Rick Telberg
Rick Telberg

The Big Mistake CPAs Make in Client Service

How to find new success by shifting your firmís focus from service-centric silos to client-centric goal-setting. And itís not about being a rainmaker.

March 22, 2010
by Rick Telberg/At Large

Most accounting firms believe they provide pretty good client service. And most of them are probably right.

But there are other firms that strive to deliver more than just satisfactory service. They are seeking to go a step further, something beyond merely satisfying clients, something akin to wowing clients. Perhaps they know what Bain & Co. consultant Fred Reichheld discovered in 1995: Even among clients who say they are perfectly “satisfied,” half will change providers anyway. Clearly, customer satisfaction is not enough. Something more is needed.

To be sure, more accountants today are focused on pushing fresh tax returns out the door than on esoteric discussions of client service. But it’s exactly at this time of year, when you have the client’s most ardent attention that you have a real opportunity to vault past mere satisfaction.

Most firms are service centric, meaning they focus on the services they provide, i.e. tax, assurance or estate planning. But in too many firms, that means the client becomes fixed in one silo. In other words, if they came in as a tax client, the tax department probably “owns” them. Of course, if the client needs an audit, the tax department “refers” them to the audit department.

To completely embrace the client, Edi Osborne of MentorPlus in Carmel Valley, Calif., is telling CPA firms to “stop looking at the client through your services and instead start looking at the client like a client. They have all sorts of needs and desires, challenges and goals. And it’s not all about finance.”

You may already know Osborne from her work with the AICPA — a few years ago — bringing performance-management techniques to CPA firms. Today she’s not saying that taxes and accounting aren’t important, but she is saying CPAs have an under-leveraged opportunity to work with clients to improve operations, strategy, processes and even hiring.

“Everything in business comes down to numbers. That’s how you run a business,” she says. “It’s just not all measured in dollars.”

Many key performance indicators are familiar to accountants, such as receivables days outstanding, inventory turns or return on equity. But accountants can also help clients “drill down to what’s important, to what drives those KPIs (key performance indicators),” Osborne says. Accountants can ask, what are the behaviors and processes that drive the KPIs? They can help clients connect the employee or customer actions that determine the KPI outcomes.

For instance, are orders getting out late because of data entry errors? An accountant informed in process management can tell. And an accountant can bring a fresh perspective.

In one case, an ambulance company was trying to accelerate its collections. “You’d think that getting the billing out fast would do the trick,” Osborne says. “But that wasn’t the problem. In fact, faster billing actually delayed collections.” The reason? The bills were going to the patient’s address. Not only was the patient in the hospital and not picking up their mail, but the patient wasn’t even the linchpin in getting paid. It was the hospital. So the ambulance company started billing the hospital instead and collections improved.

In a service-centric approach, the tax accountant or the audit partner may never have asked the questions that led to finding the right problem. But with a client-centric philosophy, any accountant working on the account could be observing, listening, questioning and analyzing.

In the end, the approach can lead to greater revenue per client at higher fees with better margins. It may sound like rainmaking, but it’s not about rainmaking. It’s about understanding the client as a whole, not just as numbers in a spreadsheet. With some basic skills and tools, Osborne says, “anyone can be a rainmaker. You don’t need to be a superstar.”

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN: What’s the secret to delighting clients? E-mail me with your comments, ideas, rants, raves or questions.

Copyright © 2010 CPA Trendlines/BSG LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. First published by the AICPA.

About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.