My approach to building client relationships is a bit different than what customer service gurus may tell you. In fact, if you’re familiar with me, you know that I tend not to have large reserves of patience and I’m rather direct: I don’t put up with clients who aren’t a good fit.
I learned this the hard way, after dealing with way too many jerky clients. You see, my goal is to be happy and help make my team and my clients happy, as well. I’ve found that having boundaries improves the relationships I have with clients, encourages their loyalty and keeps me happy.
Here are four ways to build great client relationships:
#1: Date first. Tax and accounting are intimate affairs. For example, you know how your clients spend their money, whether they are profitable, how good there are with using their software and what they pay their employees. That intimacy can cause clients to be uncomfortable, reactionary, demanding and, sometimes, cruel. That’s why I always recommend dating first. You wouldn’t marry someone without dating them first, would you?
A date is a short engagement of some kind that gives you a sense of the client, their tax situation and whether you want to work with them. Take a look at their tax returns from prior years. You can learn a great deal about a prospect from a tax review. Another dating technique is to institute a “trial period.” Inform the new client upfront that you will work together for three months. At the end of that time period, you and the client will determine whether the relationship works; remember, it’s a two-way street.
We’ve found clients really respect the “dating” approach, no matter how you institute it, because you and the client strive to build a working relationship during this process.
#2: Keep it formal. In other words, clearly outline the work you will be doing in an Engagement Letter or Statement of Work. Make sure the client reviews and signs the document before you start any work. This protects both parties. Our statement of work is pretty comprehensive – it shares what we will do and what we won’t do. We have been burned one too many times by clients saying, “but, I thought you were doing that,” so documenting both is important.
#3: Train your clients. A powerful Statement of Work goes a long way to training your clients on what you will do and what they need to do, but it doesn’t cover everything. You still need to outline when you will need documents or information to do your job, how you will communicate with them, and how often.
In my case, I’m horrible at returning calls and I’m not an aural learner, so unless I’m able to take great notes during a call, I’m prone to forget much of what we talked about. I know phone calls are necessary at times, but I know I remember better if I read something. Plus, between my travel schedule and family obligations, I prefer texts or emails. I am upfront with clients about this and let them know that if they don’t want to work this way, we’re not the right firm for them.
Establishing the processes helps immensely in building strong relationships with clients. When clients know what to expect, there are fewer problems. We’ve had to fire clients who want to hash through each and every matter, who didn’t understand that most situations aren’t emergencies, or who treated my team or myself rudely.
#4: Provide exceptional service. While I believe in setting strong boundaries with clients, I also believe in giving them the service they deserve. We are extremely responsive, on our terms, which is text and email. We let them know when we see something in their tax and accounting that needs help, and in more than one case, we’ve uncovered fraud. We also work with them. For example, we have a landscaping client that we noticed had a few rough months in the winter when work died down. We offered to decrease our fees for the months he didn’t have a lot of revenue coming in and then bump it back up during his busy months. Those little extras go a long way to building customer loyalty and referrals.
Too often, we’re taught to put others’ needs first, in business and in life. By putting in place boundaries, I have built a practice I love, with a team and clients I love.
Editor’s note: For more on building relationships with your clients, check out this Intuit® ProConnect™ Tax Pro Center article, “3 Not-So-Obvious Ways to Manage Client Relationships.”