Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell was referring to environmental impacts when she sang, "Don't it always seems to go/That you don't know what you've got/Till it's gone" in "Big Yellow Taxi." But chances are that many accountants have the same thought after a client leaves the practice -- especially if they had been with the firm for several years.

After all, numerous studies show that attracting new clients costs a lot more than retaining existing ones. Studies have also revealed that the reason a client leaves may not be what you expected it to be. Many accountants believe that pricing plays a bigger role in clients' decisions than it actually does.

So what are the top mistakes that accountants are making when it comes to retaining their clients?

Mistake No. 1: Believing that clients will ask for help when they want it. Accountants who expect clients to inquire about additional services or to seek advice on financial issues are not only missing out on cross-selling additional services, they are also putting client relationships at risk. The Sleeter Group recently surveyed small and midsized businesses about why they left their accountant, and the top reason was because the accountant gave only reactive -- and not proactive -- advice.

Tip: When presenting financial statements or tax returns to a client, identify one or two open-ended questions to ask so that you can start the dialogue with clients about their business concerns and begin to offer proactive advice. It can be something like, "What was your biggest challenge last year?"

Mistake No. 2: Assuming clients understand what accountants do. Sageworks chairman Brian Hamilton said that many business owners don't use their accountants to help manage their business because it doesn't occur to them. "When they think of their accountant, they think of taxes," he said. It may not occur to them that you can help them decide whether leasing or buying equipment makes better financial sense, or that you can help them identify ways to prevent fraud or speed up customer payments.

Hinge Research reported recently that two thirds of buyers of accounting and financial services admitted that they don't know all of the services offered by sellers. At the same time, 44 percent of those buyers said that they were interested in additional services. It's up to you to educate your buyers.

Tip: Include a list of all services your firm offers when you communicate with clients. Break the services down into language the client can understand.

Mistake No. 3: Assuming clients already know what to do to run their business better. Many of them don't know finance, and it may not occur to them that they can take simple steps to improve financial results. Many of them are intimidated by their accountants because of the financial language.

Tip: Use plain-language reports and graphics to show a business client how their business is performing and to offer suggestions for improving financial performance.

Mary Ellen Biery is a research specialist for Sageworks, a financial information company that provides financial analysis and industry benchmarking solutions to accounting firms.

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