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Sobell Rhodes picking up Client Service Award at Accounting Excellence | AccountingWEB

AE24: Sobell Rhodes’ secret to client service excellence


Accounting Excellence award-winning practice Sobell Rhodes explains why you need to treat your people right first if you want to achieve exceptional client service. 

25th Jun 2024
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For almost 30 years London-based accountancy firm Sobell Rhodes (pictured above) has held a firm-wide “awesome service meeting” every Monday morning to discuss client service success stories from the past week and ways to improve service when it’s not gone the way they would have wanted. 

The tradition of these meetings goes back way before the firm even started or a business plan was written, when the founding partners created a public service commitment. “Not a single word in that public service commitment has changed in 30 years,” said Andrew Rhodes (pictured below), the managing and joint senior partner at the award-winning firm. 

Public services agreements

Andrew Rhodes, Sobell RhodesCovering pledges such as always acting with integrity, courtesy and openness to being proactive and returning telephone calls within a day, the public service commitment laid the foundation for Sobell Rhodes to win the client service award for mid-tier and large accountancy firms at the 2023 Accounting Excellence Awards.  

Ahead of the deadline for this year’s awards on 28 June, Rhodes revealed some of the secrets behind the firm’s client service strategy. 

The one pledge that resonates the most with the majority of clients joining the firm is being proactive. “The reason more than 60% of clients come to us is because their previous accountant is not proactive,” said Rhodes. 

“We take a lot of time when a new client joins, and then on an ongoing yearly basis, to understand what their personal aims are, what their business aims are, and so as far as possible, we can identify things that are helpful to them in their personal and their business lives.”

People and values

The firm’s client service strategy has evolved over the years into focusing on their internal values. Rhodes summed up the importance of prioritising people and values. “If you treat your people right, we believe that our clients will be treated right – and hopefully exceptionally right.”

The firm recently achieved the Platinum Standard in the Investors in People accreditation, which led them into articulating their internal values. Rhodes describes these values using the acronym THIRSTIER, which stands for trustworthy, honest, innovation, respect, service (to each other and not just the client), teamwork, improvement, excellence and reliability. 

In addition to that, every single week the firm asks employees to nominate anonymously their work colleagues who live by these values. Then every Thursday, during a firm-wide meeting, up to 10 nominations are read at random and a donation for each of them is made to a good cause around the world. Rhodes said this emphasises the firm’s values that when good things happen internally, they try to make good things happen in the world.  

Reward and recognition

The firm also recognises employees for going above and beyond in client service during the Monday morning meeting with various awards, which include vouchers to shops of their choice and actual trophies.

This reward and recognition culture is crucial to upholding the firm’s client service commitments. Rhodes describes this approach as “catching people doing something right”. 

He said that in a career like accountancy, it’s easy to focus on the errors but warned that this could result in a blame culture and a defensive mentality. Instead, Sobell Rhodes shouts about top-quality client service and rewards that behaviour. 

Rhodes said that having a no-blame culture is important “to keep people motivated and feeling that all the time, regardless of the circumstances, they’re being supported”.

Learning from the best

The other ingredient to great client service is being able to do it consistently as the firm scales. For this reason, Sobell Rhodes has written a “moments-of-truth bible”, so the team has guidelines on how the firm interacts with clients at every point of contact. 

For Rhodes, the inspiration to continuously improve the firm’s client service comes from looking outside the profession. “I’m always trying to learn from the best,” said Rhodes. “I brought the mentor of customer service at the Ritz hotel into the firm for a whole day to identify for everybody what great customer service is, comparing it to the hospitality sector.” 

The firm also turned to a very high-level commander in the British Army for inspiration, because they work on the basis of “What’s working well” (WWW) and “Even better if” (BBI) reviews. The firm completes these with clients to reflect on business performance. 

Rhodes was also influenced by Jan Carlzon’s book and methodologies at Scandinavian Airlines. 

“I decided that we would actually have our moments of truth in terms of a custom client journey when they’re interacting with us. So, we’ve identified every stage of the clients’ experience, making it as good and hopefully as exceptional as possible, which make up the contents of our moments-of-truth bible. This is continually updated and evaluated as things change. So, everybody understands what’s expected of them.”

And with proactivity being one of the reasons clients choose the firm, the firm has devised a proactivity checklist, which contains 152 proactive ideas for financial and business improvements. But Rhodes doesn’t want the team to start and stop with these lists when delivering consistent client service. 

“What we’re seeking to do is enable our people to create their own initiative, not just follow checklists and forms and methodologies. We want them to use their initiative. We want them to go even further and think about the best they can possibly do for the client. So, it goes beyond just having checklists and forms.” 

