CPAs Get Into Focus

Get targeted feedback to align supply with demand.

A FOCUS GROUP CONSISTS OF clients and local business leaders can help a firm gather insights to manage practice development in a changing marketplace. It’s important to set clear objectives, select participants who represent the market and choose a neutral facilitator.

FOCUS GROUPS REVEAL QUALITATIVE information—attitudes, opinions, feelings and perceptions—that other data collection methods may not provide.

THE CLIENT ADVISORY BOARD is the most common focus group format CPA firms use. It should represent a cross-section of newer and older clients. Most focus groups consist of eight to 12 participants.

PARTNERS DEFINE THE OBJECTIVES, which a marketing director or facilitator uses to formulate questions that target needed information.

A FIRM MAY CONDUCT ITS OWN sessions or hire an outside facilitator. Meetings should be held after business hours in the firm’s boardroom or off-site at a hotel or conference center, away from workday distractions.

VIDEOTAPES AND AUDIOTAPES OF SESSIONS are used to write the follow-up report and add credibility for partners who may find certain client opinions hard to believe. Timely reporting on a session is a priority as is deciding how the firm will follow up.

ROSLYN MYERS is a New York-based business writer. Her e-mail address is .
here’s no need to guess or remain in the dark if you want marketplace opinions before rolling out new services or making firmwide changes. All you need to do is ask. “Discuss your firm’s proposed service expansion with clients and business contacts and get feedback on how they feel about your providing those services,” says Jacob Brandzel, CPA and American Express Financial Services managing director. Then use the resulting insights to reach mission-critical decisions about new strategic directions.

CPA Lori Reiner did exactly that. The partner at Goldenberg Rosenthal LLP in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, asked a focus group made up of 15 local business leaders, “If you were being interviewed by Barbara Walters on 20/20, what would you say about the accounting profession?” The responses from this influential bunch—which included clients and nonclients—revealed not only what they thought about CPAs but also what they liked (and disliked) about Goldenberg Rosenthal. That information helped the firm direct its efforts.

Focus group research reveals qualitative information—attitudes, opinions, feelings and perceptions—that other data collection and research methods may not provide. Participants share common characteristics such as use of the same products or services and/or a strong interest in a topic. Roughly 70% of all consumer-research dollars are earmarked for qualitative research, and it is nearly impossible to find a Fortune 500 company that does not use focus groups.

Source: Frank Luntz, .

Led by an in-house or a professional facilitator, a focus group aims to answer a set of specific questions—determined beforehand by one or more partners—of vital importance to a firm’s planning process.


Amper Politziner & Mattia PA, a CPA firm with headquarters in Edison, New Jersey, also turns to its clients for insight and feedback. “We invite our major clients to our annual partners’ meeting. We expect them to give us candid opinions and honest answers to questions about what they use us and don’t use us for and what other services they need that we aren’t providing,” says senior partner Alfonse Mattia, CPA.

“One of the biggest benefits is that we have discovered that our clients’ perceptions of the firm sometimes are different from our own,” he says. Firms can use focus groups for

Client input for strategic planning. The client advisory board is the most common focus group format that CPA firms use, says Michelle Golden, president of Golden Marketing Resources Inc., a St. Louis-based marketing consultant to CPAs. “A firm will rely on this group to aid its senior management or executive group in making important decisions,” says Golden. To represent a cross-section of clients, a board should include both newer and older clients, but not individuals who use the firm only for personal taxes.

Amper Politziner & Mattia makes the focus group an integral part of its strategic planning. “In deciding what our goals should be three to five years from now and what strategies and tactics we should use to get there, we turn to our client advisory board for advice,” says Mattia. Following one such focus group discussion, Mattia’s firm decided to venture into litigation support, for example. (See “ Focus Groups Can Lead to a New Practice Niche. ”)

Probing client attitudes. Besides indicating new business directions, focus groups provide insight about a firm’s image and service quality and their effect on client loyalty. When Wipfli, a large Midwestern CPA firm with 17 offices, wanted to find out why it consistently ranked second in community relations in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, it held a focus group and invited both satisfied clients and some who were on the fence, having had negative experiences with the firm. Krissa Erickson, the firm’s marketing coordinator, says: “We asked our customer service managers, who knew clients in that office, to choose participants. We then asked those clients how we could improve our relationship with them, as well as our standing in the community.” As a result, the La Crosse office became more active in a number of community events.

Moss Adams LLP, a CPA firm headquartered in Seattle, uses both internal and external facilitators to zero in on client satisfaction. Chairman Robert Bunting, CPA, says, “Once, we wanted clients to tell us how they defined a successful relationship with their CPA, so we had our marketing director develop questions and facilitate at a rather small focus group drawn from the top third of our clients.”

