How to serve private clients effectively

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“It’s amazing the amount of work it takes to do something like it looks effortless.” - Bryce Sanders.

Reminding people of the value you deliver applies particularly to individual clients of accountancy firms, according to financial services trainer Bryce Sanders. As the previous article in this series explained, regular contact, a genuine interest in them and pro-active advice to alert them to potential problems is key to winning clients through what can be a lengthy prospecting and acquisition process.

The same characteristics are just as important once the individuals become your clients. Embedding that consistency of attention and customer care should be a core value for any firm looking to grow its private client portfolio.

As Sanders explains, one of the most important actions you can take is to continue alerting clients to important issues and explaining their relevance. This will remind them you are looking after their best interests while opening the door for conversations that help you find out more about what makes them tick and the issues that are worrying them.

A trusted adviser anticipates client needs

One of the touchstones for delivering more relationship-based accountancy services is David Maister’s guidance on the ‘Trusted Advisor’- first published in 2001, but still relevant today (see box below).

Maister’s key principles challenge many of the profession’s number-focused technical norms, but are now widely accepted in the professional services world: Clarity of communication; helping the client to define their own goals; and tracking progress towards those goals.

Most of the firms shortlisted in AccountingWEB’s 2015 Practice Excellence Awards followed this pattern when delivering pro-active business advice, but pace-setting firms apply exactly the same techniques in the private client market.

As part of their initial meetings, or during periodic calls and face-to-face encounters these firms ask clients to describe what they want to achieve and translate those aspirations into financial and life plans. The next step is to put in place milestones and measures that help the client track the progress they’re making towards those goals.

In Moneyhub’s guide to building your private client portfolio, Nick Rudd, private client adviser for HFM Columbus, explained that exceptional advisers get to know their clients’ affairs so well they anticipate broader consequences of a particular piece of advice. This deeper affinity encourages clients to use their accountant as a sounding board for a wider range of ideas - and opens up new opportunities for the adviser to make a difference for them.

In an article for our US sister site, Bryce Sanders described the ideal scenario where the accountant becomes the client’s quarterback: “If you save your client time, save the client money, and bill on a reasonable basis, they will likely be thrilled. They will tell other busy, rich friends about this great service you provide… referrals will likely follow.”

Streamline private client workflows

This holistic approach echoes the point from the first article of this series that private clients may demand more time and attention than business clients.

To retain that personal touch and still make private client work profitable, the ambitious practitioner needs to provide those services as efficiently as possible.

Technology can help. If you are taking a systematic approach to identifying, developing and converting private client prospects, customer relationship management (CRM) software can catalogue their personal details and track your contacts with them. Monitoring where your clients are coming from and the effectiveness of your marketing efforts is covered extensively elsewhere on the site, but CRM also helps to segment clients into different types and interest groups, so you can target them with effective messages at the right times.

At Northern Accountants, for example, CRM data helps the firm target profiled clients in ways that best catch their attention, “making it easier to generate an opportunity to talk to them about how we can help them achieve their personal goals,” said Northern’s Paul Ellerby.

Practice consultant Heather Townsend suggests a simple exercise to encourage this habit: Ask team members to identify their top 30 clients and contact each of them at least once a month. Follow-up conversations with them will reinforce the personal bond - and help the accountant to see the effect their communications are having.

The tax season challenge

You don’t have to use CRM software to stay in touch with key clients - but it makes it a lot easier, especially when the pressure starts to build in the run up to the self assessment deadline.

As Carpenter Box tax director David Crowter explained previously, private clients may not be as organised with their tax return paperwork as business clients.

At Coalesco Certified Accountants, winner of the 2015 Practice Excellence Award for small firms, founder Linda Frier users a CRM-driven electronic checklist to shepherd tax clients through the data collection process. Clients get an email in the summer setting out the information required by the end of September. Reminders are then sent if documentation does not show up when it should, followed by telephone calls emphasising the urgency of the situation.

By going around this delivery loop until they get the data, “We have trained clients and organised their tax affairs so that only a fifth of returns are completed during December and January,” Frier said.

Secure online document portals can speed the flow of documents and tax information in both directions and provide mechanisms for confirming authorisations electronically.

The right tools for the job

Tax workflows address one aspect of private client work, but the rapid evolution of online accounting and financial management tools has opened up new avenues to collaborate with private clients around their financial affairs.

It may still be difficult to avoid the spreadsheet in this kind of accountancy work, but the benefits of switching to more secure, online tools cannot be ignored. In the same way that cloud accounting provides a platform for sharing insights with business clients, systems such as Moneyhub give personal clients an environment where they can monitor their assets and share data electronically with their professional advisers.

Taking things a step further, accountants can adapt these tools to build finance dashboards that connect them on a daily basis to their clients and a platform for adding even more value to the relationship through pre-emptive reminders, deadline alerts or news about issues that may interest the client. If this field does interest you, take some time to find out more about what tools are available and how they might help you and your clients.

The purpose of this series of articles about private clients is to alert practitioners to a relatively untapped market. There are some additional challenges, but these can be handled with good processes and tools. The rewards of private client work - in terms of practice growth, profitability and satisfaction for both client and accountant - are worth the effort.

Trusted adviser tips

According to David Maister, trusted advisers understand the need for structured practice methodologies, models, management techniques and business processes - but recognise that these are a means to an end. To encourage accountants to focus on developing long-term human relationships with their clients rather than undertaking a business transaction based on delivering technical advice, Maister encourages them to treat clients just as though they were romantic partners in the following ways:

· You need to be available as a sounding board to your romantic partner. You don’t need to be critical. Listen before you react

· Spend time with each other. Communicate honestly, openly and frequently and discuss your common values

· Show your appreciation regularly, but not in a formulaic way

· Don’t let problems fester. Catch them and discuss them early

· Give of yourself

Source: McKenna and Maister, First Among Equals, 2002

To find out more about what private clients need and techniques to deliver those services download Moneyhub’s Five-point plan to kick-start your private client portfolio

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When I see and read

all these "added value" "the right tools for the job" etc. etc articles it makes me cringe (why read them, I hear you say). I read them because I want to gauge just how far this "sales gimmicky stuff" (notice I didn't say crap, Francoise) is creeping in our profession. If you have a decent training with a reputable Accountancy practice (it doesn't have to be a big one - said the actress to the bishop) then the time to branch out on your own will be natural. There is specialist advice for areas that need it (FTT etc.). If you need training to communicate with your client then you really shouldn't be in practice. The reason being is simple. Once you are trained in a sales way then the selling, not the client, is at the forefront of your mind. Training with an Accountancy firm will teach you the basics which will include communication with the client. Any sales training will automatically cloud your judgement. I bring up the same old same old - Banks. How many times have you been standing in a queue while the cashier tries to "sell" a product to an unsuspecting mark, who has already waited 5 mins in the queue whilst the person in front has received the same spiel.

Ah wait "identifying needs" I hear you say. Rubbish I say. If you cannot identify what the client may need to be bought to their attention, then again you shouldn't be in practice.

I sometimes think, was I just lucky to have such a brilliant training or are there other Accountants out there that cringe also when they see these articles.

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