Much of the same communication points for staff hold true when announcing a merger to your clients. There are a few different twists obviously.
Client retention has its foundation in the reasons a client chose you or your firm to provide services to them. A client selects a firm based on chemistry between client and accountant, location of firm’s office, cost and perceived value of services, professional expertise and trust. The announcement of the merger or acquisition may cause clients to ask:
- Will my relationship with the firm change?
- Will the partner I have been dealing with still be there?
- Will my fees increase?
- Will the staff I am used to dealing with and procedures I am accustomed to working with remain the same?
- Will the firm’s location still be convenient?
Addressing these concerns is critical to client retention in the merger/acquisition announcement. You need to reassure them that the things they depend on will not change. You need to emphasize continuity regardless of what is changing, focus on things that are not changing and stress what the client is gaining rather than losing.
- Time the announcement. Timing lends critical support to client retention and transition. Decide when various clients should be told. All clients should be informed fairly close to when the formal announcement will become public news. How and when you make the announcement depends on the importance of the client to the firm and the amount and timing of interactions with the client.
- Craft the message. Whether you communicate with clients in person, by letter or by phone, make sure you send a consistent, positive message about the transaction. Talk about how the merger/acquisition benefits the client. Focus on things that will not change such as staff, fees and client services, and promote new or specialized services that will be offered and the additional services and benefits this new affiliation will create.
- Determine how to deliver the message. The importance of the client will dictate how the announcement is made as well as when it is made: a personal visit or a phone call by the partner. Deliver the message in a way that allows you to respond to key questions in order to reinforce to the client that he/she is important to the firm. The largest clients are traditionally told in person; others via the phone and yet others through the announcement letter.
- Introduce the successor or merger partner(s). A personal introduction by the existing partner of the successor to the client helps assure an effective transaction. In addition to introducing the successor, defer to him/her whenever possible and allow them to take charge on issues during the transition process while still holding out the illusion (or reality) that you are still involved.
- Involve both firms in the communication process. Little things can make a difference in perception. Mailing the announcement letter in the predecessor’s envelope but writing it on the successor firm’s letterhead ensures the letter will be opened and sends a powerful but subtle message about the transition.
- Time commitment of the seller to the transition. In order for a successful transition, sellers need to spend time seeing clients and remaining available for consultation via phone and email in order for the clients to perceive no difference in the relationship. Planning an appropriate amount of face time to ensure a proper transition for larger clients is key.
- Focus on continuity of service. This is critical to retaining clients. Retain contact information such as phone and fax numbers, domain names and email addresses for at least a year. It is simple and easy to use forwarding features for both email and telecommunications. Answer the acquired firm’s phone number on a dedicated line with a custom greeting that uses both firms’ names. When you intend to stop this practice send another merger announcement letter but this time the message should focus on how wonderful the past six months (or year) has been and the wonderful growth experienced by the combined firm. In this letter again announce the new phone numbers and email addresses and suggest clients update their records.
- Maintaining service and billing methods. Don’t immediately change work process and billing systems, wait until clients are comfortable with the new firm. If changes must be made soon after the affiliation, make them slowly and focus on those with significant priority.
For more information on client and staff issues in a transition:
- How to Maximize Client Retention After a Merger by Joel Sinkin and Terrence Putney, Journal of Accountancy, c2014
- Keeping it Together: Plan the Transition to Retain Staff and Clients (Part 2 of 2) by Joel Sinkin and Terrence Putney, Journal of Accountancy, c2009
- The Long Goodbye by Joel Sinkin and Terrence Putney, Journal of Accountancy, c2013