Moss Adams used a more elaborate focus group design when it wanted to find out what clients look for when they buy consulting services. The firm hired a professional facilitator for two sessions held at a hotel. “The participants we selected were CEOs or CFOs of companies who had bought at least five types of consulting services from us in a three-year period,” says Bunting.

Exploring a new practice niche. The most popular uses of a focus group are to get input on developing new services and for pricing. For example, to find out whether several manufacturers were receptive to contracting out CFO functions and what price they were willing to pay for the service, Golden invited key members of the target companies to a focus group session. (For a sample of the questions they asked, see “ Contemplating a New Service? Ask a Few Key Questions. ”)

Gaining deeper client insights. Still other firms use focus groups to fine-tune ideas. Golden asked a group of commercial lenders about their uppermost business concerns, and the results helped one CPA firm develop a newsletter targeted for this important client group. (See “ Planning a Client Newsletter? Get Answers First. ”)


Good results require careful planning. The essential steps are to set clear objectives for the focus group, carefully select the participants and a facilitator, and formulate questions that will get you the targeted information.

Define objectives. Cheryl Gorman, principal of Compass Consulting Group, a market research company in Providence, Rhode Island, says, “Success depends on being clear about the purpose of the research, assessing what you already know so you can determine what additional information you need, defining the audience from whom you want the information—and deciding how you will follow through.”

To chart its future course, for example, Goldenberg Rosenthal has a plan that requires a commitment for five two-hour focus group sessions with its client advisory board between September 2001 and May 2002. At the first two meetings, devoted to familiarizing participants with the firm and some practice issues, “we educated clients and nonclients alike by providing a low-key talk about our services,” says Jay Weinstein, CPA, a partner who cofacilitates sessions with Reiner.

At those sessions the group found the presence of the managing partner inhibiting, and Reiner reports, “They were much more candid and open when they met without him at the third session.” At future working sessions more issues will be raised, Reiner says. Typical questions might include

What types of new services should we offer, if any?

What strengths do we have?

Should we add staff, redeploy them or acquire a new business?

“At the final meeting, we will review all the ideas presented and discuss what the firm plans to do next,” states Reiner. “We also will ask participants for their recommendations as to who should serve on next year’s board.”

Select participants. The key to an effective focus group is to have participants who represent the target market. The assembly can include clients, prospects and referral sources, depending on the range of questions the firm wants answered. Most focus groups consist of eight to 12 participants.

“Make sure you invite the decision makers you’re trying to reach,” says Golden. Getting them to commit to the process is very important. “You need to let them know they’ve been selected because their individual opinions are valuable to the firm,” says Golden.

“When we decided to invite an elite business group from our community, we also figured out how we could get them to attend,” says Reiner. “We sent formal written invitations clearly stating we were seeking their advice about ways to improve our services. We offered each participant a $100 honorarium. Anyone who could not be at each meeting was dropped from our list. Since our goal also was to make these meetings mutually beneficial, we thought about whom these individuals would want in a room with them. As a result, we made sure the people we chose came from noncompetitive businesses such as a law firm, a bank, a merger-and-acquisition company, a property-and-casualty insurer and a newspaper publisher.”

Choose a facilitator. A firm may choose to conduct its own meeting or it can hire an outside facilitator (see “ Where to Find a Facilitator ”). There are advantages and disadvantages to either approach. The disadvantage with an in-house facilitator is that clients may tell you what they think you want to hear. “If the partner is someone participants may try to impress or be intimidated by, you’re not going to get open feedback. The prospect for honesty is better when partners are not in the room,” says Golden. Where to Find a Facilitator

The Marketing Research Association publishes lists of professional facilitators and focus group companies at and the New York American Marketing Association provides similar lists at . The International Association of Facilitators (IAF), accessible at , developed accreditation standards for the certified professional facilitator (CPF) designation. More information about IAF standards as well as facilitators lists can be found at and at .

“What you really want is a facilitator who is neutral,” says Golden, who recommends using either a professional facilitator or someone very knowledgeable, such as a firm administrator or the marketing director. She adds, “An exception can be made for a partner who is so laid back and easy to talk to that everyone agrees that he or she could facilitate the meeting without biasing the results.”

Armed with questions, the facilitator’s role is to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak, to keep the group on track, to probe for the most in-depth information possible and to record the discussion or take detailed notes from which it can be transcribed later.

Develop questions and get answers. After partners define the objectives, the firm’s marketing director or the professional facilitator develop appropriate questions and review them with the partners, according to Golden. A facilitator will ask participants about wide-ranging topics—from office location and decor to service quality and new service offerings.

The facilitator should impress on participants that their opinions are an important part of the focus group process. “If clients see a decision is being made in the firm and they feel they can have some input, it will only serve to strengthen their loyalty,” says Golden.

