5 Ways to Succeed as a Freelance Bookkeeper
— from 5 successful freelance bookkeepers
Approximately 15% of our 30,000 members are freelance bookeepers; another 10% have a full-time job and freelance on the side. These professionals shared their proven tips in The General Ledger ( http://www. aipb .org/general_ledger.html) —the monthly technical briefing that is free to our members. Details on what you can expect in your August, 2005 briefing if you join the AIPB , the national association and certifying body for the bookkeeping profession, follow the proven tips on freelance bookkeeping.
1. Winning that first freelance job. To get your first job, consider taking any fee you can get. Announce your normal rate, but be prepared to compromise. For instance, say that your rate is $30/hour. Your prospect offers $15/hour. What should you do? Take the deal, but build in a raise: “I'll do it for $15/hour but if you like my work, I want $20 (or $25 or $30) an hour after 30 days.” You can ask for a limited raise at any time. Most prospects will readily accept your offer, planning to drop you after 30 days. But if you do quality work—correct, complete, on time—they will never let you go. Good bookkeepers are always in short supply.
2. Anatomy of a successful sales call. Here's how to turn prospects into clients:
a. Dress for success. For men, a conservative suit or blue blazer. For women, a business suit.
b. Be practical in selecting prospects: Walk around and knock on doors at firms too small to afford or have space for a bookkeeper, such as small stores.
c. Knock gently. Avoid pushiness. You might ask the first person you see, “Are you the owner or manager?” When you find the owner or manager, say: “Hi, my name is Joan Smith. I have a bookkeeping service in the area. I stopped by to introduce myself. Do you do your own bookkeeping?" If they already have a bookkeeping service, respond positively: “Great, I'm sure they do a fine job.” (Never try to steal satisfied accounts.) But if the prospect is unhappy, ask what's wrong. Or, if a firm keeps its own books, ask what tasks they do. Then explain what you do in those areas.
d. Keep the door open: When prospects ask questions, answer them and set up a second appointment to explain more precisely what services you provide and what they cost. Leave a list of your services on stationery with your letterhead.
e. On second visits, act like you have the job. Bring a sample of work that the prospect expressed interest in: a budgeting tool, sample customer bill, etc. Leave something showing the quality of your work that they can look at and keep. Best : Bring a disk (or laptop) to demonstrate your work on the prospect's PC. In a second meeting, assume the job is yours and use words that reflect this assumption (“When should I pick up your work?”).
3. Know how to get CPA referrals. Send a letter of introduction to CPAs. Better : Make an appointment and introduce yourself. CPAs who meet you in person are much more likely to refer you. But beware: CPAs often refer clients who are too small or are “problems." Another strategy : Visit newly opened or acquired businesses (get their names at your local licensing office). Best : Client referrals. If you do an outstanding job at a fair rate for your first clients, expect a lot of business.
4. How to bill for top dollar.
a. Base fees on local CPA rates . Peg your top rate to CPAs' lowest rates (for client write-up work). This approach works regardless of your locale.
b. Vary your rate by the job. This may mean charging as little as $15-$25/hour for some bookkeeping work. Before you quote a job, analyze a new client. How well do they understand what you are doing? Do they have a ledger? Is their work set up? Are their records kept well and only a few weeks or a month behind — or disorganized and 2 years behind?
c. If you are a solo practitioner, use an assistant as needed, instead of hiring an employee. Try to get an accounting intern from a local college to do their internship with you. They get excellent training and you get an eager assistant at minimum or no pay. If they save you a lot of time and money, pay them.
d. Be able to back your up fees. If a prospect questions your rates, be prepared to provide the names of clients and CPAs who will attest to the quality of your work—and be sure to show them how much you save them on their CPA costs.
e. Get to know local CPA firms. Work very closely with CPA firms in your area -- most of your jobs can come from their referrals. To connect with local accountants, try to meet with them when you start with a new client by arranging to meet with the client and the client's CPA. This meeting is a must for doing first-rate bookkeeping, and your thoroughness will impress both the client and the accountant (who has lots of other clients)."
f. Triple check your work . Clients and CPAs respond to top quality. triple check to see that everything is in balance, and that you have support for all balances. Do almost a mini-audit before your work goes to clients or their CPAs."
5. When to bill by the job v. by the hour. Avoid charging a flat fee until you do a client's work for two or three months. The less experienced you are, the greater your margin of error. Often bookkeepers work too many hours for too little money because they made an open-ended commitment. First find out: How long will the client take to get you information? How neat and up to date are its books? How neat does the client expect your work to be?
When new clients insist on a set fee, agree to do it for two or three months on a trial basis and then re-evaluate the fee. Estimate on the high side: it's easier to reduce a fee than to raise it. To “lock in” new clients, you can accept whatever fee they paid their last bookkeeper.
If they question your fees, explain: “These are the kinds of businesses I work for, and my usual fees.” Then point out differences: “I do everything for them and I don't know if you will want me to do all that for you. They're a store, you're a distributor. They have a part-time bookkeeper, you have none.”
A letter of agreement can help in flat-fee arrangements. Exception: mom and pop firms. They are intimidated by “contracts.” If you have very small clients, hold a low-key, friendly, but thorough discussion to explain what you will and won't do.
It takes time and experience to know when to provide extra service, and when you are being “used.” Until you know for sure, give a little extra. If clients need help answering the phone during the day, offer to do it. If they normally drop off and pick up work, volunteer to do it if they are too busy.
If you discover clients trying to take advantage of you, don't give an inch. Better: Consider letting the client go. When you sense that a prospective client may try to exploit you, let them know immediately that you have rules, too. “I really don't work that way—let me show you how I do it.”
But these tips just skim the surface of the important news, tips and tactics you get every month in The General Ledger newsletter, yours free as a member. Here's just a sampling from your August, 2005 monthly briefing if you decide to join:
- What to do if the IRS deemed you to be a “responsible person” for remitting payroll and other taxes
- IRS sets limits on sole proprietors' medical expense deductions
- How you will soon be able to add a Roth-IRA option to your 401(k)
- Easy ways to present data the way you want to in Excel (instead of wasting time copying it to Word and reformatting it)
- How nonqualified deferred compensation plans work—step by step
- Are those collectibles investments—or inventory? Here's the rule
- Member Q&A that includes:
- “How do we know which benefits are taxable?”
- “We have a young man who cuts our grass. He will earn about $400 for the year. Must he be an employee?”
- “Can we issue a 1099 to our 2 part-time employees?
- “Must we pay Sue overtime if she works on a weekend that is not her regular day?”
- “What happens if the payroll deduction we make for employee uniforms brings them below minimum wage?”
- And other new developments that affect your company or clients
Why not join 30,000 bookkeepers in the national association for your profession? To become a member of The American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers ( www.aipb org ), click on www.aipb.org/member_benefits.html and start getting the benefits you deserve as a professional. Enroll now.
BOOKKEEPING TIPS is a twice monthly newsletter published by The American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers (AIPB), Suite 500, 6001 Montrose Road, Rockville, MD 20852. Tel.: 800-622-0121, Fax: 800-541-0066,