FOCUS ON CLIENT SERVICE AND WHAT IT REALLY MEANS IN PRACTICE

What does 'Client Service' actually mean ? We all talk about it and it is a modern day given that all accountants in practice deliver excellent client service.However, when I ask practitioners and their team of staff to tell me what it means in practical terms, I am often faced with blank faces.

When did you last ask your team of staff or partners to write down what 'client service' means in their eyes? You will be surprised by the answers and this will give you an idea of what you need to address.

The easiest way to define client service and measure whether you are actually delivering what a client believes to be important is to ask yourself the following questions;

  • Why do clients choose you as opposed to other accountants ?
  • What makes your service so special?
  • Do you have systems in place to ensure that you contact clients regularly?
  • Do you and your team have a clear and systematised 'year in the life of a client' process which means you contact them 3 months pre year end for a tax planning review,book their year end job in your schedule in advance,offer to help with getting records up to date and in order,offer to collect records if necessary,pre-book meetings for the year ahead in advance, agree fees up front for all work etc? All of these things are very basic and simple yet are key to drive any practice forward and not only deliver fantastic client service but improve efficiency and your gross profit margin as well.
  • Clients hate receiving unexpected bills.Do you have a policy where you offer fixed fees and can honestly say that a client will never receive an unexpected bill from you? Put this in place and it will help your cashflow too and the client will perceive it as part of an overall excellent service offering.
  • Client service and being proactive are interlinked.Proactive means you contacting the client before they contact you.Having regular contact with a client means you will know what is going on in their world and are better placed to offer help and business support.Again, clients will see this as an excellent level of service whilst you have the opportunity to generate extra work and fees.
  • Clients hate having minimal notice of what tax they have to pay and see this as you providing a really poor service....even when it is their fault, in your eyes, that they are running up against deadlines due to being tardy in answering queries or getting records in to you in the first place! You need to ask yourself why a client is in this position and put yourselves in their shoes.If they are always late it is likely to be due to them not having time to deal with paperwork and accounts and finding it a real chore.This is your opportunity to manage away that headache for them.Offer a service whereby you can collate the records,maintain the bookeeping and charge an additional fee.This is a win/win for you.The clients will be impressed by the service and you can properly manage your production workflow whilst securing additional fees.
  • It is imperative you contact a client at least 3 months pre-year end to talk about planning their job,agreeing fees and reviewing records etc.This is not only great client service but will improve your efficiency and work planning.Neither client or accountant wants to be permanently working up against deadlines and firefighting.
  • Once records come in do you review them to see that they are complete and as you expected ? Poor client service happens when clients believe they have given you a job then wait months for it to be completed only to find that you are asking for additional information weeks after they gave the job to you in the first place! Sounds familiar?
  • Excellent client service means you review a clients records on receipt and let them know if anything is missing.You can then offer a 30 day turnaround guarantee and tell the client when the final meeting will be and book it in.As long as you only agree the start date once the records are complete then the guarantee is easy to deliver and again will ensure efficiency in your own business and an improved profit margin.We all know that profit is lost on jobs where we have to pick them up and put them down again whilst we await missing information-clients also hate this approach.
  • Do you always have written agendas for every client meeting? This is all part of delivering client service.Send a proposed agenda to a client a few days before the meeting and ask if they want to add anything.Clients feel you are being proactive and caring for them whilst you ensure all meetings are productive and run to time.You also should use the agenda as an opportunity to note any new services you want to talk to a client about which may help them.Agendas also ensure you cover all you need to say.How many of us have gone to a meeting meaning to discuss fees or something we are a little uncomfortable with, only to find we conveniently bow out and avoid the 'confrontation' due to having run out of time or simply forgotten? An agenda means that both you and the client are prepared and you are forced to cover any issues.You know this will benfit both you and the client in the long run!
  • Client service is also about 'the feel' of your firm.When did you last walk in through your front door and put yourself in the shoes of a client ? Are clients greeted warmly and called by their name on arrival so they feel special? Do your team always smile,ask how they are and offer them a drink? What does your reception area say about you.Your team should be trained to treat visitors as if they were friends visiting your home.Offer to take their mobile phones and answer calls during the meeting in order for them to be uninterrupted.
