Matthew LaWell

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Strike up the brand

During the course of the last year, executives at a large company in one Midwestern city scheduled an event to thank their present clients for remaining with them through the recession and to reach out to potential clients in an effort to prepare for growth. They rented a hall in a beautiful building for the morning, hired a speaker with a prominent name and attracted a crowd of about 2,500 people.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps, you have even scheduled a similar event.

But as the event neared, the executives realized that they had a large problem. They had scheduled the event during the middle of the week, and with hundreds of thousands of other people already in the city, there was no parking anywhere near the building. So they scratched their heads. They worried. They wondered how they could have overlooked such a simple detail. They wondered how they might solve the problem. And only then did they call an event management firm.

When the recession started to rock the financial world in 2008, internal event management personnel were among the first to be laid off. Many then planted roots with independent firms or started firms of their own. Less than two years later, a December 2009 feature in U.S. News & World Report posited that a position as an event manager or event planner ranked among the 50 best jobs for 2010. The industry has transitioned and is positioned to grow a projected 16 percent between now and 2018.

That might be good news for you and your business, because the odds are high that, at some point, you will want to hold some sort of event, and unless you have an event manager on staff, you might find yourself in a situation every bit as sticky as those Midwest executives with thousands of guests and no parking spaces.

“When you’re spending that amount of money in this day and age, the message and the environment you create is critical to the overall success of your event,” says Tom Kann, president, Integrated Event Management. “That’s why you want to hire a production company.”

Plan in advance

Event managers are more than just party planners. In fact, those words are like nails on a chalkboard to many in the industry. Event managers aim to feature your message and work with you to help you reach your goals for each event. They are able to save you significant amounts of money and time, measure the returns on your investment, and, of course, coordinate an event that will be effective and leave your employees and clients talking.

“A lot of it is really thinking out of the box,” Kann says. “You sit down with a client, and they say, ‘Tom, we did this last year, but we can’t do it this year. Come up with some new ideas on how we can present our ideas to our membership or to our employees.’”

Just look at those Midwest executives, for example. During the 24 hours after they called the event management firm, the firm started to contact all guests to relay the parking situation, then paid parking lot fees to ensure there would be available spaces somewhere within the city limits, hired buses and created a route to the building. All of that would have taken weeks if an internal employee with little event management experience had handled the task. It took the firm a couple of days. On the morning of the event, those thousands of guests parked at remote lots and were shuttled a couple of miles on city roads. It was hardly ideal, but it worked.

It also cost the company an extra $20,000.

“Meeting planning is very time-consuming,” says Marsha S. Reynolds, president and owner, Reynolds Meeting & Event Management. “You have to plan months and years in advance, and people who don’t have departments that do that are taking away valuable time and resources to do things like this. Instead of using internal resources, this is helping them by having an outside person handle this.”

Many firms also have considerable influence at hotels and venues and with vendors. Because they direct so much business and so many sales to those outlets, event management firms often receive a discount somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, which they normally pass along directly to you. Their knowledge of your city — and the state, nation and world, for that matter — allows them to track down the lowest prices in a matter of hours or minutes, as opposed to days or weeks.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I pretty much know every hotel in the United States — and many outside the United States, too,” Reynolds says. “If somebody tells me what they need, I can immediately come up with ideas.”

There are four primary reasons to work with an event management firm. First, you will save a little more money in the end, even if you spend a little more at the beginning. Second, many businesses no longer have the internal resources necessary to handle events. Third, companies often need fresh ideas for old events, and an objective pair of eyes can provide those new thoughts. And fourth, it does simplify your work.

Open your doors

Just as with any business partner who provides value-added services — your attorney, your accountant, your banker — you need to develop a relationship with your event management firm. It is not enough to call once and spend a couple of minutes determining when and where you should hold the annual sales meeting.

The more your firm knows about you and your business, the more it will be able to implement continuity in your events from one year to the next. The firm will also be able to understand how each event fits into the larger scope and culture of your business and be able to remain on budget throughout the year.

“What many smart event management companies in our position do is to really embed ourselves in the businesses of our clients,” says Nan Lyons, vice president of sales and marketing, Nth Degree. “We look at the event side but also at what their objectives are, what their business goals are, and really understand that.”

They can help keep you up to date on newer technology, too. Online event registration has proved popular during recent years because of low costs and the relative ease with which event attendees can sign up. Virtual events are also popular, especially now that travel budgets are reduced and fewer people are flying extensively. And social media is gaining momentum. Event management and social media work hand in hand. Whether promoting an event or a product launch, many event managers embrace the technology because of its ability to all but eliminate marketing costs while also reaching a far wider potential audience.

“Social media is just a better, faster, cheaper version of word-of-mouth,” Lyons says. “But how is that Twitter post better? Who owns that dialogue? How do you manage it? We definitely have that full integration.”

The world is smaller. Your events might be, too, but keep holding them. Maintain your public image. The business world, after all, might not be a party right now, but it is an event not to be missed.

Wednesday, 06 January 2010 19:00

The next big ring

Shortly after the opening credits of the film Tomorrow Never Dies, James Bond received a cell phone from the Q Branch of the British Secret Service. The phone was able to transmit incoming and outgoing calls, of course, but it also was able to scan, analyze and transmit fingerprints. And pick locks with a stylized antenna. And fire away as a stun gun.

Not bad for 1997.

A little more than 13 years later, there is nothing that lethal anywhere in the world of telecommunications. There are, however, plenty of developments, especially regarding Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, that might make you feel a little bit like 007. And cut a chunk of money from your monthly expenses.

Developed in earnest during the first Internet boom of the early 1990s, VoIP utilizes the Internet to make inexpensive, if not free, phone calls to just about any number around the world. All you need is a computer, broadband Internet access and a voice on the other end of the digital line. For years, media and industry experts trumpeted VoIP as the next big thing, but the Internet capabilities lagged behind the technology, leading to garbled conversations and snowfalls of static.

With the rise of faster and more efficient Internet access during much of the last decade, VoIP increased in scope and performance. Dartmouth University installed a network across its campus in 2003. Oprah stumped for a popular VoIP service last year. Even the government is starting to take advantage of the new technology, with the Social Security Administration in the process of converting to a VoIP network at its more than 1,500 field offices.

All of that means VoIP is not the next big thing. It is the now big thing.

“The entire industry has gone beyond the experimentation phase,” says Tom LoFrisco, executive director of business product management, AT&T. “Carriers, manufacturers, everyone is headed in the direction where they will be able to supply Voice over IP.

“It’s decided. It’s a business standard.”



Make technology work for you

Just what makes VoIP so special is what it is able to do for you, for your business, for telecommunications as you know it.

