Tax Relief Firms – Is it a Law Firm, Accounting Firm, Or Something Else?

The tax relief industry has experienced significant change over the past several years. As the economy worsened and Americans faced increased financial pressures, many people and businesses sought relief from the strain by not paying their taxes. In response, an enormous number of tax companies started sprouting up to absorb the unprecedented demand for tax services. Tax gurus on late-night TV and radio advertise, they’ll “settle your tax debt for pennies on the dollar.” Despite being tax geeks ourselves, we couldn’t make sense of which tax companies are good and which are bad.

Tax Relief Firms – Choosing the Right One For You

Under the broad umbrella of “tax relief firms,” there are three types of professional firms: Law firms, CPA Firms, and Hybrids. The first two types are self-explanatory, and since there’s really no industry-standard name for the latter category, calling them a “hybrid” is probably acceptable. But which of the three categories is right for you?

Law Firms

As you know, a law firm is made up of ONLY lawyers. A law firm may employ assistants, like paralegals, but a tax attorney is ALWAYS the person ultimately responsible for any tax work performed. All tax attorneys employed by a law firm are subject to the ethics rules and disciplinary action of their state bar. A tax attorney may generally represent any client in any state on any U.S. federal income tax matter.

The pros to employing a law firm are that you can feel comfortable that (i) an attorney is the one ultimately responsible for your tax matter, (ii) you have a clear method to file grievances (i.e., with the sate bar) if the attorney screws up, and (iii) lawyers are subject to strict ethics rules so they should work according to the highest of standards. The cons are that law firms generally are more expensive than the other two types of tax firms. Additionally, some law firms (or attorneys) do not focus solely (or even primarily) on tax related work, so they may lack some of the skill and expertise needed to fight the IRS. Just ask your attorney what other types of work he or she performs, and that will give you a sense of whether tax (and specifically, tax relief) is his or her specialty.

CPA Firms

At CPA firms, you will obviously find CPAs (i.e., certified accountants), but you may also find tax attorneys. Like law firms, it’s nice to know that at CPA firms, there is a professional behind the scenes who is ultimately responsible for any tax work performed on your behalf. The pros and cons of CPA firms are similar to those of law firms, except the method of reporting grievances with CPAs isn’t as well defined (but exists nonetheless) as it is for attorneys. CPA firms are generally a little less expensive than law firms.

“Hybrid Firms”

The hybrid firms include tax relief firms that are not law firms or CPA firms. Tax relief firms in this category employ a mix of tax professionals, including tax attorneys, CPAs, and so-called “Enrolled Agents.” Enrolled Agents are tax professionals certified by the IRS. They are neither attorneys nor CPAs, but are tax professionals that the IRS has concluded (either through examination or experience) that they are qualified to represent taxpayers before the IRS.

Many tax relief firms fit in the “hybrid” category. Lots of the tax firms that advertise on the internet and radio are made up of tax attorneys, CPAs and enrolled agents and thus are hybrid tax relief firms. The pros are that these companies generally charge less for tax relief work and are very good at performing tax services and working with IRS since tax controversy work is their specialty. The cons are that unlike law firms and CPA firms, these hybrid firms are largely unregulated, so there’s no clear channel (like, for example, the state bar for attorneys) to file grievances. Since they are unregulated, many of the hybrid firms are just plain bad and if they rip a client off, there’s little recourse, except the traditional routes of going to the BBB or other quasi-regulatory bodies.

Tax Relief Firms – Is it a law firm, a CPA firm, or a hybrid?

Here’s how you can determine whether a certain tax relief firm is a law firm, a CPA firm, or a hybrid firm. First, don’t assume anything just because an attorney or CPA works at the tax firm. As explained above, this is meaningless. Second (and the most obvious), just ask! A tax relief firm should have little problem telling you how it’s organized.

Marketing A Law Firm: You Will Need A Law Firm Website

Each year there is more and more online competition for lawyers as law firms reach out to the internet as another mode of marketing a law firm. Lawyers are spending more of their marketing budgets building websites instead of advertising in the traditional ways such as in the phone book.