  • Do you keep clients waiting and take hours to return their calls?Good basic client service means that they feel important and respected at all times.If you are running late or can't return a call for a while then you must ensure the client is told in advance.It is the client who is doing you the favour of paying you for your services and not the other way around.It still amazes me to hear many clients, when I survey them for accountants, say how they are made to feel 'small' or stupid when they have dealings with their accountants.
  • Are you dependent on your team of staff delivering client service on your behalf? Many partners forget that the client actually has most ongoing contact with your team.If your team isn't happy and technically skilled then how can they deliver the client service that is expected of them? Client service training is key to getting your business to work in the way you want it to.
  • Many practitioners believe that client service is part of their brand.I have yet to see literature or a website of any firm that does not state that it delivers a unique level of client service! In reality, it is often an empty promise with little substance.I recommend that every practitioner writes down what this means in practical terms and incorporates this into their promotional material.In this economic climate it is not enough to state 'we offer excellent client service' without going into detail about what this means to a client.
  • Do you fail to deliver on client service because you simply do not have enough time? This is a common response I hear from many practitioners.Again, the problem lies not wit the client but with the partner or team of staff who cannot time manage effectively.You have to learn to use your diary to book meeting in advance, put systems in place to improve efficiency, train and support your team so they can deliver what you and the clients require whilst being able to prioritise what is truly important and how to juggle a varied workload.
  • Do clients actually know and understand what services you can offer? Many clients perceive you as offering a limited level of client service because they don not actually know or understand what you can do to help them.Draw up a 'menu of services' and explain to both your team of staff and clients what each service means.Send it out to existing and prospective clients and follow up with a call or e-mail to see if they want to discuss any point further.You will be surprised to learn that many clients won't realise all of what you can do and feel that client service is therefore poor whilst you are losing out on extra fees to be earned.
  • A 'windows of opportunity' system is a very effective way of ensuring all clients are aware of your services and that you are delivering a great level of client service at the same time.It also will generate a significant extra stream of fee income as well.
  • How do you know what your clients really think of you? Your perception of how you are doing on delivering client service will no doubt differ to what you clients think in reality! It is vital to survey your clients regularly to get feedback and act on it.Client surveys always yield better results when completed by a third party as clients will 'open up' more.I have seen many a practice be saved from losing a good client as a result of acting on negative feedback arising from a survey.With competition and telemarketing being so hard in the marketplace it is essential you preserve what you have and ensure you know what clients really think of your service.Never assume or leave this to chance.
  • How well do you know your clients and which 20% of clients generate 80% of your fees? It is important to grade your clients,share that knowledge with your team of staff and focus on those A and B grade clients as being the lifeblood of your business.Grading clients (use a system with a varity of questions that measures qualitative not just quantative measures) also gives you a plan to try and inprove client service levels in trying to move clients up a grade.Once clients are graded you can put in place a client service plan and measure results.This too, always generates additional fees for a firm.It will also highlight those clients who may take up much of your time and contribute little to your bottom line and should really be 'managed away' to another firm as they are not your ideal client to act for.It is often those 'poor grade' clients that are taking up time and detracting from your firm being able to spend more time delivering client service to those clients who are important and appreciate what you do.
  • There are many systems and tools available in the market which can help you deliver better client service.Work out what your main issues are then do some research.I am happy to answer any e-mails if you want my personal opinion on the systems I had experience of whilst in practice.My knowledge certainly isn't exhaustive but I can speak from my own experience of over 20 years in practice.

I do hope this simple overview has provided you with support and food for thought.Do let me know if you would like further details of my personal experience on any of the points raised.I am happy to answer your questions by e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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