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Many small business owners have a “traditional” relationship with their Certified Public Accountant (CPA), including a yearly ritual. They bring in (or mail) all of their receipts and supporting documents right before tax season. If the accountant has any questions about the tax filing, they engage in a back-and-forth. After the accountant has gathered all of the necessary financial statements – which can sometimes take quite a while – the accountant completes the tax filing. At this point, the small business owner and accountant part ways and don’t talk again until the same time the following year.

This type of interaction may be the expectation for many small business owners, but it’s not what they should expect from their accountants.

A Canopy survey explored what clients want from their accountants; the findings indicated that accounting clients – similar to consumers in other industries – expect a high level of service, attention to detail, and convenience. They also want to be made aware of all the services their accountant offers – not just tax filing services. A small but growing number of CPAs are meeting their expectations.

Clients Want More In-Person Meetings with Their CPAs

According to Canopy, the top thing that respondents (taxpayers) like most about working with their accountant is in-person meetings. Granted, the survey was commissioned before the onset of the pandemic, but it’s a safe bet that small business owners will feel the same way in a post-pandemic world.

Does this mean that clients want to meet with accountants over every little question about their tax returns? Of course not. But in-person meetings can be helpful in a final review of a small business owner’s tax return or a big-picture tax planning session, to name a couple of examples. The key is discretion.

Another key, particularly in a post-COVID world, is giving clients options; some people have come to prefer video conferencing over in-person meetings. Whether that preference is due to convenience or another consideration, those clients will expect their CPAs to allow them to substitute in-person communication with video conferences moving forward.

The second thing that taxpayers like most about working with their accountant may seem to contradict the first thing – but in reality, it doesn’t.

Clients Want an Online Way to Send and Receive Documents

A desire for more in-person meetings seems like a desire for less technology, but it’s actually a desire for the selective deployment of technology. In the traditional yearly ritual, the exchange of receipts and supporting documents can be time-consuming if done by regular mail or drop-offs. For that reason, clients want an online way to send and receive documents.

The use of e-mail comes to mind as a solution, but it isn’t a safe enough way to send sensitive information such as social security numbers. On top of that, it isn’t the most seamless way to exchange a large number of documents. Enter online portals.

An online portal is essentially a website to exchange documents and any other information. A client receives a personal log-in for access, making it a secure way of exchanging files. Whenever a new document – perhaps a tax return – is uploaded to the online portal, the receiving party gets a notification through email or another channel. There doesn’t tend to be much of a learning curve with portals, making them an excellent choice for tech and non-tech-savvy clients alike.

While online portals are one of the best ways for accountants to leverage technology to streamline their interactions with clients, they are extremely uncommon. According to Canopy, only 2% of accountants offer an online portal. Clients most commonly exchange documents through in-person meetings, hard printouts, and e-mail. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “better technology to streamline interactions” is the third most common thing that taxpayers would change about working with their accountant.

It isn’t enough, however, for accountants to simply use technology to interact with their clients.

Clients Want a Timelier Response from Their CPAs

“More timely response” was the second most common answer to what taxpayers would change about working with their accountant.

Clients are used to getting immediate assistance in other areas of their lives, and those expectations extend into interactions with their accountants. If a client wants to have a deep discussion about business strategy, that should likely be saved for a call or in-person meeting. But for routine questions and concerns, text chats are more than adequate. Women are nearly 2x more likely than men to want online chat as a feature; if, for example, an accountant markets herself to female entrepreneurs, her clients will likely expect her to have a robust chat feature.

But sometimes, it will be necessary to schedule an appointment to handle something that can’t be quickly hashed out over online chat. For example, you have done forecasting in Microsoft Excel for the upcoming fiscal year, and now you want to review your cash flow assumptions with your accountant. We’ve all dealt with the monotony of exchanging a dozen emails to schedule a time to chat with a friend or business associate. With everyone seemingly having a busy schedule, it can feel impossible to find a time that works for both parties.

A way to set and change appointments online alleviates this issue and is, unsurprisingly, cited as one of the top ways technology can improve how clients and accountants work together. An accountant can easily accommodate this request, choosing from many appointment scheduling apps to easily let clients know when they can schedule a time to chat.

Small Business Clients Don’t Always Know About Post-Filing Services

Small business accounting clients are typically aware of the tax services offered by their Certified Public Accountants but are often unaware of the post-filing services that are available. The Canopy survey found that:

  • One in three clients doesn’t know if their tax accountant provides audit protection services.
  • Business owners are 2x less likely to know if their accountant provides audit protection services.
  • 37% of clients don’t know if their accountant provides legal tax services.

Clients’ expectations of accounting firms are similar to their expectations of other businesses – they want to be told what services are available. The Canopy survey focused on post-filing tax services, but many CPAs offer business advice [NV1].

If a startup, for example, needs help deciding on the proper business structure, a CPA weighs in based on their vast experience. Another example is offering advice on balancing invoicing and payables; an accountant can help with this business decision by determining the cash flows implications to the various options. Many CPAs essentially double as Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) for small business clients that wouldn’t need – or be able to afford – a full-time CFO.

So, how should CPAs go about letting their small business clients know about what services they offer? Just like any other business – through advertising. By taking a proactive marketing approach, CPAs can get the word out there with new and existing clients. From there, every positive experience outside of tax filing services with a client reinforces that a CPA is much more than an interchangeable number cruncher – they can instead be viewed as a trusted advisor.

Bringing it All Together

Based on the Canopy survey findings, you may expect that most clients are unhappy with their accountant. But that’s not the case, as 85% of respondents would recommend their accountant. That said, 46% of clients were disappointed by the size of their tax refund last year, and 32% of clients expect to use a different tax accountant next year.

So, most small business owners aren’t rushing out to get a new accountant, but, at the very least, their eyes are starting to wander. What’s the bottom line on how CPAs can bump their approval ratings?

One of the keys is to create a flexible and client-centric experience from start to finish. Accommodating both in-person meetings and video calls is a perfect example. An online infrastructure that enables fast communication and the safe and secure exchange of documents is another necessity.

And by marketing their business advisory services, CPAs can differentiate themselves and build long-term relationships with clients.

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