Sobell Rhodes is competing in the same mid-sized space where other firms of similar size in the London area are being snapped up by private equity. 

So, Rhodes sees the firm’s business advisory services specialism as a differentiator against mid-sized firms taken over by private equity “who are seeking to scale them up, expand their fee base, but not necessarily the benefits in terms of profit improvement and growth”.

Putting people first

The emphasis on business advisory service is driven by their THIRSTIER values and public-service commitment. 

First and foremost, Sobell Rhodes is honest about fees. They operate under the assumption that unexpected fees lead to unhappy clients. “There are no surprises. It’s all about integrity, proactivity and responsiveness,” said Rhodes. 

So, as per their service commitment, clients are told in advance of their fees, or the mutually agreed basis. They are also given a money back guarantee, if they are not delighted with the firm’s service. 

When values don’t align

This transparency with clients extends to dealing with rude clients. Rhodes is clear that putting people first means not tolerating rudeness. He is open about the fact that the firm has no problem in exiting a client relationship if they don’t align with their values. 

“Let me be very clear – our people are more important than our clients. We’re in the fortunate position that we have actually exited a number of clients, occasionally because they’re rude, but normally because they don’t necessarily fit into our criteria. 

“We have a very strong pipeline of potential clients. So, we’re in the fortunate position, because of how we have positioned ourselves, to be able to be selective about the clients we want to work with. 

“So, regardless of their size, as far as I’m concerned, as long as that mutual respect is carried on, and they respect our people as much as we respect them, and the work is of a type that we and our team want to do, then we’ll work with them.”  

Unwavering in the firm’s focus on “Look after your people, and they will look after your client,” Rhodes revealed that they recently exited a client of almost half a million in fees a year, because it didn’t fit in with their aim to provide their people with challenging work and added value for their clients.  

“We’ve been brave enough to do that in order to release our people to undertake more interesting work, with more exciting clients.”

Accounting Excellence

The firm’s dedication to putting their people first was why so many of their team attended when Sobell Rhodes won the client service award at last year’s Accounting Excellence Awards. “We wanted everybody to share in our success,” said Rhodes. 

He described winning the award last year as “a big feel-good factor” for their team. For Rhodes, winning the Accounting Excellence award validated the firm’s commitment to their value-driven philosophy and an endorsement internally to the team that they’re with a firm that “believes in being the best they can possibly be”. 

Three decades after Sobell Rhodes was founded, the award-winning firm continues to attain industry recognition through a client service strategy that is simply focused on putting its people first. 

“If the team is happy, I’m happy,” concluded Rhodes. “We work in a happy working environment, and that, to me, is the most important thing.”

You have until midnight on 28 June to enter the Accounting Excellence Awards. Don’t miss out! Shout about your client service excellence and you could be winning of one of the most prestigious prizes in the profession. 

Replies (4)

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Rob Swan
By Rob Swan
25th Jun 2024 15:10

"treat your people right first if you want to achieve exceptional client service"

Just plain OLD 'common sense' doing it's thing.

Treating people 'wrong' (not right) is never a good policy.

Treating people right - whoever they are - is not fashionable in some circles these days, but it always has been and always will be an absolutely unbeatable strategy.

Strange how so many businesses these days think it's OK to treat so many people like s**t. They make a quick buck in the short term but they will not last.

Thanks (1)
Replying to Rob Swan:
By Andrew Rhodes
25th Jun 2024 19:36

Thank Rob, I absolutely agree.

Thanks (1)
By FactChecker
25th Jun 2024 20:53

What's awful/depressing about this article is that there's nothing there that most of us weren't saying 30+ years ago (remember kaizen and other convenient labels for 'walk a mile in the client's shoes and make the experience slightly more comfortable each day') ... AND a lot of us didn't just believe in it but actually lived/delivered it.

So why awful/depressing?
Because more and more organisations (initially global finance, then medical and now local govt etc - I'm not mentioning HMRC) are *deliberately* doing the opposite ... de-humanising & automating their processes on the basis that 90+% ok = success. And they appear to be 'winning', even if they may take all that makes people intrinsically good down the proverbial Swanee with them.

Anyway, good on you Andrew ... and best of luck in swimming against the tide (of effluence).

Thanks (4)
Replying to FactChecker:
By Andrew Rhodes
27th Jun 2024 17:50

Thank you for your comment.

I agree, there is nothing wrong with old-fashioned client service that treats clients as well as your own team in a caring, respectful and thoughtful way, regardless of the terminology you use to describe it.

Thanks (0)