An intergenerational dialogue on client retention

We are continuing our series where we pose one issue or question to two people from the same firm who represent different generations. In this issue, we asked two partners from Long Beach, Calif., firm Windes & McClaughry Accountancy Corp. (, Baby Boomer and managing partner John Di Carlo, who was born in 1955, and Gen X partner Peter Lee, born in 1965, the following question:

"How has the economic downturn affected your focus on client retention?"


Prior to 2009, many CPA firms, including Windes & McClaughry, primarily focused on issues such as staff retention and succession planning. The demand for accountants grew as many CPA firms experienced double-digit growth, and the accounting profession was hindered by limited accounting graduates. Staff retention became a major initiative for many CPA firms. The other major initiative was succession planning. As Baby Boomers neared retirement, "passing the torch" was an issue because many CPA firms did not have a plan to address it. These two issues were top concerns for many CPA firms over the last eight years.

Client retention has always been our firm's focus. We achieved client retention by providing excellent client service at a fair fee and promoting technical expertise. Although it has always been important, it certainly took a back seat to the issues noted above in previous years. Now with the downturn in the economy, client retention has displaced staff retention and succession planning as the No. 1 concern for us.

The downturn in the economy has affected all of us in one form or another, but most importantly for us, it has heightened the competition in the public accounting profession. Because there are fewer new businesses, contraction in the economy, and failed businesses, the growth must come by obtaining clients served by other CPA firms. To safeguard against client departure and to strengthen client loyalty, we are communicating with our clients on a monthly basis to ensure that their needs and expectations are met.

One wealth manager said it best: "In this economy, preserving capital is the key." We need to focus on growth, but most importantly, we need to focus on preserving what we already have.


An interesting phenomenon of this current economic climate has been the significant reduction in proposals for new opportunities. Potential clients are reticent to change accountants, lawyers and other advisors, perhaps due to the uncertainty they face in their daily operations. While this is beneficial in that our existing clients may remain loyal to our firm, it presents challenges in practice development and firm growth.

Regardless of this phenomenon, we have a responsibility to ensure that each client knows and understands that we appreciate the opportunity to be of service. We cannot assume that a client will retain our services and remain loyal. We need to have regular and continuous dialogue with them to discuss the economy's impact on their business and how we may help solve their issues. Our service cannot end with the completion of a financial statement, tax return or special project. We need to stay visible and communicative.

Of equal importance, we need to discuss the client's expectation of our service quality and delivery. Quality client service is important regardless of the economic climate. However, the current economy is not a time to leave anything to chance. Throughout my career, clients have expressed appreciation when asked, "How are we performing? Are we meeting your expectations?" Clients expect us to be technically proficient. Client service is what distinguishes that proficiency. While the firm may attempt to "right-size" through a reduction in workforce or expenses, there is a limit to how far these cuts can go if the firm is to remain viable in the long term. Retaining the revenue base is, therefore, key, and a reduction in the client base poses significant challenges. As a result, the message throughout our firm has been to visit our clients (face to face, via telephone and via e-mail) and visit them often. Client retention is the focus of the firm.

This column is facilitated and edited by Jennifer Wilson, the Baby Boomer co-founder and partner at ConvergenceCoaching LLC (, a leadership and marketing coaching and training and development firm that specializes in helping CPA and IT firms achieve success, and Krista Remer, the firm's Gen X consultant. To have your firm's generational viewpoints considered for a future Accounting Tomorrow column, e-mail Krista at krista

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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