The Christmas season is in full swing, and some accounting practices have made the spreading of festive joy part of their client experience.
Office Christmas parties are traditionally kept behind closed doors and away from clients, but aside from the odd case of photocopier-based debauchery they are the perfect excuse to spread good cheer and positive feelings. It’s no wonder then, that accountants are holding their own client Christmas parties.
Client Christmas parties
Firms entering the Accounting Excellence awards are increasingly citing events as key to their success – and the trend is growing. Last year 30% of entries attributed part of their success to firm-organised events, so why not extend that philosophy to the festive season?
Accounting Excellence alumni Linda Frier, owner of Nottingham-based Coalesco, runs a monthly client seminar programme. Each seminar focuses on a particular subject, with Making Tax Digital a particular favourite among attendees.
These events are usually held at a venue with a bar, so attendees can hang around afterwards to mingle with their fellow guests. Frier recognises that Christmas also provides a networking opportunity and a chance for the Coalesco team to catch up with clients on a more social basis.
“We found a lot of clients started talking to one another and had a really nice time socialising and business was done - which was great for them,” said Frier. “In a more structured environment there is sometimes less opportunity to chat, or without a glass of beer in people's hand's conversation might not flow as well.”
Show your appreciation
Hosting client Christmas parties continues the “people first rather than clients” customer experience that gained Wantage-based firm Inca Accountants a 2018 Accounting Excellence nomination. Inca compares this service to your favourite restaurant or hotel, where guests are welcomed like old friends when they arrive.
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Likewise, Cornwall-based The Peloton holds client lunches every working day of the year. Everyone in the firm gathers around the office dinner table and eats food cooked from scratch by a member of the team. Clients are made to feel “part of the family” by joining these group dinners. Then at the end of each year, the firm invites clients to join them for a Christmas party. They source local drinks and food and have a “good knees-up in the office”.
Frier talks about Coalesco as a community, but when it comes to the client festive gathering she takes a practical approach and books a venue. “We're a small, open-plan practice and what we found in the two-three weeks before Christmas our normal drop-in rate goes up significantly because people would like to come and wish us a Merry Christmas and maybe drop us a bottle in. We actually found it very disruptive in our second busiest month of the year dealing with the volume of people coming through – but obviously we deal with it all with good jest,” said Frier.
For some firms, the hectic nature of the festive season means that a Christmas party for clients just isn’t possible. Sarah Sallis, the founder of 2018 Accounting Excellence client service award winner The Accountancy Office, visits her clients from mid-December with her figurative sleigh filled with Christmas gifts.
Gift giving is part of Sallis’ onboarding process. When the client confirms acceptance of the letter of engagement they receive a welcome gift. The gifts are typically chocolates or flowers, but this is all part of gauging who they are as a person during the onboarding experience.
“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,” said Sallis.
Rule number one of client care is creating personal bonds with clients. It’s why Sallis drops-in on locally-based clients to personally present the gift. The informal visit is another opportunity to open conversations with the client to see how things are going.
“I suppose the client may speak to the friends, family or associates and say they've had this gift from their accountant, which may generate referrals but for me, that's not the reason for doing it,” said Sallis.
“It's a small token of our appreciation, particularly with our longstanding clients. It's a nice gesture - to give them a gift of some form at the end of a hard year.”
Strengthening client relationship
It’s this continual development of the client relationship that drives Frier’s Christmas festivities. “Anything that you give back to clients I think in the current environment helps in terms of loyalty and retention. We know that people appreciated it and talk about it and continue to talk about it throughout the year - which is really lovely.”
The Accountancy Office’s personal touch is also clearly working. Their client retention rate for the last two years has been 99%, and 100% of clients said on the annual client satisfaction survey that they’d be “extremely likely” to recommend the firm to a friend. This client satisfaction was also embodied by the 88% Net Promoter Score the firm charted last year. It’s a similar story for Coalesco, who won the 2015 small practice of the year, where it scored an impressive 99.6% client retention.
Can accountants and clients be friends?
Some readers may see the festive personal touch as crossing the sacred client-accountant boundary. It’s the age-old dilemma many accountants battle. Both Frier and Sallis disagreed that Christmas parties and gift-giving overstep the accountant-client relationship.
Sallis said that many clients have been with her firm since day one, so there is an element of a friendship that builds up over the nine years they’ve worked together. “Over the years we've been part of their business which is a big part of their personal lives and the two interact together,” she said.
The AccountingWEB community reached similar conclusions in a "friends and clients" Any Answers thread last year: responses such as NH's "they know they can trust me and I will go the extra mile for them, in return, they always pay what we agreed on time" were common.
But if you’re not an advocate of this “cosy fluff”, remember: client Christmas parties and festive gift-giving also have another practical element. Frier remembered times during the four years Coalesco has run Christmas parties where clients would turn up with a signed tax return. “We have people turning up with their boxes to drop their stuff off. So it is not all bad, is it?”
About Richard Hattersley
Richard is AccountingWEB's practice correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.