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How to keep client service consistent as accountancy firms grow
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Find the right balance between growth and service

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Many of the accounting firms that entered our Covid Hero Awards last year discovered that they were benefiting from trying to do the right thing by winning new clients.

1st Apr 2021
Editor in Chief AccountingWEB
Columnist
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When you’re already under pressure, how do you cope with an influx of new business while staying on top of all the things your team needs to do for existing clients?

Our first Accounting Excellence webcast of 2021 will explore that professional service paradox with a trio of award winners and Covid heroes from last year: Pamela Phillips from de Jong Phillips (Small Firm of the Year); Sian Kelly from Inform Accounting (Client Service Award winner); and Avery Martin’s Glenn Martin (specially commended Covid-19 Individual Award).

Before digging into the nuts and bolts of maintaining consistent service levels as you grow, it’s worth hearing Glenn’s advice about dealing with a crisis situation like the pandemic: “Keep your head and remain calm. Many of our clients were less than five years into their business journey and this is first major bump in the road. We shared our experience and placed a ring of steel around our clients to make sure they fight another day.

“Only worry about what you can influence - we didn’t create this storm and as individuals we cannot fix it either. All we can influence is our families, our teams and our customers. Put your own oxygen mask on first, regain stability then plan your way out of it. Do not worry about what others are doing or what your competition says - you are your own competition.”

Outreach efforts

Without exception, all of the 90 firms that entered last year’s Covid-19 Hero category put huge effort into supporting clients with the right information when they needed it on government loan schemes, self-employed income support and furlough arrangements.

Some practices, like Covid-19 Hero firm winner Kinder Pockock and others including de Jong Phillips, Coalesco and Avery Martin went further and set up online Facebook communities or WhatsApp networks where clients could share their experiences with each other.

Just by being visible and doing a good job supporting their clients, many of these firms started attracting clients from other accountants who were less outgoing.

“Information was definitely the lure,” said Pamela Phillips. “As soon as Covid-19 hit, we contacted clients and started putting out more videos explaining what help was available. We became visible to people who weren’t getting those insights from their own accountants and started getting more enquiries.”

The firm specialises in the agency sector and was selective about the new clients it took on, but the niche focus meant there was very little new clients could throw at the firm that hadn’t been encountered before.

Onboarding new clients

Systemisation and a commitment to cloud accounting is a common factor for our client service champions. Since she set up her digital practice, Inform’s managing director Sian Kelly has always been committed to ensuring that every customer, new and old, gets a consistent level of personal service.

After the rigours of 2020, Kelly is taking some time out to review onboarding processes that were put to the test during the past 12 months. The processes involved are mainly administrative, such as anti-money laundering checks, but Kelly is looking to see if she can improve how they link into the firm’s practice management and working papers systems and the Trello project tracking tool.

At de Jong Phillips, they’ve also invested in systemising key processes. “To scale up without letting service drop or being overwhelmed with work, your core activities have to be systemised which also frees up tie to do the relationship/human stuff,” said Phillips.

“If your process is consistent and repeatable and client knows what to expect, that builds up trust and allows you the time to have the conversations rather than work out what to do every time. In our onboarding process, we mapped out the journey we’ll take client through over next six months and backed that up with process flows and automated communications - but not at the expense of the human touch.

“There’s still time available for the client manager to approach clients and have dedicated conversations with them.”

Adapt service lines

For de Jong Phillips, adaptability held the key to ensuring clients felt they were getting the right support. “This means we can make a big difference to our clients who can feel the impact quickly,” said Phillips.

Cashflow forecasting and modelling became the new service line of 2020, as our award-winners demonstrated. “We’ve been building cash flow forecasts to help our clients better understand their position, as well as helping them apply for loans,” said Phillips. “Scenario planning has been crucial.”

Inform also recognised cashflow as a key concern and took advantage of Fluidly’s extended six-month trial period to offer the cashflow forecasting app to all its clients. As well as handling all the business interruption and bounce back loan applications, Inform has also seen several clients swap their usual management accounts for Inform’s managed cashflow service.

“Planning for their cash flows is currently of greater concern to them than historic performance,” said Kelly.

Inform has also been working in tandem with an HR and employment specialist to deal with some of the non-accounting challenges arising from the pandemic.

No magic bullet

The online tools firms adopted to work remotely and collaborate with clients during the pandemic played a big part in helping practices cope with their increased workloads. Digital firms like Inform, de Jong Phillips and Avery Martin were well placed to scale up around their core accounting technology stacks.

During the past year, many practices added new apps for reporting, cashflow forecasting and payments to their portfolios, but they also turned to programs like MailChimp to send out email newsletters and signed up for Zoom sessions that have become the norm for meeting clients.

But technology can’t solve all the problems of maintaining service consistency.

Faced with the latest surge in new business, Inform’s Sian Kelly acknowledges that there’s no magic bullet. Staying on top of client demands means ensuring there are enough experienced accounting professionals on hand to meet demand.

“The way to stop dropping balls and avoid client service blips is to have staff in advance of new growth: we aim to be six months ahead of the need, though it has dropped down to three months this year,” Kelly said.

The next element of service consistency comes down to training, and more training with seniors coaching and advising junior employees on what it takes to provide excellent customer care. A further two days a month are set aside for every employee to undertake training and in June last year Inform put in place a week-long customer care training programme to ensure everyone on the team took on board new clients in the right way.

Where do the challenges occur as you add to the firm's client base and how do you systemise and automate your client experience? To find out the answer to these and other questions about coping with growth, keep an eye out on the AccountingWEB live page for further details of the 16 April webinar.

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