There are the audio and video calls, yes, available for either nothing or next to nothing on a number of popular Web sites. But if you choose to rely on those sites and the public Internet to run your business, industry experts say, you will leave yourself susceptible to many of the problems common to insecure data networks, including hackers, spyware, malware and any number of viruses.

A better option might be to install a VoIP network through a larger carrier, to ensure that your voice and data will be secure. The cost to install a new network is high – normally between $20,000 and $30,000 for businesses with 50 or so lines, though quotes and actual costs vary from case to case – but the savings can add up thanks to the 20 to 30 percent most industry experts say you can save on your monthly bill. And besides, you will have plenty more tools, the kinds once thought limited to secret agents, to enhance how you do business.

“There are just a slew of new features that existing networks don’t have,” LoFrisco says. “There’s Find Me Follow Me, where calls can ring your different assigned handsets simultaneously. There’s integration with other voice applications. And the key is that most of those features can be provisioned and managed at the user level.”

Many of the features provided by larger carriers have been available for more than a decade, but at a far higher price. As recently as a couple of years ago, only Fortune 500 companies and the like were able to afford IP features, including unified messaging, where your voice mails are converted to text and arrive seamlessly with your e-mails, and secure access to the company network for employees working anywhere in the world.

“For me, personally, the biggest benefit is probably unified communications, where I have access to my e-mail and voicemail wherever I am, whether it’s on my phone, on my Blackberry, on my PC, I’m always connected,” says Tim Hinson, vice president of Cox Business, Orange County. “The unified communications, and the speed of the unified communications as compare to what it was when it initially came out, is probably the biggest time saver for me and the biggest tool that I use. I think companies have benefited from everybody’s improved productivity.”

Your employees can even work from home with the same equipment, technology and access available to them at the office. Just hand them a VoIP phone, tell them to take it home and plug it in, and they will be able to work, and sound, as if they are at their desk. This feature is ideal for call centers and companies that offer 24-hour service because it opens the door to hire remote workers across the nation and around the world. It will also benefit employers who might want to decrease the size of their office and the amount of their rent but maintain the size of their workforce, or smaller companies that want to appear bigger to customers.

“VoIP phones are able to take advantage of a lot of newer features that were either not available or were very expensive in a TDM phone environment,” Hinson says.




Think about the future

Though VoIP networks might smack initially of some sort of futuristic technology that will be difficult to install and more difficult to understand, it will likely be an easier transition than rotary to touchtone or analog to digital. You might not even need to install new phones or schedule much time, if any, to train employees how to maximize the new features.

“Nothing’s ever simple, but the way the process works is, when you come aboard, there is some level of knowledge you need to have in order to learn, and you need to be willing to learn,” says Rich Klepacz, senior product manager for core voice and broadband services, Cbeyond. “For the most part, it is fairly simple. Once it’s turned on, it’s almost a matter of plug and play.”

If you can figure out how to use your remote control to flip channels, record your favorite shows and insert a DVD with the push of three buttons, you will probably be able to figure out a few additional features on your phone, especially if they help you run your business more efficiently.

Of course, a VoIP network might not be necessary for all businesses. If you have only one office and a handful of employees who never work in the field, if you receive far more calls than you send, or if you want to install the newest technology just to say that you have it, you probably have little need for VoIP. But if you have offices in multiple cities, even multiple states, to tie together with one network, or if you have any employees out in the field, a VoIP network might be a sound investment.

“Over the years, I’ve seen that the small business owner is becoming a lot more technically savvy,” Klepacz says. “They really are becoming smarter users.”

Saturday, 26 December 2009 19:00

The next big ring

Shortly after the opening credits of the film “Tomorrow Never Dies,” James Bond received a cell phone from the Q Branch of the British Secret Service. The phone was able to transmit incoming and outgoing calls, of course, but it was also able to scan, analyze and transmit fingerprints, and pick locks with a stylized antenna. And it could also fire away as a stun gun.

Not bad for 1997.

A little less than 13 years later, there is nothing that lethal anywhere in the world of telecommunications. There are, however, plenty of developments, especially regarding Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, that might make you feel a little bit like 007. And cut a chunk of money from your monthly expenses.

Developed in earnest during the first Internet boom of the early 1990s, VoIP utilizes the Internet to make inexpensive, if not free, phone calls to just about any number around the world. All you need is a computer, broadband Internet access and a voice on the other end of the digital line. For years, media and industry experts trumpeted VoIP as the next big thing, but the Internet capabilities lagged behind the technology, leading to garbled conversations and snowfalls of static.

With the rise of faster and more efficient Internet access during much of the last decade, VoIP increased in scope and performance. Dartmouth University installed a network across its campus in 2003. Oprah stumped for a popular VoIP service last year. Even the government is starting to take advantage of the new technology, with the Social Security Administration in the process of converting to a VoIP network at its more than 1,500 field offices.

All of that combined means that VoIP is not the next big thing. It is the now big thing.

“The entire industry has gone beyond the experimentation phase,” says Tom LoFrisco, executive director of business product management, AT&T. “Carriers, manufacturers, everyone is headed in the direction where they will be able to supply Voice over IP.

“It’s decided. It’s a business standard.”

Make technology work for you

What makes VoIP so special is what it is able to do for you, for your business, for telecommunications as you know it.

There are the audio and video calls, which are available for either nothing or next to nothing on a number of popular Web sites. But if you choose to rely on those sites and the public Internet to run your business, industry experts say that you will leave yourself susceptible to many of the problems common to insecure data networks, including hackers, spyware, malware and any number of viruses.

A better option might be to install a VoIP network through a larger carrier to ensure that your voice and data will be secure. The cost to install a new network is high — normally between $20,000 and $30,000 for businesses with 50 or so lines, though quotes and actual costs vary case by case — but the savings can add up thanks to the 20 to 30 percent that most industry experts say you can save on your monthly bill. And besides, you will have plenty more tools, the kinds once thought limited to secret agents, to enhance how you do business.

“There are just a slew of new features that existing networks don’t have,” LoFrisco says. “There’s ‘Find Me Follow Me,’ where calls can ring your different assigned handsets simultaneously. There’s integration with other voice applications. And the key is that most of those features can be provisioned and managed at the user level.”

Many of the features provided by larger carriers have been available for more than a decade but at a far higher price. As recently as a couple of years ago, only Fortune 500 companies and the like were able to afford IP features, including unified messaging, where your voice mails are converted to text and arrive seamlessly with your e-mails, and secure access to the company network for employees working anywhere in the world.

