While most clients see their accounting firm as a strategic advisor, 36 percent of business clients report they are likely to switch CPA firms in the next year, according to a new survey by CCH.

The results of the survey, presented by CCH president and CEO Mike Sabbatis at the CCH Users Conference in Orlando on Tuesday, examined the factors that are most important to keeping accounting firm clients, and why they leave.

Sabbatis noted that while the need for accounting firm services surged in the past decade and firms’ biggest concern was keeping up with growth, the survey reveals new pressures on the profession in terms of client expectations, demand for services, competition and service value.

“It’s clear that client needs are changing rapidly, and your competitors are seeking to take advantage,” Sabbatis said. “The firms that will overcome obstacles and realize the opportunities before them will be those that challenge themselves to break down the barriers that may be constraining their success.”

The good news is that most clients view their CPA firm as a strategic advisor, are generally satisfied with their firm, and are willing to refer their firm to others.

However, that does not guarantee client loyalty. In the current economy, few firms can afford the risk of this client turnover level.

“Ensuring the accounting firm client connection remains strong requires a continuous commitment,” said Sabbatis. “Firms need to have the right staff, the right processes and the right technology to ensure there are no boundaries to their ability to understand and meet clients’ current and evolving needs.”

The survey found that clients almost universally recognize their CPA firm as a strategic advisor, with 94 percent of business clients and 81 percent of individual clients surveyed viewing their firm as such.

Firms have a significant opportunity to better leverage this relationship by providing existing clients with extended services. Significant gaps exist between the volume of tax, accounting, auditing and management advisory services clients need and the types of service in each of these areas they seek from their CPA firm. For example, while 99 percent of individual clients surveyed used their accounting firm for tax preparation services, only 48 percent said they turned to their CPA for tax planning.

The top concern for both business and individual clients is minimizing taxes.

Client needs are growing. Forty-five percent of business and 24 percent of individual clients say support needs will increase in 2011, while just 5 percent of business and 7 percent of individual clients say needs would decrease.

Fifty-five percent of business and 29 percent of individual clients report the number of specialized services they need from their CPA firm is growing.

Retention risks are real. Thirty-six percent of business clients are considering switching firms, and 55 percent report they are being prospected by other CPA firms.

While 79 percent of business clients say they are generally satisfied with their CPA firm, of that group, only 17 percent are completely satisfied.

The top reason clients would consider leaving their firm is if the firm does not regularly check with them on their changing needs.

Firms’ overall expertise is a top driver in firm selection for business clients. For individuals, referrals most often drive selection.

Business clients are leveraging technology and they expect their firms to do the same, whether it’s working in the cloud or digitizing more of their environment.

A full report on the survey is available in the white paper, 2010 CCH Accounting Firm Client Survey: Improving Retention through Better Client Connections, at CCHGroup.com/ClientRetention.