Contemplating a New Service?
Ask a Few Key Questions

If your firm wants to determine if a manufacturer is receptive to outsourcing its CFO role, consider asking a few questions. The following examples could be used for this purpose:

1. Where do you rank your organization as to the complexity of your accounting/financial advisory needs?

a. Very complex.
b. Occasionally complex; usually simple.
c. Moderate.
d. Simple.

2. What size would your company need to be for an in-house CFO to be a viable option for you? (Based on revenue or number of employees—circle one.)

a. Present size.
b. Double the size.
c. Triple the size.

3. How frequently do you talk with your CPA?

a. Once or more often each week.
b. About once a month.
c. About once every quarter.
d. About once a year.

4. What’s the position of this CPA?

a. In-house staff?
b. Internal audit?
c. Independent auditor?
d. De facto controller?
e. In-house controller?

5. If cost was not an issue, would you talk with a CPA more proactively about day-to-day operational issues?

a. Gladly.
b. Not sure.
c. Probably not.

6. If you were to name your price, what dollar value would you assign (on a monthly basis) to “outsourcing” your CFO needs, if you don’t yet need a full-time CFO?


Source: Adapted from questions used by Golden Marketing Resources Inc., St. Louis.

Golden acknowledges that some firms may feel intimidated by the prospect of asking clients for operational suggestions. “Partners shouldn’t be afraid to ask these questions when the focus group participants have an ongoing relationship with the firm. Those clients are genuinely interested in contributing to its well-being.” Golden cautions, however, “Never include a truly disgruntled client in the focus group, since a highly negative response would contaminate other participants’ opinions.” The best way to handle a dissatisfied client, says Golden, is through a confidential, one-on-one discussion.


The sessions should be held after business hours in the firm’s boardroom or off-site at a hotel or conference center, away from workday distractions. “In addition to providing a good dinner, consider including a thank-you gift in the $25 to $75 range, such as a pen set or a fine bottle of wine. Don’t insult participants by giving them a set of coasters,” Golden recommends. The session, including the meal, should last about two hours.

The format. “At the initial meeting,” says Golden, “the moderator should convey the purpose and make all participants feel that they are on an equal playing field. Each participant—whether an owner of a neighborhood laundry or a president of a chain of 10 banks—has been invited to share equally his or her perspective.”

State the reason for asking a question. For example, if you were to ask the group, “What do you think of our image in the public?” you can clarify. Add an explanation such as “It’s our purpose to create a feeling of confidence in our firm and its representatives.”

Audiotaping and videotaping. It’s quite common for sessions to be videotaped, audiotaped or observed. Erickson says she first asks participants if they are comfortable being taped. Golden also tape-records each session and says it adds credibility. “Often partners will find it hard to believe that clients voiced certain opinions, and the tape-recording will prove it,” she says. Golden maintains that when you take notes, bias can creep in.

Barbara Shomaker, president of Accord Ltd., a strategic planning consulting company in Chicago, takes notes on a flip chart and also has an assistant take notes. “I don’t videotape or use a tape-recorder because it can inhibit participants from freely expressing their opinions,” she says.

Planning a Client Newsletter?
Get Answers First

If your firm is considering pitching a newsletter to bankers, for example, you might home in on their uppermost business concerns with questions similar to the following examples (used for that purpose in a focus group session):

Please ask yourself

What “keeps me up at night” when I think about my career?

What key objective do I want to achieve in the next two to five years?

When thinking about what I want to achieve in two to five years, what barriers can I identify?

What are my customers’ greatest challenges?

What would I change about my business if I had a magic wand?

What new technology intrigues me that I don’t have the time to look into?

Which vendor products would I like to know about without being “bugged” by a salesperson?

Source: Adapted from questions used by Golden Marketing Resources Inc., St. Louis.

Reporting and analysis. Timely reporting on a session is a priority, says Golden. “Transcribe the recording right away and refer to it when preparing the report and analysis. Include an executive summary with bullet points. Circulate the report at the next partners’ meeting and discuss the issues that arose.”

Follow through. “You must be willing to follow up and act on the results of focus groups,” says Golden. She sends a thank-you letter the next day, while Reiner says she mails a package to each participant within a week; it contains the minutes of the last meeting and the agenda for the next one. At each successive advisory board or developmental meeting, “report any results and discuss what items are next,” advises Golden. “Then move on to new business.”

Careful follow-through can smooth the way to discussion of issues and adoption of new strategies. Suggestions from a focus group led Goldenberg Rosenthal to hire a marketing director and to offer a new profit-enhancement service to its clients.

Gorman advises firms to keep results in perspective, however: “Eight people don’t represent the world at large, so don’t totally depend upon the focus group to make your final decision. Focus groups are good for what they are designed to do: provide direction, bring issues to the floor and discuss new products and services.”