Traditionally law firms spent a great deal of their marketing budgets on phone book ads. However, it seems that the phone book is becoming obsolete. When was the last time you used a phone book to research a company? Instead of turning to the phone book people now turn to their cell phones, computers, and iPads to research companies and law firms.

Most people these days have access to the internet and most are online multiple times a day. Many use the internet for their work and they sit in front of a computer several hours a day. This means that the rules of marketing a law firm are changing.

It is possible to build a successful law firm using online marketing you just need to have some measurable goals and an understanding of how to get there. Many law firms will pay some web guy to create a website for them. The problem is that just having a website isn’t enough. A pretty website with a great design alone won’t get you business or make your firm more successful.

When people search for something on a search engine such as Google they usually browse over the results on page 1 but most people don’t go much further than that, they don’t click through to see the results on page 2 or 3 and there’s even less of a chance they will click through to pages 5 or higher. If a searcher doesn’t find what they are looking for on the first page or two then they will typically do another search with different keywords. You need to get your site on the first page so that it can be found quickly and easily.

If a law firm just has some web guy create a law firm website they might discover that their website isn’t ranked well on the search engines. Many law firms aren’t even aware of where they rank in Google; they’ve never Googled themselves or asked their web person.

Hiring a professional marketing firm that knows how to bring qualified leads to the firm will give you a big advantage over the firm that just hires a web guy. Thousands of people use the internet to find lawyers. They use the major search engines to type in keywords and search for lawyers in their local area or they search for the best lawyers in a specific field of law. When they do their search, you want to be on the front page when they type in your town or your practice specialty. You want to be as high on the search engines for as many keywords as possible.

A professional website design team will be able to design a site for your firm that not only looks great but one that can be found on search engines and converts site visitors to clients quickly. You want people coming to your site who are looking to hire a firm that specializes in what you do. Hire a web design firm who knows how to get clients to the top of search engines and who has experience in marketing a law firm.

Law Firm Marketing – How To Radiate Value – Professional Service Marketing

Any time you have a chance to determine what your clients need and want from you, consider it a priceless opportunity to learn. Their needs and wants–and their experience with your firm–are the key to identifying the focus of your marketing efforts. Finding and delivering what your clients need and want will not only result in satisfied clients but, if you apply this knowledge to your practice, their experience of your firm can also become your branding.

At a corporate law firm in Century City a few years ago, a senior partner shook hands with one of his clients after completing the company’s first public offering. The two men reminisced about their long relation-ship. “We’ve been through a lot together–both good and bad–from climbing out of our financial mess, to the opening of our first four stores, to building out nearly four hundred of them, to finally going public,” the president of the company said, smiling. “It wasn’t an easy journey, but I’m sure glad in the end that it was you who was with us. No matter where we were, you were always there too.”

When a client speaks to you from the heart, the insight you receive will be priceless. The marketing materials for that Century City law firm had previously emphasized their track record, their versatility and their willingness to be tough. Had they failed to incorporate this client’s insight, they would have missed a precious marketing opportunity. Luck-ily, the senior partner was a savvy marketer. He immediately knew the value of a long-term client’s praise. It became an important part of the firm’s identity and, after a while, made its way into the firm’s branding and marketing material: “Wherever you go, that’s where we’ll be…”

Beyond the decent service, the sound legal advice and the expectation of professionalism, what mattered to that client on an emotional level was that this firm had been by his company’s side through the good times and the bad.
Not all of your clients will hand you a resonant marketing phrase. But an experienced marketing professional with the proper skills can make you more aware of them when this does happen, and more impor-tantly, can help you use them to shape the way your firm brands its services. But the key in this example is not the catchy phrase or even the kind expression of gratitude. What makes the Century City firm’s marketing insight so important is the fact that it represents a fundamental truth about the firm: It does stick by its clients even when times get rough. That’s how the firm does business.

