Rick Telberg
Rick Telberg

Three Rock-Solid Principles of Client Service

With a newly competitive marketplace for accounting services, firms are going back to basics to renew their bonds with their best clients in an effort to improve client service, satisfaction and retention. What are you doing about it? What's your client service story? We're looking for a few good ideas. E-mail Rick Telberg here.

September 20, 2010
by Rick Telberg

It shouldn't take an economic downturn and cutthroat competition for accounting firms to rekindle their interest in optimizing client service, satisfaction and retention.

"It should be at the top of the agenda all the time," Sandra Wiley, COO at Boomer Consulting was telling me.

But with the economy of the new normal, client service has become a hot topic.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how critical client service is to success or failure for an accounting practice, not to mention any business. Just do the math. By some widely accepted measures cited by Wiley, unhappy clients will tell 10 people and happy clients may tell four. Unfortunately, too many accounting firms go to market as if their motto was, "We're no worse than anyone else," Wiley says.

What should you do about it? Wiley starts with a few basic principles:

  1. The customer is always right. They may not be able to prepare their own tax return or run their own P&L. But you can't argue with their opinion of you, your firm or the way they're treated. It starts with listening, listening hard and listening systematically. Sometimes that may require an outside consultant with objectivity and independence. And if you hear something you don't agree with, go back to the beginning of this paragraph.
  2. Every person in the firm is responsible for delivering — in Wiley's term — "amazing" service. Everything a firm does must be predicated on client service and satisfaction delivering value that clients understand. It really doesn't matter how many hours you put in on that audit. The client just wants the unqualified opinion and your ideas on what you found while doing the audit. Clients really don't want to pay taxes; they want to have paid taxes. And your job is to make that as painless as possible.
  3. And, finally, you can't treat your clients any better than you treat your staff and each other. So start by looking at ways to make sure your staff is happy, satisfied and fully engaged in the work of the firm.

To put the principles into action, start here:

Understand who your best clients are. These are the clients you'd like to clone. Start ranking your book of business by criteria like revenue, referrals, the number of your services they use, "share of wallet," risk and how big a pleasure (or a headache) they are to work with. With that, you'll probably discover that 20 percent of your client list is producing 80 percent of your income. Now you know on whom to focus.

You'll also find out who your problem-clients are. With tight staffing and the need to make every billable hour count, few firms can afford to waste time on marginal clients. Start weeding out the bottom 10 percent. Some firms simply raise rates or cut service. But that can be a mistake, creating a whole new category of disgruntled ex-clients. Better: You can send them a "Dear John" letter saying, essentially, "it's not you, it's me" explaining that the firm is moving in a new direction. It's best if you can refer them to another firm or practitioner who may be better geared to take them on.

Relieved of the time sinks, you now have time to deliver the kind of service and value to your best clients. These are clients for whom you build a client newsletter, from whom you request candid feedback, to whom you send holiday invitations and with whom you build a thriving new firm.

COMMENT: What are you doing about it? What's your client service story? We're looking for a few good ideas. E-mail Rick Telberg.

Rate this article 5 (excellent) to 1 (poor). Send your responses here.

Rick Telberg is president and chief executive of Bay Street Group LLC, advisors in marketing, management and strategy.

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

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.