To manage practice development in a continuously changing marketplace, CPA firms use focus groups to learn more about the clients they serve. “To obtain feedback we want to get to the source—the people who pay the bill,” says Mattia, whose firm serves the New York–New Jersey area.

A focus group suggested the firm should develop its capacity to serve the region’s many high-tech companies. “We subsequently invited high-tech experts—an attorney, an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist—to learn about the industry from them,” states Mattia. “We have since joined the New Jersey Technology Council. We write articles for high-tech publications, publish brochures on the industry and attend as well as sponsor certain specialized areas at high-tech conferences. The result is that our firm has become much more well known for its technology consulting services,” he says.

“This is just one idea among a number suggested in a focus group that is helping our firm to adapt to emerging market needs,” adds Mattia.

Whether to target new niches or clients—or better serve established ones—focus groups can help a CPA firm take the measurement of what clients want. Before firms spend time, money and effort on service improvement or development, they can take an efficiency cue from an old carpenters’ adage: “Measure twice and cut once.”

Focus Groups Can Lead to a New Practice Niche

“M ost of our new services come out of the focus groups we hold as part of our strategic planning process,” states Alfonse Mattia, senior partner of Amper Politziner & Mattia in New Jersey.

One of the most important initiatives the firm has undertaken came from a meeting held about 10 years ago, at which participants signaled interest in litigation services. “We realized we lacked a strong litigation support and valuation department. To overcome this perceived weakness, we decided to take some decisive steps,” says Mattia. The firm chose a champion, committed resources, and developed and implemented a marketing plan.

Barbara Shomaker, president of Accord Ltd. in Chicago, who serves as the strategic planning consultant to Mattia’s firm, says the basic planning/marketing process is based on many detailed meetings with internal groups. “These may stretch over several months, and they include focus groups held with clients the firm is targeting.”

Shomaker’s approach to planning for entry into a new niche involves clarifying the firm’s strategy, gathering data, facilitating a strategic planning retreat, preparing the plan report, holding a follow-up session and conducting quarterly or semiannual follow-up meetings. “We meet with the executive committee to crystallize its plans and to air any concerns. We then establish a planning committee to decide how the decision making will progress and what data are needed to inform the process,” she says.

Shomaker interviews each member of the planning team to identify the issues. “We get better information at these one-on-one interviews because managers are inclined to be more open than they would be in a group setting,” says Shomaker. “We also conduct group input sessions with other staff to foster a sense of inclusion and build commitment.”

To make key decisions, the firm may need to interview key clients, gather competitor information, conduct market research and make financial and performance projections. Her approach is to assist the client in gathering data rather than to generate it directly. Shomaker tests receptivity to the new service at external client focus groups. “We outline the service and costs and ask participants for feedback and recommendations.”

At a two-day strategic planning retreat, Shomaker facilitates consensus building about the future direction of the firm. “By the end of the retreat, participants will have assessed alternatives, reached a decision and made a commitment to pursue the new marketing niche.” The plan report, written within two weeks of the retreat, reflects the decisions reached. A month afterward, she conducts a one-day follow-up session with the planning group. She subsequently meets with the planning team on a quarterly or semi-annual basis to help review plan progress, make recommendations on implementation and assess overall performance against the plan.

“Today the litigation support and valuation service we have built as a result of this process forms a very strong and mature part of our firm,” states Mattia. “Judges often will appoint members of our firm to serve as experts in these types of cases.”

Terry Simonds, CPA, a partner who has been with Amper Politziner & Mattia for 21 years, serves on the litigation and valuation group. “The commitment of the firm to this important practice area has led to the development of a dedicated staff,” says Simonds. “We have hired many CPAs and attorneys for this department. To stay on the cutting edge, we take special CPE courses, are accredited in business valuation by the AICPA and attend seminars offered by the American Society of Appraisers and the Institute of Business Appraisers,” says Simonds.

“This specialization has earned our firm strong market recognition in a highly sophisticated niche area,” states Simonds. From focus group input to implementation, the litigation and valuation group took about a year to develop.

Shomaker’s firm’s strategic planning process—from initial meeting to the first follow-up session to review of the final plan—can take two to three months. Depending on a firm’s needs, costs for services can range from $20,000 to $150,000. The time allotted for the increments of planning and focus group research will break down this way:

Meetings with executive committee—two to five days.

Meeting to select planning team, initiate planning and decide on data needed—three hours.

Data gathering, including interviews with planning team, internal and external focus groups—several weeks.

Strategic planning retreat—two days.

Strategic planning report preparation—two weeks after retreat.

Conducting a follow-up session to review and finalize plan—one month after retreat.

Quarterly or semiannual follow-up meetings to assure plan is on track—three to six months after retreat.


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