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Money for Something: Getting your money’s worth from a professional service firm

“As a business owner you really need to be able to figure out what you have time for and what you have money for”

Jun 4, 2014

by Alberta Venture Staff

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There are plenty of­ resou­rces that allow you to ­access professional services for little to no money. But as David Bayda, a service point co-ordinator for the Business Link, points out, hiring a professional is often a worthwhile investment.

“As a business owner you really need to be able to figure out what you have time for and what you have money for,” says Bayda. “You could go on to the Canada Revenue Agency website and read through their hundreds of pages on payroll. That will take you hours and it’s free. On the flip side, you could go talk directly to an accountant, who will be able to do it for you.”

When it comes to hiring professionals, it’s often a classic case of time versus money. But once you decide to hire a professional service firm, how can you determine that you’re getting your money’s worth? We spoke to the experts to find out.

Management Consultant

The Service
Although management consultants have a wide range of skill sets and expertise ­– ­­from marketing to human resource to technology – their main role is to help businesses solve problems.

“Management consultants are often engaged by a client who is a little stuck. They don’t know what they need to do next; they don’t have enough muscle to move through to the next phase,” says Mike Watson, president of Certified Management ­Consultants of Alberta. He likens management consultants to professional coaches. “We’re getting down to the root cause of problems.”

The Cost
Management consultants typically charge hourly, based on time and materials. Expect to pay a minimum of $100 per hour for an independent management consultant’s services. For larger firms, this rate can be as high as $600 per hour. “It depends on the prestige and the expertise of the firm,” says Watson.

ROI
“If you get the impression that the consultant is just there for the money, get a new consultant,” says Watson. “They shouldn’t be grabbing every dollar on the table.” Deliverables should be built into a contract, with a clause indicating a maximum billing amount. And once those deliverables are established, weekly check-ins between the consultant and the business should take place.

“The client has to manage the consultant. It’s like a dance,” says Watson. “The dance is about making sure that what the consultant delivers to the client is truly what they want. They shouldn’t finish until the client is fully happy.”

Questions to Ask
Who did they do this sort of work for last? What was the outcome? What are some of the challenges that will be encountered? Who else will be involved? Who is actually going to be doing this work?

Accountants

The Service
Accountants offer standard compliance work, such as preparing tax returns or financial statements. But beyond basic bookkeeping, they’re also an invaluable resource for small businesses. Most offer on-call value-added work, such as determining how to best structure your business. “That where’s we become someone’s trusted business advisor,” says Barth Bradley, a Chartered Accountant and a council member at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Alberta.

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The Cost
Hourly rates vary according to the level of expertise and experience. For a basic corporate tax return and financial statement, expect to pay around $1,500. However, notes Barth, “If it’s a mess, it’s more expensive.” An accountant will be able to provide a quote upfront after an initial consultation, dependent on the ­complexity of your business.

ROI
If you’re looking for a basic tax return, you’ll get what you pay for. But if you’re willing to invest a little more, an accountant can also help you save money long term.

“If a person’s goal is to pay as little as possible [for accountancy services], then you’re not really asking the accountant to think out of the box,” Barth says. Instead, he advises business owners to ask what they might be doing differently and if there are opportunities they are unaware of. “That will be more expensive, but that might be some of the most valuable advice you will ever get,” he says.

Questions to Ask
Do they have a college certificate or a professional designation? Do they work independently or as part of a firm? How large is the firm? Who in the firm
will actually be completing the work?

Public Relations

The Service
Business owners tend to think of “public relations consultants” as “media relations managers.” However, PR professionals do far more than write press releases. They also connect small- and medium-sized enterprises with events and networks to help further their business, and help with strategic planning and marketing.

“I think it’s an increasingly complicated environment in which to get your message out,” says Henry Stevens, the senior vice-president of National Public Relations and a member of the Canadian Public Relations Society. “A lot of time can be spent running down the wrong path.”

The Cost
Most PR consultants or firms work on a per-project fee, which can vary greatly according to desired outcomes. Stevens advises approaching independent consultants or firms with a set budget.

ROI
The first step is to approach a PR firm with a clear sense of what you’d like to accomplish. “While organizations may think, ‘I need a news release,’ a better way to approach that is, ‘Here is my issue, here is my problem, here is my goal. How can I get there?’ ” he advises. “The better the information, the better the consultant can respond with sound counsel in terms of how they’ll measure success.”

Typically, PR representatives will establish benchmarks based on where a story appeared, if the key information was profiled in any coverage or how much social media buzz it generated. For events, expect a report on the number of people who attended, as well as if the “right” people attended.

Questions to Ask
To make sure a PR firm is a match with you in terms of experience and contacts, be sure to ask for referrals from similar businesses. You can also ask the PR firm for examples of past work. And if they don’t have a set of networks relevant to your business, a good PR professional will also connect you with a firm that does.

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