In the late 1990s, one of the largest law firms in the nation decided it wanted to tap into the technology boom. The marketing team advised the firm to target small start-up companies and offer them a reduced hourly rate for general business matters in the hope that, if the business succeeded, the firm would be handed all their legal work, including taking them public. The marketers believed that doing this would demonstrate the firm’s commitment and loyalty to their smaller, more vulnerable clients. One such client had this unfortunate experience dealing with the firm:

“In the beginning, the firm really seemed interested in what we were trying to create. They spent time getting to know us and expressed a real desire in seeing us suc-ceed. I really believed them. I was invited to firm-sponsored seminars and even got invited to the firm’s sky booth for the big game. Everything was going well until the technology bubble burst–and with it, our close relationship with the firm. No more friendly partner calls to see how we were doing. After a while, I was lucky to get my calls returned. They knew we were strapped for cash and, when we were unable to pay their bills, they sued us. They didn’t just sue the corporation (the one they helped us set up), they sued me personally, since I was the president of the company. It was a disas-ter. When the chips were down, this firm came at us with knives. I will never forget this experience–nor will my associates and friends.”

It doesn’t take a marketing genius to know that it’s bad business to sue your clients, but the contrast between the Century City firm and this one is worth noting. One firm made a loyal friend out of a client while the other made an enemy. The point is that how a firm does business, whether it’s how they manage their receivables or which new practice group they decide to open, says something important about the firm in relationship to its clients.

In most cases, firms consider internal business decisions to be entirely internal–separate and distinct from the external side that the public sees. Firms fail to recognize that what a firm is can often be measured by the decisions it makes, and they often make decisions without regard to the effect they might have on clients, even in indirect ways. Firms must con-sider the ways in which their decisions may change the nature of the con-tact between them and their clients.
Law firms make important business decisions every day, and rarely do they consider the impact on those who do business with the firm. When problems do surface, they are often handed over to the public relations department to clean up.

The Zone of Contact

Consider that almost everything a firm does or communicates impacts the clients’ experience of the firm. The parts of a firm that clients deal with directly are part of the firm’s zone of contact.

Everything a firm does is, in some way, an expression of the firm’s values or lack of values. Every act or omission reveals the level of the firm’s commitment or lack of commitment.

Everything–from the paper stock the firm uses to its policy of return-ing phone calls to how lawyers and staff greet new clients and say good-bye to departing ones–can impact clients. Even small things–like the quality of coffee, the effort put forth to make a client feel welcomed, the demeanor of a law clerk and the pictures on the wall can make a differ-ence.
Sophisticated marketing experts take great effort and time in examin-ing a firm’s major points of contact. The quality of the client’s satisfaction relative to a particular point of contact is an indicator of the general health of the firm. Much of marketing consists of translating these ordi-nary points of contact and shaping them into positive client experiences.
Altering the point of contact to be more in line with the client’s satis-faction will certainly improve the quality of the service your firm pro-vides, but it will not, by itself, bring about a fundamental change in the firm’s quality of service. For this, the firm must examine its innermost core–the primary leadership and the inspired principles these leaders rely on when building the firm’s character.

Only by reaching this level of depth can you transform your firm from ordinary to extraordinary.

Contact points are only as good as the quality of service that speaks through them. Service must be a direct expression of the firm’s values, made real through the language and actions of the entire firm. When a firm’s actions are an expression of its inspired values, every point of con-tact becomes an expression of its unique brand of service. But the concept of service must originate from the center of the inspired values formulated by the firm’s top leadership. I call these central values the firm’s “V” spot. When a firm has a solid set of inspired values, every point of contact will resonate with the firm’s vision.

Without the formulation of inspired values and the clarity of purpose these values create, the firm will be unable to build the language, the structure and the systems necessary to ensure that all of its actions and communications are commensurate with these values.

