Onboarding sets the agenda for what the client should expect from their new accountant. As the adage goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
It’s no wonder then that onboarding has seen a year-on-year increase in popularity with firms entering AccountingWEB's Accounting Excellence awards. From zilch in 2015, the only way was up for the rise of practitioners pegging their success on their onboarding process.
Since then, more firms have seen the light when it comes to onboarding. Last year (2018), 24% of entrants described onboarding as a contributing factor to their client retention and growth, up from 16% the year before and 10% in 2016.
Customer service sits at the heart of the Accounting Excellence’s prevailing principles. Arguably, the onboarding stage is really the first – and for many, the most important – step in providing exemplary service.
In this article, we speak with Accounting Excellence shortlisted firms and winners, and pull back the curtain on their client onboarding processes and workflows.
The rise of automation
Just why onboarding has now come into vogue could be down to the growing interest in practice management software. Such tools provide onboarding facilities with automated reminders. The noise around practice management systems and automation seamlessly slipping into day-to-day use has broken down any barriers that had previously prevented firms from automating a large number of routine tasks.
In a notable example from 2018 small practice entrants, Adrian Markey was one of the many who found that rolling out new practice management software helped streamline his onboarding and client communication. This efficiency became all the more evident for him with the recent sharp increase in new clients and managing their onboarding and new deadlines.
Using tech has also empowered fellow Accounting Excellence small practice entrant Scholes CA to redefine their onboarding approach. All their new clients and prospects now automatically receive a 'business diagnostic' which quizzes them about how well different aspects of their business operates - such as strategy, marketing, operations, finance, for example.
“This helps our new clients have a more wide-ranging initial discussion with us, identifying improvement opportunities they may not have considered,” explained Ivan Houston, a director at Scholes CA.
The human touch
Becoming fully cloud-based also enabled Accounting Excellence Client Service winner Sarah Sallis from the Accountancy Office to make the transition away from manual processes. This freed up Sallis to increase the level of proactive client service.
It’s here that small practices in particular are able to put a personal touch to the onboarding process. Sallis has a dedicated onboarding process for new clients that involves weekly calls to the client, managed through her practice management system.
However, it was Sallis adding a human touch to her onboarding process that impressed the Accounting Excellence judges. Every new client receives a welcome pack and an introductory gift, such as chocolates.
Talking about her gift-giving onboarding process when the client confirms acceptance of the letter of engagement, Sallis told AccountingWEB last year: “We'll have conversations with them about their personal goals: where they want to be personally (which will have an impact on their business goals). We always get an idea about them as a person. We try and base the gifts on that.”
Founder of flinder Alistair Barlow, who was nominated in last year’s small practice and new firm category, also highlighted the importance of the human touch early on in client onboarding. “We have quite high average prices and so they like to be loved and hand-held during onboarding,” he said.
This human touch is central to flinder’s onboarding methodology. “When we take over and run the finance function, it's very important to understand the business vision and strategy,” said Barlow. “We ask the question about expectations and dig deeper into what challenges have been and what this means to them - some of this is done in the pre-contracting phase but important to maintain through onboarding.”
The client retention speaks for itself
Onboarding is clearly a key ingredient in client satisfaction. Barlow’s firm boasted 100% retention in 2018 (and 100% so far in 2019). Adding a personal touch to her onboarding process also paid off for Sallis who has a 99% retention rate over the last two years.
Client feedback is also critical to tech-startup firm The Accountancy Cloud. The 2018 innovative firm of the year sends an NPS survey after their three-month onboarding process. Being proactive from the start of the relationship unshackles the firm to adapt and shift their strategy, which has allowed them to be quick-footed with pricing, new packages and overhauling their referral scheme.
With so much client satisfaction riding on the success of client onboarding, a combination of automation and the human touch is required. So what does this look like in practice?
MD and chief innovator at Kinder Pocock
Accounting Excellence awards alumni Sharon Pocock has finessed an onboarding process based on a series of automated emails, backed up by the occasional human intervention.
From the moment a prospective client gets in touch they go into Kinder Pocock’s CRM. This is stage one of the firm’s onboarding workflow. From there, Pocock and her team arrange the first contact with the prospective new client to see if they’re a good fit.
“I have a chat with the potential client and I'm answering the questions on a Google form. So I work them into a conversation and make sure they've answered everything, so it's not robotic,” she told AccountingWEB.
Once that’s happened, Pocock will give them a ballpark quote and arrange an initial meeting where she'll run through another series of questions. The aim is to get to know them, find out what they need, and from there, she is then able to give them a proper quote.
As soon as the new client accepts the proposal from Practice Ignition, this is when the automation kicks in. The client then receives a welcome email asking them to fill in a new client form. Concurrently, Kinder Pocock will receive a notification when the client accepts the proposal and completes the form, which kickstarts the firm’s process in getting a professional clearance from their previous accountant and asking for HMRC authorisation.
Kinder Pocock's five-step onboarding process
Once they've accepted her proposal, Pocock shares with the new client the below workflow illustration. The client then knows exactly what they can expect next. (The article continues after Kinder Pocock's onboarding workflow.)
While the automation cranks away in the background, Kinder Pocock sprinkles their personal touch on the process to ensure the client doesn’t get stuck in the system. “Part of the onboarding is making sure that we're checking in with them at certain points afterwards,” said Pocock.
“We're talking to them all the time and we'll set them up on Xero and Receipt Bank but keep checking in with them. A week later we will check in on Xero and Receipt Bank and make sure they're using it and are OK with it.”
Part of this process is left to automation. For example, the client receives an email nudge asking if they’ve been using Xero and whether they’ve set up their bank feeds.
“Then after a month they get a call to make sure everything is OK, and then three months after they've started with us we'll have another meeting and make sure they're happy with everything and if we can do anything else for them.”
The aim is for the client to get as much help and support as possible. “We know if we don't do that and three or six months later, we go into Xero and either it's a complete mess or they've not used it at all and it's a nightmare. So if we help them from the start, give them free training and handhold, it's much better.”
Also in the middle of this automation is Kinder Pocock’s client coordinator. She's doing a lot of the calls and constantly making sure they've got everything from the client. “If they don't give it to us, we're stuck, we can't do anything,” said Pocock. “It's making sure that things are getting chased up and during that, she tends to have other conversations or things that they need. So it's a good way of keeping in touch from the very start.”
Though Pocock has crafted a smooth onboarding process that sets client expectations from the start, the workflow was refined through remedying past mistakes.
“Years ago, we had a couple of clients that we didn't hold on to. What I think happened was that they accepted the proposal and we were so busy we'd then carry on with what we were doing. From a client's point of view, that's like 'what happens now?' So we're making sure that we're keeping in touch and letting them know what is going on and we're not leaving them in the lurch.”
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.