[IMGCAP(1)]As the calendar year—and for many companies, the financial year—draws to a close, accountants are gearing up for or holding what can feel like a gauntlet of meetings with business owners to begin preparing financial statements and tax returns.

With a little planning, however, those get-togethers are also opportunities for accountants to cross-sell valuable advisory services without having to use hard-sell tactics. Meetings can not only set the stage for generating revenue outside of tax or audit season, they also reinforce to the client that the accountant provides value unmatched by DIY or commoditized tax preparation services.

Indeed, one industry study based on more than 700 accounting firms found that providing the client with new ideas or perspectives was the top differentiator between accounting firms that won a client’s business and those that didn’t get hired. Other surveys have shown that business-decision makers give CPAs the highest ranking among all finance professionals when it comes to who is their most trusted advisor. Owners value the objectivity and competency that their accountants bring to the relationship. Is it any surprise, therefore, that business owners who are current clients are good prospects for additional business?

“If clients have a better understanding of the financial information you prepare for them and provide to them about their business, and they are fully aware of what services you provide, they are likely to identify additional needs and ask for your help,” said Sageworks senior consultant Rick Anderson.

Sageworks client Michael A. Bohinc, owner of accounting, tax and business advisory services firm Keeping Score Inc. in Cleveland, said most business owners find themselves in an increasingly competitive environment, so they are turning to him and other CPAs for business-management consulting services. “These services include business plans, budgets and process-systems improvements, among others,” Bohinc said. “Today, I spend as much, if not more, time on these types of services as I do on compliance work.”

The advantage of “planting the seed” now for advisory services is that it begins to set a schedule for 2016 while solidifying the customer-accountant relationship.

Here are some quick steps to identify clients who may benefit from additional services and to cultivate additional advisory engagements with them.

1. Identify clients: List clients receiving only one or two services from the firm. Add to the list a few clients with a high lifetime value, even if they are businesses that are already receiving some advisory services. This list doesn’t need to be exhaustive at this point; if you come up a dozen or so names, that’s a good start.

2. Identify services: Obtain or develop a comprehensive list of advisory services already offered by the firm or potentially offered. (Consider limiting the time you personally spend on designing and developing the list by engaging the help of a marketing professional.) If a list isn’t already on your own website, check out competitors’ menus of service for ideas on non-jargon-filled wording that will appeal to business owners (i.e., “estimating/boosting the value of your business” vs. “valuation services.” This list will help you connect the dots between your current clients and the services they need. Consider including two columns (along with space for a check mark) after each service listing: currently receiving and potentially needs.

3. Offer ideas: Provide a copy of this list to clients identified in step 1 at the meeting. Clients can look over the list as you review or organize any paperwork they’ve brought related to tax or financial-statement preparation, or you can walk them through it at the end of your meeting or simply send them home with it. This gives clients (and you) a way to recognize and remember how you can help. Two-thirds of clients probably are unaware of all the services you provide.

4. Track ideas: Keep a copy of the list handy so you can make notes about which clients might need certain services.

5. Go a step further: Consider asking each client a few questions about their business once your routine business has been completed. These questions should be aimed at better understanding client challenges so you can meet their needs. Another, more informal option is to choose carefully the “icebreaker” questions you ask at the beginning of any client meeting. Instead of simply asking, “How has business been this year?” you could ask, “So what has been your biggest challenge this year?”

“A good relationship is based on communication and value,” Anderson said. “Parties must be able to understand each other, and they must recognize the usefulness of each party in the relationship. Accountants can improve their relationships with business clients by making sure they understand the clients’ needs and by communicating clearly how the firm can help meet those needs.”

Mary Ellen Biery is a research specialist at the financial information company Sageworks.

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