Year after year, clients return for the valuable services provided by their CPA. To maintain that loyalty, CPAs need to build and maintain strong client relationships, both to expand business and to shore up client lists that experience natural attrition. Regular communication is the best way to strengthen relationships for the long term. Some benefits of planned ongoing outreach are:
- Existing contacts and referral sources learn about the firm's full range of skills and service offerings;
- Clients are prompted to make referrals or pass along the information to potential new clients; and
- Connection and loyalty may increase as contacts learn about a CPA's interests outside of accounting.
Communication takes many forms, so this is a time to be creative. Include mailings, email, social media posts, blogs, or token gifts. CPAs should target various segments of their contact list. Obviously, more tech-savvy clients may respond to a blog but not a mailing, while others may be more likely to see postings on a firm's Facebook page. Group gatherings, a question on a "New Client Checklist" to determine mail preferences, or tax updates via YouTube are all good ways to stay in touch. Offerings should be posted or published monthly or quarterly. The content should be informative. For example, a tip on a lesser-known tax deduction or credit would highlight the CPA's expertise while providing valuable information to the client.
CPAs can post news about their business on a firm website and appropriate social media outlets. They should not be afraid to promote what they do. Besides the usual updates, the reminders can list special skills or services the firm offers, such as tax issues for foreign nationals with U.S. income or investments. The author's website and business Facebook page feature links to podcasts of his tax expert appearances on a local radio call-in show.
It is all right to share limited social or personal information, too. This can let people glimpse the accountant as a well-rounded professional rather than as a "tax nerd." CPAs can differentiate themselves from other accountants and offer a more human side. For example, the author performs a short standup comedy routine at a local nightclub that incorporates tax-related humor. He invites interested clients and contacts by email and uses Facebook and YouTube to share the performance.
Many CPAs regularly conduct live or webcast seminars on topics of interest such as tax law changes and financial management (including tax) issues. These can be especially effective if they target certain groups, such as medical doctors. Information sent out promoting these seminars will reinforce the CPA's image as a source of valuable information and expertise.
To connect with individual clients, CPAs can send clippings of relevant news items to a client or contact. Or they can reach out and acknowledge the person's news and public milestones. It is also productive to invite a client or contact to a meal or entertainment event so the CPA can learn more about the client's life, business, and family. Holding an office open house may provide an opportunity for CPAs to enhance relationships with clients and friends of the firm without appearing to be promoting the CPA's practice. Hosting a tax round-table event for a professional group to discuss new or pending tax legislation or other relevant topics is a good way to reach large numbers of potential clients.
Annual client satisfaction surveys are also a good way to stay in touch with clients. Not only is this another "touch" that tells the clients their CPA cares, but it is also a great way to obtain feedback about the quality and breadth of client services provided.
In the big picture, the easiest way for CPAs to be certain they are communicating regularly is to set up a calendar and create an annual plan. Programs such as Constant Contact offer ideas and also facilitate the process. Below is a suggested timeline of events to use throughout the year to stay engaged with clients.
New tax law update: This is the time to send clients tax organizers. It is also a great time to send a note about new tax legislation or potential legislative changes.
Report on IRS local audit activity: Audit risk information and reminders about rules can help guide clients as they fill in their organizers and document their filing position—even before their tax season appointment. A specific client may also benefit from knowing that a local IRS office is aggressively targeting certain areas or types of taxpayers (e.g., qualified real estate professionals).
Payroll and income tax rate change schedules: CPAs canalert clients to changes with charts of the upcoming year's payroll, individual, fiduciary, and corporate rates.
Individual unclaimed property checks: CPAs can have staff check the state's registry to see if clients have unclaimed funds on deposit. A discovery of "free money" can lead to enthusiasm—and referrals.
Schedule of record retention recommendations: As clients start work on their taxes, it is a great time to offer guidelines on when they can dispose of old documents.
Client tax return information: Send organizers or other tools clients can use to gather their tax information for the year, together with a note or other communication tailored to the client base (i.e., one that doesn't look as if it was generated by the firm's tax return preparation software).
February and March
Updates on return processing: CPAs can keep clients abreast of what to expect and offer a review of items that could affect—or delay—the processing of current-year tax returns. This may include factors beyond the CPA's control, such as the delays in IRS tax form processing caused by the passage of late tax legislation in early 2013 and the partial government shutdown this past October.
Firm policy review on amended broker 1099s: Clients may be waiting for an amended 1099 from their broker before they meet with their CPA. A firm can improve efficiency by reviewing the firm's policy, specifically if that policy is to not amend returns with de minimis tax changes for an amount of tax less than the IRS threshold for issuing matching letters. The author's office uses a de minimis test of $100 in tax. Reminding them of this policy can result in earlier tax season appointments.
