Effective Stay Interviews for CPA Firms

Turnover costs over $30k per head. At that rate, refreshing your engagement and retention tactics every so often is essential. What else can you do to keep our talent onboard and serving clients well? Consider adding a stay interview program to bump up your effort in this area - here is a Q&A guide to get started.

What’s the purpose of a stay interview?

  1. Find out what your differentiators are, directly from the source. A stay interview will highlight what your talent-value-add is and what gets in your top-talent’s way.
  2. Build deeper relationships. Think of your staff as clients you need to provide with great “client service” to keep them loyal and engaged.
  3. Higher retention and engagement rates. Staff who feel valued and heard are more likely to stay and produce higher quality work.

Who should conduct the interview?

Ideally: A partner or shareholder, in the same practice area, whom the interviewee trusts. Committed Senior Managers, Directors and other leaders in the department can work too, especially if they have a stronger relationship with the interviewee. Note that not every firm leader is adept at these conversations, engage only those who are.

Next best: A leader of a different service line or someone in HR/Administration.

Don’t go there: Someone who has a disconnected relationship with the interviewee. The stay interview is not the right venue for trying to shore up or repair a deeply broken connection, instead it’s where good connections get deeper. You want your interviewee feeling comfortable so they share honest information.

When should we Have Stay Interviews, and how often?

One option is to do them annually, six months from your annual performance review discussions. Another is to divide the team up and schedule the interviews on a monthly basis. This keeps a steady flow of information into leadership. They key is to choose a process your firm will stick with and one that’s predictable and understandable to employees.

Do we have interview everyone?

Let’s turn that question around: Is there someone you don’t want to stay at your firm? If so, that’s a different conversation, and one that can be hard for many CPAs. Invite everyone to a conversation, either one to stay, or one to explore what the best career path is for the individual and the firm. Remember that keeping your C- and D-level players on board causes your A- and B-level players leave.

What should we ask?

Use these questions as a starting point, adapt for your own style and don’t worry if you don’t get to them all. The key is to connect, discuss the topic of “staying”, and build trust.

  1. What is your favorite project or client you’re working on right now? 
  2. Is there a project or client team you’d love to be a part of?
  3. If an outside recruiter were to contact you, what could they say that would make you consider an opportunity elsewhere?
  4. If you won the lottery and stopped working here, what would you miss the most?
  5. If you had a magic wand, what would you change? (Alternatively: What gets in the way of doing your best work?)
  6. Why do you stay with our firm?
  7. How can I help you achieve your goals? (Note: Phrasing is important here. “How can I help you…” is an open-ended question. “Is there anything I can do to help…” is closed-ended and far more likely to elicit a “nothing” response.)

How can We mess up a stay interview?

It seems easy enough to ask a bunch of “tell us why you love working here” questions, but there are ways the stay interview can be just another time suck – without adding value to your organization. Here are some ways it can go wrong.

  • Focus on solving issues, not listening. CPAs are great at problem solving, so much so that it’s hard to really listen. Be confident that your dominating problem-solving skills will function just fine after the meeting. Try to listen and learn during the interview, fix later.
  • Get information, then don’t follow up. It’s likely you’ll hear an action item or two in your discussion. Remember you’re trying to keep the people in your stay interviews. Keeping people requires trust and trust is built on promises and deliveries.
    • Once you identify an action item, take it to heart and report back to your interviewee. You may not be able to give them the desired outcome, but you can give feedback on the status and what you ARE doing as a result of your conversation.
    • Report and discuss take-aways with your leadership team. Are trends being surfaced? Who is a flight risk? What actions will you take as a result of the interviews?
  • What if they want a raise, or start crying, or both?!? Anything is possible, and it’s good to recognize that these things (and crazier) may come up. Develop your skills to roll with the unexpected and respond in a positive, respectful and caring way. These are the opportunities to strengthen your relationship beyond the routine. Raises? Help them understand your firm’s economics. Tears? Offer them a tissue, a shoulder and an ear. The rest will take care of itself.

Are we ready to do stay interviews?

Arm yourself with a plan, buy-in, and communication strategies around stay-interviews and you’ll find new roads to success in engagement and retention. If you’re stuck on how best to approach this type of program or want help with how to listen to sentiments (not just words) in the interviews, contact Kristen for a free phone consultation on the topic.