Existing clients: is your accounting firm making the most of them?

If you have ambitions to grow your accounting practice, it’s important to know how satisfied your clients are. Read on for some ways to uncover client satisfaction and then act on it.

Most public practice accountants would agree that referrals rule, and that the satisfaction levels of existing clients usually dictate the number of new business referrals a firm receives.

However, according to Simon Rhind-Tutt, founder and managing partner of London-headquartered Relationship Audits & Management, client satisfaction is no longer enough.

“Satisfied clients are still susceptible to better offers,” he says. “If you’re providing a service, your clients are everybody else’s new business prospects, and that is why there is a level above client satisfaction that we call client commitment.”

The decline of client loyalty

As Rhind-Tutt notes, “right across the business services industry, loyalty and commitment is declining. Clients are always looking for some form of added value, but a lot of firms still take their client relationships for granted. It’s 20 times easier to get new business from existing clients than to bring in new clients.”

According to Relationship Audits & Management research, around a third of professional services firms’ clients, when asked, will say they feel valued, a third that they’re unsure, and a third that they are not personally valued at all.

However, Rhind-Tutt says the real issue is about making clients feel “special”, which among other things means closely listening to what they say, how they say it and understanding what they really mean. He adds: “The three can be very, very different.”

The ‘Moment of Truth’ in accountant-client feedback

Mid-tier accounting firm William Buck chair, Nikolas Hatzistergos FCPA, has always put credence in what he calls the “Moment of Truth” – when a bill is sent.

“Although we had previously done NPS [Net Promoter Score] surveys on whether our employees would recommend William Buck as a place to work, for the first time last year we took a different approach,” he reveals.

“With the bill, we asked clients if they wouldn’t mind responding online to three key questions: Are you happy with the service; do you think we provide value; and what would you ask us to improve?”

The survey inexplicably resulted in clients paying more promptly. Hatzistergos concedes that although anecdotal, prompt payment generally reflects satisfaction among clients that they are getting value for money. Cash flow problems aside, late payments might be a harbinger of other, more negative issues.

As is the case with the majority of SME firms, Hatzistergos says existing clients are the number-one source of referrals for William Buck because it does no mainstream advertising. Instead, it relies on marketing through its website.

He agrees that it’s been a fairly reactionary approach to gaining new work, but believes in “your deeds doing the talking”.

Nonetheless, preparation is underway for a new, more in-depth client engagement survey which will roll out in May 2018. Rather than being geared towards William Buck’s thousands of smaller clients, it will be limited to its top 50 most long-standing and lucrative fee-payers to – as Hatzistergos puts it – test the “pulse”.

The importance of accountants providing real-time service

Hatzistergos emphasises the imperative of even the smallest accounting firms staying abreast of the latest technology.

“These days, cloud-based accounting services like Xero, MYOB and Reckon provide a host of add-on applications, and even at a very micro business level it is important for firms to take advantage of these,” he says.

“Especially in the SME space, accountants need to become what I call ‘real time’ accountants.

“It’s time to start value-adding and educate clients about these systems which can, in turn, allow you to become their external CFO. You can go online and quickly scan the books and notice things as they’re happening, rather than six months after an event, and immediately interact with the client.

“This provides an opportunity to touch base several times a year, because if your only touch point is once a year during tax time, what’s happening during the other 11 months when you’re not talking? Accountants who rely on that – and especially smaller firms – are going to get left behind.”

It is certainly no way to make clients feel “special” because, as Hatzistergos notes: “While filing a tax return was once seen as a must-do, younger, savvy, more technologically capable people are not going to prize that as something of value.”

Is Net Promoter Score the right approach for your practice?

Clearly, a key characteristic that can differentiate accounting firms from competitors is the way they serve clients, which is why NPS (Net Promoter Score) software is increasingly popular.

It claims to measure customer loyalty and empower companies to track customer sentiment and gather feedback to uncover not only what they need to know about best practice client satisfaction, but to predict future growth potential.

NPS generally hinges around one simple question: “How likely are you to recommend our accounting practice to a friend or colleague?” on a scale of 0-10.

NPS scores work by placing your clients into one of three categories based on their feedback.

  • Promoters (scores 9-10): loyal and enthusiastic clients who will keep using your services and refer others
  • Passives (scores 7-8): satisfied but unenthusiastic clients who are at risk of moving to a competitor
  • Detractors (scores 0-6): unhappy clients who can damage your brand and impede growth through negative word-of-mouth.
Not everyone is an advocate.

