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The CPA's Guide to Superior Client Continuity

Many CPAs in public practice are well acquainted with professional handbooks, such as the GAAP Guide or the Master Tax Guide. When it comes to client continuity, however, there is no stock, published guidebook for a topic that is so essential for CPA firms. Much like any of the favorite professional manuals, a guide to client continuity has to be used and not just produced and studied. It should contain core provisions for maintaining and building quality relationships, but should also have personal and individual inserts that reflect the personality and culture of the firm.

Every CPA firm leader, and aspiring leader should have their own personal guidebook, and it should include, at a minimum, the following functional relationship requirements:

The more you talk with your clients, the more comfortable they will be with you, and the more you can be on top of their issues. The key is "talk"– e-mails are not the caliber of communication that effectively engages clients. You may e-mail clients as often as you like, but if you are not actually talking to your clients, every two to three weeks, you will not be in the zone for the kind of quality relationship that will motivate both you and your client to long term continuity and potential service expansion.

Free flowing
Good clients, or your top clients, should be turning to you for more than the basics. Your clients need to be able to confide in you to test ideas, and express their concerns and anxieties. Do not restrict your client relationships to just compliance – broaden your bond by asking clients about their business, the competition, the family, their pressures, and the highs and lows in their life. By the same token, share with your clients how much you are alike, and pull them into your business issues, as well, so that they can better relate to you. Sharing information reminds them that you are in a business too, with problems just like theirs. The more that a client understands your concerns and goals, the more likely you will foster compatibility that will not only lengthen the relationship, but should lead to referrals, as well.

Accessibility creates security, and it is an important portal to knowledge and information. Clients need to know that you are reachable, and that you welcome their phone call or e-mail. When handing out your business card to clients and potential clients -- with your cell phone number on the card -- encourage them to contact you. Let them know that other than 10pm  to 7am, or something comparable, you welcome their questions, and you are here for them. In addition, when meeting or speaking with a client, make sure that you foster spontaneity, and do not just follow an agenda. If caught off guard by a question, it is perfectly acceptable to tell them that you need to get back to them, but provide an accurate time frame. Clients presume technical competency when they work with their accountant, but if the accountant cannot easily and openly engage, there is an incentive to find another accountant.

Honesty and gratitude are the cornerstones of personal friendships, and must be an integral part of your client service culture, as well. Clients do not want to be taken for granted. Expressing your appreciation with thank you notes and other forms of recognition is vital, especially for your top clients, or potential top clients.

Furthermore, client continuity is enhanced with feedback. Surveying clients, both formally and informally, is a powerful way to explore the strengths and weaknesses of your practice, your personnel, and your relationships. Your inquiries should be very precise and limited. The results of any survey should be shared with the participants, and followed-up with focus groups, and other modes of intervention. Surveys should be routine but not a constant.

Telling clients what they need to hear -- and not just what they want to hear -- is essential. The more compelling your message, the more receptive your client will be to actions that are not initially comfortable, or to new matters that they were not anticipating. Being well prepared to advise your clients on difficult matters is time well spent, and being empathetic is extremely important, and goes a long way.

Financial Fairness
Billing clients fairly and timely is a priority for building well-grounded relationships. The cost benefit of the fee structure is a two-way street, and in order for you and your client to be comfortable on the same street, you should not "give the work away," bulk up the fees, or delay billing – you have to be fair. Billing needs to be done on a regular, near-term cycle. Value billing and minimum fees are realistic areas for creating fairness, and should be nurtured in your client relationships.

Success with client continuity is very much a function of communication and personality. Customize your individual "Guide to Client Continuity" to your specific, communication style and strengths, and your handbook will be just as useful and reliable a resource for you, as your other technical guides.

Ira S. Rosenbloom
Ira S. Rosenbloom, CPA, is the Chief Operating Executive at Optimum Strategies, LLC, a consulting firm focused on helping small and medium-sized CPA firms enhance business performance, profitability and foster practice continuity. Ira can be reached at: [email protected] or at (215) 694-8084
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