It's easy to understand how a merger can be an emotional issue for firm partners and staff, but it's also emotional for clients, too, according to M&A expert Joel Sinkin, and too often that gets forgotten in planning a union.

"The ultimate measure of success in a merger is client retention," Sinkin told attendees of the American Institute of CPAs' Practitioners' Symposium and Tech+ Conference, held here this week, so it's critical to address their concerns early on in the merger process.

From his experience as president of Transition Advisors, which has consulted on hundreds of firm mergers, Sinkin has identified four main worries that clients have when they hear their firm is merging with another:

  • Is the person I trust still there?
  • Is it going to cost me more money?
  • Do I have to travel far to meet with my new firm?
  • Is the staff I'm accustomed to working with part of the successor firm?

"Give them a little extra love," Sinkin said. "Do everything you can to promote continuity for clients, to reduce the sense of loss and improve the sense of a gain."
Addressing those four concerns even before your clients have a chance to express them is your best bet, he advised, whether it's in a letter, on a call, or in an in-person visit.

"Once you've got a deal, you need to have a plan to let everyone know about it," he said. That planning can start with deciding which clients you need to tell in person, which on the phone, and which by mail. And while how much they spend with you will be a very important consideration, clients who don't pay as much but are great referrers, or are in your industry sweet spot, may merit more personal attention.

"You don't send a transition letter to a $50,000 client. You send it to a $500 tax client," Sinkin said, but you still need to spend time on the letter. In addition to addressing the four main concerns clients will have, you'll also want to explain how the merger will benefit them specifically -- for instance, if the new firm will have expanded capabilities in international tax, the letter to clients with customers overseas should mention that.

And perhaps most important -- remember to send the announcement letter in an envelope from the old firm, not the new one. Clients who see the new firm's envelope will assume it's a solicitation, and probably throw it a way.

"We communicate more and more with clients, but we spend less and less time in the same room with them," he said. "And most firms have partner-loyal clients, not firm-loyal clients. They take a  longer time to transition to the new firm. The more often you see a client, the less time it takes to transition them."

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