CPA INSIDER

How to engage next-generation clients

Take these 6 steps first to secure your firm’s future.
By Jennifer Wilson

As the saying goes, you can't stop the hands of time. And time passing has given rise to one of the greatest demographic shifts our country has ever seen. The mighty Baby Boomer population, which at its height was nearly 80 million strong, is starting to sunset, with roughly 10,000 reaching the age of 65 every day and the entire group, born from 1946 to 1964, reaching 65 by 2030—less than 13 years from today.

This entrepreneurial group still maintains much of the power and money in this country, but that is ever so slightly shifting every day, with Generation X stepping up into leadership and Millennials now the largest group in our workforce. Yet what troubles me is that I still don't see many firm leaders with active strategies for managing this monumental shift within their own client communities.

Sure, more and more firm leaders are dialed in to next-generation talent management strategies, which are critical. But equally critical is this question: What are you doing to engage your next-generation clients? In this article, we'll explore six first steps to position your firm to keep your corporate clients as they transition their businesses, and find new individual clients as your existing clients age out.

Before we explore these next-gen client engagement strategies, though, let's take a minute to explore seven common next-gen motivators, as several will point to the first actions to take.

As a general rule, keeping in mind that all individuals are different, your next-gen clients are more likely to value:

  • Change: Next-gen clients believe there are better ways of doing almost everything, so they shy away from service providers that maintain the status quo, preferring instead to work with those offering fresh ideas and new approaches.
  • Efficiency: Next-gen clients plan to work smarter, not harder. This doesn't mean that they won't put in the effort—they will—but first they want to be sure that the organizations they partner with are employing strategies and processes that are faster and better.
  • Flexibility: Next-gen clients value being able to conduct their work at the time and place of their choosing. As a service provider, you'll need to support new modes of communication and relationship development as traditional "on premise" and "8 a.m. to 5 p.m." norms cease to be valid.
  • Empowerment/autonomy: Next-gen clients value their independence and want their providers to give them access to both knowledge and information so they can undertake do-it-yourself solutions.
  • Transparency: If you want the trust of younger leaders, you have to share the good with the bad, and share more information sooner. For instance, talking about pricing earlier in the process builds trust in the eyes of the next generation, and not doing so erodes it.
  • Technology: This is what will make it all happen! Next-gen clients expect their providers to leverage the latest technology to support efficiency, flexibility, transparency, and autonomy.
  • Service: Giving back and making a difference are important to the next generation.

Now, let's explore six suggested first steps to begin appealing to a number of these next-gen motivators:

  • Understand your demographics and develop strategies accordingly. If you serve individuals, what is the average age of those individuals? (For tax, you can get this from your tax software.) Is that average age increasing or decreasing? For the industries you serve, what is the average age of the business owners and CFOs, and is it on the rise or decline? If you serve aging markets, what strategies should you employ, including diversifying your specialties, to replace those clients—or the revenue they represent—as they age out?
    • Why this is important: Without this information, you might not feel an urgency to act or change, or you might not focus on your higher-risk areas first.
  • Build relationships with the next-gen people in your accounts immediately. Identify the potential (or actual) successors for your corporate and individual clients. Build rapport with these future leaders and understand their goals in the services your firm offers. Be careful not to make them feel subordinate or less important because they are less experienced. Equally important, don't make your traditional contacts feel they are less important to you than the next generation. Bring your own next-gen talent along to these meetings and deploy a one-to-one "defense" in which each of your next-gen people is assigned a next-gen client relationship to nurture. Include the clients' next generation in everything you can.
    • Why this is important: If you don't connect with them now, you risk the next generation planning to replace you and your firm with their own friends when transition takes place.
  • Transform your firm's client experience. There are too many processes to name here, but think about what it's like to visit your website, go through your new-client welcome process, sign an engagement letter, meet with you to collect data, receive a deliverable, and then stay in touch and communicate. Offer flexible service options, loading information on your portal in lieu of a traditional meeting, conducting the lion's share of your audit remotely, or delivering your findings and recommendations via webinar. Learn to use remote communication tools such as Skype, Zoom, and GoToMeeting. Always offer remote-meeting options. Use technology to enhance the client experience wherever possible—such as incorporating an e-sign tool into your engagement letter process and offering easy mobile apps that deliver more self-service.  
    • Why this is important: If you lag in this area, your next-gen clients and prospects may see your firm as "old school" and choose a provider with a better interface.
  • Expand your marketing communications to include a lot more digital. Build your online profiles (you have to have a picture to be real!) and grow your connections in social media, especially on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—hey, are you following me? Look for ways to incorporate short videos, podcasts, blogs, or other information-sharing technologies into your firm's communications mix—potentially replacing your traditional newsletters and emails over time. Recognize that next-gen clients expect their providers to deliver content and advice  using the tools and mediums they prefer.
    • Why this is important: Avoiding newer communication platforms could cause you to miss an entire population of prospects and decision-makers who gather their news and information mainly online.
  • Get your firm's data in order. Your clients want all of their data in one place, accessible to everyone in your firm and to them, too. They expect you to be using the data you have from them to deliver ideas and advice—not to have to ask for it multiple times, in multiple ways, because your systems don't integrate or aren't current. This is probably the most challenging idea we offer—and you'll never get there 100%—but in my opinion, the winning firms will be those that invest first in technology resources needed to cleanse and integrate data, extract and analyze it, and use the information to deliver insights and value.
    • Why this is important: Information is power! Failing to leverage the information you have to provide value may mean missing an opportunity to stand out now.
  • Transform your firm's IT function. Four of the five strategies offered involve technology. Are you appropriately staffed in your firm's technology function? Do you attend conferences or events that highlight the latest in IT solutions within your discipline?  Do you have a forward-thinking, next-gen-focused person driving your IT strategy? Have you given your IT leader the resources they need—in employees, contractors, and budget—to develop a next-gen client experience? If not, seriously consider starting here.

As you embrace your next-gen client engagement strategies, don't forget about your traditional clients. Understand and honor their preferences, too. Some will want to keep things the way they are now. Others will readily embrace new approaches. Provide options and transition support as you drive change so your traditional and next-gen clients both feel valued.  

Succession is a top strategic priority for most firms, but many remain inwardly focused while transition in their client community is already happening. Don't make this mistake. Take steps to make your firm ready today for next-gen clients.

Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching, LLC, a leadership and management consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success. Learn more about the company and its services at www.convergencecoaching.com.

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