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The CPA's Top Work-at-Home Tips

How a solo CPA finds success and happiness working from home.

December 18, 2008
by Rick Telberg/On Careers

With past recessions as a guide, it's easy to predict that more CPAs will be working harder and longer in 2009. And many of those work-hours will be spent at home or on the go.

Whether you're climbing the corporate ladder or launching your own practice (or both), you'll need to know how people succeed at it.

So it's worth checking in with veteran soloist, Harry C. Ballman, MBA, CPA/PFS. Ballman has been soloing since leaving the Big Eight in 1978. Ballman is a past president of the Washington, D.C., CPA society and currently an elected member of the governing AICPA Council.

Here are Ballman's suggestions for going it alone:

Problem 1: Isolation from peers.

Solution: Get active.

Ballman recommends getting active with AICPA and your local CPA society. You can access many practitioners in large, middle and solo firms through these associations. Volunteer for committee work and move into governance as soon as possible.

"It's rewarding and fun and fills the missing gap that was provided by others when in the firm environment," Ballman says. "I find many ideas and support from these relationships. In fact many working associations have been established that help me collaborate and consult when client and management matters need assistance. And, cross-client recommendations have been very valuable."

Problem 2: Meeting clients in a professional setting.

Solution 1: Get a room.

Find a good hotel restaurant in your area and talk with the manager about your needs for privacy and expected frequency of need. They want and need your business and introduction of your clients to their facilities and may work trade-offs with great tables and service. "My potential and recurring clients are quite impressed when I'm warmly greeted by the staff in an upscale environment," Ballman says. Everyone enjoys a good meal, and many clients tend to return on their own later with their family and friends, which makes the restaurant manager very happy.

Solution 2: Join the club.

You could also join a luncheon club or use your country club if available for these meetings. Again, having the potential or recurring client "feel special" that you take the time and pick up the check for these meetings is always a winning strategy. "A few tax deductible bucks — I know only 50 percent — go a long way in maintaining and establishing long-term relationships," Ballman says.

Solution 3: Make house calls.

A third option is to meet at your client's home or office. "Strange though it seems," Ballman says, "my clients and leads are pleased for me to make ‘house calls.' And, I get a good sense of their lifestyle when meeting in their offices and homes." With the spouse and children around, the CPA can get a better feel for the client's likes and dislikes. Ballman calls it the CPA version of "Avon calling." It shows "you care enough to conserve their time by going to their office or home, saving them time and effort."

Solution 4: Use a borrowed or part-time office.

Use part-time executive office space or make a deal with a local law firm or another accountant to use their space on an as-needed basis. "I have done all of these to my benefit," Ballman says. "And have never had a client ‘pirated' by using another accounting firm's facilities. In fact, it has helped me recommend clients to them and vice versa and to form joint client-service associations when appropriate — say, I do the tax work and they perform the audit and consulting."

Problem 3: Lack of administrative support.

Solution 1: Don't be shy.

Ballman uses other firms' staff on an as-needed basis at a discounted rate. College accounting students are thankful and great and inexpensive for doing clerical work for experience. Fed Ex Kinko's has bailed him out more than once with copying, scanning, production and shipping services. "I have also used other semi-retired accountants who are happy to have the work doing some data input in their homes for a set fee."

Problem 4: Time management.

Solution 1: Keep regular hours.

Ballman tends to be in his home office by around 7 a.m. each day, but he takes a regular lunch hour and ends each day around 4:30 p.m. "It takes some discipline, but I keep regular office hours and am sure to ‘close the office' in my mind when leaving the home office each day." He turns off his BlackBerry, let's the phone take the messages and doesn't touch e-mail until the next day.

Solution 2: Remember to work to live, not to live to work.

Ballman wants you to "enjoy your practice and your clients. Keep the good ones and don't be afraid to dump that 20 percent that causes 80 percent of the stress and problems." You can be sure that there are more potential clients who do, indeed, want to cooperate on a timely basis, pay in a timely manner and respect your professional counsel and services.

But perhaps, more than anything else, Ballman says solo practitioners need to accept the fact that it may be humanly impossible to bill and collect more than 1,000 to 1,200 hours per year "and maintain any sense of sanity."

"We need our down time, time to prospect, CPE and vacations," says Ballman. "So set your hourly-fee rate accordingly to support your expected life-style and economic needs."

WHAT'S YOUR WORK-AT-HOME STORY? Send your tips, comments, questions and ideas to Rick Telberg.

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