Accountants agree: The top reason small business clients decide to flee for greener pastures is when services don’t match up with price.
“‘It costs too much’ is a commonly stated reason, but usually, when you get down to it, it’s the easiest excuse they can come up with,” said Sue Bosevich, vice president of support at Padgett Business Services. “Most often, clients leave because there is little correlation between the fee they're paying and the service offered — they simply don’t understand the value they're receiving. Bottom line, it has to be important to them and it's your responsibility to show them that.”
Small business clients are looking for value and the best way to make a client loyal to you is to expand your services beyond just the one thing that client may come in looking for, said Howard M. Rosen, CPA, JD, former managing partner Conner Ash P.C. and former World Wide Chair BKR international.
“The more services you provide the more loyal the client becomes. Once you are providing three or more services it is very difficult for a client to leave,” Rosen said.
“Do more than just generating tax returns or financial statements: Listen, ask questions and communicate advice,” she said. “Take on a role of business advisor and not just tax professional. Tell them about new tax law or business trends that affect them, and meet at their business location to do it. Make it a point to save your client a particular fee and be sure to take credit for it.”
Gerri Detweiler, head of market education for Nav, does free CPE-eligible webinars for accountants who are looking to understand business credit and financing so they can offer that expertise to clients. She said the demand for more knowledge around how to help clients manage and build their business credit is huge.
“Getting financing is often complicated and time-consuming,” she said. “Accounting professionals are telling me that their clients are hungry for information on how to make that process easier.”
How to keep a client happy: Tech tools and tips
Technology can be a handy tool to keep clients loyal and make sure you’re providing the quality of service they expect from their fee.
“There is software that helps to manage client work internally and to ensure that deadlines are not missed,” Bosevich said. “Portal technology can help bring your office to the client so that documents can be easily exchanged. Apps like Skype can be used to bring you face-to-face with your client when you can't meet in person. But, ultimately, the best way to manage clients is to give them a system to use to engage with you that they can reasonably handle.”
That system could be a meeting scheduling app like Calendly or Doodle, which have free versions you can always test internally before rolling out to clients.
Rosen says a top-notch website is now a necessity when dealing with small business clients, not a luxury.
“Have a website that is user friendly on a mobile application,” he said. “Today's young entrepreneurs fully expect, if not demand, that.”
There are also more “old school” ways to build loyalty as well. Lunches and “drop-bys,” as Rosen calls them, go a long way in keeping long-time clients engaged.
“If you are in the neighborhood, stop in,” he said. “Bring donuts or other goodies. Remember important dates like birthdays and anniversaries. Remember children and grandchildren’s names and, if a milestone is coming up, send a gift even if not invited to the event.”
It may seem obvious, but these classic client tactics are classic for a reason — they work.
How to deal with the other reasons clients leave
Of course, there are always other reasons clients decide to part ways with their accounting team besides the value vs. cost dilemma.
“There are many reasons why clients leave, and you can put them into two categories — the accountant did or did not do something, or something external has happened to the relationship, like a business closing or retirement,” Bosevich said. “Sometimes they simply outgrow your services. It is often difficult to know exactly why.”
Tough financial times can often cause a business to scale back on outside services like accounting firms, which can create a conundrum for accountants — how do you keep a client who just can’t afford you?
Rosen had a client who, during the recession, just had to make cuts and couldn’t keep his firm anymore.
“We had a real estate development company that went through bankruptcy during the recession,” he said. “They could no longer afford our fees. I found a small firm to prepare their tax returns but I kept myself available for consulting without ever charging a fee. Once the economy turned around the client came back and is now one of our largest fees.”
That gratis help Rosen provided during the real estate client’s hard time was worth it, he said.
“You get loyalty by showing loyalty.”