Practice Excellence Awards judge James Scanlan draws some lessons from the client survey results about how accountants can benefit from being flexible in their client relationships.
Anybody who has worked, or still is working, in the accountancy profession would admit that the power of the relationship has swung in favour of the clients.
This is no bad thing, and in my opinion has forced many practices to significantly raise their client care and communication to keep their client retention high.
Many clients now take this as a given and are much more aware of what they need from an accountant. As a result they are constantly challenging their advisers to deliver what they need. They are more willing to explore the possibility of a competitor providing them with this specific service, or in some cases their entire business advisory services.
The efforts of the nominated firms in this area were exemplary, but feedback from nearly 2,000 client responses to the online survey showed that many firms that entered the Practice Excellence Awards were better at understanding clients than being flexible how they deal with them.
The overall response to the question “How flexible would you say that your accountant is to your needs as a client?” was incredibly high, at 3.77 out of a maximum of 4, but the result to the first question “To what level do you feel that your accountant understands your needs as a client?” was even higher, at 3.82 out of 4.
So what does this tell us? Clients are confident we understand their individual needs, and feel that firms deal with their needs flexibly, but ever so slightly less so. This discrepancy would suggest that even firms competing for an award for excellence could still improve when it comes to being flexible with clients.
One firm I’ve recently consulted with reintroduced Saturday morning opening, something I’m sure many accountants of a certain age would remember being the norm. It’s not a massive undertaking to run a small skeleton staff over a weekend, but is proving a huge success with clients at this firm.
Other examples include extended opening hours at both ends of the day (8am – 6pm), which not only goes a long way to being flexible for clients, but also helps team members who can get their 8 or 8.5 hours done around the other demands in their lives.
Seeing clients and prospects out of office hours is a small thing that goes a long way, as are direct debits, standing orders, fixed fees, mobile telephone numbers and the use of Skype. But small things really make a difference to clients and affect how they feel you are meeting their needs.
Another firm really does go that extra mile for clients, including knowing what their favourite song is so that it is playing on the Wurlitzer juke box in the waiting area prior to meetings!
Sadly the survey indicates that such efforts are rare among the wider profession. Across the entire survey sample, firms large and small rated very highly in areas concerning satisfaction: likelihood of client referrals; understanding clients’ needs; flexibility; educating clients how you can help them; and value for money.
Yet the lowest overall score was associated not with what was being delivered to clients, but how you make them feel about your relationship.
The survey question, “How important do you feel that you are to your accountant?” produced the lowest average score in the client survey - 3.35 out of 4.
What these results are telling us is that having a good relationship with your client is no longer enough. We need to go further and not only have a good relationship, but to make them feel valued as well.
Consider your answers to the following questions – and be honest:
- Do you systemically see every client (at worst) once a year?
- How often do you tell a client that you are really busy?
- When did you last keep a client waiting in your reception?
- How often have you turned up late for a client meeting (and this includes being 3 minutes late to a meeting in your own offices)?
- In all your years in practice how many clients have you sent a birthday or wedding anniversary card to?
- And above all else, when did you last thank a client for their business?
If you’re guilty of none of the above then I’d love for you to let me come and spend a day with you to see how you’re running your practice. But if even one of them applies, I you can see how easy, and very often cost neutral it is, to make a client feel important.
Let me ask a final question. How many clients that pay you gross recurring fees can you afford to lose because you’ve made them feel unimportant? ”Unimportant”, that is, in the sense that their own business or family’s financial wellbeing - the things which are probably of most importance to your clients - are being devalued by their accountant.
Once you reach a certain point it’s the small things that are often the most important. So, why not be like some of the Practice Excellence Awards winners and ask yourself, “What small things can we do to make every client feel special?” If you can come up with half a dozen easy, low cost ideas, and implement them across the firm, you’ll be taking huge steps forwards in making happy clients – clients for life.
James Scanlan is head of client services at PracticeWEB, where he specialises in marketing and practice development. He has worked within the profession for more than a decade, both as an in-house PR and marketing manager and as an independent consultant.
About John Stokdyk
John Stokdyk is the global editor of AccountingWEB UK and AccountingWEB.com.