By Richard Murphy, Strategy and Finance Consultant
No business goes anywhere without work to do. This is as true of an accountant's practice as anything else. The successful firm will recognize it. This means they need a positive approach to winning and keeping clients. Client cash is the lifeblood of the business.
Many practices think the art of keeping and winning clients is concerned solely with brochures or websites. It isn't. It is a whole firm activity encompassing everything it does, and everything it wants to be. The firm's success or failure, and the pleasure it provides to those who work in it and with it will be entirely dependent upon:
- knowing what clients it wants
- attracting them
- and keeping them.
The stage that most people ignore is that of knowing what clients the firm wants.
Knowing what clients you want
Every accountant knows that just wanting to make a pile of cash is no guarantee that you will. Those who succeed in this objective have a passion for what they do to make the cash. This is true of accountancy. It's not enough to want to:
- be in practice
- make a living
- be technically good.
These are only possible if:
- you provide something someone wants
- you're seen as being good at it
- in the long run, you are good at it.
Being good at something is hard work. It requires dedication. It takes a lot of time. So it's worth thinking about what you want to be good at. It's a fact of life that most firms don't do that. They are "general practices" that provide any accountancy related service to anyone who will knock on the door. And then they wonder why outcomes are never what they expect.
On the morning I'm writing this guide I read that Arthur Andersen plans "as part of its future strategy to concentrate on IT investment, people management, M&A and transaction work. Andersen will also build on its work in financial services, technology and media, and energy and utilities." Now Andersen's have 7,000 employees in the UK. And they think that:
- there are only so many things they can do well
- and make money from.
Why doesn't every firm do the same?
The absolutely essential rules of winning and keeping clients are:
- deciding what types of work you enjoy and do well
- deciding what sorts of business you want to deal with
- making sure you focus all your effort on getting this work
- and saying no to everything else, because you don't want it.
Before going any further do this, and only then move on.
Telling the world what clients you want
It's no good you knowing what work you want if no one else does. To be sure you get the right clients:
- the partners have to agree what the firm wants. If they can't, split the firm up.
- then tell the staff
- show that you mean it within the firm
- take action to get rid of the clients you don't want
- tell the world outside who the firm wants to deal with.
The easiest way to do this is to have some clear rules. The firm of which I was senior partner for ten years had quite clear guidelines. We said, "We provide a full range of accounting, taxation and auditing services to clients in the arts, design, and media sectors and to those who make products that end up in print. We also specialize in professional partnerships and services. We do not provide services to businesses that take cash, are in the building industry, financial services, or are engaged in general trade. Our tax practice specializes in personal taxation but does not provide trust or offshore advice."
We all felt comfortable with that. We liked the arts, and so on. We didn't like trust taxation. It may have been a foible. So what? You don't have to do what you don't like and can't be bothered to be good at. Whole rafts of business were of no interest to us, and the secretaries who answered the phones knew that. If a building sub contractor phoned up, they were politely told we couldn't help them. A partner never even knew about it. And when the right sounding prospect came in they knew to get the call to a partner as fast as possible.
This worked. And because we told people what we did the simple repetition of the mantra made people believe it, and think we were the experts they had to talk to.
Finding the clients
Once you know who you want as a client finding them is easier. There are three easy ways to get clients:
If you're desperate, or are in a hurry, you can also buy them, but that's another subject altogether.
Of these three options advertising is the worst, and client referral is the best. PR is essential whatever happens. Why is advertising worst? Because:
- it is costly
- you don't know who'll get it
- you don't know the quality of the new client when they come through the door
- complaints come from people who don't know you and who shop around.
If I had my way I wouldn't even appear in a phone book, so averse am I to advertising. The person who is "bought" by advertising recognizes price is the major component of the relationship with their accountant, and to me that spells disaster. Do it if you must, but be warned, you may not get the client you want.
PR is quite different. PR is about telling the world what you're good at, subtly. This guide is PR. Any firm could do it, if they have an opinion. What you're saying by getting a good press is that you have an opinion of value that is worth seeking. Maybe you're also saying you're decent people that the client wants to associate with. Maybe you're saying the accounts you sign are worth more because of your status. It doesn't matter which. What PR does is seek to add value. Advertising ultimately is about a price relationship. And PR is about a value relationship. For that reason it's worth a lot more to an accountant.
