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What do your clients really want? Ask!

Shutterstock_752463637If you have a small firm, you know how much of your valuable time can be eaten up with things that don’t generate revenue, such as administrative duties and staffing headaches. So, the thought of doing one more thing might seem overwhelming. But what if it’s the one thing that catapults your practice to the next level?

“We talked about doing a client poll a million times, but never seemed to find the time,” explains Jim Davidson, CPA, of Davidson and Nick CPAs in Naples, Florida. “This past year we had a lot of new staff. We wanted to know what clients thought we did well, and what we didn’t.”

What Jim learned didn’t exactly surprise him, but it did give him some good ideas. After 30 years of practicing in a town known as a retirement mecca, it wasn’t a revelation to learn clients were looking for estate and trust planning. But Naples is nearly bursting with those services already. Surely his clients are getting them elsewhere?

“We learned by sending out our poll just how much clients really do value our advice,” Davidson said. “And now we see the importance of having more communication with our clients to better understand how they feel.” As it turns out, many of Davidson’s clients do want to talk to him about estate and trust planning, and as a result, it’s a service his firm is now exploring offering formally. It’s a road to increased growth for a small firm that’s weathered three decades in a local economy subject to the boom-and-bust of reliance on real estate and tourism.

A lot has changed in those 30 years.

“I’m 55, and my age seems to be the dividing line,” Davidson said. “Clients over that age tend to want to show up in person. Younger than that, and they are fine sending their documents through a secure portal and talking on the phone.”

That’s to say nothing of tax reform, around which Davidson says he’s already had plenty of questions on things like qualified business income (QBI). He’s also anticipating lots of work on new entity structures.

Because of all the changes over the past 30 years, Davidson understands the need to get his clients’ perspectives on his firm. If you’re looking to improve client retention and acquisition, you should consider doing the same. And a poll is a great way to get started.

Structuring a poll

Keep in mind your poll will always be more important to you than to your clients. So, don’t expect them to take hours with it. You’ll want it to be brief, yet still hitting the high points. Avoid confusing language and technical speak. Don’t pack the page (whether printed, emailed or online) with text. Choose what you think is a manageable number of questions before you begin writing them. This will help you focus on what’s most important, and keep your poll from getting out of hand.

When writing your questions, make as many as possible answerable with a simple “yes” or “no.” You could also provide a scale, such as “Rate your service with a number 1-5, with 1 being dissatisfied and 5 being completely satisfied.” Limit the number of open-ended questions to no more than a few.

Jim Davidson ret smWhat to ask

Don’t try to dig too deeply on your first poll, and be careful not to ask for information that doesn’t net you any action items.

Focus some attention on areas you’re already aware need improvement to gauge how acutely your clients have been affected by them. Learning that a large number of clients feel your efficiency or customer service needs improvement can be a powerful motivator for you and others in the firm. Alternatively, you might learn you’re doing better than you thought and find ways to expand on your success.


An important thing to ask is whether your clients feel they’re getting all the services from you that they need. Their answers are likely to surprise you. CPAs are trusted advisers across a wide range of topics. Ask if your clients would like for you to talk with them about retirement, estate and trust, risk management or charitable planning.

How to distribute the poll

You have choices here. While you could email a link to an online poll or even send a fillable PDF, you can also include a hard copy and a stamped envelope with their tax return (some clients might be more comfortable with pen and paper). It’s best to be prepared to deliver the poll in the way the client is most likely to respond. Make a point of telling the client their opinion is important to help you improve your services. You can show your appreciation with a modest discount for clients who return their polls by a set deadline, or small gift cards from a coffee shop or online retailer.

Once you have results, then what?

This is the easy part. Tally your responses and draw conclusions. Did they feel like they had to wait too long for their return? Think about ways to increase your efficiency: make better use of technology, hire more hands, give yourself longer lead time by asking clients to deliver their documents as soon as possible. Are many looking for planning services? Demonstrate your mastery by seeking the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) credential, available only to CPAs.

However you choose to proceed, don’t just listen to your clients; hear them. Conduct your poll annually, post-season, and eliminate or swap out questions as your services and abilities evolve. The changes you make will deepen client relationships and steel your firm for years to come.

Adam Eric Junkroski, Lead Manager, Communications, Tax, PFP, S&C — Public Accounting, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

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