Summertime: Time for a client-service tuneup

By August J. Aquila, Ph.D.

The 2018 filing season is well behind you. No doubt you have kicked off your shoes and enjoyed some quality time on one of Minnesota's many lakes. When I was a kid, my grandfather and I would go fishing with bamboo poles and a bobber. I doubt if many fishermen or women do it that way today. They have the right tackle and bait, perhaps a sonar device to help locate the big ones, and then head out to catch keepers. Times change!

Clients and professionals change, as well.

Perhaps the most dynamic change in the accounting profession has been the transformation of clients. If we think for a moment, we realize that our clients' environment is no different than ours. As our environment has changed, we become more competitive and demand a higher level of performance from our partners and staff. The entire notion of client service and quality service has risen to higher and higher levels. The same is true for our clients. The environment has forced them to make smarter and better buying decisions -- and they have!

Clients today know more about the services and products available to them than ever before. Just think how we buy cars today. Most buyers will use the internet to get pricing information. Some even purchase their cars through Costco and other similar vendors. This is the new breed of clients that you need to learn how to service. 

You can be sure your clients are also doing their homework and are requiring you to know more -- and do more -- too. Just being a CPA is no longer sufficient. Today, CPAs must be problem solvers. Clients want CPAs to be their business partner, someone who is knowledgeable about their own services and their clients' business, and who can provide a workable solution to a problem at hand. If the CPA can't solve the problem, the client knows someone who can.

Who doesn't have a client who is becoming more demanding about the service they receive and the value of that service? Some professionals call these clients their worst nightmares. The fact is, these are the clients of the future. They will demand more and pay more for the right services. In response, accountants must learn new industries, technical skills, management techniques and client-service skills.

Four ways to serve the clients of the future

  1. Become client-centered. Make the entire organization dedicated to understanding clients' needs and developing products and services that meet those needs. Whether it's the receptionist or the managing partner, everyone needs to develop a new set of competencies around being client-centered. The truly outstanding firms require all their staff develop these competencies. Here's short list of some of the skills and qualities that you will want your people to have:
    • Listening, probing, empathy and good communication skills.
    • Basic knowledge about the services and products your firm offers.
    • Knowledge of the clients' business and their industry.
    • Trustworthiness, credibility and integrity.
  2. Develop business rather than social relationships. Many accountants have told me what great personal and social relationships they have with some of their clients. These accountants also have a great business relationship with their clients. What always comes first is the business relationship -- giving the client the kind of bottom-line outcome he or she is looking for.

    You can develop outstanding business relationships with your clients not only by consistently providing value-added services, but also by being more prepared and proactive in your dealings with them. If you're wondering why you're not getting additional work from existing clients, it may be because you're not generating results. Give them proof that each time they use you, you'll deliver results to the bottom line.
  3. Know your client's company. Your client's number one interest is their business. It's no surprise then that recent studies have shown the top expectation of clients is in-depth knowledge of their company. Imagine how much more valuable you would be to your clients if you and your staff truly had this knowledge.

    Staff should be encouraged to spend time at the client's business to gain an understanding of their systems and processes. During the off-season, have your staff spend a day at the client's business, read industry publications and attend industry trade shows. This allows them to better communicate with the client and further develop credibility.

    This is the age of the specialist, the expert and the niche marketer. Make sure that your partners and staff are becoming experts in some industry. Being a generalist today no longer works.  
  4. Increase and improve communications with your clients. Whether you use the internet or traditional methods, it's critical that you constantly improve your communications with your clients. Outstanding communications are not only clear, but also address client needs.

Change won't stop

To see how much you have changed or need to change, answer each of the questions with a yes or no. 

Client-service tuneup checklist

  1. Do I prepare for a client/prospect meeting?
  2. Do I truly understand the client's/prospect's business?
  3. Do I follow through with promises I make?
  4. Do I act with the utmost integrity, openness and flexibility?
  5. Do I show the client/prospect the results to the bottom line?
  6. Do I develop business relationships with clients?
  7. Do I know how to ask probing questions to understand the client's/prospect's needs?
  8. Do I demonstrate a "can-do" attitude?
  9. Do I frequently communicate with my clients or just when I want to make a new sale?

Scoring

  • One no or a perfect score: you're in great shape -- stay that way!
  • Two no's: with a little training, you could run a marathon.
  • Three no's: there's room for improvement.
  • Four no's or more: call the doctor right away. 

August Aquila is an internationally known speaker, consultant and writer. He may be reached at aaquila@aquilaadvisors.com. For more information, see www.aquilaadvisors.com.