How to win next-gen clients

By Courtney L. Vien

Cortlon Cofield, CPA/PFS, markets his virtual financial advisory practice with a pitch to Millennial clients.
Cortlon Cofield, CPA/PFS, markets his virtual financial advisory practice with a pitch to Millennial clients. (Photo by Jason McCoy/Jason McCoy Photography)

Clients under 40 may not represent a large share of your client base. But there's a good case for attracting more of them. Win their business now, say CPAs who serve them, and you have the opportunity to convert them into long-term clients who will likely need more of your services as they mature.

Most Millennials have fairly straightforward finances now, but that's poised to change. As Baby Boomers retire at the rate of 10,000 per day, members of younger generations are stepping forward to succeed them. More than one-third of the U.S. labor force is composed of Millennials, who recently eclipsed Gen Xers to become the largest generational group in the workplace.

As Millennials mature and advance in their careers, their wealth will grow. A Deloitte report predicts that Millennials' assets will increase from $1.4 trillion in 2015 to $11.3 trillion by 2030. Millennials may also soon see an influx of inherited wealth: The United States will see a $68 trillion transfer of wealth over the next 25 years, and much of that money will pass into the hands of younger generations.

SOLVING A PROBLEM CAN START A RELATIONSHIP

Many Millennials are reaching pivotal points in their lives when they may require a CPA. "They're having kids, changing employers," said Chicago-based Cortlon Cofield, CPA/PFS, founder of Cofield Advisors and a Millennial himself. "Suddenly something will change for them, and they'll be looking for help" with their finances, he said.

CPA firms that assist young clients at this stage in their lives have the opportunity to serve them for years to come, Cofield said.

"It's important to catch" young prospects at a juncture in their lives when their financial situation undergoes a major change, he said. "If you do, they'll become 'sticky clients.'"

Much the same is true for young business owners. Caleb Bullock, CPA, CGMA, director of business development at Somerset CPAs and Advisors PC in Indianapolis, said many Millennial business owners approach his firm seeking help with a one-time problem. For example, if they're struggling to grow their business, the firm might suggest performance management services that could help.

"We prefer to develop relationships early on in the life cycle of businesses," Bullock said. Then, the firm can offer them "wedge products" such as outsourced accounting: value-added services that can start or solidify a working relationship.

Clients who first come to the firm to solve a specific problem often go on to develop lasting relationships with the firm, he said.

"If you help them with a pain point, they see you as a technical expert," said Bullock. "Then, they rely upon you as a business adviser. It opens the door for you to become indispensable."

However, firms need to be proactive in reaching out to young, problem-focused clients before competitors do.

People with finances that require tax preparation services more complex than filling out a Form 1040 are a lucrative enough demographic that non-CPA competitors have begun to target them. Software giant Intuit, for instance, has released TurboTax Live, a platform that enables taxpayers to speak to a CPA or other tax professional live over the phone for an additional fee.

"If you have a question, a credentialed professional will answer it quickly via phone, video chat, or messaging service," said Michael Ohanesian, CPA, tax manager at Parr & Associates in San Antonio. "You can seek tax advice, discuss your tax return, or look over your documents if you're nervous." This type of platform, he said, tends to appeal to younger taxpayers more than a visit to a brick-and-mortar office would: "Intuit is more ready for Millennials than most traditional firms are."

WHAT NEXT-GEN CLIENTS WANT FROM A CPA

To meet the needs of next-gen clients, CPA firms need to start thinking a little differently. CPAs who've found success serving this demographic share what has worked for them.

Be a proactive adviser

Younger clients are often new to the financial situations they're encountering, which means they appreciate education and advice. "A lot of my clients are doing their own thing, full-on quitting their job and starting a business," said Cofield. "They learn that tax planning for a business owner is drastically different than it is for an employee."

They may not know which services they need or what's available to them, he said.

"They want help. They're willing to say, 'I don't know,'" said Tyler McBroom, CPA, managing partner at Measured Results CPAs in Roseville, Calif. That openness, he said, can be a positive because it means they're coachable.

Young clients' choice of advice provider "is not always about who's the cheapest," Ohanesian said. "It's about who can allay their fears and help them with their advice." Be proactive with these clients, he recommended. For example, if you know they've just had a child, you could ask if they've thought about a 529 college savings plan or a flexible spending account for child care.

Provide a streamlined experience

Younger clients expect most services to be as seamless and convenient as online shopping or ride-sharing apps, said Chris Hervochon, CPA, owner of Chris Hervochon CPA CVA in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

"They want a frictionless experience," he said. "They want to be able to do their taxes on the beach and not to have to schedule something in the middle of the day when they're going to have to take time off from work or hire a sitter."

Younger CPAs often share this mindset, said Kristen Pilchard, CPA, a Millennial and a tax supervisor with TGM Group LLC in Salisbury, Md. "Instead of contacting a client for missing information and having to wait for them to put it in the mail, drop it off, or fax it to me, I would love it if they could seamlessly shoot it to me in a secure email," she said. Then, she'd be able to work with that information whether she was in the office or working remotely.

Many firms don't yet provide this smooth experience, Ohanesian said. Review your processes around client interaction and think about "how you can take something from 60 clicks down to five clicks," he suggested. For instance, he said, adopt technologies that can make working with you more convenient for your clients, such as instant messaging, returns in PDF format, and electronic signatures.