“I’m not saying NPS is right or wrong, just that it doesn’t suit our business,” says founding partner of The Practice, Jason Cunningham CPA.

“One of the dangers in today’s age of client surveys is email overload and I don’t want to keep bombarding customers with ‘tell us what you think about us’ messages. I’d rather have those conversations when we meet.”

Rhind-Tutt goes further: “Very few people realise that NPS was developed as a business-to-consumer, not business-to-business tool,” he says.

“Also, when it comes to professional services, practically no-one will score a firm nine or 10, simply on principle. They are therefore not rated as promoters, even though a score of eight suggests they’re quite satisfied.”

Rhind-Tutt uses an analogy to elaborate: “If I were to tell you there is a bomb on a ferry going from Circular Quay to Manly at 11.50am and it’s under the third row seat on the right, or that there is a bomb in Sydney Harbour, what would you rather know?”

According to Rhind-Tutt, NPS can only answer the latter.

“Of course, it’s better to know that than nothing at all, but in terms of what we call ‘actionable intelligence’ it is far better to have precise details about where clients might have issues,” he says.

Get up close and personal with your clients

Like Cunningham, Rhind-Tutt believes there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

Indeed, when the global financial crisis (GFC) struck in 2008 and professional services firms realised that it might be a good idea to get closer to their clients, Rhind-Tutt is widely credited with coming up with the idea of client advisory boards (CABs).

Essentially, CABs involve inviting up to 10 of your most valued clients to meet twice a year to tell you exactly what they think about your business, and although the practice has since been adopted by companies in diverse sectors in the UK and increasingly the US, it has never really caught on in Australia or SE Asia, and certainly not among SMEs.

“Because most clients [or customers] tend to operate in silos, they find it useful to discuss the issues they face with contemporaries,” Rhind-Tutt says, “and anything you can do to stay closer to clients is a valuable exercise.”

Cunningham agrees, and at The Practice has put a unique spin on the concept.

“We focus our referral efforts on our most engaged clients, who we invite to attend a host of events we run and always encourage them to bring along a friend,” he says.

“We also look to build a strong referral dialogue from the start of the relationship and, as part of our engagement process we ask, ‘do you know anyone who might benefit from our services?’”

However, he too emphasises the importance of value-adding: there has to be a tangible return for clients on the time they invest.

The Practice holds three marquee events a year, which are business retreats for around 30 to 35 business owner clients in destinations such as Fiji, Byron Bay and Noosa. The retreats feature guest speakers and are facilitated by Cunningham and mainly structured around the principles of building a business that will be ready for sale contained in his book, Have your cake and sell it too.

After three days of workshopping with other like-minded business owners, attendees leave with a cutting edge, one-page strategic business plan and are encouraged to share it with their contacts.

“At the end of the event we’ll say, let us know of somebody you think might benefit from that, and we can have a conversation with them,” Cunningham explains. “The retreats are intense but absolutely the best thing we’ve done in business.”

It’s important to note, however, that these are not free jaunts for a select few. “They pay to attend, but if for whatever reason they don’t get the value they expect, we return their money,” Cunningham says.

What is free – and Cunningham himself admits to it being a bit “old school” – are the gifts The Practice makes to its best referrers, “just as a way of saying thanks”.

The Practice also uses a professionally tailored app it encourages all clients to download to their phone, which allows them to give instant, honest feedback to the firm in a way that some find more comfortable than communicating issues face-to-face.

If you don’t ask…

“One of the things that surprise me about the accountancy industry is that it’s usually all about numbers, whereas to ensure continuity of business, it needs to be about relationships,” Rhind-Tutt says.

“Rarely do people put metrics against that, and although it sounds blindingly simple, the best way to ensure business continuity is to just ask.”

Interestingly, Hatzistergos recounts a story about why one of his best clients and friends referred new business opportunities to another firm, but never recommended William Buck.

“He said, gosh Nick, I didn’t know you wanted any more work. You always seemed to have more than you need and because you never asked, I never thought about it.”

As Cunningham summarises: “There are basically three ways to win customers. People do business with you because they like you, because you’re seen as an expert and person of influence in your industry, or someone has been referred to you by a trusted source. Too often accountants just don’t ask for referrals.”
from intheblack