Ensuring a Positive Client Experience During M&A Takes a Concerted Approach

During due diligence for an upcoming M&A deal, learning about clients’ experiences can fall far down the list of to-dos.

Three panelists speaking at a webinar May 8 suggested that finding out how clients feel about their interactions with the soon-to-be-acquired firm is one key to a successful merger. After all, acquiring firms means buying a pool of clients, so leaders should understand client loyalty.

It’s not an easy job, however, especially if the deal isn’t finalized, contended Katie Tolin, owner of CPA Growth Guides, Alyson Fieldman, owner of RockIt Results and former CMO of Marcum, and Jade Reichling, director of client experience at EisnerAmper.

Ask Clients How They Feel

“When you don’t have the answers, all you can do is ask,” Tolin said. She has encouraged partners of the firm that’s being acquired to talk to their clients about any concerns or questions they may have about the upcoming deal.

ClearlyRated CEO Eric Gregg said that while information is imperfect prior to a deal, asking clients for feedback shows how much the firm values their relationships. “That’s pretty powerful for key accounts.” ClearlyRated, which offers service excellence awards within the profession, hosted the webinar.

Surveying clients ahead of the deal is another possibility, but not all firms have access to accurate client data, and the accelerated timelines and sheer volume of due diligence work can make surveying clients difficult or impossible. Firms positioning themselves to be acquired can show their commitment to client service through testimonials, awards and a visible, public investment in client experience. Firms can reflect their commitment to a strong culture on social media as well. “I really, truly think the partners and aspiring leaders need to be brought into that,” Reichling said.

Communicating Merger with Clients

When the deal is underway, Reichling added, the client experience or marketing team can provide a FAQ document so firm leaders can consistently answer common client questions, such as whether pricing or the service team will change. Written talking points and frequent education on the best way to communicate with clients also help.

It’s also critical to ask how clients feel about the transaction. Even the best scripts and FAQs can’t capture empathy, Fieldman said. “Sometimes we err on the side of sugar-coating the communication.”

About six months after the transition, after clients have been told what to expect, the firm can survey clients to make sure they’re following up on their promises while encouraging them to visit the new office, meet leaders, sign up for webinars and get involved in other ways. Another client survey after 12 months is a good time to solicit their reflections on service under the newly merged firm.

And if clients leave, it’s important to understand why. Fieldman suggested exit interviews. You just might uncover issues that have been brewing for months.

Common Mistakes on Both Sides

Acquiring firms can put client experience in the hands of the firm to be acquired. “To me, that’s putting a lot of eggs in one basket,” Tolin said. After all, acquiring firms must protect their revenue, which means the client loyalty needs to transition to the new firm. “The acquiring firms need to step up and own more of this.”

For firms to be acquired, Fieldman said a common error is to underestimate the level of disruption and failing therefore to set aside enough time to manage client relationships. Sometimes, partners don’t shield their clients from their own stress, and sometimes they’re not quite on board yet. She said the best integrations take place when the acquired firm is quick to adopt the new brand and new systems, and they jump forward with enthusiasm.

Key Client Experience Takeaways

Fieldman noted that one-on-one conversations with clients can be more eye-opening than formal feedback. Check in with clients, she said. “Remind your people that they’re empowered to gather feedback.”

Tolin said that one person needs to take on role of ensuring a positive client experience, and Reichling concluded, “Be unafraid to ask for help, talk to others and make sure you’re taking advantage of the resources around you.”

View the webinar here.


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