A New Perspective on Client Service:
How optimism and remote technologies paved the way to one firm's success. The accounting profession has often been stereotyped as curmudgeonly, grumpy, stodgy, and fiscally dour, and, well … there were probably good reasons for those descriptions at one time.
Oct. 10, 2011
How optimism and remote technologies paved the way to one firm’s success
The accounting profession has often been stereotyped as curmudgeonly, grumpy, stodgy, and fiscally dour, and, well … there were probably good reasons for those descriptions at one time. After all, in decades past, accounting was a serious business that was the domain of financially conservative number crunchers who worked 60-hour weeks in a consistent suit-and-tie wardrobe.
Cathy Iconis, a Georgia CPA, is part of a new generation of professionals who aren’t necessarily trying to change the way accountants are perceived, but her perspective on client service and an optimist’s attitude just might have that effect.
Following several years at a large regional accounting practice, where she worked in tax, audit and forensic accounting, Cathy handled executive reporting and managerial accounting for Balfour Beatty, an international construction firm (www.balfourbeattyus.com) and one of the top five commercial construction enterprises in the country.
This broad experience across most areas of the profession instilled in her the ability and confidence to go out on her own two and a half years ago. It also let her know what she did and didn’t like. And as the principle of the Iconis Group, LLC (www.IconisGroup.com), she has been able to build her practice around the services and types of clients she enjoys.
Based in Atlanta, the firm focuses on providing part-time CFO services, bookkeeping and training to small businesses. “I don’t do taxes; not even my own,” she notes with a tone that sounds like a combination of pride and relief. For compliance needs, she refers clients to a non-competitive local firm and works with them to provide accurate data. Ensuring accurate and reliable client financials has become the central component of her practice.
“I really enjoy working with regular small business owners — people who aren’t financial experts themselves,” Cathy said. “For businesses that can’t afford full-time, in-house accounting staff or a CFO, having help with processes and systems that can make them more efficient and fiscally responsible can be a great help. I really feel like I become a part of their team, helping them see the big picture and implement changes that can have immediate and long-term implications.”
Her clients are primarily design firms, other professional service providers and consulting companies, with revenues up to $10 million. In this range, some do have internal accounting staff, but partner with Iconis Group to relieve some of the workload and gain more professional insight into their finances.
Although still a small firm, Iconis Group has grown fast since she started it from a home office in 2009. Since then, Cathy has moved to a professional office suite. She supplemented her own capacity by originally using college interns, before more recently adding Jenny Githens as the firm’s business manager and Jody Matlock Lappi, CPA as a senior accountant.
Remote access technologies are a central component of the firm’s workflow and services, with Jody living and working from an office in Mississippi, and remote clients as far away as Arizona. All clients are guided in their use of an online accounting program that Cathy and her staff can access to perform various services, including managing AP processes and reconciliations.
“Since we don’t compete with larger and more traditional accounting firms, and their services don’t compete with us, we view them as complementary,” Cathy explains. “We have a day-to-day operational and managerial relationship with our clients. We help ensure that they are prepared when it comes time to plan or prepare their income taxes. We help our clients understand what their numbers mean and develop better business strategies, which, in turn, gives the traditional firms a better platform for developing tax reduction strategies.”
As a new firm with a younger client base, Iconis Group takes advantage of technology to communicate with clients, typically by email, but also via SMS texting and instant messaging. She also uses Google Apps and notes that she’s in the process of improving her project and time management capabilities. She successfully used LinkedIn and Twitter to grow her firm in its early days, gaining like-minded technology and social media savvy clients. As a result of its technology usage and workflow processes, Iconis Group received a score of 172 on the Productivity Survey (www.CPAPracticeAdvisor.com/productivity), a free online assessment tool for professional tax and accounting firms. Iconis Group uses a pay first, value pricing model. Cathy says, “I really hated tracking my hours at other firms, and fixed pricing provides more consistent cash flow planning for both our clients and our practice.”
She has always been somewhat of a “tech guru and Excel Queen,” and one of her greatest values to clients and her former employers has been her ability to quickly understand new technologies and integrate them in ways that make processes work better. As an example, she was commended by the construction firm for creating new templates for revenue projections that reduced the time required to process them from nearly a week to one day. She has also been involved with web development, and recently authored an article about the difference between tax-focused CPAs and what her firm does.
Since she doesn’t do income taxes, she doesn’t have a busy season … but does have higher workloads with mid-month write-ups, reconciliations and sales and use tax preparation. Her remote technologies allow her to work from virtually anywhere, whether at a client’s office, from home or from the firm’s office, where she says she spends less than 40 hours most weeks.
Her husband Mike, the COO of a transcription company, also enjoys a somewhat flexible schedule, which allows them both to spend time with their three year-old daughter, Isabell. A graduate of Oglethorpe University (www.oglethorpe.edu), Cathy has lived in Atlanta most of her life and is active with the Georgia Society of CPAs (www.gscpa.org) College Outreach Taskforce, which encourages area accounting students to become involved in the profession. She also served as the chair of the group’s College2Career conference and as a member of the GSCPA’s Southeastern Accounting Show Task Force.
Cathy Iconis, CPA
CEO, Iconis Group, LLC
Productivity Score: 172
Practice Specialties: Virtual CFO, Bookkeeping, Training, Consulting
Education: Oglethorpe University, Atlanta
Professional Associations: AICPA, Georgia Society of CPAs
Most Recent Book Read: “Safe Haven,” by Nicholas Sparks
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