Transition is top of mind for most CPA firms today. The topic emerges in almost every conversation we have with clients, at conferences and in our everyday interactions with firm leaders. Whether we’re talking to firm leaders or emerging leaders, client loss is one of the biggest fears commonly shared by BOTH transitioners and their successors

The potential for client loss is a valid fear, yet one that can easily be overcome with a shift in mindset and a little proactivity. Let’s explore three keys for facilitating successful client transition:

  1. Embrace ongoing transition with a team approach to client service. One mistake transitioning professionals can make is acting as the sole server of a client. If you are the only person at your firm consistently communicating and serving a client, you are putting that client relationship at risk. It is much harder to transition a relationship to a new primary server or team of servers when the client has been used to interacting only with you. To foster a team approach, commit to these practices:
    • Never hold a client meeting alone. Ensure you always have at least one other team member attend each meeting with you – a practice that has many benefits. It allows you to easily teach others how you run client meetings, so they can develop confidence in leading their own client engagements. It opens up the opportunity for additional insights or questions the team member might have for the client that you wouldn’t have considered. It helps the client feel comfortable having future questions or concerns addressed by others on the team since they’ve had interactions with them. And you can ask the team member attending to write the recap from the meeting, taking some follow up work off of your plate.
    • Always team sell new engagements. This way, the new client has already been introduced to multiple professionals at your firm and will expect to have a team of individuals available to handle their needs.
    • Always copy team members on all client communications. This helps ensure the entire team is up to speed on the latest interactions with clients. And be transparent about this so the client can see there are others in the loop if they need help.
    • Always be on the lookout for an opportunity to transition ownership. It doesn’t make sense for you to be the relationship owner for the same clients indefinitely. There is greater value in empowering other emerging leaders in the firm to own specific client relationships. This frees you up for new client opportunities or investing your time in other activities that add value to the firm and are of your highest and best use (i.e. developing new business, improving an internal practice or operational area, etc.). When you have a team service approach, it becomes easier to identify potential client owners sooner.
  2. Agree on client ownership expectations with your successor. Another common fear many transitioners have is that their successor won’t provide the same level of client service or ownership as they had been providing. This is solved through communicating, setting and managing expectations with your successors. Tamera Loerzel generated a great list of examples for effective client ownership in this blog. Consider what additions you’d make from your own experience and then discuss client ownership ideals with your successor related to each client relationship you’re transitioning.
  3. Make your client WANT to be served by your successor. All too often, we hear stories from emerging leaders attempting to take over a client relationship from a partner, but who fail to truly gain the trust of the client who prefers to just keep contacting the partner. The partner’s response to this conundrum is typically something like “if my client calls or emails me, I can’t just NOT answer them.” Actually, that’s exactly what you should do. If you’re truly intending to transition the relationship, you must stop having the answers to the clients’ questions. Every time the client emails or calls, you must tell them your successor is the best one to discuss that matter with, so you’ll have him/her respond (and copy the successor on the email or deliver the phone message to the successor as soon as possible to follow up). The same practice applies in face-to-face meetings. If your client directs a question to you, pass it to your successor to answer. One caveat – be sure to let your successor know ahead of time that you won’t be answering any questions the client has unless the successor (versus the client) specifically asks you to. Otherwise, the successor may not be prepared and it could hurt their confidence in owning the relationship if they feel they were “thrown in the fire.” It will likely take many interactions like these before the client starts to realize your successor really does have the answers and begins reaching to them first. It can be hard to let go of “having the answers,” but it is necessary if the client relationship is important you and you truly want your successor to be successful. By stepping back, you are doing what is best for the firm every time you empower your successor to step up.

When you commit to these three practices, transition will become a more natural and easy process to facilitate. Your people will feel more empowered in their roles and will step up for more responsibility. Your clients will have more and deeper relationships with various team members in your firm, which helps further engage and retain them. These are just a few of the benefits that you’ll experience, plus many others!

What client transition strategies are working well for you or your firm? Where are you struggling with client transition? We’d love to hear your thoughts!