Finding New Clients: Responding to Evolving Behaviors
Feb 12, 2021

Finding New Clients: Responding to Evolving Behaviors

Lee Frederiksen, PhDBy Lee Frederiksen, PhD

The process by which prospective clients have looked for, researched, assessed, and bought accounting and financial consulting services had been shifting. For years, firms have been shifting their marketing and business development processes online to become more effective and efficient. After all, going digital leveled the playing field, so to speak, giving smaller firms not only the appearance but also the audience reach of larger players.

This year, those firms that had embraced digital techniques earlier than others more quickly found their footing when traditional practices, such as in-person events, were put on hold due to COVID-19. Still, today’s marketplace presents obstacles and opportunities, but no clear path forward.

Hinge Research Institute has a study, Inside the Buyer’s Brain, that provides a comprehensive look at the buyer-seller relationship. It offers valuable insights into the challenges facing buyers of accounting and financial services, the tools and techniques they use to evaluate providers, and the drivers behind client loyalty and referrals. It also looks at CPA firms to gauge where their marketing and business development efforts are coming up short and what they can do to keep and win business.

How Buyers Find and Engage with CPA Firms

Woman at laptop looking for a CPA onlineDigital channels have all but taken over, and there’s no going back. Potential clients are as likely to search online as they are to ask peers and colleagues for recommendations. They’ve become avid readers of online articles and blog posts and turn to webinars and social media as frequently as they look to industry events for answers.

This suggests that firms need to make sure they’re equally visible across traditional channels (such as conferences) and web-based ones, such as LinkedIn and Facebook.

These days, having shared values and an ongoing relationship with members of an accounting firm is less important than it used to be. Instead, clients care more about whether a firm has the talent and skills to help them deal with their complex and risky business environment. The importance clients place on subject matter expertise and industry knowledge has also risen significantly. In fact, the Hinge study revealed that the importance of expertise has grown more than 50% over the past two years alone.

How Clients Feel about Firms

Clients are generally satisfied with their CPAs, and most would probably recommend their existing firm to a colleague or friend, the Hinge study indicates. The trouble is that your clients are receiving fewer and fewer recommendation requests from friends and colleagues. Today, these folks prefer to search for providers by conducting web searches or checking social media. Another trend is the erosion of a willingness to recommend a firm: it has dropped by an alarming 15% in just two years. Compound this with the fact that fewer clients offer to recommend when not asked directly. On the bright side, if your firm is viewed as “highly relevant” to clients – meaning you understand their challenges and provide expert, relevant services to meet those needs – they would be over 80% more likely to recommend you.

How to Adapt

If you suspect that your firm is out of step with changing buyer behaviors, you’re probably right. Here are tips to improve your interactions with prospective and existing clients:

  • Correct your misconceptions – Hinge’s most recent research shows that many accounting firms think they understand clients’ needs and challenges. Actually, they don’t. The reality is that your firm probably lacks key insights that could be preventing you from winning new business. To fix this deficit, conduct regular market research on your target audience to gain insight into their issues and needs.
  • Commit to a digital presence – Your clients likely have been increasing digital ways of doing business for some time now. In fact, in many industries and markets, success and growth demand it. Remote workforces, automated processes, and resources and functions moved to the cloud are not temporary trends: things are not going to “get back to normal” after the pandemic. Digital is the new normal.
  • Offer what your clients find relevant – This may be frustrating to realize, but clients don’t care that you offer a wide array of services to lots of different clients. They simply want a CPA firm that offers exactly what they need. Help them make the connection between their needs and how your services can address it. Focus on current and potential clients who give you the most value, understand which types of expertise and services they need, and then provide those services. Be sure that your expertise is not only visible in the marketplace: go the extra mile and use it to differentiate your firm from the competition.
  • Don’t be afraid to upset tradition – It’s often much easier to simply continue doing what you’ve always done. But, as we’ve discussed above, tradition is falling by the wayside: clients are more receptive to working with new service providers and new ways of doing business. Take a good, long look at your methods for connecting with clients and meeting their changing needs. Drop methods that no longer work and find more effective approaches.
  • Your most valuable asset is having the right people – Make the extra effort to attract, hire, and retain the best talent possible. In every industry, buyers of professional services want to work with experts, not “wannabes.” The firm’s lineup of talent is what attracts clients and closes deals.

We live, work, and compete in a digital world, one in which face-to-face interactions have recently grown scarcer. In this environment, digital tools and strategies matter … but human connection and trust continue to matter. Encourage and support both ways of interacting with clients and watch your business grow.

Lee Frederiksen, PhD, is managing partner of Hinge in Reston, Va. He can be reached at

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Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.