Client referral is best. It means:
- the new client comes with a quality rating attached - if the person who refers them is good, then they are probably good
- they come with a high regard for what you do - they've been told it is good - so you're more than half way to signing them up
- they want you - because deep down we all want what is good that our friends have got. This puts you in a powerful position.
Always seek client referrals. Back it up with PR.
How do you get referrals? The most obvious way is to ask your clients if there is anyone they'd like to refer to the firm, or whom the firm might talk to. If a client says they have a family member for whom they want advice, ask if they'd like to call in. If a client is mentions a friend with a problem, offer to meet them. That way you have created a referral opportunity. The opportunities are almost endless once you get into the habit of doing this. It doesn't have to seem pushy; it can seem helpful.
But that's only the start. The best way to get referrals is to give clients what they want. That way they'll sing your praises. Most practicing accountants have never bought services from another accountant. So they don't know what it's like to be a client. I have been a director of many companies and have bought services from firms from the Big Five down to quite small in size. And I've spoken to many clients about what they want. These are:
- someone to take the worry away
- a good personal relationship
- steady competence
- delivery on your word
What comes low down on most people's lists are:
- technical competence.
Fees are only an issue when the value of the service is in doubt. Few clients have any means to test technical competence.
So if you want referrals do what the client wants:
- Assure them that you'll deal with a matter, and do it. If they have to chase you, you're failing, and badly
- Give them someone to talk to. Get that person to sign all the letters, even if they don't write them. They'll feel cared for.
- Be a master of your subject - but don't be afraid when you need to research something - the client will then believe you when you say you know about an issue
- Always meet deadlines
- But most of all, always return phone calls. Nothing on earth annoys clients more than not knowing what is going on. If they call they have a reason. You have a billing opportunity. If you don't call back they'll quickly think they can't rely on you. You lose out on a fee. And they certainly won't recommend you. So always call back as soon as you can, and always have your reception staff know when you might be able to.
- Write in plain English, so they know they can rely on the advice they get.
This isn't rocket science, but it's what good client relationships are about, and referrals come from those.
When the new client is on your office
There are some simple rules for dealing with the potential new client once they're in your office:
- be on time
- serve tea and coffee
- deal with coats
- make sure the office is tidy
- listen to what they want
- assure them you can provide it, if you can, or say you can't if not
- give them some immediate reassurance that you can do what they want
This is simply courtesy, but it often goes wrong. In particular:
- don't tell them all about you until you know what they want. You may make the wrong sales pitch
- listen carefully, and make notes. It makes it look as though you're taking them seriously.
- have evidence to support your case.
My firm dealt with a lot of start up clients. They were small businesses. We had a book keeping pack we could give to clients at a first meeting. This meant they went away with something of real value from us, with our name all over it, which they could use. It worked. It looked like we knew about their need. It assured them we were interested in giving value, not gloss (as in brochures). They often copied it and gave it to friends. That was a referral. We saw those copies come in with new clients who asked for a proper copy. That's how well it worked. An updated version of this pack is now available from AccountingWEB.co.uk.
And if the client isn't a new client, have something else available. For example, a guide to renting a property, or shareholder agreements, or business planning. Or whatever the client is interested in. We had about thirty available which met most needs. Again, they weren't gloss. They provided real advice, but all, of course, always left the door open for more questions to be asked. You don't want to do yourself out of a fee. Yet in every case they showed that we knew the agenda, and could deal with it. That is what the client wanted. We converted over 90% of new client visits into fee-paying clients. Evidence suggests that is a very high rate indeed.
Keeping the client
Keeping the client involves doing all the things that gain referrals. There is nothing different to do. You just have to service their needs, keep them thinking they've got value, and prove to them that you're people who care, and they'll stay.
But you can only do that if we go back to the beginning. To give value you've got to:
- decide what types of work you enjoy and do well
- decide what sorts of business you want to deal with
- make sure you focus all your effort on getting this work
- and saying no to everything else, because you don't want it.
If you do that, the rest will follow, because you'll be happier, the client will sense it, and they'll be happier. It's a win - win if only you'll go for it.
Richard Murphy, of London-based Fulcrum, draws on his extensive experience in practice and business to set out a simple, step-by-step approach to client care that really works. Author of the Fulcrum Accounts, a spreadsheet system for dealing with incomplete records, Richard is developing a series of tools to help practitioners put his advice into practice.