All Clients Great and Small (or Baby, It’s Gold Outside*)
Craig Browning – Director of Marketing and Personnel, KWC CPAs
“My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house–mark me!–in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!” –Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
In what has become an annual rite of passage, the federal government once again orchestrated year-end drama recently, passing the tax reform bill just days before the holidays. This sent the accounting industry into overdrive, attempting to push out summarized information on the ramifications of the bill to practitioners and they, in turn, to their clients. In the aftermath, accountants throughout the country have no doubt been busy responding to client inquiries. One related story from the Washington Post even likened accountants to “rock stars” and many may still be basking in their 15 minutes of fame.
However, there is no need for this fame to end, at least not for those in the accounting profession. The fact of the matter is clients are always in need of your advice, whether or not they seek it out and often, whether or not they know they need it.
To that end, there is often a perceived dichotomy between frequent client contact and overall client contentment (i.e. “we don’t want to bother our clients too much” with emails, surveys, etc.) which could not be further from the truth. Yes, clients will not want to be inundated with information that does not pertain to their circumstances or obvious sales pitches for services they do not need, but few will be inclined to turn away advice that is tailored to save them money or to improve their financial outlook.
Go Outside and Play
Someone gave you this sage advice when you were a child and it bears repeating now. In this version you just finished your client’s annual engagement and finalized the bill. Now you can go back to practicing the ancient art in the comfort zone of your office (visualize a crocheted “Home Sweet Home” banner on the wall). This may entail beginning work on an existing engagement or attempting to develop some new client business. Both are great uses of your time and you are to be commended. But, unbeknownst to you, a terror lurks outside your peripheral vision. Just beyond your line of sight the aforementioned client (who appeared satisfied at the conclusion of your annual engagement) lives and breathes. No, they did not vanish into the ether; on the contrary, they are active in their respective spheres. As a result their loyalty to you as their service provider will put to the test daily. Perhaps they were not entirely satisfied by your level of service on the recent engagement despite your perception. Moreover, perhaps they are expecting more from you as their financial adviser than just a job well done. They want to know that you are actively engaged and looking out for their interests.
I overheard a group of partners at an industry conference discussing how rival firms in their respective markets were actively “stealing” their clients. This is inaccurate: a client can only be lost, not stolen. And a client that can even consider the notion of switching providers has, for all intents and purposes, already been lost. Whether due to unresponsive or insufficient service, losing a client is a foregone conclusion once they reach the stage of entertaining suitors. Yes, pricing can often be a factor—but fee concerns of an existing client that has been satisfactorily maintained (through responsive, quality service and routine contact) will have already been addressed.
Thus, a formalized client contact plan is essential to the relationship. Periodic repetition of client engagements without a coordinated contact plan throughout the rest of the year is a recipe for disaster. In the interim between engagement dates the client is subject to all manner of life events that may affect their decision to continue with you as their financial adviser. This includes being approached by competitors. You can counter some of these unforeseen circumstances by keeping in close contact with your clients. And the best way to do that is to have a formalized plan for client contact.
This is not accomplished by good intentions. This is accomplished by scheduling appointments on a calendar and marking when completed. Different clients may demand different types and frequency of engagement, but all (yes, I said all) deserve to have some manner of contact throughout the year. The obstacle will of course be having the time to follow through. One idea is to make this a group effort and employ other staff (especially those that need to begin interacting with clients and taking ownership of engagements). So start scheduling office meetings, lunches, networking events, phone calls, emails, and any other contact methods that will let your clients know that you appreciate their business and, more importantly, are proactively looking out for their interests.
Respect for Clients (Tone from the Top)
Clients come in all shapes, sizes and styles. Some are more demanding than others, some are more disorganized, etc. Some are extremely profitable and some may not be profitable (at least on paper) at all. What they share in common is that they deserve respect. This respect is set by the attitude that the top management displays. The partner who, however innocently, disparages a client is beginning the process that will result in loss of said client. Moreover, a lack of respect for a client in front of staff will result in a bottom-up perception of the client as less worthy than another for attention. Beyond the obvious consideration that all clients contribute to an accounting firm’s payroll (thus affecting us all), a diminished view of a client will ultimately produce inferior work, unresponsive behavior or worse for the engagement. Repeat after me: respect your clients.
If they don’t deserve your respect, then they deserve your attention (hint: client contact).
A Client Is a Client (The Dollar Threshold Debunked)
Obviously, the larger the client the more attention they typically receive. But that should not be so all-encompassing that it is to the detriment of the smallest client. Whenever client contact campaigns are initiated, we tend to delineate clients, opting for those over a dollar threshold of business ($5,000 seems to be a number we are obsessed with in the industry). However, the clients that fall under this amount typically make up a sizeable amount of business for many firms. Individually they are small, but en masse they are a force to be reckoned with. Beyond the revenues they generate, the goodwill factor has no boundaries. If they are satisfied with their service, they are often a great referral source and eclipse any advertising dollars you could spend in the community.
And often it is easier to maintain a long-term relationship with the small client. Example: the engagement team is very tight with the Executive Director of a large nonprofit client and performs the work (for a large fee) for years. Suddenly, the board of directors terminates the Executive Director and puts the work out to bid. The current firm loses the bid. With the small, individual client the path to maintaining a long-term relationship is much simpler: do good work, schedule client contact, treat with respect, etc.
And for further discussion in the example, did we formalize a contact plan with the large client during our years of service? The bigger client does deserve more attention, but that contact should be well thought out and dispersed, in order to reach all of the necessary client contacts. If we had, we might have more allies on the board of directors (since they would have been among our scheduled contacts) and still be doing the work.
When you walk through a crowd in our modern times, you inevitably have someone carelessly walk into you because they are preoccupied with their cell phone screen. I have entertained the notion of making up t-shirts emblazoned at chest level with the slogan “Life’s Up Here” to send a message to the offenders. Similarly, residents of accounting firms cannot be so narrowly focused on our work that we ignore the lives of our clients always in motion outside of our offices. If our spirits cannot walk beyond our counting house, then it is essential that we use all other options available to us to maintain contact with all of our clients (great and small).
*Shamelessly borrowed from an episode of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle
About Craig Browning
Craig Browning is a past president of the Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM) and the director of marketing and personnel for KWC Certified Public Accountants headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia. Craig has been involved with AAM since 2006. During this time he has served as the initial chair of the Finance Committee and then as an advisor. He also has served as the board liaison to the Publications Committee and project lead for AAM's Social Media Toolkit project with the AICPA. Craig serves as a JA volunteer instructor in his (remote) home of Lexington, KY and won JA Volunteer of Year in that region for 2015 (while living in the DC Metro area). He is also a member of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce Communications Committee.
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