Q&A: Practice Excellence winner Graham Lamont on client satisfaction

At Cumbrian Accountancy Practice, Lamont Pridmore, delivering customer satisfaction isn’t just something nice to aim for, it’s a core principle and one that helped them to win the best medium-sized firm gong at the AccountingWEB Practice Excellence Awards last year. Chief Executive Graham Lamont shares his views on customer service.

Most firms accept that good customer service is more important than ever, but what makes Lamont Pridmore stand out from the crowd?
I like to say we start where other firms finish. We advise our clients as if they were our best friends, and we’re always looking for ways to make their money work harder for them. No matter the size, all of our clients receive the same guarantee - that Lamont Pridmore will keep their tax liabilities to a minimum, increase their profits, maximise the value of their business, and manage their wealth wisely through investments, pensions and estate planning.

We’re growing fast: 71% over the past 3 years, and our expansion is born out of having in-depth knowledge of our clients’ industries and creating products and services that enhance each business.  We’re constantly looking for ways to improve our products and to create new services that anticipate what our clients might need in the future. Customer-focused measures such as being available to clients outside office hours have helped us to retain 99% of clients.

Lamont Pridmore has grown a great deal since you took over the firm. How has the value of customer feedback changed in this time?
A great deal has changed since 1874! The accounting world is a very different place, including the technology, the approach to business and perhaps most importantly in the expectations from our customers. Listening to customer feedback, understanding their needs and responding to them is essential in today’s world – whether that’s tailoring services in line with a client’s particular niche area or communicating via the latest social channels. We’re gaining new clients all the time, and many of them are young people who’ve grown up using laptops and mobile phones, and we have to keep up with them.

What made you decide to enter last year’s AccountingWEB benchmarking survey?
We’ve always believed in listening to the customer and learning from their feedback and the AccountingWEB Practice Excellence Programme gave us the opportunity to do that in a structured way at little or no cost to the business. While the onus was on us to register for the survey and bring it to the attention of our clients, the management of the survey itself and the compilation of results was all handled by AccountingWEB. As a completely independent programme we could be confident of entirely honest feedback from clients, which is hugely valuable.

Other than the time taken to email our clients a link to the survey there was very little for us to do – the short answer is that there was simply no reason not to enter!

You had a lot of responses from clients. Did you have a strategy for encouraging your clients to complete the survey?
We didn’t have a strategy as such, but what we did do is email our clients as soon as the survey opened to give them the greatest amount of time to respond.  We also sent a follow up email a week before it was due to close by way of a reminder. Oh, and we may have posted comment or two via our social channels!

A plan to encourage responses is definitely to be recommended though, as the more responses you get the more valuable the results.

What did you learn from the feedback?
We found the feedback from our clients who were surveyed to be invaluable when it came to confirming what they valued from our services. In addition it was a fantastic boost to our staff and customer relationship managers who were inspired to do even more of the right things for our clients and add even more value.

I understand the benchmarking report from this year’s Practice Excellence Survey will offer more in the way of individual comments and testimonials which will provide even greater learning opportunities. Getting genuine anecdotal responses from clients isn’t easy, but it’s the sort of insight which can drive business change when it comes to improvements in customer service.

This year’s enhanced report will contain a greater degree of competitor analysis – do you see that as an important addition?
Benchmarking your firm within the industry at large is vital, and while we’re confident in our approach (we aim to focus on the customer rather than the competition) it would be naive to think we can’t learn something from other successful firms. So yes, additional competitor analysis would be very welcome.

You went on to win the Practice Excellence Award for a medium sized practice. How did this affect your firm?
We’re big believers in proving our credentials and winning the Practice Excellence Award was valuable evidence of our performance in delivering a high level of customer satisfaction. Being shortlisted by virtue of our excellent customer feedback was fantastic, and winning the final vote by our peers from the AccountingWEB community was something very special.

It came as a well deserved pat on the back for the whole team. It’s extremely motivating to get confirmation from your clients - the people that really matter - that you’re delivering what your customers want in the way they want it.

We’ve also found that success breeds success – We’ve tracked the new clients that have been attracted to the firm as a direct result of the award and this business currently stands at over £80,000!

So you’d recommend other firms register for the Practice Excellence survey then! What tips do you have for firms looking to get the most from their customer feedback?

Try and get as much feedback as possible. The more you get the more accurate it will be.

Feedback has the potential to reflect on the whole company so get the whole team on board.

Listen carefully to what your customers are telling you (avoid making assumptions)

Make sure you do something with the knowledge you’re getting – the Practice Excellence Programme may be free, but just because there’s no cost associated with it, doesn’t mean it hasn’t got the potential to be the most important activity of your year!

Avoid knee-jerk reactions to certain feedback as you may alienate other clients. That said, it’s important to keep your mind open to doing things differently.

Shout about your successes! Getting shortlisted for an award (or even go on to win) is great for PR, but even seemingly small amounts of positive feedback can be very powerful – If 90% of your customers say you offer good or excellent value then that’s a statistic worth telling people!

Visit AccountingWEB's Practice Excellence page to find out more about the 2013 survey and awards programme.