Tips for working with first-time clients

Review prior returns, advise, and put them at ease.
By Cheryl Meyer

When Micah Fraim, CPA, opened his accounting practice in Roanoke, Va., six years ago, he needed to build up a stable of clients quickly.

He networked at events and online, invested heavily in digital marketing, and met with clients at in-person meetings. Many of these clients had never used a CPA's services, and Fraim emphasized the value he could offer.

Fraim's experiences aren't unique in the public accounting realm. Countless other CPAs, even those in business for years, face a similar dilemma: How to enlighten new clients — those who have never worked with a CPA but have used tax software to complete their returns — about the value of professional service.

First-time clients agree to work with a CPA for various reasons, usually when their lives have become more complex. Perhaps they're preparing for retirement, moving to a new state, dealing with an inheritance, or caught in the midst of an audit they can't manage on their own. Many clients come in from referrals, already aware they need help.

"They realize that their situation has gotten way more complicated, and they can't handle their own return any longer," said Marsha Ellowitz, CPA, a partner at Janover LLC in New York City.

So how do CPAs prove their worth to potentially skeptical clients who aren't accustomed to paying fees? We asked Fraim, Ellowitz, and two other experienced CPAs to weigh in. Here's their advice:

Ask questions. First-time clients may contact you for many reasons, so ask why they need a CPA. What prompted them to come to you at this point in their lives? "Then you can focus on points and areas that are compelling to them, rather than harping on things they may not care about," Fraim said.

Meet with clients. William Dunn, CPA, managing partner of Dunn & Dill CPAs, in Garland, Texas, schedules in-person meetings with first-time clients, educating them on the process and experience. He asks about their families and jobs, and then addresses particular situations and their financial needs. "You cannot do that via email and not over the telephone," he said.

If an in-person meeting isn't an option, consider virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom, Skype, or Webex.

Put clients at ease. New clients may be distrustful or worried when first meeting with a CPA. Stay positive and ensure that you can help them handle their tax complexities, Dunn said. CPAs should also avoid tax jargon when talking with clients, noted Timothy Evans, CPA, signing director at CliftonLarsonAllen LLP in Glendora, Calif. "You don't want to start quoting chapter and verse of the Internal Revenue Code," Evans said. "Speak in plain language."

Evans, who sees 10 to 15 new clients annually, said the objective is to save clients money. But if there are no tax savings, clients can still have peace of mind that their returns will be done correctly, he noted.

Review prior returns. Many clients with newfound complexities make mistakes or miss opportunities on their self-prepared returns, and finding these errors provides immediate proof of your value, Fraim said. Point out deductions that might have been overlooked, tax law changes that may benefit them, and ways to avoid penalties, Ellowitz added.

Be an adviser. Some first-time clients don't need a CPA for their tax returns. So position yourself as an adviser and a resource to clients rather than simply as an accountant who does tax preparation. "They will likely continue to see value in your services," Fraim noted. Dunn touts his firm's advisory expertise and downplays the tax preparation from the get-go. "We don't look at the tax return as the product," he said. "We try to stay away from that concept."

Work to retain clients. As their new CPA and adviser, give clients something to remember by asking about their hopes and ambitions. "If they are planning on starting a business, getting into real estate, or have other major life changes planned, they will need you in the future, and it may be beneficial to lay the groundwork for the relationship now," Fraim said.

Evans talks to clients about retirement planning, regardless of their age, encourages them to look ahead, and explains their tax situation. "Tell them about the deferred tax benefits of contributions into qualified plans such as 401(k), 403(b), and IRAs," he noted.

Explain your fees. Be frank and straightforward with first-time clients regarding your fees and justify the cost of your service. Let them know they may recoup these costs with deductions. "We can almost always look at the prior year's return and find things that were missed," Fraim said.

Also, don't underbid, advised Ellowitz. If you do that, you may have to raise your fee next year simply to recover. "You don't want clients to have sticker shock — but if they bail at what you believe is a fair price, you might be better off letting them go elsewhere," she said.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, JofA associate director, at

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