What clients want from CPAs

Small business owners offer these tips to improving your practice.
By Cheryl Meyer

Successful CPAs know that properly managing client relationships is a key to repeat business—and to generating referrals that help their practices grow.

Therefore it is important for CPAs—especially small firms and sole practitioners—to know both what clients want and what tends to drive them away. Understanding the client’s mindset will allow CPAs to provide better service, which leads to higher retention rates and to more of those lucrative referrals.

CPAs aren’t mind readers, of course. So how do you know what clients want? We asked several small business owners and executives to give us their suggestions. Many of these tips dovetail nicely with the accounting profession’s move to align CPAs more as strategic business advisers—a role that generally offers higher margins than some commoditized services. Here’s what the small businesses suggested.

Be responsive. This is a huge deal for David Deutscher, founder and broker of the David Deutscher Co., a small commercial real estate property management and development company near San Francisco. Deutscher is “looking for someone who is accurate and timely and able to get the work out,” he says, noting that slowness is one of his pet peeves. “I generally have my stuff well in order right after the first of the year, and I’d love to file all of my LLC type of documents as early as possible.”

Robert Pagliarini, president of Pacifica Wealth Advisors Inc., in Southern California, says slow response time is a “big issue” for many of his business owner clients. The CPA who responds within 24 hours gains a client’s trust, he says. “Even if the adviser doesn’t have the answer, simply letting the client know they got the message and are working on it is critical.”

Be proactive. San Diego’s Jim Fitzpatrick, owner of the Law Offices of James Fitzpatrick, and president of Adesso Enterprises Inc., a coffee business, says clients want CPAs who are organized and stay abreast of new laws that can affect a company’s bottom line. “Business owners rely on their CPAs to be proactive and to advise them when they need to make a change,” he says. “Eliminating surprises is key; business owners never want to have a problem at the end of the year because funds weren’t properly set aside.”

Fitzpatrick’s advice also lines up with research from What SMBs Want, a 2015 report by The Sleeter Group. The report found that more than half—56%—of small and medium-size businesses think that their CPA or accounting firm has a moderate or high impact on their business.

Paul Pendergast, owner and founder of Pendergast Consulting Group, a 16-employee public affairs agency in San Francisco, says he likes his CPA because she “takes it upon herself to delve deeper into our government contracting rules, regulations, and compliance, and she is forward thinking. She is ahead of the curve and ahead of me.”

Get up to speed on your clients’ industry. Luke Godwin, owner of Godwin Motors, a used car dealership in Columbia, S.C., appreciates that his CPA is focused on clients in that industry. The CPA knows the “ins and outs of what we do, and he comes to our trade shows,” he says. “He’s also very involved in our associations.”

John Horne, owner of the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, a small restaurant chain in Bradenton, Fla., switched CPAs several years ago after his accountant retired. He also chose a CPA who specializes in his particular industry, which helps Horne take advantage of more tax savings and other financial opportunities. “If you have an accountant who covers 83,000 industries, he or she won’t know the nuances of the restaurant business,” he says.

Communicate more frequently. Clients don’t need hand-holding, but many business owners appreciate regular contact with their accountants—not just during tax season. Some like to have monthly check-ins, whether by in-person meetings, brief phone calls, or emails. This gives accountants a chance to add value to the relationship by explaining the financial implications of business strategies—such as the effect on a company’s taxes—and gives them a chance to inform clients of other ways they can help the business (such as by providing additional service offerings).

Focus more on trends. Pendergast looks to his new accountant for monthly, semiannual, and annual year-over-year trend analysis. “She is my financial intelligence guru,” he says. “I am not an expert at all things CPA. So, for me, this is a strategic relationship. She keeps us on track.”

Glenn Younger, president of Grah Safe & Lock Inc., a San Diego locksmith, says his accountant provides him with a good grasp of his monthly and yearly trend data. “Trends are extraordinarily helpful,” he says. “Every year in October our business drops off about 5% to 10%, and knowing that is pretty important if we are adding people or taking on projects.”

Be more strategic. Small businesses hire accountants because they need help figuring out ways to save money while remaining compliant—not just to file returns during tax time. Business owners want “to have a conversation about their situation and to take advantage of all the opportunities they have available to them,” Pagliarini says. “The more CPAs can strategize and communicate those ideas to business owners, the better.”

Cheryl Meyer

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California.

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