Every action a firm takes must reflect its true identity and its in-spired values; otherwise, it risks seriously damaging its reputation and its credibility. What the firm does, what it stands for, and the promises it makes and keeps must be seen and experienced by everyone–not just clients–as an authentic expression of the firm’s true identity. Only then can the in-spired values become a central part of the firm’s branding–the firm’s persona–an undeniable statement of what the firm stands for and what people can expect of the firm, whether they’re a client or a foe.

Identifying every point of contact with a client or a prospective client must become the focus of the firm’s marketing efforts. Each point within the zone of contact must reflect, and be consistent with, the firm’s char-acter. A client’s contact with the firm should be viewed as an opportunity to convey what it means to do business with the firm.

Assuming that the firm has taken the time to do the planning and hard work necessary to identify their inspired values, the next challenge is to ensure that everything the firm does is an accurate and sincere expression of these values–that these values are conveyed to clients and others who interact with the firm through the zone of contact.

The zone of contact is where the firm interfaces with its clients, either directly or indirectly. Since every contact the firm has with others con-veys information about the firm, every contact becomes an important representation of the firm’s values. The zone of contact includes every-thing–including the firm’s business cards, the lobby decor, the recep-tionist, and meetings with staff, associates, lawyers and partners.

In order to maintain quality control over client satisfaction levels, many marketing professionals focus on reactions of clients to various parts of the zone of contact to make sure that what people experience in their contact with the firm is an accurate and positive expression of the firm’s character.

This examination of quality focuses not on what the firm intends to convey as much as on the client’s actual experience within the zone of contact. To perform such an examination, the firm must assess its major points of contact with clients, and once these contact points are identified it must determine which of the contact points elicit positive service expe-riences from the client.

Ideally, the specific action and communication responsible for a positive service experience can be traced to one of the firm’s fundamental values. If the client is having an experience–even a positive one–that is not in keeping with the firm’s values, the firm may wish to consider whether the value being conveyed is at odds with the firm’s values. If it is, the firm’s actions should be changed to reflect its values more accurately. If the experience is not at odds with the firm’s values, the firm’s action may simply reflect an unidentified value.

When a point of contact is in keeping with the firm’s fundamental values but elicits a negative service experience, the challenge is to quickly determine what has gone wrong. Has an action or communica-tion been missed? Can the firm remove a barrier between its fundamental service values and the client’s experience to make the experience a more positive one? Often, what is missing is a value that is either hidden from view or unable to be expressed.
As you’re no doubt beginning to see, the zone of contact is not separate from the firm–it is the firm.

The firm constantly radiates its values to clients, prospective clients, the legal community, and vendors and the business community. When you can achieve an alignment among the inspired values of your firm, the language of your firm and the actions of your firm, marketing becomes an expression of your firm’s unique identity. It becomes proprietary and is evidenced in every point of contact you have with your clients, whether the contact occurs through the legal services you provide or the way your receptionist greets the firm’s visitors.

Some contact points exist quite naturally within a firm. Clients’ initial calls, their first meeting, the letters and messages they receive during the course of the relationship–all of these are points of contact, and all of them ultimately become expressions of your firm’s unique brand of service.

But there is no reason to leave it at that. Considering the importance of heightening the value of these contact points with clients, the firm that is determined to provide great service will create new points of contact. These moments allow you to meaningfully shape client interaction, mak-ing special efforts to convey the inspired values of your firm while learn-ing more about how you can improve the quality of your service.

Instituting a completion ritual with your clients is one example of this approach. In most law firms, when a case is concluded, the client’s next point of contact with the firm is the bill. For the client it’s anticlimactic, to say the least. And, socially, it’s counterintuitive. If you have a friend over to dinner, you shake hands at the end of the evening and say, “It’s been great having you here.” This is a social nicety that provides a tiny ritual of completion. Clients, in contrast, are typically left dangling.

Imagine how much your clients’ experience of the firm would im-prove if you were to conclude each case with a completion meeting. Not a quick, patronizing handshake with a junior associate, but a qual-ity meeting with a senior partner of the firm who says, “We are committed to your satisfaction.”

