[IMGCAP(1)]In an increasingly competitive environment, CPA firms are hard pressed to focus on strategies around client retention.

Some international associations of CPA firms recognize the value in fostering an environment among member firms to share best practices as a means of delivering outstanding value. One such organization, CPAmerica International, boasts a particularly top-notch group of marketing professionals from CPA firms across the country. At a recent mastermind session, client retention strategies were explored amid a candid discussion fueled by a presentation I gave as a consultant to the accounting profession.

The Power of the Brainstorm
One powerful method for retaining clients is conducting a brainstorm session on behalf of key clients (defined as a client that offers large revenue or has the potential to do so). A brainstorm is a carefully facilitated “brain dump” of ideas to develop a long list of deliverables from which the client would benefit. These can be accounting and non-accounting related.

A safe, open, healthy discussion is encouraged among a small team of accounting professionals from various service areas and levels of expertise. The object of the brainstorm is to ask participants a lot of questions that are contemplated from the perspective of the client.

Larry Feld, director of marketing for the Hunter Group, based in Fair Lawn, N.J., described a brainstorm as “a proctored conversation, with an overall goal expressed to everyone upfront … among a good cross-section of people to ask probing questions … to expose deeper layers of problems, issues or passions that unlock ideas for solutions.”

Larry advised, “The key is that there are no wrong answers. No one cross-examines or judges another’s comments. People can disagree, but should do so respectfully.” He added, “In the right setting with the right mix, I think that [accounting professionals] are the best to uncover ideas, and it would be amazing if a 30-minute brainstorm didn’t articulate at least a few needs that are currently unmet.”

Katherine J. Farrow, marketing manager at Teal, Becker & Chiaramonte CPAs, located in Albany, N.Y., shared the benefits of brainstorming at her firm. “We have brainstormed on behalf of certain niches. For instance, we lost some government bids because of high fees, so we brainstormed about consulting engagements that we’ve done for other clients. We came up with a list of these types of non-traditional projects and then identified [governmental] agencies that could benefit from this type of consulting work, and we are now trying to market those services as result.”

Here are examples of some questions to be discussed during a brainstorm:

• How does this client (i.e. business owner, CEO, CFO, etc.) define success?
• What do they value most about us?
• What have we done for the client that is above what they expected out of us?
• How can we add value in a nontraditional way?
• How are we capitalizing on the loyalty factor, if we have it (such as asking for referrals from happy clients)?

After a successful brainstorm has been conducted, now what? One of the topics raised during the recent CPAmerica marketing roundtable was the importance of having key conversations between accountants and their clients.

Overall, some participants acknowledged, there seems to be an issue of CPA resistance to connecting with their clients outside the accounting deliverables that they were hired to provide.

Larry Feld agreed. “There may be lots of agreement and participating during the brainstorming, but after the meeting, the challenge lies in creating action or support for the initiatives identified,” he said. “Without accountability, these sessions are of very limited use.”

As part of the brainstorm process, there should be a consensus as to who will follow up with the client in a meaningful way to discuss some of the most important and pertinent issues that were raised during the session. It is recommended that the professional present, serving in a role of “relationship manager” with the decision-maker at the client, open up a meaningful dialogue by way of a “Client Check-In.”

Key Questions to Ask During a Client Check-In
Now it’s time to take the knowledge learned (all those great ideas) and bring it to the client. Think about this: Have you given the same amount of time and attention to this existing client as you did back when you were first proposing your services to them? CPAs should never get too comfortable with the thought that their clients won’t leave.

CPAs should realize that their competitors are actively wooing their top clients. Checking in with these clients in a meaningful way is the key to keeping them.

Checking in with clients—separate and apart from any client deliverable or service-oriented meeting—is a proven methodology in client retention.

Asking key questions to secure the relationship, offering meaningful advice and identifying additional services that might be needed should be done on a regular basis.

The seasoned accounting marketing professionals from CPAmerica International offered insights into the most effective questions to ask clients to engage them in the kind of dialogue that could help secure your status as their most trusted financial advisor.

1. Am I meeting all of your needs?
2. Am I aware of all of your needs?
3. I am committed to growing my practice area in your industry. As part of my dedication to your industry—and because I enjoy working with you very much—I would like another client just like you. Can you recommend someone I should talk to?

Katherine Farrow added, “These are important questions to ask. So often our CPAs are hesitant about ‘over selling’ that they don’t offer some solutions that we can provide, and the client looks for an outside provider when, say, we could have done the administration work on their retirement plan. We need to make sure we strive to meet their needs and also be aware of non-traditional accounting services from which they can benefit.”

Suzanne E. Warden, marketing director at VonLehman, a CPA and advisory firm based in Fort Mitchell, Ken., said, “Continued growth depends upon asking important questions like these and the answers they uncover. I especially value the question, ‘Am I aware of all of your needs?’ … because it opens up the conversation entirely, allowing many needs to be discussed. Another version of that question might be, ‘What business challenges are you facing now that we have not discussed recently?’”

Asking clients for a referral as part of the retention process may seem out of context, but when you ask a client to refer you—especially when verbalizing your commitment to their industry and to them personally—you are actually solidifying your relationship by a request for a reciprocal show of goodwill.

Lisa Tierney, CLSC, is a certified professional life coach and consultant who works predominantly with CPA professionals, assisting CPAs in growing their practices, developing their leadership abilities, effectively managing their relationships and finding graceful exits around succession planning. She is the owner of Tierney Coaching & Consulting, Inc. Visit her Web site at www.CPAMarketingConsultant.com or contact her at Lisa@CPAMarketingConsultant.com.