How Not to Kill Your CPA Firm

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A material number of our new clients come from people who are dead.  How’s that for tapping into referral source networks?

Invariably we get calls each year like, “Hi.  My CPA died last week and their office told me to find a new one.”  Does it have to be this way?

And what about the spouse and family?  A complete book of business worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the dumper?

Many times this is a sad occurrence, in addition to one of inconvenience.  The client has enjoyed a confidential, fruitful relationship with an important advisor, often called “a friend of the family.”  Everything the next CPA does will be compared to their previous provider.

Here are some ways over the years that I have learned from client CPA firms, mentors and experience. We employ all of them in our firm to avoid the day when The Godfather (to clients and friends of the firm) dies suddenly at his desk, or is hit by a 97-year old man driving a Cadillac Deville while on his motorcycle:

  1. Immediately hand off communications to someone else, be it your protégé, another partner or a trusted employee.  From my first day in public accounting the partners were having me return client phone calls.  “What should I say?” I remember asking.  “Nothing,” was the reply.  Find out why they called and let’s talk later about how to respond.  This allowed those with strict time demands leverage to do their high level work which often required complete concentration, showed the client we were responsive, by calling back immediately, and gave the staff exposure to clients so they then became comfortable calling them instead of always calling the partner on the job
  2. Prepare the client ahead of time.  “Please know, that if I am not here, ask for Helwig instead and she will help you.”
  3. Take yourself out of the spotlight.  Ever since I took the Dale Carnegie Course thirty years ago, my primary management style was to “build people and make them successful.”  I don’t like to claim credit, but rather speak like those guys after winning the big game on Sunday, “I couldn’t be of service to you without the outstanding people who work with me.”  Also, I inform that I don’t directly prepare many returns anymore; I train the people who work here by my standards and I re-do the returns they have prepared.  Also, I make it a point to say things like, “Jane is smarter than I am. She is a graduate accounting student”… or “Joan has been a CPA for 3 years and my other clients love her.”  Over the years this approach has given us much lower than expected turnover and higher quality client relationships.
  4. Be at the office less.  Take fewer calls; take life easier.  Everyone can be replaced.  Maybe you don’t have to be that stressed out by doing everything yourself.
  5. Let your spouse and your key employees know exactly what to do in case you become incapacitated.  Make sure staff know your spouse, and like him/her so their efforts are done in their behalf as well as the firm’s.
  6. Set up a strategic alliance with a good buddy CPA in the community, someone your client can trust and relate to as they do you.  When Jim Smith, IV, CPA died last year, his practice was immediately taken over by a close friend and outstanding practitioner.  We also leant a hand by doing returns that were backed up.  Very few clients were lost.
  7. Groom your successor.  Have someone ready at a moment’s notice to step in.

This might go against your grain; not the way you really do business.  How many firms won’t even allow staff to talk directly to clients?  And, aren’t you putting your clients at risk by sharing the relationship?

Only if your people don’t love you and appreciate working for you.  In which case that is your fault: you have either hired, promoted, retained the wrong people, or have treated them in such a way as to not create loyalty. 

Change the way your firm interacts with clients, and your practice doesn’t have to die if you do.

Allan S. Boress, CPA, CVA is the author of 12 published books on marketing, selling and managing the business development process for CPAs.  The “I-Hate-Selling” Book is available at


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