Seeking New Clients Rises to Top of CPA Firm Issues

Bringing in new clients has moved to the forefront of concerns among CPA firms with two to 20 professionals.


That finding is among the highlights of the AICPA’s 2011 PCPS CPA Top Issues Survey, released Tuesday.


The survey also found that while client retention remains a key priority for CPA firms of all sizes, it is no longer the top concern—as it was across the board in the most recent version of the biennial survey, published in 2009.


This time, firms of different sizes placed different items atop their lists. Sole practitioners rated keeping up with tax law changes and complexity as their No. 1 concern, as they did in 2007. Among the firms with more than 20 professionals, the chief concern was partner accountability and unity.


The AICPA polled 577 CPA firms divided among five size classes:


  • Sole practitioners
  • Firms with 2-5 professionals
  • Firms with 6-10 professionals
  • Firms with 11-20 professionals
  • Firms with 21 or more professionals


Bringing in new clients ranked as the No. 1 concern in three of the five firm size classes and no lower than third among any of the firm groups, ranking No. 2 among firms with 21 or more employees and No. 3 among sole practitioners, with whom client retention took the No. 2 spot.


Like bringing in new clients, retention of current clients ranked no lower than third among any of the firm classes. Client retention ranked No. 2 among the three smallest classes and third among the two largest classes.


The 2011 results show the continued and evolving effect of the slow economy on CPA firm priorities. Whereas survival was the top priority in 2009, at the height of the recession, the seeking and signing of new clients has taken on greater importance across the board as firms attempt to find growth opportunities in an uneven economic recovery.


“While client retention and firm growth did not top the list of top issues firms are concerned with across the board, there is no doubt that this is key to all,” said Jim Metzler, CPA, AICPA vice president‒Small Firm Interests, in a news release. “The AICPA is working with the firms to help their clients with better strategic planning and to help firms learn how to best market to future clients, retain current ones and understand the ever growing complexities of tax laws and audit and accounting standards.”


To put into perspective how much the recession has affected CPA firm priorities, consider that in 2007, before the economy shrank, the No. 1 issue was staffing. Now, finding and maintaining the client base to justify staffing levels takes precedence.


Not that staffing has fallen off the list of concerns. Retaining qualified staff ranked as the third most important issue among firms with six to 10 professionals, while finding qualified staff ranked No. 5 among firms with 11 to 20 professionals, with retaining staff the No. 6 concern.


Among other top issues affecting firms:


  • Developing a succession plan was in the top five for the largest two firm classes (11-20 professionals and more than 20 professionals) and in the top 10 for other firms.
  • Fee pressure/pricing of services was in the top five for firms with six to 10 and more than 20 professionals.
  • Keeping up with accounting and attest standards ranked in the top 10 for sole practitioners and all firms with 20 or fewer CPAs.


The 2011 PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues Survey was conducted for the AICPA by IntelliSurvey , from May 2 through May 23 via an email questionnaire sent to the AICPA’s PCPS membership. Of the 577 respondents, 77 were sole practitioners; 197 were from firms with two to five professionals; 95 were from firms with six to 10 professionals; 89 were from firms with 11 to 20 professionals; and 119 were from firms with at least 21 professionals. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The survey gathers information from a range of practitioners in firms of different sizes to get a snapshot of the most critical challenges facing PCPS members. In 2007, for the first time, PCPS did not issue one overall top issues list because it was determined that averaging the answers from many types of firms does not necessarily accurately mirror the concerns of each segment.


“CPAs can use these lists to benchmark their own experiences against those of other practitioners in firms very much like their own,” Metzler said.


Click here to download an Excel file comparing the top 10 issues for each CPA firm class for 2011 and 2009.


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