The accounting industry is one of the most blessed in terms of customer loyalty and organic growth. It is very uncommon to see an individual or business shopping for a new accounting firm to work with every year, or even challenge the value of the services being offered by their current accountant.
Bottom line: people tend to switch accountants very infrequently for these two reasons:
- Most accountants I have met are very competent and ethical; this is a quick recipe for building trust, and a very “sticky” factor that builds the strongest bond and loyalty between a professional and a client.
- People do not want to “start over.” The feeling of having to explain all the financial history and build new trust-driven, open communication with a new accountant is very emotionally exhausting to many people. And, many times, when it actually makes logical and business sense to change the accountant, this decision is postponed or avoided in its entirety because of that fear to start over.
That being said, many of my colleagues tend to take their client’s loyalty for granted, whether it is because they know that they do a great service for their clients or they think the client does not have an option except to stick with their current accountant. When I first heard about this concept from a business consultant I hired to help us improve our corporate culture, I was immediately apprehensive and thought, “Well, some of my clients are kind of needy; if I start showing them over-appreciation, they are just going to feel more entitled … do I want this?”
The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Here, then, are my three not-so-obvious ways to manage client relationships:
Implement a well-thought-out “thank you” strategy
Sometimes, we forget the obvious, so even a simple “thank you” may not occur. Even if it did not feel right at first, we went ahead and implemented the strategy with these tactics:
- We make sure to start every phone conversation with, “Thank you for considering us the subject matter expert on this topic and calling us about that question ….,” even when the accountant was the obvious choice to call for help in that manner; in other words, we should not take it for granted that we are experts.
- When we invoice for client meetings, we start the email with: “Thank you for getting us involved in … here is the invoice for our services ….”
- When we work remotely in one of our client’s computers, after we are finished, we open the Notepad and write, “Thank you for being an awesome client!”
However, the most important “THANK YOU” should be a referral. Accountants must be considered among the most highly regarded referrals of the whole spectrum of professional services. I never heard a person say, “Here is my accountant’s phone number, but he/she is not that good;” in fact, it is usually the opposite. Whenever a referral is sent to the firm, the highest-level partner (assuming the person is the hardest to reach and most expensive rate) should be making that phone call to tell the referring client, “The best compliment you can give us was referring that business to us. Great clients like you trust us enough to refer us to your friends and family, and ultimately, help us grow to be able to serve you better.”
The impact that call has on the client is HUGE, and the client will be encouraged to refer us again the future. You see, accountants are often regarded as “busy,” and when our clients think we are too busy for even a short call to acknowledge we appreciate the gesture of the referral, the client may be hesitant to refer us to avoid making us even “busier.”
Our results are phenomenal; 80 percent of our new business is referrals. Referrals are easier to close, easier to value price (at higher values than new leads that “walk-in” or from advertising), and ultimately, fastest to grow trust with, which turns into a never-ending cycle of referral business.
“Over-communicate” and create a permanent record and trail of all interactions
One of my biggest challenges has been response time. My clients usually call my cell and expect an immediate answer, but the problem is that this becomes unmanageable as your client base grows and a client gets used to fast response time. It is very hard to keep up those expectations.
So, another thing we implemented was the concept of “dual-relationship,” where all communication to and from the client needs to be made to at least two staff members, allowing a second person to receive that communication about the client so that the other person could also follow-up. It was messy at first because both staff members felt that the client base they were each responsible for doubled. However, you will be surprised how much the second set of eyes in the communication can “catch” errors, ranging from pricing/dates to potential misunderstanding from misinterpretation of a technical term. This translates into better quality controls in the communication channels, and, in the event of one person being unavailable, the client feels the other person was at least in the loop.
In addition, all open questions or cases are loaded into our CRM system, and scheduled to send daily or weekly emails to the client with the most current status. We make sure that by the end of each day, the status on all open cases is updated to make sure the message is different, as we get closer to the resolution. The CRM system also allows any staff member (not just the two people assigned to the client) to be able to see status on jobs or communication with clients, allowing to potentially assist on the case in certain circumstances.
We also make sure that we monitor our LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp accounts daily, ensuring that if our clients are trying to communicate to us through these mediums, we immediately respond and reroute them to the main communication channel that we can monitor, automate and respond to in a timely matter. Unfortunately, with today’s technology, different clients have different communication preferences; even training a client to use a single communication protocol, such as email, will slip up and default to the medium they are working on at the moment. If left unmonitored, opportunities may slip through the cracks.
We also summarize every phone call and interaction into an email, and all relevant parties are copied. It seems redundant to receive an email a few minutes after speaking to someone, but this creates a permanent record in writing and immediately sets expectations for both parties (The accountant may have a deliverable, and the client will pay for service, or whatever the desired outcome from the conversation is.) It also allows the client to review it and make sure they were not misinterpreted. This has caused such a deep impact on our clients that, in the rare case we forget to do it, our clients contact us to ask for the summarized conversation, as they have become accustomed to the process.
“Portalize” – Put as much documentation as possible into a client-facing portal
Implementing a highly involved “thank you” strategy and increasing the level of communication has an immediate toll on our capacity for billable hours, since we now have more of our employees spending time in these two heavily time-consuming administrative tasks.
The ultimate counter-punch to that was creating a portal with as many client-facing tools as possible. The optimal portal would have the following components:
- Access to all digitalized documentation provided by the client in the life of their relationship with the firm, or at least the last three filed tax years plus the current year.
- Access to all firm-prepared documents, such as workpapers and tax returns, and even PDF copies of tax extensions. I find that clients ask for these documents very often when they are shopping for houses to move; banks also require them for loan applications.
- Historical invoices, payments and statements.
- Option to set up automated payments, update credit card info, invoice payments and deposit/retainer payments. Access to copies of engagement letters or scope of work documentation is important as well.
- Access to crucial communications and dialogs that were recorded on the CRM system or e-mail.
- Ability for clients to upload documents for new cases, and update required documents for current cases.
- Client tools, including tax calendars, estimated tax payment forms, tax brackets, financial calculators and pre-filled W-9 for your clients and vendors.
Once your clients are accustomed to using the portal, you will see a reduction of phone calls and administrative-related requests.
Every tax practice is different, so you have to implement client relationship programs that work for you and your firm. However, the focus should always be on the client – we can never forget that our clients are our bread and butter – and our most important referral sources.