The Accounting Client Experience, Part 1: How Responsive Are You to Your Clients?

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I want to follow up on my last blog post and explore the Client Experience portion over the next few posts.  As with any topic of this nature, there are enough ideas, theories and proven practices to fill dozens of books.  So, my posts will by comparison be brief in content with the goal of identifying a few core areas you can focus on to get the most return for the time you spend.

To start our deeper exploration of the client experience, let’s look at how responsive your practice is to client inquiries:

1. Do you have an “Answer/Ignore Calls and Emails” policy in your practice?  This may seem silly in concept, but in practice it is important to be clear on when it is appropriate for you and your staff to answer calls you receive and when it is appropriate to let a call go to voicemail.

For example, a staff accountant in a meeting with a client may need to follow the policy of putting the phone on mute so even the ring does not interrupt the meeting.  However, when not in a meeting, this same accountant may be expected to answer the phone when at their desk between certain hours.  In a different example, the receptionist at the front desk may be expected to answer every call within four rings.

The same type of policy should also be established for email.  Have you ever arrived in the office in the morning with two or three pressing priorities on your mind and then spent half an hour going through email.  If you haven’t, I will wager that some of your staff has.  As much as its convenience is an asset, the ability of email to distract from more urgent matters is a very real liability in today’s business world.

Consider when in the day email should be reviewed?  Perhaps a surface review first thing in the morning to be sure there is nothing requiring an urgent response and then a more detailed review of everything after the morning priorities have been met?  A starting point in most email systems is to implement rules and macros that will route the email to specific folders and help you weed out the urgent from the less urgent.

2. What is your policy for returning phone calls?  Two hours, fours hours, maybe 24 hours?  And, what about responding to email messages?  Policies for responding to phone and email messages will go a long way in defining your practice to clients that contact your office regularly via these avenues.  Be sure these response policies are understood by your staff and followed.  Then communicate these policies to clients.  Doing so will help manage their expectations and keep the clients in alignment with your practice.

One rule you might consider implementing is returning the toughest calls early in the day.  It may seem counter-intuitive, after all who wants to start their day calling demanding clients?  Well, the truth is the anticipation of making the tough calls can be demoralizing and weigh down everything else.  So, get that weight off your back early, take a deep breath and enjoy the rest of your work day.  Your responsiveness to other client needs and your work production will both improve.

3. How do you communicate your turnaround times to your clients and do you meet or exceed your estimates?  I have always referred to this as the Chili’s principle, since I grew up near the second Chili’s in the nation and they always told us it would be a longer wait for our table than it ever turned out to be.  In short, you should under promise and over deliver whenever possible.  If you are sure you will have a tax return done in 48 hours, inform the client it will take four days and then call them on day three to communicate it is done.  It may seem like a bit of a game, but the resulting perception is that you prioritized the client and got it done early.  How’s that for responsiveness?

So, there are three areas that can quickly and easily be addressed and significantly improve your clients’ experience in regard to how your firm responds to them and their needs.  These policies are going to be defined by a mix of client needs, firm culture and type of service being provided.  There is no set rule of how these policies should be structured, but you should develop them and put them into practice…even if you are the sole operator in your business. I would enjoy hearing about other areas of responsiveness that you have found critical to the client experience.

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