CPA INSIDER

Interacting with clients outside the busy tax season

Take time when things are less hectic to hear about your clients’ needs.
By Sarah Ovaska-Few

Accountants spend a lot of time communicating with clients during busy seasons, and outside those active times, picking up the phone and calling clients again may be the last thing they have in mind.

But staying in touch is exactly what needs to happen, CPAs at several successful practices say.

"The key is to reach out and craft that personal approach that clients want," said Sarah Schiltz, CPA, a partner at MarksNelson in Kansas City, Mo.

She and other MarksNelson CPAs meet with clients all year long to get feedback on clients' needs, plan for next year's tax season, and provide other advisory services. Schiltz, who mainly works with developers and others in the real estate world, talks to her clients throughout the year to see how she can assist them in strategic tax planning or thinking through tax implications for big deals.

All that communication pays off, she said. It makes for a smoother tax year the next time around, with chances to iron out any issues early on. She also has the time, unlike in the busy tax season, to sit down and talk in detail about clients' long-term plans.

Here are some ways to stay in contact with clients year-round:

Ask for feedback. Schiltz and other MarksNelson accountants routinely seek feedback from clients after the tax season, often by meeting with them in person. It's a chance to tweak internal processes and arrange for more tax planning sessions in the coming year if clients think they weren't fully prepared for their final tax liabilities. 

It's important to do that early on, before people have moved on mentally from tax season, she said.

Not all clients have the time, or the desire, to meet in person or have a phone call. Offer the chance to give feedback via email as well, or even through a survey. 

Be available. Juan Cocuy, CPA, a partner at the South Florida firm of Templeton & Company LLP, wants his clients to know how to reach him. He puts his cellphone number on his business cards, and he encourages clients to use it so that he can help them think through business dilemmas or offer a recommendation to a client in need of services.

"They can be in touch with me any time of the year," he said.

Figure out a communication medium. Everyone has their own preference in how they like to interact with clients. At MarksNelson, associates work closely with clients to make sure the firm is communicating with clients in the medium the clients prefer, Schiltz said.

Sarah Lane, CPA/PFS, who works at CLS Financial Advisors Inc., an advisory firm in Portland, Ore., has found that email works best for her and for many of her clients.  Lane works as a financial adviser at CLS and then does tax compliance work during the tax seasons for clients, many of whom are also her financial planning clients, through Schultz Group CPAs.

Email gives her a chance to think through what she's trying to convey.

"I can really organize my thoughts, and it creates a document," Lane said. "I know what I'm saying, and the client has time to process what I'm saying."

Other people may prefer using the phone to connect with clients, something that Cocuy does.

He acknowledges that calling a client to get updates on the client's life or business to see if tax planning is needed may be intimidating for some accountants, especially those who are introverted. But the more you do it, the easier it gets, he said.

Use tax changes as a springboard. The changes that went into effect for the 2018 tax year are a perfect opening to reach clients in the off-season.

Because the changes in the law known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act were so significant, it's a chance to engage with clients early on to talk about ways to plan for the current year.

"People want to know what happened and what they can do next year," Lane said.

Keep marketing efforts going. Not all interactions with clients need to come directly from an associate. Templeton & Company frequently sends out newsletters with relevant information for the construction and nonprofit organization sectors, two areas that apply to a large number of the firm's clients.

Templeton sends the newsletters because the firm knows it has to keep providing value to existing clients, as they may very well be hearing from competitors. 

"If we're not doing it, they're getting newsletters from other firms," Cocuy said.

Lane agrees that there's value in providing additional information to clients. Even if people don't directly respond, or even open an email, there's still a value in having your firm's name in their inbox, she said.

"They will see your email and be reminded of you,' she said. That may mean they shoot an email to their CPA with a question about a situation they're dealing with or remember your firm the next time a friend asks for a recommendation.

Plan your strategy. Schiltz and fellow firm partners and managers meet annually to talk through strategies of planned interaction with key clients, so she goes into the calendar year already knowing how many times she'll meet with her most important clients, with at least 50 meetings already scheduled before the year has begun. She uses a simple Excel sheet to track how she is doing in calling, emailing, and reaching out to clients.

"I look at them on a regular basis and make sure I'm reaching out," Schiltz said.

Large business clients at MarksNelson get monthly visits from a team, with partners and managers going to the client's offices to hear about what the company is dealing with and plans it has in the works and to ask in what ways can the firm can help. For example, MarksNelson  recently acquired a technology division, so now it can help clients plan and put major technology upgrades in place.

Having open dialogues with clients pays off, Schiltz said, with chances to gain insight into a client's needs that they may not otherwise bring up.

"The clients do appreciate it and find value," she said.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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