Adopt a less-formal manner

Once, Bullock wore dress pants and a blazer to a meeting with a young farm equipment dealer — who showed up in jeans and work boots. The client thought it was funny and teased him about it, but Bullock took the lesson to heart.

"You want your clients to feel comfortable," he said. "Your goal is to be their independent business partner and part of their team, and what you wear is important."

Millennial clients may relate better to younger staff members, who'll typically be able to "speak their language," said Pilchard. "I think a lot of times we relate better to others in the same life stage as us," she said. Younger CPAs may also be more familiar with the technology younger clients are using, she said, and tend to speak less formally than their older counterparts.

Go virtual

Younger clients don't care as much about the "office experience" as older ones do, said Hervochon, who has an entirely virtual practice. He likens it to "going to the dentist" for them. "It can be buttoned-up and stodgy and make them feel uncomfortable," he said.

Cofield has a completely virtual practice, which is one of his selling points. "I tell potential clients, 'You could drive for an hour, sit in traffic, and pay for parking, or you could hop on Zoom and meet in your PJs.'"

But some young clients dislike video calls, McBroom said. "Even when I try to set up Zoom meetings, they'd rather talk on the phone, because they're busy, or they're not at their desk, or they want to talk while they're driving," he said.

Some Millennial clients even avoid voice communications and prefer to communicate entirely over email and text message, said both Pilchard and Hervochon. However, as Pilchard noted, "some matters are too important for text or email, and sometimes those methods introduce the possibility of miscommunications." In those cases, she speaks to clients over the phone or in person, saving texts for "quick reminders or confirmation-type communications."

Use alternative billing methods

The hourly billing model isn't a good fit for younger clients, who are accustomed to being able to see what everything costs online, several CPAs said.

"If they get a bill every time we speak with them, they'll start only calling us when it's an emergency," McBroom pointed out. He offers his clients a menu of services and said the vast majority of them pay a fixed fee upfront. Cofield charges clients differently depending on what they prefer: some pay monthly, others pay him an annual retainer fee, and others pay on a per-project basis.

Younger clients tend to be highly value-conscious, Bullock said, so be prepared to present a solid value proposition. "We say that we should be able to quantify our value in excess of our fees or be fired," he said. "That piques their interest. We're putting our reputation on the line."

MARKETING TO NEXT-GEN CLIENTS

Instagram, that haven for celebrities, models, and influencers, might not seem like the most logical place to market accounting services. But for McBroom's firm, it has proved to be a fruitful source of new business.

"We used to get about 15—20% of our business through social media," said McBroom, who had more than 80,000 Instagram followers as of this writing. "Now it's more like 80%."

On his Instagram feed, McBroom shares short videos on financial topics and popular memes edited to feature accounting jokes. His investment in social media and content marketing is also evident in his podcast, Tax Savers' University, in which he answers listeners' financial questions in five-minute episodes. His website greets visitors with the on-brand tagline "Welcome Tax Savers!"

Young people who view his content often message him to request a meeting, he said. From there, some become clients. He has even landed some next-next-generation clients through social media: Gen Zers involved in e-commerce. "It's neat seeing 19-year-olds making a couple hundred grand right out of high school," he said.

Cofield and Hervochon have also had success attracting clients through social media and content marketing. Hervochon blogs, publishes newsletters, and develops content aimed at marketing agencies, his target client base, which he shares on his YouTube channel. Cofield posts a weekly short video on financial tips for entrepreneurs on Instagram.

"One of my videos got over 190,000 views!" he said. "It's a good marketing stream for me." Instagram, he estimated, is his second-largest source of new clients.

However, social media isn't a magic bullet. Getting results like these requires patience and commitment. McBroom, whose firm hired a full-time social media professional in 2017, said it took about two years for him to start seeing the results of his efforts.

"Don't just dip your toe in," he advised firms contemplating social media marketing. "Go all in or don't do it at all. If you're not prepared to practice and get good at it, you'd be better off building your business through traditional channels."

Tyler McBroom, CPA, managing partner at Measured Results CPAs in Roseville, Calif., says social media including Instagram has brought the firm a majority of its business.
Tyler McBroom, CPA, managing partner at Measured Results CPAs in Roseville, Calif., says social media including Instagram has brought the firm a majority of its business.


And next-gen clients do respond well to these traditional channels. Dirk Edwards, CPA/PFS, J.D., the owner of Oregon-based Edwards Consulting LLC, has a no-frills website and doesn't market his firm on social media. He still gets many younger clients by building relationships with officers of companies who send employees with financial planning questions his way. Hervochon and Bullock said they find many young clients through referrals. Cofield focuses heavily on making presentations on finance topics at spaces frequented by young entrepreneurs, such as WeWork offices.

LAY THE GROUNDWORK FOR THE FUTURE

Though Millennials may not form a large segment of your client base right now, it's still worthwhile to spend some time thinking about how you will serve them as they mature and have a greater need for your services. One way to start, Ohanesian said, is by talking with young friends, family, and staff and seeing what they want and need.

"Don't be afraid of establishing relationships with Millennials," Edwards said. "They are smart and inquisitive, and they can be a lot of fun."


About the author

Courtney L. Vien is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4125.


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