Rick Telberg
Rick Telberg

Do You Know the Secrets of Happy Clients?

How to battle client retention problems with client satisfaction strategies. How do you dazzle a customer these days?

September 21, 2009
by Rick Telberg/At Large

With client retention replacing the staffing shortage as the most troublesome issue facing CPA firms, it may be surprising that that so few firms are taking a high-profile, proactive approach to the problem.

Certainly, many firms are stepping up client service levels. Some are creating specialty practices to handle the critical emergency needs of clients in crisis. For example a number of New York and Palm Beach, Fla., firms have established teams tasked with caring for the needs of clients affected by the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. Many other firms are establishing bankruptcy or restructuring task forces to deal with business clients overwhelmed by the recession.

Still other firms are handling the challenge in everyday ways, with a little more TLC, an extra phone call, a little more analysis into a problem. Yet more are allowing their receivables to age as clients take longer to pay.

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Nevertheless, many firms either don’t see the need to react to the client retention issues other firms face, or are choosing to operate as if it’s business as usual.

To be sure, many firms are unfazed. They say they stand to lose clients only to insolvency or dissolution — situations they deem beyond their control. But many might well be advised to worry about client satisfaction because competitive CPA firms are fighting hard for every good, new client they can get.

That’s why some may be astonished about how few CPA firms actually have formal systems in place to gauge client satisfaction issues. According to Bay Street Group’s latest soundings, six in 10 firms have no formal client satisfaction monitoring program. Even more, seven in 10, rely on “real-time feedback” from clients, which, to me, sounds a little like “we don’t ask, they don’t tell.” But two in 10 firms report to me that they do, indeed, wish they had a better system in place for tracking client satisfaction.

But if you really want to know what clients are thinking, you have to ask them, which is exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve heard from thousands of CPAs and financial managers on the private side of accounting in business and industry. They may be the toughest critics a public accountant, bookkeeper or auditor could ever run up against. But they are also the most understanding and knowledgeable. Their suggestions and guidance on what makes a CPA-client relationship prosper or fail should be heeded.

“We're a small company in terms of our industry,” explains a senior finance manager at a mid-sized company. “What we really want is an attentive, service-oriented, reasonably priced firm that appreciates our business. We don't have that because our parent organization has dictated that we must use the same firm that they use.”

Clearly, this finance manager would not recommend her current CPA firm. She wants a "better quality product,” adding, “At Big Four prices, I shouldn't have to review in detail to find their errors.” She’s tired of playing second fiddle and wants a firm that “appreciates the business of even the smaller clients and makes sure the smaller clients don't feel they are taking a back seat to the larger clients."

Or listen to this Midwestern CFO whose company is fighting for its life. He wants a CPA who can provide “survival skills for a tough economy and market.” This CFO provides only a lukewarm recommendation for his current accounting firm, but he still needs advisers who can “provide objective insights during these tough economic times.”

CPA Mike Harnish has been on both sides of the table. Today, he is senior vice president and chief operating officer at Portland, Ore.-based Fios Inc., IT evidence sleuths for lawyers. But I’ve known him since the 1990s, when he was a partner at what was then Crowe Chizek. In between we’ve worked together at CPA2Biz.

He says today he’s “fairly likely” to recommend the Big Four firm that services his company, but “I think it depends on the people that get assigned and the complexity of one’s needs.” If you’re a CPA firm who wants Mike’s business, you’re going to have to work for it. For one thing, he says he’s not easily swayed by traditional marketing and sales. He wants to see real expertise that’s relevant to his business and his challenges. Do your homework and get your “research results published.”

In addition, he’ll compare your proposition based on “affordability, breadth of capability and service” and you’ll need to be ready to point out specific areas in which his company’s compliance procedures can be improved, or where you can help him trim costs or save money on taxes. That’s a tall order. And Harnish may be an exemplary financial executive.

But he’s the type of client every CPA firm should be looking for. You can be sure Harnish’s CPA firm is working hard for the business.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Add your voice and see what other CPAs are saying. How do you dazzle a customer these days? Click here to Sound Off.

COMMENTS: Questions, ideas, rants or raves? Send an e-mail to Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2009 CPA Trendlines/BSG LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. First published by the AICPA.

About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.