“I have an application that runs on my computer that, wherever I am in the world, as long as I have broadband Internet, everybody else in the corporation can see where I am — if I’m working remotely in Washington, D.C., if I’m in a meeting in Albany or Dallas — and then I’m available to communicate in multiple ways with my colleagues,” says Stephen Brown, vice president of U.S. Systems Engineering, Mitel. “They can instant message me across the network, they can click to call me, which will route the call to the soft phone on my computer or a desk phone where I’ve logged in.

“It really reduces a lot of the complexities from a communications perspective.”

Your employees can even work from home with the same equipment, technology and access available to them at the office. Just hand them a VoIP phone, tell them to take it home and plug it in, and they will be able to work and sound as if they are at their desk. This feature is ideal for call centers and companies that offer 24-hour service because it opens the door to hire remote workers across the nation and around the world. It will also benefit employers who might want to decrease the size of their office and the amount of their rent but maintain the size of their work force or smaller companies that want to appear bigger to customers.

Think about the future

Though VoIP networks might initially seem like some sort of futuristic technology that will be difficult to install and more difficult to understand, it will likely be an easier transition than rotary to touch-tone or analog to digital. You might not even need to install new phones or schedule much time, if any, to train employees how to maximize use of the new features.

“It’s a matter of just working in concert as the installation is happening, transferring knowledge over on how those systems work, how the quality of service is deployed,” Brown says. “It really depends on the customer. They can take on as much or as little of that training as they want.”

If you can figure out how to use your remote control to flip channels, record your favorite shows and insert a DVD with the push of three buttons, you will probably be able to figure out a few additional features on your phone, especially if they help you run your business more efficiently.

Of course, a VoIP network might not be necessary for all businesses. If you have only one office and a handful of employees who never work in the field, if you receive far more calls than you send or if you want to install the newest technology just to say that you have it, you probably have little need for VoIP. But if you have offices in multiple cities, even multiple states, to tie together with one network or if you have any employees out in the field, a VoIP network might be a sound investment.

“Everybody wants to have a phone at home now, or they want to be on the road and be able to plug in and be connected,” says Dennis Parker, vice president, Unique Communications. “We’re getting a lot more requests right now.

“Everybody is going to go to VoIP, one way or another. These systems that are coming out now are all geared for VoIP.”

Saturday, 26 December 2009 19:00

The next big ring

Shortly after the opening credits of the film “Tomorrow Never Dies,” James Bond received a cell phone from the Q Branch of the British Secret Service. The phone was able to transmit incoming and outgoing calls, of course, but it was also able to scan, analyze and transmit fingerprints, and pick locks with a stylized antenna. And it could also fire away as a stun gun.

Not bad for 1997.

A little less than 13 years later, there is nothing that lethal anywhere in the world of telecommunications. There are, however, plenty of developments, especially regarding Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, that might make you feel a little bit like 007. And cut a chunk of money from your monthly expenses.

Developed in earnest during the first Internet boom of the early 1990s, VoIP utilizes the Internet to make inexpensive, if not free, phone calls to just about any number around the world. All you need is a computer, broadband Internet access and a voice on the other end of the digital line. For years, media and industry experts trumpeted VoIP as the next big thing, but the Internet capabilities lagged behind the technology, leading to garbled conversations and snowfalls of static.

With the rise of faster and more efficient Internet access during much of the last decade, VoIP increased in scope and performance. Dartmouth University installed a network across its campus in 2003. Oprah stumped for a popular VoIP service last year. Even the government is starting to take advantage of the new technology, with the Social Security Administration in the process of converting to a VoIP network at its more than 1,500 field offices.

All of that combined means that VoIP is not the next big thing. It is the now big thing.

“The entire industry has gone beyond the experimentation phase,” says Tom LoFrisco, executive director of business product management, AT&T. “Carriers, manufacturers, everyone is headed in the direction where they will be able to supply Voice over IP.

“It’s decided. It’s a business standard.”

Make technology work for you

What makes VoIP so special is what it is able to do for you, for your business, for telecommunications as you know it.

There are the audio and video calls, which are available for either nothing or next to nothing on a number of popular Web sites. But if you choose to rely on those sites and the public Internet to run your business, industry experts say that you will leave yourself susceptible to many of the problems common to insecure data networks, including hackers, spyware, malware and any number of viruses.

A better option might be to install a VoIP network through a larger carrier to ensure that your voice and data will be secure. The cost to install a new network is high — normally between $20,000 and $30,000 for businesses with 50 or so lines, though quotes and actual costs vary case by case — but the savings can add up thanks to the 20 to 30 percent that most industry experts say you can save on your monthly bill. And besides, you will have plenty more tools, the kinds once thought limited to secret agents, to enhance how you do business.

“There are just a slew of new features that existing networks don’t have,” LoFrisco says. “There’s ‘Find Me Follow Me,’ where calls can ring your different assigned handsets simultaneously. There’s integration with other voice applications. And the key is that most of those features can be provisioned and managed at the user level.”

Many of the features provided by larger carriers have been available for more than a decade but at a far higher price. As recently as a couple of years ago, only Fortune 500 companies and the like were able to afford IP features, including unified messaging, where your voice mails are converted to text and arrive seamlessly with your e-mails, and secure access to the company network for employees working anywhere in the world.

“I have an application that runs on my computer that, wherever I am in the world, as long as I have broadband Internet, everybody else in the corporation can see where I am — if I’m working remotely in Washington, D.C., if I’m in a meeting in Albany or Dallas — and then I’m available to communicate in multiple ways with my colleagues,” says Stephen Brown, vice president of U.S. Systems Engineering, Mitel. “They can instant message me across the network, they can click to call me, which will route the call to the soft phone on my computer or a desk phone where I’ve logged in.

“It really reduces a lot of the complexities from a communications perspective.”

Your employees can even work from home with the same equipment, technology and access available to them at the office. Just hand them a VoIP phone, tell them to take it home and plug it in, and they will be able to work and sound as if they are at their desk. This feature is ideal for call centers and companies that offer 24-hour service because it opens the door to hire remote workers across the nation and around the world. It will also benefit employers who might want to decrease the size of their office and the amount of their rent but maintain the size of their work force or smaller companies that want to appear bigger to customers.

Think about the future

Though VoIP networks might initially seem like some sort of futuristic technology that will be difficult to install and more difficult to understand, it will likely be an easier transition than rotary to touch-tone or analog to digital. You might not even need to install new phones or schedule much time, if any, to train employees on how to maximize use of the new features.

“To use VoIP, yeah, there is some additional training, but people come up to speed very quickly, it’s pretty straightforward,” says David Montierth, president of commercial services, West Region, Time Warner Cable. “In the early days of switching telecom providers, the whole numbering process was a little challenging, but it’s pretty seamless today.”

