Every preparer wants to know what their clients think. The trick is how to find out.

William Keats, an Enrolled Agent at Keats Tax & Financial Service in North Merrick, N.Y., issues a survey form to clients. “Questions cover overall impressions in areas of overall performance, responsiveness, value, appointment, location and so on, and questions regarding tax preparation in areas of knowledge and expertise, efficiency, accuracy and planning advice,” Keats said.

Unfortunately, “Many [clients] don’t return them,” he said.

Terri Ryman, an EA at Southwest Tax & Accounting in Elkhart, Kansas, has never “formally” surveyed clients but “I do ask them how they heard about me. So I’ll be very interested in what other [preparers] have done and how and why they do it.”

‘New services’ and ‘new value’
“I always survey new clients to find out how they found me so I can evaluate my advertising effectiveness,” said EA Joel Grandon in Marion, Iowa. “I’ll also informally survey them about such things as do they have a will or have they made an estate plan, or maybe about their savings practices and if they feel confident about retirement and other saving goals.”

“I mainly do this to help me model new services and find ways to add value,” Grandon added.

“We primarily survey clients by telephone and in person, and use these conversations to inform what services we will add or cut, as well as ensure client satisfaction,” said Geoff Plourde, a CPA and EA in Woodland Hills, Calif.

Knowing your clients, the challenges they face and how you can assist them will make it far easier to offer growth services “that generate new engagements and prevent clients from seeking help from other firms,” noted Mary Ellen Biery, writing on the Sageworks blog.

‘What’s on their mind?’
“The good news is that surveys do not have to be expensive, complicated or time-consuming. Numerous online sites offer free methods of creating surveys to use with your own customers,” and these sites can also often help you design a survey and report the results, Biery added.

“We survey after specific meetings and when a client doesn’t use our services in the following year,” said EA Gene Bell of Gene Bell & Associates, in Bellingham, Wash. “We use a combination of mail, in-office [interviews] and Survey Monkey.”

“I don’t survey tax-only clients but have surveyed advisory clients in the past, using Survey Monkey,” said Morris Armstrong, an EA and registered investment advisor at Armstrong Financial Strategies, in Danbury, Conn. “It doesn’t go over well. I do call my clients often and ask what’s on their mind, and sometimes what can I do better.”

“For many years we’ve included comment cards with all returns and projects,” said Steven Weil, an EA at RMS Accounting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Several years ago we switched to Survey Monkey, which streamlines the process and makes the data collected easier to use. We wait until clients have their completed returns before we send them an e-mail request to complete the survey.”

Unconsidered weaknesses
Not all client surveys run well, sometimes hampered by poorly worded questions or outright lack of response.

Twila Midwood, an EA at Advanced Tax Centre in Rockledge, Fla., said her practice tried to perform a survey several years ago. “While some of the responses were helpful,” she said, “for the most part the survey did not necessarily depict a true picture because so many of the clients didn’t respond.”

“We haven’t surveyed our clients,” said EA Richard Ogg of The Master’s Tax & Financial Services, in Santa Rosa, Calif., who said that his reviews of survey strategies has revealed that they don’t “really accomplish much. [Clients] who really like you offer accolades but little information to improve matters. Those who dislike you a bit tend not to want to spend time providing the feedback. Those who really dislike you are probably leaving over something that is often not representative of your whole client base.”

Ogg said that it’s hard “to create questions that don’t ‘lead the witness’ or cause people to consider a weakness in your service that they hadn’t previously noticed. The end result can be a negative hit on your business, and the opportunity for strengthening a service-based business is minimal.”

“I don’t currently use a survey to measure client satisfaction. I have a good relationship with my clients and they feel quite comfortable expressing displeasure or satisfaction with my services,” said EA Janet Sienicki in Schererville, Ind.

‘Fix it’
On the Sageworks blog, Biery suggests asking questions that can shed light on clients’ business processes and how they use technology, such as whether they handwrite checks or use online banking. “You can collect some basic demographic data such as age to help determine possible demand for services like exit planning,” she added. Other pointers:

  • Use open-ended questions to ask about the biggest challenges facing business owners you serve or about where they find industry data;
  • Keep client surveys simple so your clients can understand and answer the questions in a short time;
  • Ask about clients’ expertise in certain areas such as financial analysis and their preferred method of learning, such as reading or face-to-face meetings.

EA Jennifer Brown, of Implex Tax & Accounting in Clearfield, Utah, conducts “a few surveys of clients every year. The one that I rely on the most is a satisfaction survey. I ask them basic questions about the service they received – including the cleanliness of the office and bathrooms. I also ask them how I can improve for the next time I see them.”

Brown calls surveys invaluable. “They can sometimes seem harsh,” she said, “but I appreciate the ones where I get feedback more than the ones that just give me all five stars. If I know what I’m doing well, I can keep doing it. If I’m underperforming in an area, I’d like to be able to fix it.”

Jeff Stimpson

Jeff Stimpson is a veteran freelance journalist who previously served as editor of The Practical Accountant.