Are tax and accounting practitioners ready for new pricing models?


The tax and accounting profession has long talked about evolving to subscription services and pricing. Some have made the leap. Others are still trying to hammer out the details — and the potential benefits.

This model requires that firms base pricing on the right clients buying into the kind of access to varied services that subscription models bring, and for a transformation of their business beyond short-term results.

“We have a few clients with this arrangement informally and we’re looking to formalize it over the next year where we bill clients monthly based on a level of service: bronze, silver, gold,” said Dottie Leonardi, COO at Drucker & Scaccetti in Philadelphia. “We believe it will help our clients with not only their cash flow projections — no surprise invoices from us — but help manage their businesses.”

“I’ve thought about this for some time and tried to come to a conclusion on having an ongoing model, but haven’t been able to get much traction with the sample clients I’ve breached the conversation [with],” said Chris Hardy, an Enrolled Agent and managing director at Georgia-based Paramount Tax and Accounting.

“For those that are ongoing accounting clients, it basically is a subscription or monthly package pricing,” Hardy added. “For the annual tax return, we still haven’t been able to get there.”

Shaving and socks

This pricing model is familiar in other industries.

“Streaming services, shaving supplies, cars, vegan meals, beauty products, and socks can be acquired via subscription — so why not accounting services?” is the question posed by Ron Baker, founder of the VeraSage Institute and long-time proponent of professional service firms transitioning from billing-by-the-hour to value-based pricing, as cited in a recent Thomson Reuters interview.

Industry guru Gary Boomer of Boomer Consulting has called subscription pricing “an improved strategy to match value with scope, wants and needs.” Others have called it the path to advisory or consulting services that clients need (though they may not know their accountant or tax preparer can deliver those services).

Leonardi said Drucker & Scaccetti’s goal is to assist clients in real time with advisory services, “instead of cleaning things up after the fact at year end.”

“We also believe more of our clients need this service,” Leonardi added. “Our clients are often focused on sustaining and growing their businesses and don’t have internal resources to focus on the necessary recordkeeping and benchmarking that could positively influence their decision-making.”

In a subscription model, clients choose from a menu of services, including transactional, compliance, advisory and consulting, Boomer recently wrote.

Timing might matter, though. “We’re unlikely to move to subscription-based services,” said Ann Etter, a CPA and partner at Goodney & Associates, in Northfield, Minnesota, which currently uses a flat-fee model on payroll and certain bookkeeping engagements. “It doesn’t fit our current business model — and there’s been enough transition in the tax world over the past three years … that we don’t want to add to the stress by changing our business model.”

Variations

Some firms don’t believe any single model is perfect.

“We are a wealth management firm that has tax planning as part of our service package. We’re a fee-only firm — no annuities, life insurance, loaded mutual funds and so on — and our clients are the only ones that pay us. Over the years, we’ve discussed other methods of billing like hourly financial planning or a retainer model. Both of those models have, in my opinion, serious faults with them,” said Bruce Primeau, a CPA and president of Summit Wealth Advocates in Prior Lake, Minnesota.

For hourly billing, for instance, Primeau is concerned that clients won’t call, as they don’t want to be billed for asking a question. “Either that,” he said, “or they call and say, ‘I have a quick question for you,’ which is code for, ‘I don’t want you to bill me for this.’”

With a retainer, meanwhile, the firm has to track its time and then renegotiate its fee each year with the clients who use more time than anticipated. “If you planned on spending 10 hours in 2021 on Client A but really spent 20, then you have to negotiate a larger retainer price for 2022,” Primeau said. “You’re always chasing compensation for too much time spent on certain clients.”

Other firms have embraced versions of this model.

EA John Dundon, president of Taxpayer Advocacy Services in Englewood, Colorado, said that his firm offers pricing for bundled services. “We also customize our bundled services for our small-business owners with gross receipts up to $25 million,” he added.

Services that Dundon’s firm offers as part of bundled packages include administrative duties, payroll compliance, bookkeeping, forensic accounting, periodic state reporting and tax prep of all kinds (business income, employment, sales, occupational privilege, excise, personal income, trust, gift, estate and so on). Some business clients also qualify for certain representation services.

Generally comprehensive subscription services start at $500 a month, Dundon said, and increase based on several factors: the number of transactions requiring categorization; the number of accounts requiring reconciliation; the number of employees and employee turnover; and inventory management needs, among other factors.





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