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What client excellence looks like | accountingweb

AE23: What excellent client service looks like


It’s very easy to say, “We put client service at the very heart of everything we do.” But living up to that aspiration can be tough. Deadlines are always looming and clients have so many different ways to disrupt your best-laid plans.

3rd Apr 2023
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When it comes to the Accounting Excellence Awards, client service really is at the heart of it all. Several of the firms that have triumphed in this category have won other categories too and have long-term track records to prove the theory behind Net Promoter Score (NPS):  excellent client service really does translate into profitability and growth. When high-performing entrants, nominees and winners come back a year later, you can see them thriving and growing. 

As we head towards the deadline for entries to the 2023 awards, we asked a few of the previous winners to share their advice for keeping client service at consistently high levels.

Holistic approach

“To succeed in this competitive market, we needed to differentiate ourselves by providing exceptional client service,” said 2021 Client Service Award winner Sanjay Sah, the CEO at Makesworth. The firm doesn’t just rely on a single silver bullet to fix everything, but has put in place a rolling programme of improvement initiatives. 

“To help us maintain our high standards of client service, we have implemented several tangible elements, including regular client feedback surveys, staff training and development programmes, and investing in technology to improve our efficiency and effectiveness,” said Sah.

It’s a non-stop commitment, but trying out even one of these ideas will probably produce positive results that you can build on.

Be human

In his recent podcast on the secrets of excellent client service, AccountingWEB editor Richard Hattersley commented that rather than being a business-to-business thing, accountancy was becoming “more of a human-to-human profession”. Maintaining the personal bond is what sets firms that are really great at client service apart from those that don’t prioritise it as much.

Like many smaller practitioners, the secret for Sarah Sallis at The Accountancy Office was to bring the personal element into her business, a value that is shared by other client service award winners such as Cheryl Sharp at Pink Pig (above, picking up her Small Firm of the Year Award in 2022 from Rupinder Sandhu of Intuit QuickBooks) and Sharon Pocock at Kinder Pocock (Accounting Excellence 2017). 

The groundwork is laid when they first take on clients. This is the key opportunity to set their expectations and tell them what you expect from them, but equally to make them feel wanted, welcomed and comfortable working with your team. 

“It is essential to understand that the client’s lifestyle and business are one,” said Pocock.

Sharp’s ethos of “life-centred accountancy” struck a chord with the judges last year, but she was also aware of the potential trap of service quality getting bound up with the founder’s personality. 

Use technology effectively

To some practitioners, the holistic philosophy may sound a bit fluffy, but it’s underpinned by ruthlessly efficient processes and technology systems. This process of “de-Cherylising” Pink Pig is designed to capture that intimate client knowledge and share it so the whole team can manage more clients at an equivalent level.

It’s a pattern that occurs at many of the previous client service award winners, including Kinder Pocock, which linked Google Forms to Google Calendar to auto-schedule follow-up calls as part of its automated client onboarding workflow

At Makesworth, meanwhile, the firm is rolling out a client portal to improve real-time access to documentation and streamline the firm’s responsiveness. Sah added that he’s looking at “enhancing our communication channels with our clients, and providing more personalised and tailored services to our clients”.

Client service managers

Reigning medium size firm of the year BluSky, Makesworth, Kinder Pocock and several other recent winners are pioneers of the client service manager (CSM) model that has become a prominent feature of the Practice Excellence landscape in recent years. 

These “front of house” co-ordinators, advocates, success managers or even “concierges” are usually responsible for maintaining regular contact with clients, fielding any incoming queries and steering them to the appropriate colleagues when required.

But their job isn’t just to present a friendly face for the firm. A good CSM will check on how the client’s business is doing and pick up on any issues that may be brewing. As BluSky’s Jon Dudgeon puts it, the firm’s client relationship directors ensure Blu Sky is “very much in their business and working with them day to day”.

Ask clients what they think

One of the most important things the CSM can do is ask the client for feedback on how the firm is doing. Collecting feedback this way and through more formal mechanisms like NPS surveys reflects how client service has professionalised over the past decade.

What sets the best-performing firms apart is the way they analyse the information and act on it. At Pink Pig, for example, positive feedback from clients about their quarterly reports prompted the firm to refine its reporting mechanism to deliver similar information on a monthly basis. 

When feedback is less positive, Pink Pig responds with a formal “what went wrong” procedure, where the team takes a blame-free look at the situation and works collectively to identify and resolve any underlying causes. All this is shared with clients, who have responded positively to how their problems were resolved.

Continuous improvement

This feedback loop is characteristic of firms that have bought into a culture of continuous improvement. Real accounting pioneers are willing to go out and learn and try new things. But they don’t just operate in isolation. They connect to their teams and their clients and involve them in their improvement activities. 

Innovation may have taken a back seat in accountancy when Making Tax Digital, Covid and Brexit imposed their demands on the profession. But having weathered those challenges the signs are that we’re going to see some exciting developments in 2023 – particularly when it comes to creating a better client experience.

Stay tuned for further articles on this subject and make sure to put forward your Accounting Excellence credentials by entering this year’s awards.

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