If you can figure out how to use your remote control to flip channels, record your favorite shows and insert a DVD with the push of three buttons, you will probably be able to figure out a few additional features on your phone, especially if they help you run your business more efficiently.

Of course, a VoIP network might not be necessary for all businesses. If you have only one office and a handful of employees who never work in the field, if you receive far more calls than you send or if you want to install the newest technology just to say that you have it, you probably have little need for VoIP. But if you have offices in multiple cities, even multiple states, to tie together with one network or if you have any employees out in the field, a VoIP network might be a sound investment.

“The cost of voice is so low anymore,” Montierth says. “It’s unbelievable how far it’s come over the last 10 years. So, for my business, I want to make sure I have as clear a conversation as possible at the other end.”

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Dollars and sense

You might not think of your accountant as some sort of bean counter, better suited for the Dark Ages than for the Age of Information. Most folks, after all, recognized the error of that thought years ago.

You also might not think of that same accountant as a trusted business adviser. But you should.

Gone are the days when your accountant would just sit down with the company ledger and crunch numbers. An accountant is able to offer so much more now, especially in this economic state.

Need to evaluate your inventory turnover, to analyze what is selling, what is not and why? An accountant can do that.

What about an examination to make certain that all available credit lines are being used or that capital needs are being met? An accountant can do that, too.

And, of course, there are taxes, an area where there has been so much evolution that one industry expert says he estimates the number of allowable tax incentives and minimization techniques has more than doubled during the quarter of a century since he analyzed his first set of financial reports. Another expert says the number has more than tripled during that period. Whatever the actual amount of exponential growth, there is no doubt that accounting is more complicated, and more important, than ever.

“An accountant with a lot of experience can help the company take some of the best practices and apply them to their business,” says Joe Mazza, managing director of Los Angeles offices, RSM McGladrey. “An accountant can help a company prepare financial projections, assist the company with its banking relationships, look at the company’s costs and help them find ways to streamline costs.

“An accountant can just add value in so many different areas.”

Talk with your accountant

The key to bringing your accountant into your proverbial inner circle is communication. Nothing is more important, just ask an accountant.

“You cannot develop a relationship if all you’re doing is meeting with your accountants once a year when it’s time to prepare financial statements or file your tax return or put out a wild, raging fire, metaphorically speaking,” says AndrĂ© Schnabl, managing partner, Atlanta office, Grant Thornton LLP. “A meaningful relationship is built over time because trust is only built over time.”

Without some level of constant and consistent communication, your accountant cannot know the full spectrum of activity within your company and, in turn, might be unable to offer constructive criticism and potentially prosperous ideas and suggestions.

Many industry experts recommend you plan to get together with your accountant for at least three or four formal meetings per year, though multiple variables might swing that number higher or lower, including the size of your business, the challenges you are facing now and expect to face during the course of the next year, and the strengths and weaknesses of your internal financial team. Others recommend more casual meetings or phone calls in order to communicate on a regular basis.

Whether you meet around the boardroom table or over beers at your favorite bar, take advantage of that time to ask your accountant important questions, like how can you best utilize your accountant? What should you do internally? Externally? And what are your priorities for the next year?

A high level of communication with your accountant can also lead to you becoming more comfortable around each other. Your accountant should be familiar with the folks on your upper management team, and you should be familiar with the folks who play top roles for the firm.

“It’s key that the business owner, the CEO, the CFO, is not just in a relationship where the accountant is going through the motions, providing compliance services without giving any kind of feedback,” says John M. Yanak, managing partner, Grossman Yanak & Ford LLP, Pittsburgh. “The accountant should give feedback on things like what the company’s performance is like relative to their peers, what other companies are doing in this environment and what savings opportunities are available.”

Take advantage of financial opportunities

The reason so many accountants prefer to be so involved is because the more information they know about you and your company, the more areas they will be able to explore in order to save dollars and cents. And saving dollars makes sense.

“If CFOs or controllers are in constant contact with their CPAs or their firm, that really provides an avenue for the exchange of information and savings that can be generated,” Yanak says.

But the burden of trimming the budget lies not only with your accountant — you need to do your part, too. So be organized, be prepared, be proactive and be accessible.

Just consider the average audit. If your files are scattered around your office, stacked in piles that are toppling over, an audit performed by your accountant might last far longer than it should. In order to avoid a heftier bill, keep your internal financial team on a schedule to update your books regularly, perhaps even every day. Exorbitant costs for an audit — or even just a review or a compilation financial statement — are normally only incurred when you are not organized and prepared.

“Preparation is important, but planning is just as important,” Schnabl says. “Plan a series of discussions between client and auditor to have a full understanding as to how to build a plan that is efficient and taps into the client’s knowledge of the business and the auditor’s knowledge of auditing. Those conversations drive down the cost of auditing.”

If you are particularly strapped, you might even consider consulting with your accountant and other business advisers to consider altering the end of your fiscal year from the end of the calendar year to the end of another quarter. That would allow your accountant to work with you less during the peak months of January through April and more during the off months, when rates are far less expensive. And though such a shift is filled with internal and federal paperwork, the potential savings of such proactive measures can reach more than 20 to 30 percent.

There are even extreme situations where you might be able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you and your accountant are both accessible and open to conversation.

Several years ago, one industry expert was working with a client who had installed defective materials in a sewer and storm drain system, and the client lost thousands of dollars. Though the client was able to file a claim against the manufacturer, the expert was also able to find a case law that allowed for the property loss to carry back 10 years, a far longer retroactive period than the standard two or three years. The result? The client received $500,000 in large part because the expert had been involved in the situation from the start and because the two sides were accessible to each other.

“Accountants need to make themselves available for their clients,” Mazza says. “My wife used to say that there is no such thing as an accounting emergency, that you’re not a brain surgeon. But if there’s a transaction going on and there are millions of dollars at stake, where the client is concerned, it is just as important as brain surgery.”

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Dollars and sense

You might not think of your accountant as some sort of bean counter, better suited for the Dark Ages than for the Age of Information. Most folks, after all, recognized the error of that thought years ago.

You also might not think of that same accountant as a trusted business adviser. But you should.

Gone are the days when your accountant would just sit down with the company ledger and crunch numbers. An accountant is able to offer so much more now, especially in this economic state.

Need to evaluate your inventory turnover, to analyze what is selling, what is not and why? An accountant can do that.

What about an examination to make certain that all available credit lines are being used or that capital needs are being met? An accountant can do that, too.

And, of course, there are taxes, an area where there has been so much evolution that one industry expert says he estimates the number of allowable tax incentives and minimization techniques has more than doubled during the quarter of a century since he analyzed his first set of financial reports. Another expert says the number has more than tripled during that period. Whatever the actual amount of exponential growth, there is no doubt that accounting is more complicated, and more important, than ever.