Note on procedures to improve efficiency: The CPA may remind and explain that if clients come in early in the year, they can have a draft return prepared and receive a list of missing data. Once the missing data arrives, the return can be processed, often without the need for extensions.
Common e-filing mistakes list: CPAs can assist clients with faster return processing and refunds by helping them do it right the first time, such as by giving tips on the top reasons return preparation is delayed. For example, clients may not realize their new baby needs a Social Security number so they might not provide this information without some communication reminding them that this information is needed.
10 biggest roadblocks: While tax filing is foremost on everyone's mind, it is helpful to send a reminder to clients with a list of the main problems that slow down return processing. This list may include corrected 1099s, late release of tax forms, and clients assuming they cannot see their CPA until they have 100% of their tax data in hand.
Tax season review: Clients should be told what went well this busy season (e.g., timely receipt of data, electronic W-2s, or 1099s) and what steps they can take to make the process more efficient in future years. Clients should be reminded that some large tax bills could have been avoided with a simple phone call to the CPA. Clients who need to amend returns should be contacted after April 15 to start the process.
Upcoming extended return deadlines information: May is a good time to offer a schedule of return deadlines for all returns. Many partners and fiduciaries are not aware that extended returns for partnerships and trusts are due on Sept. 15, not Oct. 15.
Tax projection reminder: Minimize surprises by encouraging a head start on tax planning and calculations and accordingly revising estimated payments.
Personal update: Vacation time is ideal for a more personal message to clients and contacts.
Local event sponsorship: CPAs can build goodwill in the community by sponsoring a music festival, family event, local youth sports team, or charity fundraiser and promoting these efforts to clients.
College credits and tuition deduction: Many clients send children to college in August, and their thoughts turn to what education credits and deductions are available. A review of the American opportunity and lifetime learning credits and the tuition deduction may provide the impetus to contact their CPA for help with planning. Clients also appreciate knowing what kind of documentation they need to back up these tax breaks.
Sept. 15 deadline reminder: August is a good time to remind partnership, corporate, or fiduciary clients on extension of the upcoming deadline.
Reminder on tax projection: This is an excellent time to remind individual clients about preparing a year-end tax projection, due to both federal and state tax legislation. For example, 2013 saw the introduction of the 3.8% net investment income tax, which was enacted to help pay for health care reform; the passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, P.L. 112-240, which raised the top rates on ordinary and capital gains income; and, in some cases, changes in state tax rates. Many clients will need to plan for these changes.
Encourage clients to come in earlier: The period immediately after Sept. 15 is a good time to contact business clients that finished their returns close to the deadline and encourage them to start earlier next year. The CPA can point out that additional taxes, interest, and penalties—as well as higher fees—arise more often for clients that wait until the last minute.
Filing-season review: Oct. 15 is the optimum time to review the filing season and contact late or "last-minute" filing clients to solve problems and offer concrete suggestions.
Year-end tax planning: CPAs should consider starting the year-end tax planning process shortly after the Oct. 15 deadline since it may take some time to gather the information needed and for clients to focus on this. Starting this process in October will result in much of the work taking place in November, which is ideal since this will allow some time before year end to implement agreed-upon strategies.
Tax timeline overview: This is a good month to contact clients with guidelines for the upcoming year's tax season. These may include timelines and procedures to improve efficiency, such as a reminder of the cutoff date for the initial tax interview after which a return will go on extension, as well as the penalties and interest that can result from extensions.
Power of attorney: Some firms keep power-of-attorney forms on file for certain clients. This is a good time to update them.
Update of payroll tax filing requirements and deadlines: A chart listing these obligations and dates is something business clients may find useful.
Report on year-end tax law changes: This is the ideal time to summarize and inform clients of changes that will affect next year's returns. During update classes, keep a list of items to include here. Another item for the year-end letter is a section on IRS and state audit activity listing key items that consistently come up on audits.
Season's greetings message: Holiday or year-end greetings can include a more personal touch. Some firms send cards; others use social media and email. CPAs could send out a family picture with a short update on what transpired during the year
Referral gifts: It is good practice to send small or token gifts to clients or contacts who refer business to the firm or clients who were extra-organized. For example, the author gives a "Golden Adding Machine" award each year to the client who brings in the most organized tax data.
Staying in Touch
Many clients and contacts appreciate being kept informed by professional updates and messages from their CPA. CPAs should stay in touch with tips that are brief, relevant, and useful to clients' business or other financial matters and by adding elements of personal sharing as part of the ongoing communication. In a competitive marketplace, CPAs who can develop a steady flow of connections with clients or contacts throughout the year have a better likelihood of keeping their clients and receiving referrals that will help to grow their practices.