Highlights From AAM - How Do Clients Choose a CPA Firm?

As I did last year, I made copious notes at this week's Association for Accounting Marketing's Annual Conference (held in conjunction with the AICPA's Practitioners Symposium and TECH+ Conference).

It is my intention to share bright ideas with you over the next few weeks, giving you a peek into some of the cutting edge information and trends, interesting perspectives, and tools and resources that were shared during the sessions.

I am going to begin with some of the data that was gathered by Lee Fredericksen, Ph D., Managing Partner, Hinge Marketing, in a research study regarding "How Clients Choose an Accounting Firm."

After studying 281 accounting and financial professionals and 700 companies involved in B-to-B sales, what Lee discovered is pretty powerful. He uncovered gaps between what buyers of services care about during the decision process and what they care about after they have selected a firm; and they ranked these in comparison to what CPAs thought their clients valued under those same circumstances.

When buyers are looking for a new financial services provider, 87% said they network, asking a friend of colleague for advice - while only 10% search online. This information reinforces the power of building meaningful relationships and the role of networking in the process.

The top five characteristics that business owners said they want most when selecting a firm are:

1. Educate me with new ideas of perspectives
2. Collaborate with me
3. Persuade me we will achieve results
4. Listen to me
5. Understand my needs

Over and over again, buyers said their selection criteria focused on team expertise and skills, cost and terms and the presence of an existing relationship. Interestingly, while 18% said they highly value working with a CPA who is a specialist in their field, only
1% of CPAs said they thought business owners cared about industry specialization. CPAs need to rethink this area and reinforce their status as leading experts in key industries.

But once the buyer became a client, different factors come into play that influence loyalty. As purchasers, business owners put a premium on being educated, looking for new ideas and industry expertise, and collaboration. But as clients, they care much more about the CPA firm being able to do what it said it will do. In fact, building a trusted relationship and delivering on promises were the overwhelming top two factors present in loyal clients. Many firms are not aware that while buyers seek certain benefits when making the decision to switch - these key tipping points are replaced by other attributes once the client has begun working with the firm over time. In other words, after the engagement letter is signed, the client wants to remain with a firm that is true to its word and carries out its promises.

Business owners want solutions to their tough challenges - but they clearly value relationships. The research showed that the top values/benefits that clients most desired from their CPA after switching were:

1. They have become a trusted team member
2. They add perspective that leads to better decision making
3. They provide solutions to my problems

Think about these distinctions and values when you are making a pitch for new business or are reinforcing an existing client relationship!

This blog

Sally Glick, CMO, Principal, Marketer of the Year in 2003 and AAM Hall of Famer in 2007, will lead a lively discussion of the constantly expanding roles of marketing and the professional marketers that drive this initiative in accounting firms of all sizes.

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