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Client service: Managing expectations

11th Jun 2010
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The most successful and profitable firms are those that know how to manage their customers' expectations, explains Paul Shrimpling.

It's pointless telling a community of accountants that in order to grow profits, firms need to keep all their valuable clients and win new ones; this much you know. The thing that keeps clients coming back for more is the perception that they are getting value for money and to do this, accountants need to know how to manage clients' expectations to ensure they feel they're getting what they paid for – and hopefully more.

Why are expectations so important?

  1. Only your clients can determine whether they receive value for money or not.
  2. The value they receive is determined by the expectations they have before you start.

Whether your client's expectations are high or low, if you under-perform then value is below their expectations. This situation will prompt your client to question whether your price is too high and maybe even choose another accountant.

If their expectations are met (not exceeded, just met) then they might feel ok about the value received. They may not question the price or consider other accountants' offers - but then again they might. They might consider alternative firms because you only just delivered on their expectations; you were nothing special.

However, when you exceed their expectations (whether they are high or low) they feel as though they received a wonderful deal, will happily use you again and may even recommend you to others. It's unlikely other firms will get a look in and so you'll secure their business for another year and lock in the GRF and their goodwill value to your firm. You keep them. You also increase the chances of them recommending you to other business owners and as a result grow your firm's fees and profits.

In a book called 'Moments of Truth', Jan Carlson describes three customer experiences:

  1. Miserable – expectations were not met
  2. Neutral – expectations were met
  3. Magical – expectations were exceeded

(Jan Carlson took over the reins of Scandinavian Air at a time when the airline was suffering an $8m loss and turned it around to a $71m profit within one year, so perhaps his lessons on customer experiences are worth listening to!)

Here's the rub: If you don't know what your clients' expectations are, how can you even think you can give them a magical experience?

Process building
What is your firm's process for identifying, capturing and recording your clients' expectations every year? Focussing on your A-class clients first:

  • Add 'expectations for next year' to your pre-year-end client meeting agenda (add it to your post-year-end meeting if you aren't having pre-year-end meetings).
  • Have a discussion about the essential nine things that should be covered in your pre-year-end meetings (according to 'The Trusted Advisor', by David Maister et al), namely:
  1. Clearly articulate what you will and will not do
  2. Clearly articulate what the client will and will not do
  3. Define the boundaries of the analyses you will perform
  4. Check with the client about areas and people with whom the client does not want you to be involved
  5. Identify precise working arrangements
  6. Agree on methods and frequency of communicating
  7. Decide who should get which reports, how often those reports will be delivered and how they will be used
  8. Decide what milestones and progress reviews are needed
  9. Decide how success will be measured, both during and at the end of the process

This might seem onerous, but continue with no expectations processes and you'll continue to run the risk of losing valuable clients because you do not exceed their expectations. You'll also continue to be challenged on price, and you'll be missing out on positive word-of-mouth recommendations to grow your firm.

Decisions, decisions

According to Jan Carlson, 'moments of truth' are those critical times when a customer forms an impression of you, deciding whether your offerings and their standards see eye to eye. The moment you start discussing expectations is a jugular moment of truth, don't you think? Isn't it time you installed your 'expectations for next year' processes?

Please post your reactions and thoughts on this important subject below.

Paul Shrimpling

Paul Shrimpling is managing director of Remarkable Practice and author of a whitepaper entitled 'The 7 big mistakes that accountants make that costs them a fortune in lost sales, lost profits and lost personal cash'.


Replies (3)

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By peterdell
11th Jun 2010 10:55

Managing expectations

Thanks for the article, very interesting insight.

Thanks (0)
By Paul Shrimpling
18th Jun 2010 10:15

thanks for the feedback Peter, it's appreciated. There seems to be so little written about expectations which is why the 'Moments of Truth' book is a worthwhile investment. If you come across anything else would you please let me know?

Paul inspires remarkable results in accountancy firms...

Thanks (0)
By James Hellyer
27th Jun 2010 10:29

One firm I worked at...

One firm I worked at had the slogan "Exceeding Expectations" plastered on all of their note paper and literature. Needless to say no effort was ever made to determine what their client's expectations were (other than receiving big bills with great regularity). It was tokenism at its worst.

I think you should always be in communication with your clients to let them know what you're doing for them (how else will they know you're looing after their interests) and finding out what they want from you.

Otherwise the only way you'll "exceed expectations" is by being even worse than they thought!

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