What Makes a Client Change Accountants/Firms?

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Steve McIntyre-Smith, Ph.D

It's a big decision, changing accountants, one that is not taken lightly by business people. Time and again we hear of entrepreneurs complaining to their buddies over a beer, but when asked a simple question "why don't you move your account" nine times out of ten they respond with something along the lines of "I couldn't possibly leave Harry. I've been with him for years!"

Crazy isn't it? Well, yes. And no.

You see, many business people still see their relationship with their accountant as a very personal one, and rightly so. Usually something really drastic has to happen to make them move.

Sure – there are those who will shop around for the lowest price, but they're not really the clients YOU want is it? Imagine working your butt off for a client, providing an excellent service, not even recovering 75% of the time spent on their file in order to stick to the fee quoted, only to find that next year, they're off somewhere else in order to save $50 on the bill. Not an ideal situation, to say the least.

But these, generally speaking, are the exception thank goodness.

I was a committee member of a professional services marketing group who commissioned one of the leading business schools to conduct a research study into why people changed accountants. The results were very interesting.

In summary, the top six reasons were:

  1. Not having a real understanding of the client's business. This was the biggest single reason, quoted again and again by business people who had recently changed auditors. He/She simply didn't understand what made my business tick” was the most quoted statement by ex-clients.
  2. Availability. "He NEVER returns my phone calls." "I had an URGENT problem and the best she could offer me was half an hour a week on Tuesday." If people can't get hold of you when they need you, they will go elsewhere for solutions to their problems.
  3. Approachability. Where clients felt that they couldn't approach their Accountant for help and advice, or where they felt “belittled” for asking “stupid” questions, or where the Accountant in question obviously didn't have much time for them (see #2 also) then they would vote with their feet. People skills show their real value here!
  4. Death, retirement or change of ownership. If you die, retire or sell your practice, more clients are likely to leave your firm than those who want to argue over price! But I guess if you've recently passed-on, what do you care!
  5. Being passed down the "food-chain". People want to deal with a Partner, and when the Partner gets too busy to deal with the "smaller cases", and passes these clients down the line to younger, more junior people within the firm, the relationship with the client is put at risk.
  6. Price. Yep, there were 5 items that ranked much higher than price as the reason why people move their account. A remarkably small percentage quoted fee issues to be even remotely connected with leaving their previous accounting firm.

So what can we learn from this? Lots. The key issues can be summarized as:

  1. Get to really (and I mean really) understand what makes your clients' businesses tick. But that's not all. Once you have done that, you need to demonstrate it to your clients, if they can't see it, it doesn't exist. It takes a little time, but it's well worth it. Tip – look at your clients, pick the top 20, study their industries. Read the trade press and look for articles you can photocopy and mail to the clients in that industry with some thoughtful comments on how their business might be affected by the subject of the article. Invite them to call you to discuss (of course, this is fee-paying work that you are now generating AND demonstrating to your top 20 clients that you REALLY do understand their business!
  2. Be available whenever possible. Remember that you are there for your clients' benefit – NOT the other way around. Tip – block off a couple of hours one day every week in the morning to allow you to fit in any last minute "emergency" meetings with clients.
  3. Be Approachable at all times. Use first-name terms, smile, be interested in your client and use good listening skills. Tell them that no question is too basic and that there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers!Tip – the careful use of humor, at your own expense, making the client look good, can relieve tension sometimes. Yes, some clients do get tense about visiting your office. Remember this and smile a lot, put them at ease, and get them talking.
  4. Keep healthy. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, eat properly, quit smoking, drink less alcohol. Live longer and keep your clients longer!
  5. Keep in front of your clients. Sure – don't be preparing the accounts yourself, but try to take the review meetings yourself. Being in front of your clients is critical to keeping the relationship fresh, and you will be able to spot new opportunities for fee-paying work with the client that a less experienced eye might miss.
  6. Discuss fees openly. Agree costs up-front wherever possible. Clients hate surprises, especially where their own money is concerned. The size of the fee is often not the issue, but the VALUE, or perceived value, of the services provided for the fee. Tip - Explain in detail what you have done (or are going to do) and the savings that have resulted (or should arise) from this work. Which would you rather see in an invoice you receive? "To: professional services rendered $5,000 plus taxes" or"To discussing your present cash-flow forecast, discussing anticipated shortfall in cash for February 2002. Discussing your options, preparing revised business plan, forwarding to your bankers and attending meetings to renegotiate your business line of credit. Successfully raising an additional $50,000 in overdraft facilities. Our fee $5,000 plus taxes." It takes an extra 2 minutes to prepare but it puts you in a much better light! Remember, it's not price, it's value that is the issue.

Steve McIntyre-Smith, Ph.D, is President of MarketingForAccountants.com, a specialized marketing firm serving the accounting community world-wide from three offices across Canada. You can contact Steve by: email at [email protected], telephone 905-607-3673 or visit his website at www.marketingforaccountants.com and sign up for his FREE marketing newsletter, LEDGER.

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