Better yet, show your clients what they mean to you by making a symbolic gesture. For example, during a golf game, a Texas lawyer in-troduced a client to a large real estate developer. The two men ended up doing business when the client was later contracted to build a huge shop-ping center. When the deal closed and the papers were signed, the lawyer took his client aside and presented him with a golf ball imprinted with both the client’s and the developer’s names, courtesy of the law firm. Corny, you might say. Perhaps, but ten years later, the client still has that golf ball sitting on his desk and the lawyer still gets all of his business.

A true symbolic gesture is more than a clever expression. It demon-strates that you took the time to think about the relationship with your client and made it both significant and interesting. Compare this gesture with the all-too-ordinary imprinted pen or calendar sent out to clients once a year.

Effective marketing creates a quality point of contact that demon-strates your commitment to your client. It elicits respect and trust. It ac-knowledges the importance of the client relationship. And, if done suc-cessfully, it will create a lasting and invaluable bond with your firm.

This approach is magnitudes more powerful than coming up with the catchiest jingle or the most sophisticated ad campaign.

A client who is emotionally touched by a relationship will tell every-one about your firm. In terms of generating more business, this kind of marketing is worth ten times the value of a great TV commercial. In terms of personal satisfaction and quality of life–for your clients, your firm and yourself–it’s priceless.

Positive Service Experiences

Understanding “value” requires understanding different types of emo-tional responses resulting from experiencing different levels of service. The list below describes some of the major emotions psychologists asso-ciate with positive service experiences.

For every point of contact, it is important to identify the specific emotion elicited from the interaction that made it a positive experience.

Positive service experiences can elicit these positive emotions:

important
valued
inspired
appreciated
listened to
understood
pampered
relaxed
satisfied
pleased
comforted
protected
secure
confident
independent
strong
calm
trusted
informed
cared about
accepted
respected
recognized
admired

Although these qualities are subjective in nature and cannot be evoked in every client every time, there are some tangible ways to consistently produce positive experiences for your client. The key is to recognize how important it is to generate these types of feelings–then it’s astonishing how many opportunities will arise.

One way of making clients feel more secure and confident about their legal predicament is to become a resource of important information—especially if what you offer goes beyond legal considerations and is both practical and immediately useful to your client.

Willy Little, a partner in a small Los Angeles firm, described his spe-cial brand of value-based service like this:
If we have a client in the midst of a divorce, they often need to find alternative living quarters. They need leases to be reviewed and names of reputable services that can help them with the mundane, but often exhausting, task of relocation.
We’re a family law firm. But we are committed to providing our clients with the best service possible. So we do our best to become a resource for our clients–not just in our legal capacity, but in a much broader sense, assisting clients in dealing with the many aspects of di-vorce. We become a client information hub–an information resource. Clients really appreciate this and, when they need legal help again, they know where to turn.

Sometimes providing superior value to clients means expanding the focus of the legal services a firm offers. Cecilia Smithers, a partner in a midsize litigation firm, remembers the rationale behind a change at her own firm that expanded the firm’s zone of contact:

“While our firm was litigation-intensive, we felt there were many times it served our clients’ interests to con-sider alternative dispute resolution. To do this effectively, we needed to focus on counseling our clients, which meant making the effort to get to know them and, with some work, earn their trust. We worked with clients to consider alternative points of view whenever possible, which often led to helping them clarify their objectives and think about their situations in new ways.”

There can be little doubt that the clients of these firms experienced the service being provided to them in emotionally reassuring ways. Research shows that experiential marketing –marketing that addresses a client’s needs–is far more effective than the coercion, persuasion and propaganda on which many marketing campaigns are founded.

Consider today millions of clients are turning to cyberspace for their legal solutions. One web portal that is near and dear to this writers heart is: http://www.GotTrouble.com – a legal help portal that expresses it’s own set of core service values and weaves them into the user experience.