Whether you're ready to retire or are simply preparing to move on to something new, selling your accounting firm can be tricky. One of the top priorities you should keep in mind is retaining the clients you already have so the practice continues to be successful.
Some sales are easier than others. Take selling a car, for instance: The dealer quotes a price, you negotiate a bit, and then you walk away after making a payment and receiving the vehicle. Your responsibilities are over. Selling a business isn’t as simple.
The major difference concerns tangible and intangible assets. When selling your car, the vehicle is the asset. When selling your business, your client list and the income stream it provides are the major assets. The buyer has enough desks and staplers. They want the clients and the revenue. The sale of a business isn’t a transaction where you walk away and don’t look back. The owner might be expected to stay involved for a couple of years. The payout is likely structured along similar lines.
Some of your best clients are loyal to you. Clients are more comfortable when you have a succession plan in place. A considerate client looking forward to their own retirement realizes you want to stop working and enjoy life someday. Their fear is you would suddenly be out of the picture. They would no longer have an accountant and would need to find another. They would prefer a smooth transition, organized and sanctioned by you.
The sale of the business might start as a merger. In this scenario, two firms become one. You want to notify each client, positioning why this is a net benefit for them. Focus on what will remain the same, not what will change. The staff they’ve gotten to know will still be here. You will still be here, at least for the time being.
Here are some tips for ensuring your clients feel comfortable remaining with the firm even if you're no longer there:
- Correspondence should reflect the continuity. Letters and general e-mails should be signed by the heads of both firms. Like a seesaw in the children’s playground, the process starts with each firm at opposite sides of the seesaw. Later, both ends are in the air. Eventually, the opposite side is on the ground. Clients will be grounded, just on the opposite side with the new management.
- Client meetings should initially proceed with you and your team taking the lead. Also include a team member or two from the other firm and introduce them to the client. During the ensuing conversation, you explain, “We are all one firm now.”
- The transition becomes more apparent at the next round of meetings. Staff members from both sides are present, but the new team members introduced earlier will now take the lead. They should emphasize that they’ve gotten to know each client through records and conversations with the original staff.
- The handover occurs by the next meeting. The new team members are taking the lead. There should be at least one person from the original team still involved, because clients are more comfortable with a familiar voice, even if it isn’t yours.
Then, you can formally announce you are starting your retirement. You feel confident the firm and its clients are in good hands with the new administration. Your name disappears from the website, letters and stationery.
You can see why the entire process takes a couple of years. The major asset is the client base. It needs to transition over smoothly. The payout on the sale of the firm is structured to reflect this reality.
This blog was originally published as a column on AccountingWeb and can be read in its entirety here.