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Mark Washburn

Tax Client Retention During the Recession

Four strategies revealed.

February 12, 2009
by Mark Washburn, CPA/MST

Two traits that are most important to me as a professional tax practitioner are confidence and respect. Not just confidence in my own abilities, but enjoying the confidence of my clients and peers. Respect, not just for others, but respect earned by consistently doing the right thing even when the temptation to take a short cut creeps in. I still recall my high school football coach telling us how the person looking back from the mirror would always be our toughest opponent, as well as our toughest critic. I bought that opinion at an early age and I am proud to say now, some 35 years later, that I still firmly believe in it.

As the world around comes crashing down, your clients are losing confidence and respect. Values are being shaken to the very core. The real estate industry has taken a huge hit with property values in many states down by as much as a third compared to just over a year ago. Financial markets are on the ropes, up by hundreds of points one day, only to plummet in similar amounts the next. Banks have behaved imprudently with the result being one of the largest banking meltdowns ever recorded. Government wants to fix the problems, but can’t get past their own inefficiencies and tainted leadership.

Setting a High Bar

The vast majority of U.S. citizens still hold their accountants in high regard. To maintain that level of confidence, it is necessary for people to respect the work we do. Just as other industries are experiencing downturns, accountants may see more people move away from the paid tax-return preparers to doing it themselves. Therefore, it is imperative that CPAs do even more to maintain and grow that confidence and respect.

What Can You Do?

Remember above all else, your clients have a choice of with whom they conduct business. Your credibility, your sincere desire to provide valuable advice, your honesty in a time when honesty is a lost trait, all mean everything in terms of credibility and respect.

Here are four key strategies that you can follow to retain your clients:

  1. Renew your commitment to high ethics. Be a fair and impartial advocate for both your clients and the tax system. If necessary, get rid of clients who continuously put you in ethical dilemmas or who expect you to perform “damage control” after they have acted. Display your organizational Code of Ethics in a prominent place in your office. If you have staff, make this commitment a part of every staff meeting. Leadership flows from the top. If your staff truly believes in your commitment to high ethics and standards, they will most likely make the same commitment.
  2. Take a course to update your knowledge of the changes to the tax code since the previous year. Include your staff as well. Attend with the purpose of truly getting on top of changes. When you return to your office, make certain your software correctly handles these changes. Don’t assume anything! Make it your responsibility to know for certain the tax-preparation software you use performs correctly.
  3. Take time to discuss your clients’ needs with them. Familiarity breeds sloppiness or even worse, conclusions are drawn based on what CPAs think they know about their clients. Conduct each interview as though this were the first time you had ever spoken to this particular client. Ask probing questions. Review the prior year’s tax return at the same time, looking for consistencies as well as inconsistencies with what you are receiving and learning about this year’s income and deductions. Let your clients know they are not going to be able to take a return you prepared to one of the big box-chain preparers and discover $2,500 of deductions and credits you overlooked!
  4. Remind your clients of your commitment, when they come to pick up that tax return. Give them a new business card, remind them of your office hours, and let them know you are not closing the office on April 16th for the remainder of the year. Send them reminders throughout the year in the form of newsletters. Encourage them to consult with you in any matters that have a tax impact, preferably before they act. Build a Web site. Keep the lines of communication open by whatever means required.

Conclusion

All clients want an honest, reliable accountant in whom they can trust. Remember the old saying "actions speak louder than words," as you work to get your message across to your existing — as well as potential — clients. Demonstrate by your deeds that you are worthy of their confidence and respect and they will reward you in kind. And be able to be proud of that person who looks back at you from the mirror!

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Mark Washburn, CPA/MST, is a Senior Lecturer in Accounting at The University of Texas at Tyler. He teaches both Individual and Corporation tax courses at the undergraduate level. He is a certified public accountant licensed in Texas and holds a Master of Science in Taxation from the University of Texas at Arlington.