Most CPA firms today are focusing their efforts on eliminating client interaction. They want clients to drop off their tax info and pick up their completed returns a few weeks later, with little or no communication in between. Most likely, the few “touches” the CPA firm has with clients are not a fantastic experience. Clients might receive a tax organizer that looks like it hasn’t been updated in the last 15 years or a legal engagement letter to sign, and they most likely have to come to the office to sign their returns and pay their taxes with a check. The rest of the year, the client might get a few email newsletters, but that’s it. If they try and call the firm to talk with someone, most likely they go through a phone tree and waiting music to leave a voicemail message that is returned a week later. It’s the equivalent of going to the dentist—something you need to do, but not something you look forward to doing.

Firm owners and managers are so focused on realization rates, work in progress (WIP), and other metrics that they lose focus on what really matters: the client. Not that those metrics aren’t important, but sometimes they are counterproductive to client satisfaction. For example, billing by the hour discourages clients from calling or emailing a CPA firm because they don’t want to be billed $37.50 for a phone call. The typical CPA firm is so focused on “productivity” that it dissuades client interaction, ultimately to its detriment. Modern clients crave personal service, and they are willing to pay a premium for it. Almost anyone—or increasingly, any machine—can do a tax return competently, but only CPAs can provide the knowledge and advice to really help individuals and businesses succeed.

The reason why most CPAs entered the profession—especially those who serve small business and individuals—is a desire to help people. When done right, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a client happy because they saved money on their taxes or were able to negotiate a better deal for selling their business. Imagine if clients thought of their CPA firms the same way they think of their favorite local restaurant or coffee shop: a place they want to go because they know they will get something meaningful from the visit.

Support and Friendliness

How can CPAs and firms improve client satisfaction? It starts with managing all the touch points with customers. For this author’s firm, that means phones. A human answers every phone call; there is no phone tree or answering service, just a firm employee who is in the office and can actually help with the problem. Second, client e-mails must be responded to within 24 hours. The firm’s website has a chat support system so that clients can get urgent questions answered in real time. However a client wants to contact the firm, they should be supported in the fastest and best way possible.

Another big focus is making tax return workflow as client friendly as possible. For tax appointments, clients should come in and meet with the CPAs as they prepare the returns. Spend at least an hour with each client going through the return and making sure that they have quality time. Not only is this more efficient—normally, 95% of the return can be done during these meetings—but it allows the client to ask questions and the CPAs to really get to know the clients and offer them the best advice. Completed returns can be handled with e-signing technology and easy-to-use client portals so that the client doesn’t have to struggle to sign their tax returns or review them. Billing systems should allow clients to easily pay their bills on their phone (e.g., with a credit card or Apple Pay). The more convenient the process is for the client, the more satisfied they are.

Making client satisfaction a CPA firm’s north star is imperative for the long-term success of any firm; otherwise, the firm becomes a commodity proposition in competition with TurboTax and artificial intelligence, which soon will be able to do tax returns faster and better than any small CPA firm can. CPAs must differentiate themselves from machines, and the way to do that is through client service.

Jason L. Ackerman, CPA/CGMA, CFP is an accountant with Bernard N. Ackerman (BNA) CPAs, PA, in Rock Hill, S.C.