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Client experience: People buy from people

14th Aug 2018
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Last month our Accounting Excellence article examined how practices are using technology to improve the client experience. John Stokdyk expands the theme this month with a look at the human side of client satisfaction.

The underlying philosophy of the Accounting Excellence Awards is to encourage accountants to focus on customer service, which we have seen over the past eight years to be a consistent leading indicator of success. The AEA entrants who come back every year with better client satisfaction measures, higher fee income and improved profitability confirm are the proof.

Any accountant aspiring to live up to this ideal should start by considering their own strengths and those of their team. The art of excellence lies in connecting these up with clients to create value and positive feelings about working with your firm. Fundamentally, it comes down to how the people involved interact.

What client focus looks like

Rouse Partners has been a part of the Accounting Excellence community from the start. After making the shortlist for the large firm award in 2012 and 2013, the firm finally won the big prize in 2014 and was nominated for awards again in 2017 and 2018.

On the night he carried off the large firm award in 2014, Rouse senior partner Neil Relph explained how his team works together to improve different aspects of the firm. There was no single secret to sustaining excellent service, Relph told us: “It’s all about improving the client experience.”

When launching his recent book, ‘The Pacesetters’, describing the habits of Xero’s leading-edge UK partners, Xero vice president Doug La Bahn, confirmed this view. “They think about the client experience,” he said. “These accounting firms understand what a great client experience is and then work back from that – right down to who they hire to provide that kind of client experience.”

How it translates into commercial success

Every year the entrants to the Accounting Excellence Awards demonstrate that the client satisfaction formula embodied by the Net Promoter Score isn’t a bit of cosy fluff, it translates into demonstrable success for highly competitive accountancy firms. And the class of 2018 is no exception to this rule.

Employee engagement research confirms how important happy, motivated people are to a good client experience, which translates into growth and profitability.

Inca Caring Accountants in Oxfordshire have built an entire firm around this philosophy, with a public commitment to make its highly trained and motivated team one of the top 100 best small businesses to work in the UK.

As well as gaining Inca a nomination for small firm of the year for the second year running in the Accounting Excellence Awards, the firm’s proactive approach to clients, investment in employee development and increased employee engagement helped it achieve record breaking financial performance in 2017 – and it is on course to do so again in 2018, according to co-founder Graham Carson.

Inca works with quite a few startup clients. The long-time viability of these businesses, where fewer than one in five make it to five years old, doesn’t deter Inca, which sees startups as unique contributors to both the country’s economy and the local communities in which they operate.

Inca’s approach starts with “getting to know the people as people first rather than as clients”, Carson told AccountingWEB.

“We have conversations about their hopes, aspirations and what they want to do with lives. They’ve chosen not to be in employment. We help understand why and what kind of life they want to live. What does that look like? We don’t define success for the business owner. It’s their business, their life and therefore their definition of success. ”

Importance of personal skills

But even if other practitioners accept the principles that underpin Accounting Excellence and have a strategic plan in place, what are the first steps they need to take?

How about starting by making a good first impression? Think of your favorite hotel or restaurant, where staff welcome you like an old friend when you arrive. They will be just as friendly to the next guest, but it’s not an act – good people-people genuinely like and care for their customers and really want them to enjoy their experience – as we have seen at Inca.

Other firms such as fellow Accounting Excellence nominee The Accountancy Office subscribe to this view. Founder Sarah Sallis is passionate about client care. From the moment they confirm acceptance of her letter of engagement, clients get a welcome gift, followed by weekly calls, dedicated training and an invitation to join her online community group.

Managing relationships

Managing relationships and personal impressions is second nature for accountants in small practices, but close personal bonds aren’t something that other team members can instantly pick up as the firm grows. They have to be very consciously and clearly developed.

Back at Inca Caring Accountants, the firm fosters good client relationships from the ground up with staff training supported by weekly, monthly and quarterly meetings to look at how the firm could do things better. This regime is part of Inca’s commitment to Investors in People, where it is one of 11 accounting practices in the country to achieve silver status accreditation.

“People want a sense that they’re part of something, that there’s a bigger meaning to it and that they’re engaged with what’s happening and that’s very much the case at Inca,” said Graham Carson.

“The cycle that we work towards is on developing our people, believing in them and giving them career paths towards things in life they want.”

Inca is no different from other organisations, Carson continued. When it makes mistakes, the team reviews what happened and usually discovers that a process probably wasn’t designed or implemented properly, or someone wasn’t trained to do it. “People rarely set out to screw up. We don’t focus on that. We give confidence to people so they’re willing to take calculated risks.”

Getting employees to buy into the firm ethos and be motivated in what they do makes them more productive. “They’re focused on goals they’ve played a part in setting and defining. It’s a combination of openness and engagement. We break it down so they can see what is a good job and what isn’t and how they can influence it. If employees realise what they’re working towards and why, they have a stake in that.”

This approach isn’t a unique secret that only Inca knows, he added, “It’s all a part of modern management technique and we’ve seen the benefits in our organisation. It has led to a massive jump in the profitability.”

Structured development

Learning and development was mentioned by a quarter of the 2018 Accounting Excellence Award entrants, double the level seen last year. Medium and large firms have long recognised that investing in their people holds the key to delivering effective, consistent services and the philosophy is spreading into smaller practices.

For 12% of 2018 entrants, the development process involved taking on recruiting client services managers with a focus on people skills. Honesty, empathy and being a good listener are part of the personality package for modern accountants. These qualities allow the adviser to feel the client’s pains and ask gently probing questions to root out the underlying causes.

If this sounds like a formula you’ve heard before, it’s because you have. It goes all the way back to David Maister’s 2001 landmark book, ‘The Trusted Advisor’. After working extensively with professional services firms, Maister felt too many of them fell into the trap of always trying to dispense expert technical knowledge. The art of effective advisory work is all about the relationship, he argued, working with the client to help them explore their own issues and discover solutions for themselves.

Whether on the staff side or client side, there’s another familiar principle at work. As Graham Carson explained, traditional partnership hierarchies and “mushroom management” methods don’t work in the millennial accounting marketplace. Instead, the modern ethos is based on a golden rule that should be familiar to most accountants: treat others how you would like to be treated yourself. The big test of Accounting Excellence is whether you actually apply it to your business.

Further articles in the client experience series will continue to explore human and technology aspects of Accounting Excellence.

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