are actually a “jack-of-all-trades.” While most small business owners know their business inside and out, in general and in detail, there are highly technical matters of law, accounting, management and marketing that are usually best handled by outside experts.

Attorneys, accountants, management and marketing advisers have specialized knowledge about niche areas that few can hope to duplicate. Reality often dictates the necessity of relying on others for assistance in unfamiliar areas, especially if that outside/independent advice is affordable. Where can this much-needed professional guidance, assistance or help be found and at what cost?

Helpful help


Having access to legal, accounting and other expertise is extremely important in helping any business survive and to grow as rapidly or efficiently as possible. In addition to legal advice, accounting advice such as setting up the operation’s books, auditing, payroll services, taxes and retirement planning might benefit the snow removal operation.

Some jobs, such as auditing financial statements to satisfy lenders and investors, must be done by a professional with specific credentials. A certified public accountant (CPA) is a good example, as well.

More flexibility exists when looking for other credentialed professionals. The initials MBA after a person’s name suggest that, as a 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.

How and where


Referrals are the best way to get a new professional services provider. The best source of referrals is business associates. Good referrals can also be obtained from other professionals. Ask your accountant for an attorney’s name and your attorney for an accountant’s name. Other service providers such as bankers, insurance or real estate professionals are also good sources. Don’t forget to ask suppliers and customers.

Remember, however, the first step to finding the right professional requires an inventory of what you and your snow and ice management operation actually need in the way of services and advice and, most importantly, how much you can afford to pay for that advice or services. It is also important to determine beforehand just how much of the work you and your business will do and how much of it will be done by the professional – or professionals.

You might also find out how well-connected the professional and his firm are. CPAs, for instance, are often a valuable resource for businesses needing to borrow money or to raise capital from other sources.

Checking it all out


Before hiring any professional adviser such as an attorney, tax preparer, CPA or other professional, credentials should always be checked. Most professionals are licensed to practice in one or more states so you are looking for a current professional license in your state. You also want to know if there are any outstanding complaints against this person, either by his professional organization or by previous clients.

Checking on sanctions is also possible for many licensed professionals, easily accomplished via the Internet. The website for the Internal Revenue Service can be searched to see if a tax preparer has been disciplined or convicted of fraud by the IRS. And, there is also the website of the Better Business Bureau, to see if complaints have been filed against this professional.

Taking the time to check out a prospective adviser thoroughly is a good investment. Remember that you, as the owner of a professional snow and ice management business, are responsible for complying with the laws, tax payments, and regulations. Getting bad advice does not excuse anyone from this responsibility.

Shop around


With referrals in hand, the shopping begins. Yes, shopping.

You are not only looking for reliable, knowledgeable and affordable professionals, you are looking or “shopping” for a professional who will compliment your efforts. Having an accountant who takes a different approach can sometimes be a good thing. A super-conservative contractor or business owner may become more successful if exposed to the aggressive side of things. Naturally, no professional should pressure a client into doing anything they are not comfortable with.

Other areas to consider when shopping for a professional include:

Experience. Although it is not essential to find an expert in your particular field, it makes sense to look for someone who specializes in small-business problems.

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 snow and ice management business’s growth.

Ability to communicate. If a lawyer speaks in legalese or an accountant uses lots of arcane financial terms without explanation, continue your search elsewhere.

Reasonable fees. Attorneys, accountants and other professionals charge anywhere from $75 to $300 (or more) per hour, depending on the location, size and prestige of the provider. Shopping around for quotes from several providers is a good strategy. Beware, however, of comparing one provider with another on the basis of fees alone. The lowest hourly fee may not indicate the best value; an inexperienced professional may take twice as long to complete a project as an experienced – and slightly more expensive one – will.

When to say when


At the beginning of any professional relationship, general “rules of thumb” should be established in order to minimize the need to call the adviser too often. Discussing the kinds of issues the adviser does not want to handle or feels might be better handled in-house or by another professional is part of the shopping process.

However, if you begin working with an adviser only to later discover that you avoid calling him or her, or you don’t like this person, sever the relationship quickly. This is yet another reason not to work with friends or family; you don’t need personal relationships interfering with the business relationship. It is not necessary to provide reasons for severing the professional relationship, just be polite and firm.

Fee advice


Fortunately, many professionals offer free first meetings for discussion of expectations, services needed and provided, extent of involvement by the professional and the portion of the work the snow and ice management operation’s workers expect to shoulder, time constraints and, above all, costs.

It is not “tacky” to discuss fees before engaging the services of a professional, although money should not be the sole criteria for selecting that professional.

Keeping the cost of that much-needed advice and guidance affordable begins when the professional is hired. An engagement letter, essentially a letter detailing the scope of the services to be performed and at what cost to the business is the first step.

For complex legal matters and other matters such as cutting property taxes, many professionals are often willing to work on a contingency basis.

In other words, if they succeed, they receive a percentage of the proceeds – or savings – usually between 25 percent and 40 percent. If they fail, they may receive only out-of-pocket expenses.

For those who anticipate a lot of routine questions or services on an on-going basis, one option is a monthly fee that entitles you to all the routine advice needed. Additional billing, if necessary, is usually done at a reduced hourly or project rate.

Some attorneys and other professionals may suggest a flat fee for certain routine matters or a project, eliminating the uncertainty of the final cost. But all these billing practices must be spelled out in the engagement letter.

Before committing to any billing practice it might be a good time to attempt negotiating not only fees, but a prompt pay discount. Even a five percent discount on professional fees can produce substantial savings. It is also a good idea to ask for an estimate of the cost of every matter, greatly aiding in the decision whether to pursue matters.

If more than one professional in a firm is to render services, the hourly rate for each should be spelled out. The agreement should also spell out which, if any, expenses the professional will be reimbursed for.

The professional services marketplace is a buyers’ market these days, so now is a great time to shop for a qualified and affordable professional. You are not looking for the one promising the lowest bill but rather a professional or firm that can best guide you and your snow removal and ice management business through these turbulent times.

In fact, if your current professional’s philosophy and style is not compatible with your own, maybe a change might now be in order.

Mark E. Battersby is a financial writer based out of Ardmore, Pa., and a frequent Snow Magazine contributor.

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