Local accounting firms say providing the highest level of service to their clients is the best way to retain them and to secure new ones.
That’s the consensus from a group of accounting principal partners recently queried about how they compete for new clients and retain their current crop.
“There’s almost a maniacal client focus here like I haven’t seen elsewhere,” said Mark Stephens, managing partner for Ernst & Young’s San Diego office.
Many of E&Y’s clients are either public companies, aspiring to become public, or are fast-growing, Stephens said.
“Our business model is a little bit like venture capital firms’ model in that not all of the companies will become the next great thing but enough of them will,” he said.
In line with providing quality service is finding and keeping the right people to deliver it, virtually all firms said.
Talented Staff a Plus
Kevan Bradshaw, assurance leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, said his firm has benefited by retaining top talent, who tend to stay much longer than the average for the industry.
While turnover in the accounting industry can run as high as 30 percent, at PwC it’s below 2 percent, he said.
Locally, PwC works with some of the area’s largest public companies including Qualcomm Inc., Sony Electronics, Bridgepoint Education, Leap Wireless International and WD-40 Co., but it also provides services to small and medium-sized clients and promising startups, Bradshaw said.
PwC also beefed up the services it provides to clients this year with the purchase of three consulting firms, he said.
“These were national acquisitions but they added significant resources in San Diego,” he said.
All firms interviewed said getting a clear understanding of a client, their industry, and markets they operate in is essential to retaining their business.
“The way you keep clients is by providing great service to them … and if you’re doing that, they’ll be less inclined to the approaches of other firms, which are generally approaching them on a price-only basis,” said Wade McKnight, managing partner at J.H. Cohn LLP in San Diego.
Carisa Wisniewski, managing partner for the local office of Moss Adams LLP, said finding and retaining employees that possess both the technical skills and a strong customer service orientation is crucial to retaining clients.
“It’s required that (employees) be technically excellent, and absolutely necessary that they build a relationship with a client by listening to them to make sure that you’re meeting the client’s needs and providing them what they want, not what you believe they want,” Wisniewski said.
Moss Adams is another firm that expanded its range of services last year with the relocation of several specialists to help its local clients, Wisniewski said.
Among these is a tax specialist in the area of family owned business transitions who relocated from Everett, Wash., and another specialist in the area of Native American tribal affairs, also from Washington state. The latter person will work with tribal clients both locally and in the states of Arizona and New Mexico, she said.
The emphasis on knowing a client to better meet their needs was echoed by all firms regardless of their size.
Unexpected Source of Clients
Ron Mitchell, managing partner for AKT LLP in Carlsbad, said the firm’s primary clients are in health care, nonprofits and construction. Even though the building industry has been hit hard by the Great Recession, Mitchell said AKT has gained new clients in that space last year largely because of the firm’s high service levels.
AKT conducts an annual “physical check-up” for all of its clients to investigate all their operations and see where things could be improved, he said.
“We take a look at all facets of their business to see where there’s an opportunity to cut costs, increase revenue or just in running their business more efficiently,” Mitchell said. “We’re a holistic CPA firm. We look at ourselves more as business consultants than just tax preparers.”
Matt Bradvica, managing partner at McGladrey, said three key things drive retention of clients: communication, responsiveness and understanding, with the latter being the most important.
“You want to become their trusted adviser,” Bradvica said. By truly understanding a client’s needs, you can anticipate things and provide them service or advice they weren’t aware they needed, Bradvica said.
In terms of attracting new clients, he said presenting value propositions that demonstrate knowledge of an industry is important. But perhaps more important is having some relationship to the top executives or a board member.
Winning Over Prospects
But the reasons why a client comes to a firm or leaves a firm are often due to things beyond a firm’s control. “I’ve lost prospects and won prospects for reasons you wouldn’t think of,” he said. “It’s never just about one thing, and why you win is the same thing.”
But in recent years, the cost of services matters, he said. “Price drives a lot of decisions these days.”
For the largest national firms, such as Deloitte LLP, a recurring theme in client retention and attraction is the vast resources they can provide, compared to smaller firms.
Chris Allen, managing partner at Deloitte’s San Diego office, said one of the key differentiators that sets his firm apart from most is a “multidisciplinary approach” that entails audit and tax practice, financial advisory and consulting.
For example, a business in the wind energy space locally sought tax practice service from Deloitte but was also able to enjoy professional expertise from a clean-tech specialist the firm has on its staff, Allen said.
Allen underscored the ongoing adherence to finding and continually upgrading hired employees’ skills. To this end, the firm established a national training center in Dallas, which it calls Deloitte University.