Here’s a hard but universal truth about client service: Your clients don’t understand your business and aren’t aware of the specific issues and challenges you may face as an accounting firm. To be a 100% responsible client manager, it’s up to you to collaborate with each client to understand their needs, then seek to meet them with a clear “management plan.” Great client managers strike a balance between providing a positive client experience, doing things that make sense for the firm’s team members, and adhering to the vision and plans of their firm.
As we’re talking to accounting firm leaders around the country, it’s clear when the balance has become skewed to the client. Seniors and Managers are frustrated with having to bend over backwards or work outside of agreed-upon standards to make a client happy. In the current environment of rising talent costs, a shortage of talent at all levels, and necessary business model transformations, client managers should take care not to over-emphasize clients and ignore firm and people needs.
As you are collaborating with your clients, remember that YOU (not your client) should decide:
- Their level of service – In any type of service, there are deal breakers around the components necessary to deliver a quality product. For instance, in our business, we pair our 360-degree leadership evaluations with a non-negotiable coaching call to deliver the results. This assures us that the leader being evaluated hears the feedback with carefully crafted messages, so we can truly make a difference for them and the firm. Clients might request to remove the coaching call and associated verbal messages to save fees; but for us, the coaching is a “must have” for a successful engagement.
- Who serves the client – Talented people are tough to find and retain, which means that firms must think creatively about staffing sources. You can strive to accommodate your client’s desires but ultimately, staffing the engagement must be a firm and client server decision. For example, firms are working with offshoring contractors. Some clients might object, but remember that they may not understand the business imperative of using outsourced and/or offshore resources.
Place a statement in all engagement letters stating that “We reserve the right to staff our engagements with the appropriate resources needed to complete the work with quality, whether they are full-time or part-time employees or contractors; whether they are working within our offices or remotely; and whether they are working within the U.S. or offshore. While doing so, we stand by the security and privacy of your important client information and the quality of our deliverables and insights.” [Before using this language, run it by legal counsel and ensure it adheres to important regulations like the IRS code 7215.]
- Who remains on the service team – Transition is a regular part of a public accounting practice. People come to work for you, develop and grow, at times leave to try other things, and ultimately retire. In addition, 70% of learning happens on the job, which means you should move your people around to different jobs to provide experiential learning opportunities. While job continuity is important, it isn’t possible indefinitely. Share transparently about these realities with your clients and dispel unrealistic expectations about retaining their favorite staff people forever.
- Where (and when) the work will be completed – Increasingly, your people are working in different locations and at different times. Be transparent with your client about the talent attraction and retention benefits you realize when you offer high levels of flexibility. Your client will benefit when they learn from you and employ these same practices in their businesses or organizations! Help your clients overcome fears or objections to remote technologies so you can connect and collaborate with them even when you can’t be together in a 3-D manner.
On remote auditing, we often hear audit firm leaders say, “The client is insisting that we deliver an onsite experience.” But we wonder - do you have to take the whole team to the site? Have you developed other mechanisms to collaborate while not onsite (like standing morning and afternoon huddles with the client to provide status and collect information)? Have you provided a compelling “remote audit” approach to your client that influences them to accept this evolving service paradigm? Educate clients about the pressures of an onsite audit (commuting challenges, widely distributed talent teams and the need to balance work with life commitments), factors that impact retention and ultimately, client service.
- When the work will be produced – Client servers who grew up in the era of “the client is always right” might want to say “yes” to every client request for project timing. Your model, though, is under pressure. You have peak seasons into which you cannot fit any more projects without blowing up the schedule or impacting the team. And often, clients can be flexible if asked or shown another way. Seek to understand the “why” behind your clients’ timing requests so you can negotiate a win-win solution for you, your team, and your client.
- How much the work will cost – Over the last few years, firms have been diligently raising their prices to “catch up” to the escalating cost of labor and technology. Hurray! But wait, there’s more to be done here! While no client loves to pay more, a good client wouldn’t want you to run an unprofitable business because you weren’t being compensated appropriately. Be sure you are transparently communicating with clients about the investments you’re making to provide quality service and deliverables. A “partnerly” client will follow you there.
And to provide a truly great client experience, explore pricing models like fixed fees, packaged pricing billed monthly, and more. Clients don’t love the uncertainty of the hourly model and would appreciate a simpler, more predictable approach to doing business with you.
As you read this article, you might feel like you’ve allowed the balance between client, business needs, and your people to get out of balance. So where should you start? Talk to your people! They have ideas for limits and structure that would preserve the client experience while also removing pressure from your client service model. Listen to their ideas and pilot their innovations.
And remember to be transparent with your clients about the changes you’re making, changes that will create a more sustainable, successful firm that can serve them well into the future. Clients who truly care about your success – as much as you care about theirs -- will appreciate it when you do!