Heidi Brundage
Heidi Brundage

What Keeps CPAs Up at Night or Rather What Should?

August 9, 2010
by Heidi M. Brundage, CPA, SPHR

Imagine waking up in a startled cold sweat. Your heartbeat is intense and you are so disoriented that you can’t figure out if the bed you are in is yours. You take a minute to breathe and that’s when you realize what has just occurred — you had a terrifying nightmare. You pause to remember the details. Oddly enough, there were no mad dashes from danger or bloodcurdling screams in this dream. Instead, the terrorizing culprits were employees, clients and competitors. You had dreamt of work. Who knew that the people you see daily could be so frightening!

Does this sound familiar to you? If so, you’re in lots of good company. And if not, I’d be willing to wager a hefty bet that even today’s seeming stress-free CPAs are in fact anxious about a few things. The question is WHAT is it exactly that makes you wake up at night?

Top Concerns

For me, team member issues stream into my sub-conscience. Seriously, I lay awake at night trying to plan out how I’m going to deal with team challenges and what I’d do if a crucial team member told me they were leaving tomorrow. We are a profession of knowledge workers and therefore I don’t have to tell you how extremely important talent is to our organizations’ success.

On the other hand, many of our members have told us over the last 12 months, client retention and marketing are at the top of their minds. In fact, for the first time in the history of the PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues Survey, Client Retention was the number one issue for CPA firm owners of all sizes, from sole practitioner to the largest of firms. Business and industry (B&I) members appear to be embracing the same concerns. The latest AICPA/UNC Keenan-Flagler Business and Industry Economic Outlook Survey shows that Client Demand has been the top challenge for B&I members for the past five quarters.

Perhaps you are in a geography or industry that has been more or less unaffected by the slow economy. For this fortunate group, concerns such as keeping up with standards, access to capital, work/life balance, rising healthcare costs, partner accountability and managing team member performance may provide fodder for your night-time thoughts.

Compare and Contrast

With your top issue at the forefront of your mind, consider how your number one priority compares with that of your peers, competitors and customers. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you focused on the same things as others, and if so, how can you leverage opportunities to share ideas among one another?
  • Are you faring well in a particular area and could, therefore, offer guidance to clients to strengthen your Trusted Business Advisor status?
  • If your major headaches differ from key competitors, do you incorporate your strengths into your business development and marketing strategies?

This exercise should provoke insight into hidden opportunities, and threats too, which provide occasions to ward off your challenges.


Now that you have identified some opportunities and threats, it’s time to take action. The goal is to rid you of the work-related nightmares. The good news is that solutions to these major concerns exist. Think of them as the three Simple Cs: Consistency, Communication and Client Care and Concern.

When tackling issues, Consistency is the best place to start. One of our mottos in PCPS is “consistency beats occasional excellence” because people need comfort in understanding what’s coming next and processes should be established to promote efficiency. An example of the benefits of consistency is the growing, medium-sized Atlanta-based CPA firm that implemented the PCPS Performance Management System in an effort to streamline job descriptions, titles and reliable and constructive feedback. After implementation, team members felt that a consistent evaluation system raised the firm’s ability to attract top recruits, retain top performers and assimilate experienced hires most effectively.

Using the same example from above, Communication played a huge role in improving employee morale, identifying future leaders and coaching essential skills during regular evaluation and mentoring discussions. Communication is also vital in client retention. CPAs that are currently focusing on improving client relationships, appear to be most successful when they pick up the telephone or make a visit to chat with customers and ask “What is going on with you?” Clients love this!

CPAs must then demonstrate genuine concern for the well-being of their clients. Client Care and Concern refers to both external AND internal outstanding client service and is built over time. We’ve been talking about what keeps you up at night and you can use the same question with your clients. Think about what sincere care and concern could do for client (external) and employee (internal) retention!

Relax Peacefully

In the end, we all have our own issues, which evolve over time. I encourage you to spend a little time on the path to no more nightmares.

Additional Resources: Firm Practice Management (PCPS)

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Heidi Brundage, CPA, SPHR, is a technical manager in Firm Practice Management (PCPS) at the AICPA. She is responsible for executing PCPS practice management and advocacy initiatives.