March 23, 2010

Serve More, Sell Less. It Works!

During this current economic crisis I have seen many articles emphasizing the need for increased sales and marketing efforts and virtually none on improved client service and strategies to differentiate accounting firms from their competition. While extraordinary client service is not a substitute for marketing or making sound and persuasive presentations to current and prospective clients, it is a mindset that gets everyone in the firm thinking about how they can better serve and cross serve their clients. Serving clients in a selfless, trusted advisor manner always focused on each client’s value proposition. A rare and valuable commodity in these hectic times as it requires time and intentional action on everyone’s part at a time when there are so many people competing for our time. A client centered service strategy in your firm will not cost any money yet will differentiate your firm and blow away your competition. If you want to have meaningful value added conversations with your clients you must first have a high level of trust in your relationship.

Trust in professional relationships is built through participatory positive experiences that benefit both parties so it is very important that your client interactions be as positive as possible and focused on solutions that create value for the client. If the majority of your conversations with your clients are about the late delivery of your products and services and misunderstandings about fees it makes it difficult for the clients to trust that you can provide truly exceptional service and value to them. Accountants must get past these most basic administrative matters to move into the trusted space of their clients. Failure to do so may result in the client thinking that you are trying to “sell” them when you offer them additional services. Many opportunities will be created with your clients when you are able put these routine matters to rest and then focus intently on their specific needs and wants.

Here are a few places to start:

1. Most accountants’ idea of client service is to react when the client calls. Unfortunately this strategy fails when too many client requests are made at the same time and their ability to react quickly and meet the client’s expectations is limited as everyone in the firm is busy. Of course the clients really don’t care that you are busy as they just want their needs satisfied. The first step to extraordinary client service is to manage client expectations by scheduling their work and then delivering on time. A very simple concept, however, it is difficult to implement due to the many matters that compete for your time and attention. This is without a doubt the #1 challenge facing accounting firms today and one that must be overcome if a winning client service strategy is to be successfully implemented. Sit down with your staff and discuss how everyone can make this happen. Successful implementation will take innovation as well as some restructuring of your processes.

2. Place yourself in situations where you can have meaningful conversations with your clients. One study at UCLA found that communication is 55% body language, 38% intonation and volume and only 7% the spoken words. You cannot communicate effectively and you risk losing 93% of your nonverbal communication effectiveness if you do not meet with your clients. In today’s competitive business world be very careful when you use email as it’s great for distributing information but horrible as an effective communication tool. Meet with your clients face to face. There is no substitute!

3. Learn about your client’s perception of value. Start by asking them questions about the decisions they will be making at some point in the future and then listen carefully. The following are but a few examples:

a. What business decisions will you be making in the future? (Month, year(s) etc.)
i. Equipment, personnel, product lines, locations, etc.
ii. Sale, acquisitions, merger, etc.
b. What are your personal goals and what decisions do you need to make to get where you want to be?
i. What are your plans for retirement?
ii. Where are your children going to college?
iii. Are you comfortable with your liquidity and reserves if your business experiences a downturn?

4. Assist your clients by helping them make the decisions that make their life better. The cognitive process (how we think) results in the acquisition of knowledge, experience and problem solving ability. When you participate with your clients in making decisions their experience with you will be positive and they will want to repeat the process when the next decision needs to be made. You can participate by:

a. Furnishing pertinent information.
b. Analyzing and synthesizing complex financial information to make it more understandable to the client.
c. Giving your clients your best selfless professional advice. (Independence for your attest clients must also be a consideration)

5. Remember that we think as we speak so I recommend that accountants start talking more about “service” and a little less about “selling” when discussing how to implement an extraordinary client service strategy. Get everyone in the firm involved and make sure they understand their roles and responsibilities for exceptional client service.

Once you develop and implement an exceptional client service strategy in your practice you will soon find that clients are happier, making more referrals and gladly paying their fees. It could well be the most important strategic decision you ever make to truly differentiate your firm. Your competition will not know what happened or how to compete effectively, guaranteed!

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