July 13, 2009


When I’m working at a retreat, a seminar or speaking at a conference just about everyone in attendance rushes out of the door at the break and immediately calls their voice mail. Once they come back in the room I usually ask them why they are so tied to their voice mail and now email. The answer is always the same, “To provide my clients with great client service” but is this really the case? More often than not there eventually will be a client service failure when an individual tries to use a reactionary client service strategy. This is especially true as an accountant grows their practice and their managed work increases significantly. I wonder how an accountant can go to the office every day with the client service strategy that they are going to react to 50, 100 or even more clients they are serving.


The reactionary service model is used in emergency rooms in hospitals; they staff up and wait to see who comes through the door. If you have been to an emergency room lately you have seen that during certain times there are few patients but on the weekend, especially during the night, the waiting area is overflowing and patients are upset about the length of time it will take to be seen. Does this sound like how it is around your office during the middle of tax season? We have the best of intentions however at these times we are just not able to deliver our services to our clients as well as we would like. Almost universally, managing partners tell me that the quality of their client service is not where they would like it to be.

There is one very big difference between our work and the work performed in an emergency room; our work is not dealing with life or death. Some client work might be urgent but most of the work we do is routine, predictable and can be scheduled. Why then are we using a very expensive and hard to manage client service model to deliver our services?

The greatest pushback I get from most accountants is that they simply don’t know when their clients will get required information to them. As a result most accountants must react to the actions of their clients rather than execute their own client service strategy which can be very risky. I like to improve my odds of being successful more often rather than less often. In my opinion outstanding client service is the one true differentiator of compliance based practices. Outstanding client service involves defining and then managing your client’s expectations about your services. If you don’t take the time to tell them what to expect they will develop their own expectations which in many cases is not reality.


Several years ago my wife had to have some very serious surgery and was understandably worried, concerned and anxious. On the morning of the surgery her young surgeon visited her in the pre-op area of the hospital and we both listened intently as he told us about the surgery and how he planned to accomplish it successfully, what would happen in the recovery room, the pain management epidural in her back that would be used for 3 days and how she would experience significantly increased pain when they removed it and finally, how they would use oral pain medications to again control the pain. He literally painted a picture of the process and clearly managed our expectations and on the third day after surgery when they removed the epidural and she began to experience significant pain I was able to reassure her that it was only temporary and to try to relax and not panic. This young surgeon was a master at managing client expectations; wise beyond his years. It then struck me “This is one reason we don’t always meet client expectations in public accounting because we don’t tell them what to expect”. How could anyone know exactly what our services are and how they will be provided unless we tell them?


Partners tell me that they aren’t able to communicate client service expectations to their clients mainly citing three reasons:

1. My clients will not comply with my expectations as to when I will receive their information so why try.
2. If I try to hold my clients accountable and responsible for their required information they might choose to use another accountant that won’t have such a requirement.
3. What happens if we can’t perform as promised?

After hearing these excuses I usually ask them what would happen if they had a dental appointment today and called their dentist stating they couldn’t be there for today’s appointment but will be able to be there at the same time tomorrow. Of course they laugh and say that’s not possible as it might take a month or two to get another non-emergency appointment. This is just my point. The dentist and for that matter most other professionals are better at managing their client’s expectations. Would we change dentists if they told us we couldn’t have another appointment at the same time tomorrow? Of course not as we value the relationship we have with them. As a profession we need to get much better at managing our routine services and not making every engagement a fire drill. Getting the work done becomes too stressful, our employees burn out and our client service suffers.

Delivering a quality product is the minimum ethical and legal requirement for CPAs. Delivering that minimum requirement makes a firm just like everyone else. I do know that a few firms have quality issues but that is clearly a much greater problem than being differentiated in the marketplace. If you really want to stand out in the crowded world of public accounting you have to have client service at a level significantly higher than your competition.


As Susan Scott says in her great book Fierce Conversations, you must have great conversations to have great relationships. Break through service starts by having great conversations with your clients. When was the last time you sat down with your best clients off the clock and had a conversation like this?

I want to provide you with the absolute best service and the greatest value possible for the fees you pay me. In order to meet that objective I need to know what decisions you anticipate having to make in the near future and in the long-term with regard to your personal goals and your business?

These conversations are essential because they define your client’s current life situation and their value perspective. Without the conversation you can only speculate about what is really important to them.

After learning more about what they want and where they are going you can participate by helping them get where they want to go and achieve their goals. Your value will skyrocket in the eyes of the client as their perception of your service increases.

Action steps to differentiate yourself and your firm.

• Over deliver and under promise
• Explain your service to your clients
• Change your voicemail daily telling your clients about your availability
• Schedule time to meet with your clients to discuss their life and how you can help
• Pick up the telephone and call your clients to discuss your services. Email isn’t as nearly as effective
• Create a culture of client service in your firm
• Survey your clients and make it easy for them to give you feedback

There are many more ideas to improve client service but these should give you a start.

AS always I would very much like your thoughts and feedback.

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