“This is a very tough economic time,” says Rob Lucenti, managing partner of the Orange County offices, Deloitte. “Businesses are struggling for resources because they’re controlling costs and they have their eye on the bottom line now more than ever. When that happens, it puts a strain on resources. Companies can utilize their relationships with their accountants because that’s what we do. People are our business. People are our inventory, our biggest asset.”

Talk with your accountant

The key to bringing your accountant into your proverbial inner circle is communication. Nothing is more important, just ask an accountant.

“The stronger that relationship between the business and the accountant, the better both parties will be,” Lucenti says. “I always suggest that the more face-to-face time we can get with our clients, the better. It helps strengthen the relationship, it helps us to get to know the company and what they’re faced with better, and it helps the company to get to know us and our culture and how we work.”

Without some level of constant and consistent communication, your accountant cannot know the full spectrum of activity within your company and, in turn, might be unable to offer constructive criticism and potentially prosperous ideas and suggestions. The more communication between you and your accountant, the more opportunity and the higher the possibility you will receive a far more favorable result.

Many industry experts recommend you plan to get together with your accountant for at least three or four formal meetings per year, though multiple variables might swing that number higher or lower, including the size of your business, the challenges you are facing now and expect to face during the course of the next year, and the strengths and weaknesses of your internal financial team. Others recommend more casual meetings or phone calls in order to communicate on a regular basis.

Whether you meet around the boardroom table or over beers at your favorite bar, take advantage of that time to ask your accountant important questions, like how can you best utilize your accountant? What should you do internally? Externally? And what are your priorities for the next year?

A high level of communication with your accountant can also lead to you becoming more comfortable around each other. Your accountant should be familiar with many of the folks on your upper management team, and you should be familiar with many of the folks who play top roles for the firm.

“To function most effectively, a professional services provider must have a clear understanding of a company’s strategy, business imperatives and issues,” says John Belli, office managing partner, Ernst & Young LLP. “Executives should meet with their accountants as often as necessary, especially in these volatile times.”

Take advantage of financial opportunities

The reason so many accountants prefer to be so involved is because the more information they know about you and your company, the more areas they will be able to explore in order to save dollars and cents. And saving dollars makes sense.

“The more the accountant knows about the company, the more value they can add on important business issues,” Belli says.

But the burden of trimming the budget lies not only with your accountant — you need to do your part, too. So be organized, be prepared, be proactive and be accessible.

Just consider the average audit. If your files are scattered around your office, stacked in piles that are toppling over, an audit performed by your accountant might last far longer than it should. In order to avoid a heftier bill, keep your internal financial team on a schedule to update your books regularly, perhaps even every day. Exorbitant costs for an audit — or even just a review or a compilation financial statement — are normally only incurred when you are not organized and prepared.

“A comprehensive financial statement close process is very important,” Belli says. “Businesses should take the time to close their books properly and review their accounts for accuracy and integrity. The company’s executive team should meet with the auditor early in the planning session and ask for a comprehensive assistance guide to fully understand what’s needed by the auditor, and in preparing for the audit, the company should identify the need to apply new accounting standards and conduct research, gather facts and prepare a memo proposing recommendations.”

If you are particularly strapped, you might even consider consulting with your accountant and other business advisers to consider altering the end of your fiscal year from the end of the calendar year to the end of another quarter. That would allow your accountant to work with you less during the peak months of January through April and more during the off months, when rates are far less expensive. And though such a shift is filled with internal and federal paperwork, the potential savings of such proactive measures can reach more than 20 to 30 percent.

There are even extreme situations where you might be able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you and your accountant are both accessible and open to conversation.

Several years ago, Glenn M. Gelman, managing director of Glenn M. Gelman & Associates, was working with a client who had installed defective materials in a sewer and storm drain system, and the client lost thousands of dollars. Though the client was able to file a claim against the manufacturer, Gelman was also able to find a case law that allowed for the property loss to carry back 10 years, a far longer retroactive period than the standard two or three years. The result? The client received $500,000, in large part because Gelman had been involved in the situation from the start and because the two sides were accessible to each other.

“There are a lot of options for the use of net operating losses,” Gelman says. “And what people forget is that, even in times when you’r e losing money, your accountant’s creativity can still be a tremendous asset.”

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Dollars and sense

You might not think of your accountant as some sort of bean counter, better suited for the Dark Ages than for the Age of Information. Most folks, after all, recognized the error of that thought years ago.

You also might not think of that same accountant as a trusted business adviser. But you should.

Gone are the days when your accountant would just sit down with the company ledger and crunch numbers. An accountant is able to offer so much more now, especially in this economic state.

Need to evaluate your inventory turnover, to analyze what is selling, what is not and why? An accountant can do that.

What about an examination to make certain that all available credit lines are being used or that capital needs are being met? An accountant can do that, too.

And, of course, there are taxes, an area where there has been so much evolution that one industry expert says he estimates the number of allowable tax incentives and minimization techniques has more than doubled during the quarter of a century since he analyzed his first set of financial reports. Another expert says the number has more than tripled during that period. Whatever the actual amount of exponential growth, there is no doubt that accounting is more complicated, and more important, than ever.

“An accountant with a lot of experience has worked with many different companies, has seen best practices in other companies, and can help the company take some of those best practices and apply them to their business,” says Joe Mazza, managing director of Los Angeles offices, RSM McGladrey. “An accountant can help people and companies prepare financial projections, assist the company with its banking relationships, look at the company’s costs and help them find ways to streamline costs.

“An accountant can just add value in so many different areas.”

Talk with your accountant

The key to bringing your accountant into your proverbial inner circle is communication. Nothing is more important, just ask an accountant.

“Communication should be frequent,” Mazza says. “Because if you want your accountant to add value to your business, they must know what’s going on.”

Without some level of constant and consistent communication, your accountant cannot know the full spectrum of activity within your company and, in turn, might be unable to offer constructive criticism and potentially prosperous ideas and suggestions. The more communication between you and your accountant, the more opportunity and the higher the possibility you will receive a far more favorable result.

Many industry experts recommend you plan to get together with your accountant for at least three or four formal meetings per year, though multiple variables might swing that number higher or lower, including the size of your business, the challenges you are facing now and expect to face during the course of the next year, and the strengths and weaknesses of your internal financial team. Others recommend more casual meetings or phone calls in order to communicate on a regular basis.

Whether you meet around the boardroom table or over beers at your favorite bar, take advantage of that time to ask your accountant important questions, like how can you best utilize your accountant? What should you do internally? Externally? And what are your priorities for the next year?

