Help Reduce Risk with Formal Client Onboarding

Systematic client onboarding can help CPAs avoid miscommunications, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations – common elements in a professional liability claim.
By Steven M. Platau, CPA, J.D., and J. Michael Reese, J.D., LL.M.

Many professional liability claims exhibit some type of “miss” – a misunderstanding, miscommunication, or misrepresentation. These misses, or “M’s,” may be avoided with a systematic approach to onboarding new or even existing clients.

What is ‘onboarding’?

In simplest terms, onboarding is the focused and intentional integration of a client into your practice. Digging deeper, onboarding communicates the norms a client can expect when dealing with your firm, which may differ from what they have experienced with other professionals. It is an opportunity to explain, from the beginning, how you and the client will interact, transmit information, address issues, and handle any other item essential to the service.

Creating an onboarding framework

Your approach to onboarding, how you perform it, and what to include depends on your practice. For example, you may choose to onboard a client accounting or advisory services (CAS) client during an in-person meeting with the entire team, whereas onboarding a 1040 client may be achieved via prerecorded videos or tutorials provided to the client. Before you establish the specifics, it is important to identify bedrock principles that help you achieve your onboarding goal. Should the unexpected arise, you can always return to this base framework.
While each client onboarding may differ, certain items should be consistently addressed, including:

  • Engagement letter terms;

  • Communication protocols;

  • Client responsibilities;

  • Deadlines;

  • Protocols for additional service requests or out-of-scope items; and

  • Anything unique to the engagement.

Developing the content to be addressed in each onboarding topic requires forethought. Most CPAs have a grasp of “make sure I tell them this, so they don’t stress me out.” Implementing onboarding requires you to examine this before you onboard a client. Ask yourself, “If I were a client and knew nothing about working with my firm, what information would I need to save time, money, and aggravation? What are the known bottlenecks or pitfalls?” Take those answers and use your accumulated knowledge to bridge process, information, and communication gaps that go directly to the heart of, “I really wish you would have told me that earlier.” Tailor onboarding to the reality of your practice and your clients to create an organized, repeatable, and adaptable process.

Onboarding to help avoid a miss

Addressing misunderstandings
Misunderstandings occur when there are expectation gaps at critical junctures of the engagement. For example, the client who interprets “preparing tax returns” as including extensive tax planning may be unpleasantly surprised when the service the client expects to be delivered differs from what is actually delivered. The risks associated with that misunderstanding may not be apparent until the services are complete or well after.
In developing your onboarding, seek to anticipate and address those areas where misalignments with the client will have direct repercussions. Clearly target the scope of services — both included and excluded — as well as the client’s responsibilities. Clients may not understand deadlines and underestimate how much time a CPA needs to complete the work once information has been received. Be prepared to discuss with specificity how client responsiveness (or lack thereof) impacts work quality and the overall experience. Depending on your fee structure, discuss the time you expect to devote and how client delays may affect their bill. If a client is not clear on scope or how you are paid, those misunderstandings can lead to fee disputes, which may ultimately lead to a claim.
Misunderstandings also lead to missed opportunities where your work is unresponsive to the client’s true needs. Removing misunderstandings through onboarding can help your client receive the service that is best aligned with their requirements.
Addressing miscommunications
Miscommunications occur when accurate information that directly affects a solution, course of action, or scope is not timely delivered to the necessary party. They also occur when the information provided is not timely acted upon. For example, a review client waits until just before the start of fieldwork to reveal that they have not found a replacement for their retired bookkeeper. As a result, they are not prepared for you and may require extra time to pull documents for you.

Miscommunications tend to lead to unnecessary crises, increasing the potential for error. Your onboarding should establish ground rules for communication, addressing “who,” “what,” “how,” and “when.” Identify permissible and impermissible methods of communication, what the client can expect for response time, especially during periods of high volume, and what is considered unacceptable for both parties. Educate your client on what information is necessary, including format, and how information and expertise come together to create a deliverable. Discuss the contextual hazards of miscommunication. Ask your client if they have plans that might affect engagement timing so that you are not at a standstill when the client is unavailable or surprised when they want it today.
Unearthing issues and communicating early via onboarding can help keep miscommunications from becoming service failures. It also allows all parties to better understand the reach of the engagement and sometimes puts you in a position to fashion better solutions for the client.


Preempting misrepresentations
Misrepresentations are inaccurate or misleading statements made by the client. When they are initially made, you act upon these statements as if they are accurate. Only later, when the inaccuracy is revealed, do you realize your work may be wrong. Some statements may be innocent, simply stemming from a lack of awareness. For example, a client who needs to file international forms may answer “no” to a question of whether they own or control foreign assets because they never receive cash or income. Other statements may sound accurate but are later found to be inconsistent with reality. Think about the business owner who indicates they take “salary,” but records show no payroll taxes being withheld or paid.
The impact of a misrepresentation is unpredictable, and therein lies the rub. And while onboarding cannot prevent a misrepresentation or the impact of one, onboarding can make the client aware of their responsibility to provide accurate information and the ramifications of failing to do so.


Benefits of onboarding
When you understand how the “M’s” affect your practice, you can design onboarding not only to help lower your risk, but also to benefit your firm. Formal onboarding standardizes prior experience into an actual process. When done consistently, onboarding results in more facilitative communication, clearer definition of the services the CPA will and will not provide, more timely inbound information and better workflow, possibly additional fees, and increased satisfaction for both you and the client. An added bonus? Onboarding may even uncover a problem client before services start by spotlighting incompatibilities or facts that may prompt you to terminate early before a “miss” can happen.

A powerful retention tool?
The percentage of customers who say they are more likely to remain loyal to a business that invests in the onboarding process.
Source: GuideCX.

This article originally appeared in the Journal of Accountancy.

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Steven M. Platau, is a professor of accounting in the John H. Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa and can be reached at J. Michael Reese, JD/LL.M, is a risk control consulting director at CNA. For more information about this article, contact
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