Customer Service Lessons from President Obama

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There is a difference between leadership and management.  Politics aside please, there are valuable lessons to learn from this administration on how to better manage our client relationships. 

There are some characteristics the Obama administration has in common with how CPA firms are run.

President Obama has shown tremendous leadership skills even his staunchest critic would admit that.  He inspired millions or people all over the world to donate money to his campaign and recruited many who had never participated in politics before to vote and work on his behalf.

This administration, though, has fewer people with business backgrounds than any other in history – and it has shown.

People in academia, government, and even often public accounting don’t concern themselves with customer approval.  But they should realize that…

  • Voters are customers
  • Students are customers
  • CPA firm clients are customers
  • None are tied to us forever; they have choices

I have only once run into a government department run like a business, and it is here in little old Lake County, Florida.  Bob McKee is the Tax Collector, and people love him!  They appreciate a TAX COLLECTOR?  What are they smoking in Central Florida these days???

Just like most successful businesses, Bob makes it easy to do business with his office.  His facilities look much as you would expect a professional’s office to look, with a large clean lobby, comfortable chairs, low noise level, cleanliness – and you can bide your time watching CNN or Fox News.  When they call your number (and his people work fast), you are greeted by someone with a smile, who will actually try to help you.  When Dad died, I ran into a situation regarding his state of residence that a manager handled for me, with empathy, skill and comfort.  I was awed – at a government employee.

Is this how most government functions?  Wonder why people are not excited (but angry) about our coming health care system?  How much has your local post office changed in the last 35 – 50 years?  Only two ways I can think of: ours has a tiny TV you can look at while in line, and there is a snake line, like at Disney, to talk to one of their desk people instead of a mad free-for-all.

Compare that to pure capitalism: the Apple IPhone.  Due to greed, money, untamed desire, animal instincts, fun, challenges, desire to go to their next high school reunion and show everyone up, there are now 225,000 apps for the IPhone.  How many would there be if the federal government was in charge? Two?

For you millennials out there, once upon a time there was a telephone monopoly called AT&T.  They, and their siblings (the state Bells), ran all of the telephone service in the US.  Circa 1978, Uncle Sam broke that up, and the net result was you can buy a tiny, highly sophisticated electronic object one could only imagine back then, that allows you to talk to anyone in the US for pennies.  That’s what unbridled competition does to benefit society, the reason being pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Thus, every business that does not have a guaranteed clientele (sort of like CPA firms where people come back year after year), fights daily to win their customer’s loyalty or they will lose them.

But that’s not how government operates (voters and citizens are customers, but they don’t realize it like Bob McKee).  Same with academia: students are taken for granted by the bureaucracy and tenured professors, thus there is little one could describe as anything approaching great customer service at any university (I am sure there are minor exceptions).

Thus, the Obama administration has not a clue as to how to deal with its customers, so they ignore them. 

Instead of executing a crisis management plan when this environmental disaster hit, they did nothing.

Back in 1982, Johnson & Johnson showed the rest of the world how to manage a crisis.  Some jerk was going around poisoning bottles of Tylenol and people were dying all over the country.  The day after this was reported, J&J’s TOP PEOPLE were on TV explaining their precise PLAN OF ACTION and apologizing for this happening (although it was not their fault).  At the time there were no sealed medications in the store; bottles were open!

Day by day, J&J informed us to their progress with their investigation, their pull back of product, intentions to fully compensate those damaged, and changes in packaging to assure it didn’t happen again.  They let us know what the FBI and local authorities were doing, and people felt TAKEN CARE OF.  Net result: J&J came out an unintended winner from a national tragedy.

What did this administration do?  Nothing, except to make excuses and point fingers and get in the way of disaster solutions.  Only on the 70th day, did the president allow outside help from other nations who had experience in this kind of situation, instead of the THIRD day when it was offered.

How does this apply to common business and CPA firms?  When there is a problem bring it to the client’s attention ASAP.  Tell them your plan of action and what you will do to heal the situation. If it is your fault, accept the penalties and interest you can’t get eliminated.

One complaint every CPA firm hears is, “You didn’t tell me.”  Sometimes it is over the most trivial thing.  Of course we didn’t tell you!  We were busy trying to meet these crazy deadlines.  The number one reason for leaving a CPA firm in all of our surveys over a 15 year period was not fees or poor work product as most partners will tell you, but lack of communication.

This coming season, one full-time $8.50/hr person will be dedicated to contacting our clients WEEKLY via email and/or phone to give them the status of their return, etc.  Even if nothing has changed, we will let them know we are on top of the situation and they are important.  And I’m not talking about a handful of clients, but hundreds to be in regular communication with.

 The Obama administration failed the most basic tenets of crisis and customer management, and they didn’t know they were doing it.  Don’t let this happen to your firm.

Allan S. Boress, CPA, CVA is the author of 12 published books on marketing, selling and managing the business development process for CPAs.  The "I-Hate-Selling" Book is available at www.ihateselling.com

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