A high level of communication with your accountant can also lead to you becoming more comfortable around each other. Your accountant should be familiar with many of the folks on your upper management team, and you should be familiar with many of the folks who play top roles for the firm.

“To function most effectively, a professional services provider must have a clear understanding of a company’s strategy, business imperatives and issues,” says Bill Browning, office managing partner, Los Angeles, Ernst & Young. “Executives should meet with their accountants as often as necessary, especially in these volatile times.”

Take advantage of financial opportunities

The reason so many accountants prefer to be so involved is because the more information they know about you and your company, the more areas they will be able to explore in order to save dollars and cents. And saving dollars makes sense.

“The more the accountant knows about the company, the more value they can add on important business issues,” Browning says.

But the burden of trimming the budget lies not only with your accountant — you need to do your part, too. So be organized, be prepared, be proactive and be accessible.

Just consider the average audit. If your files are scattered around your office, stacked in piles that are toppling over, an audit performed by your accountant might last far longer than it should. In order to avoid a heftier bill, keep your internal financial team on a schedule to update your books regularly, perhaps even every day. Exorbitant costs for an audit — or even just a review or a compilation financial statement — are normally only incurred when you are not organized and prepared.

“A comprehensive financial statement close process is very important,” Browning says. “Businesses should take the time to close their books properly and review their accounts for accuracy and integrity. The company’s executive team should meet with the auditor early in the planning session and ask for a comprehensive assistance guide to fully understand what’s needed by the auditor, and in preparing for the audit, the company should identify the need to apply new accounting standards and conduct research, gather facts and prepare a memo proposing recommendations.”

If you are particularly strapped, you might even consider consulting with your accountant and other business advisers to consider altering the end of your fiscal year from the end of the calendar year to the end of another quarter. That would allow your accountant to work with you less during the peak months of January through April and more during the off months, when rates are far less expensive. And though such a shift is filled with internal and federal paperwork, the potential savings of such proactive measures can reach more than 20 to 30 percent.

There are even extreme situations where you might be able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you and your accountant are both accessible and open to conversation.

Several years ago, one industry expert was working with a client who had installed defective materials in a sewer and storm drain system, and the client lost thousands of dollars. Though the client was able to file a claim against the manufacturer, the expert was also able to find a case law that allowed for the property loss to carry back 10 years, a far longer retroactive period than the standard two or three years. The result? The client received $500,000 in large part because the expert had been involved in the situation from the start and because the two sides were accessible to each other.

“Accountants need to make themselves available for their clients,” Mazza says. “My wife used to say that there is no such thing as an accounting emergency, that you’re not a brain surgeon. But if there’s a transaction going on and there are millions of dollars at stake, where the client is concerned, it is just as important as brain surgery.”

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Dollars and sense

You might not think of your accountant as some sort of bean counter, better suited for the Dark Ages than for the Age of Information. Most folks, after all, recognized the error of that thought years ago.

You also might not think of that same accountant as a trusted business adviser. But you should.

Gone are the days when your accountant would just sit down with the company ledger and crunch numbers. An accountant is able to offer so much more now, especially in this economic state.

Need to evaluate your inventory turnover, to analyze what is selling, what is not and why? An accountant can do that.

What about an examination to make certain that all available credit lines are being used or that capital needs are being met? An accountant can do that, too.

And, of course, there are taxes, an area where there has been so much evolution that one industry expert says he estimates the number of allowable tax incentives and minimization techniques has more than doubled during the quarter of a century since he analyzed his first set of financial reports. Another expert says the number has more than tripled during that period. Whatever the actual amount of exponential growth, there is no doubt that accounting is more complicated, and more important, than ever.

“An accountant with a lot of experience can help the company take some of the best practices and apply them to their business,” says Joe Mazza, managing director of Los Angeles offices, RSM McGladrey. “An accountant can help a company prepare financial projections, assist the company with its banking relationships, look at the company’s costs and help them find ways to streamline costs.

“An accountant can just add value in so many different areas.”

Talk with your accountant

The key to bringing your accountant into your proverbial inner circle is communication. Nothing is more important, just ask an accountant.

“You cannot develop a relationship if all you’re doing is meeting with your accountants once a year when it’s time to prepare financial statements or file your tax return or put out a wild, raging fire, metaphorically speaking,” says AndrĂ© Schnabl, managing partner, Atlanta office, Grant Thornton LLP. “A meaningful relationship is built over time because trust is only built over time.”

Without some level of constant and consistent communication, your accountant cannot know the full spectrum of activity within your company and, in turn, might be unable to offer constructive criticism and potentially prosperous ideas and suggestions.

Many industry experts recommend you plan to get together with your accountant for at least three or four formal meetings per year, though multiple variables might swing that number higher or lower, including the size of your business, the challenges you are facing now and expect to face during the course of the next year, and the strengths and weaknesses of your internal financial team. Others recommend more casual meetings or phone calls in order to communicate on a regular basis.

Whether you meet around the boardroom table or over beers at your favorite bar, take advantage of that time to ask your accountant important questions, like how can you best utilize your accountant? What should you do internally? Externally? And what are your priorities for the next year?

A high level of communication with your accountant can also lead to you becoming more comfortable around each other. Your accountant should be familiar with the folks on your upper management team, and you should be familiar with the folks who play top roles for the firm.

“It’s key that the business owner, the CEO, the CFO, is not just in a relationship where the accountant is going through the motions, providing compliance services without giving any kind of feedback,” says John M. Yanak, managing partner, Grossman Yanak & Ford LLP, Pittsburgh. “The accountant should give feedback on things like what the company’s performance is like relative to their peers, what other companies are doing in this environment and what savings opportunities are available.”

Take advantage of financial opportunities

The reason so many accountants prefer to be so involved is because the more information they know about you and your company, the more areas they will be able to explore in order to save dollars and cents. And saving dollars makes sense.

“If CFOs or controllers are in constant contact with their CPAs or their firm, that really provides an avenue for the exchange of information and savings that can be generated,” Yanak says.

But the burden of trimming the budget lies not only with your accountant — you need to do your part, too. So be organized, be prepared, be proactive and be accessible.

Just consider the average audit. If your files are scattered around your office, stacked in piles that are toppling over, an audit performed by your accountant might last far longer than it should. In order to avoid a heftier bill, keep your internal financial team on a schedule to update your books regularly, perhaps even every day. Exorbitant costs for an audit — or even just a review or a compilation financial statement — are normally only incurred when you are not organized and prepared.

“Preparation is important, but planning is just as important,” Schnabl says. “Plan a series of discussions between client and auditor to have a full understanding as to how to build a plan that is efficient and taps into the client’s knowledge of the business and the auditor’s knowledge of auditing. Those conversations drive down the cost of auditing.”

If you are particularly strapped, you might even consider consulting with your accountant and other business advisers to consider altering the end of your fiscal year from the end of the calendar year to the end of another quarter. That would allow your accountant to work with you less during the peak months of January through April and more during the off months, when rates are far less expensive. And though such a shift is filled with internal and federal paperwork, the potential savings of such proactive measures can reach more than 20 to 30 percent.

There are even extreme situations where you might be able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you and your accountant are both accessible and open to conversation.

Several years ago, one industry expert was working with a client who had installed defective materials in a sewer and storm drain system, and the client lost thousands of dollars. Though the client was able to file a claim against the manufacturer, the expert was also able to find a case law that allowed for the property loss to carry back 10 years, a far longer retroactive period than the standard two or three years. The result? The client received $500,000 in large part because the expert had been involved in the situation from the start and because the two sides were accessible to each other.

“Accountants need to make themselves available for their clients,” Mazza says. “My wife used to say that there is no such thing as an accounting emergency, that you’re not a brain surgeon. But if there’s a transaction going on and there are millions of dollars at stake, where the client is concerne d, it is just as important as brain surgery.”

Wednesday, 25 November 2009 19:00

Dollars and sense

You might not think of your accountant as some sort of bean counter, better suited for the Dark Ages than for this Age of Information. Most folks, after all, recognized the error of that thought years ago.

You also might not think of that same accountant as a trusted business adviser. But you should.

Gone are the days when your accountant would just sit down with the company ledger and crunch numbers. An accountant is able to offer so much more now, especially in this economic state.

Need to evaluate your inventory turnover, to analyze what is selling, what is not and why? An accountant can do that.

What about an examination to make certain that all available credit lines are being used or that capital needs are being met? An accountant can do that, too.

And, of course, there are taxes, an area where there has been so much evolution that one industry expert says he estimates the number of allowable tax incentives and minimization techniques has more than doubled during the quarter of a century since he analyzed his first set of financial reports. Another expert says the number has more than tripled during that period. Whatever the actual amount of exponential growth, there is no doubt that accounting is more complicated, and more important, than ever.

“In a down economy, how you get the most out of your relationship with your accountant is by realizing they are part of the team,” says Gary Isakov, managing director of the Cleveland offices, SS&G Financial Services Inc. “You need to align yourself with your professionals and say, ‘OK, guys, the economy’s tough, things are hard, let’s put our collective minds together and see what we can do best for the firm.’

“Everyone brings a different perspective, everyone sees different things in the marketplace, and a lot of good conversation and discourse occurs.”

Talk with your accountant

The key to bringing your accountant into your proverbial inner circle is communication. Nothing is more important, just ask an accountant.

“It is absolutely pivotal that there is communication back and forth,” Isakov says. “I really believe that people need to get in front of their clients.”

Without some level of constant and consistent communication, your accountant cannot know the full spectrum of activity within your company and, in turn, might be unable to offer constructive criticism and potentially prosperous ideas and suggestions. The more communication between you and your accountant, the more opportunity and the higher the possibility you will receive a far more favorable result.

Many industry experts recommend you plan to get together with your accountant for at least three or four formal meetings per year, though multiple variables might swing that number higher or lower, including the size of your business, the challenges you are facing now and expect to face during the course of the next year, and the strengths and weaknesses of your internal financial team. Others recommend more casual meetings or phone calls in order to communicate on a regular basis.

Whether you meet around the boardroom table or over beers at your favorite bar, take advantage of that time to ask your accountant important questions, like how can you best utilize your accountant? What should you do internally? Externally? And what are your priorities for the next year?

A high level of communication with your accountant can also lead to you becoming more comfortable around each other. Your accountant should be familiar with many of the folks on your upper management team, and you should be familiar with many of the folks who play top roles for the firm.

“With public companies, companies should be meeting with their auditors all the time,” says Larry Cruise, audit practice leader of Northeast Ohio offices, Ernst & Young LLP. “For example, in our Northeast Ohio practice, most of our audit teams have offices with clients, so we’re there every day. We see them every day, we eat lunch with them, we have meetings with them. That work is going on all the time.”

Take advantage of financial opportunities

The reason so many accountants prefer to be so involved is because the more information they know about you and your company, the more areas they will be able to explore in order to save dollars and cents. And saving dollars makes sense.

“You can’t look at anything in a vacuum,” Isakov says. “To be a truly good adviser to your businesses, you need to understand what the business owner is feeling and seeing. The only way to have that done is for them to share with you their concerns, their hopes, their aspirations.”

But the burden of trimming the budget lies not only with your accountant — you need to do your part, too. So be organized, be prepared, be proactive and be accessible.

Just consider the average audit. If your files are scattered around your office, stacked in piles that are toppling over, an audit performed by your accountant might last far longer than it should. In order to avoid a heftier bill, keep your internal financial team on a schedule to update your books regularly, perhaps even every day. Exorbitant costs for an audit — or even just a review or a compilation financial statement — are normally only incurred when you are not organized and prepared.

“A lot of it is just being prepared,” Cruise says. “Have key account reconciliations and analyses prepared and reviewed, make sure you can explain things to the auditors at an executive level, prepare financial statements and analyses early in the process, digest and analyze new accounting pronouncements, and do your homework.”

If you are particularly strapped, you might even consider consulting with your accountant and other business advisers to consider altering the end of your fiscal year from the end of the calendar year to the end of another quarter. That would allow your accountant to work with you less during the peak months of January through April and more during the off months, when rates are far less expensive. And though such a shift is filled with internal and federal paperwork, the potential savings of such proactive measures can reach more than 20 to 30 percent.

There are even extreme situations where you might be able to save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you and your accountant are both accessible and open to conversation.

Several years ago, one industry expert was working with a client who had installed defective materials in a sewer and storm drain system, and the client lost thousands of dollars. Though the client was able to file a claim against the manufacturer, the expert was also able to find a case law that allowed for the property loss to carry back 10 years, a far longer retroactive period than the standard two or three years. The result? The client received $500,000 in large part because the expert had been involved in the situation from the start and because the two sides were accessible to each other.

“Especially in a down economy, you need to call those meetings,” Isakov says. “You just need to get people around a table and figure out what to do.”

Tuesday, 26 October 2010 20:00

Center of attention

There are so many stereotypes about attorneys. Some of them are true, of course, but most of them are not.

Some attorneys are, for instance, sharp dressers, every bit the models for the top designers that you might expect, with perfect hair and a packed brain to match, but not all attorneys look like they belong on the cast of some courtroom drama that moves through its story arc each week in 44 minutes flat.

Some attorneys are fast and slick and out to make a quick dollar — or a quick couple of thousand dollars — but not many.

And, yes, some attorneys are blindingly intelligent and able to rattle off laws, statutes, regulations and court cases long since decided as if it was their job because, well, it is.

Your attorney is not a heart surgeon, a rocket scientist or a neurophysicist. They might as well be, though, to handle the level of work and degree of difficulty required during the last couple of years. After all, you have probably rarely called your attorney for something casual during these strapped economic times. Calls always seem to be reserved for something expensive and stressful that has to be handled correctly.

“We have obviously incurred some challenges here in Ohio, given our manufacturing base and our economic structure as a whole,” says Anthony J. O’Malley, managing partner of the Cleveland office, Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP. “As folks look forward to the next three, four, five quarters, they can take a look at their tax planning, their acquisition or divestiture strategies. There are potential opportunities with some of the new regulatory schemes about which they can consult with their legal advisers.”

There are a lot of opportunities, and you might be in the midst of missing a good one right now. A majority of attorneys say this is an opportune time to think, then think again, about your business strategy and to examine the economic landscape, because there are opportunities available right now, even in slower industries, that will not be available for long. If you can afford to, this is the time to move. And if you have a good attorney on your team of advisers — no stereotypes here — you already have about as good an ally as possible to help steer you forward.

Remember the past

The last couple of years have provided you with a new set of challenges. Perhaps you needed to lay off a percentage of your employees, close a branch of your business or just do more every day with an already overworked, if not smaller, staff. Odds are your attorney was with you during many of those moments — because even if you didn’t work more with your attorney in order to save legal fees, you probably called and talked more often.

That is, at least, what many attorneys are saying.

“I have seen a rise this year, and I anticipate another one next year,” O’Malley says. “It’s hard to say if that’s normal, because if you talked with any law firm, they would say something like, ‘Yeah, of course we’re doing better than last year,’ so I don’t really know. I have a sense that certain firms are doing exceedingly well, regionally and beyond. It’s dependent on a lot of things — the footprint in which the firm practices, the industry and the clients the firm serves. There are a lot of variables, and you would really have to go firm by firm.”

The amount of work and communication required of some attorneys will also likely increase through the rest of 2010 and during the early months of 2011.

“I see 2011 being comparable to the last couple of years,” says Carl J. Grassi, president, McDonald Hopkins LLC. “Businesses do continue to face many challenges and, in turn, many opportunities. As a result of that, we continue to see where our clients are coming to us not only for legal advice but valued business advice.

“The heightened regulatory environment today has resulted in greater usage of law firms and some of their services, and that will likely continue.”

Until then, the existing bump in bankruptcy, commercial litigation and corporate reorganization — sure signs of an economy that has seen better days, months and years — will likely continue.

And valuations are still historically low — though not as far in the cellar as they were during much of 2009 — which means now is still a good time to examine and consider estate and succession planning. What will your business do after you’re out of the top spot? Who will own the business? Who will be in charge? And were you able to take advantage of a down market to pass it along at a better rate?

There are plenty of other things you should consider with your attorney before the economy starts to bump up a little more.

Look ahead and plan

Did you manage to obtain any sort of credit during the last two years? If so, congratulations. That is quite an accomplishment. If not, no worries, because not many other companies did either. That said, some good news for the coming year is that credit is expected to be more available in 2011 than it has been in several years.

More credit is just one of the major points of interest for attorneys during the next six to 12 months. Because of those increased lines of credit, much of the next year will likely include a focus on mergers and acquisitions. Some attorneys say that M&A activity increased during the first half of 2010 before slowing some during the last four months, but no matter your city or region — and Cleveland and the rest of Northeast Ohio are expected to be no different — M&A activity will likely be prevalent by the time the calendar turns.

Alternative fee structures and arrangements — or at least discussions about them — are also expected to increase in 2011. Some firms have provided them for years as an option, others have added them only during the last couple of years as clients asked for them, but there does seem to be a split between clients who are more open to alternative fee structures and those who hold tight to the hourly rate.

Even if you have no interest in alternative fee structures and will renew your proverbial subscription to the hourly rate, at least starting a conversation with your attorney or legal team about some other option might not be a bad idea, especially with the economy and cash flow still in flux.

“We’ve been actively restructuring fee arrangements with our clients,” O’Malley says. “The traditional norm is the hourly rate, but we’ve been working with our clients to find some alternatives, and in this economic environment, it’s been attractive, and I think it’s been helpful.”

Ensure your value

How can you be certain that you will receive as much value as possible from your partnership with your attorney? Communication, of course — the seemingly simple center of every conversation and great relationship remains the top priority. If you do not talk regularly with your attorney or if you rarely, if ever, ask questions or send recent documents and forms, you need to communicate more.

Most attorneys say they like to talk with clients at least once per month, just a casual meeting for breakfast, lunch or coffee to sit down and talk about you and your company, especially if they work with you more as an adviser than as an auditor — though every relationship is different.

“There are two ways to work with your law firm,” Grassi says. “One is to be reactive to a situation, to contact your law firm and ask for assistance to respond to a particular situation. That’s probably the most common usage of law firms — when something happens, you react and you need to contact. The other way is to be proactive. ... It’s important that business owners and executives meet with their law firm on a regular basis so they can be more proactive in responding to an issue or an opportunity as opposed to being reactive.”

And if you are not pleased with the quality or the nature of the relationship you have with your attorney, for any of a number of reasons — including the fact that they are more reactive than proactive — then the time to consider a move might be now. Rates are historically low and this is perhaps the best buyer’s market of any of our lifetimes.

You may also want to consider a change if you have just outgrown your firm and need a firm with a larger regional, national or international footprint.

“Generally many corporations and businesses are counter year end, so usually it’s in the last quarter of their year end that they’re looking at budgets and planning for the next year,” Grassi says. “That is an excellent time to evaluate your advisers, including your law firm, and decide whether or not that law firm is providing the services that you expect and give consideration to others that may be out there.”

You might also consider asking your attorney about any changes in rules and regulations for 2011 and beyond. Asking whether the firm offers any corporate education that you and your employees might be able to put to use would also be a good idea. And asking for a review of your corporate structure, especially for possible inefficiencies, would not be a bad use of time or money. What are your employees earning? What are your executives earning? What else are you paying for? And is it really worth the cost?

“All the efficiencies in the world won’t do anything if we don’t have very effective communication with our clients,” O’Malley says. “It depends on the nature of the relationship and the seriousness of the matter, but communication will always reign as king of any alternative fee structure. There’s a need for a very collaborative, regular, effective communication.

“That’s a fundamental precept we should be living by anyway.”

Because in a world and an industry filled with so much change during the last couple of years, something needs to stay the same.