Aug 21st 2012
By Jennifer Katrulya, CPA,CITP, CGMA
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We've all been there . . . we've sought professional services from a firm we were excited to work with and we're looking forward to a positive client experience. We meet with a sales representative or a professional at the firm, and it's from that initial moment that we determine whether we've selected the cream of the crop or stumbled on "average," "disorganized," or even "poor." At this point, we're most excited when the sales discussion is over and we can move on.
How do you ensure your prospects and clients love their relationship with your firm every step of the way? Here are just a few of the many ways you can create what I refer to as a "five-star experience" for your clients, each and every day.
Offer a Clear Menu of Service Options
Your prospects and clients are coming to you as the expert to help them save time, work more efficiently, and get access to ongoing, timely, accurate financial and other business information they need to make decisions and achieve their goals. By creating a standardized menu of services that highlights the various packaged options you offer to all clients, you'll create an easy way for prospects to pick the option(s) that best meet their needs.
This can help to dramatically reduce confusion for prospects, who hopefully become your clients, regarding what they can expect to receive from you. If the client later asks for additional services, having that defined menu also provides a very clear way for you to show that the request is for something outside the scope of the core agreement. Ask the client to sign a service order request and then bill the client for the additional work.
Make It Easy for Clients to Collaborate with You
You want your clients to feel as if they're "in the loop" about the status of the ongoing services you provide. Whether you're advising clients on site and then completing the work at their location or yours, or you're providing all of your services remotely, one of the most frequent complaints clients make is that they don't feel they know what their accountant is doing. Clients don't have an easy way to ask and respond to questions, and often don't feel confident that they've been given a promised time frame for when the work will be completed.
A few simple things can be implemented in order to create a very positive experience for the client:
Provide a weekly "status and open items list." Create a rolling "bullet list" of tasks that are part of your ongoing work with the client and/or special project requests. Update the list throughout the week with notes that track the status of each task. To that list, you might also add your open questions about transactions where more information is needed in order to be coded accurately in the general ledger, and any other questions that you need clarification about in order to complete the current cycle of tasks.
You can easily share this sheet through a simple online solution, such as Smartsheet (that's what we use) or other collaboration option, and your clients will be able to easily respond to you. More importantly, you'll "wow" the client by providing the status updates and promised project time lines. Your clients will feel like they're truly connected to you and to the status of their work, and they'll love that they can access that information from any web-enabled device.
Meet your promised deadlines! In order for this to work, your firm will need to deliver completed projects on time, so it's important to under-promise and over-deliver!
Consider a webcam. Do you meet with clients remotely or wish you could do so more frequently, but you're afraid a client will want to see you? This can be overcome easily in most cases by suggesting that clients meet with you using a webcam and simple video conferencing software. Watch for sales being offered by retailers and consider purchasing small quantities of webcams at those discounted prices. Offer the webcams to your clients as "welcome gifts" when you begin working with them.
Using software solutions, such as GoToMeeting with HDFaces, Skype, Google, and Yahoo!, you can meet with clients using the webcams. You'll likely be amazed at how this simple change can help your clients feel much less "remote." As a result, you'll save time by reducing the amount of travel needed for live meetings.
Fixed-fee billing. When it comes to professional service fees, no client likes surprises. When providing ongoing services for our clients, it can be difficult to work with clients and give them our best service every day when we then need to put on our collections hat and attempt to reconcile past-due balances.
By structuring our engagements as value-bundled, fixed-fee service offerings, we can easily request payment in advance, minimize or eliminate collection issues, and provide clients the benefit of knowing what their investment in our services will be in a consistent way every month. When firms hesitate to provide a fixed-fee billing model, it's often because they're not confident about this type of billing structure and fear they'll underprice the engagement.
By dedicating efforts within the firm to gathering historical time and billing information, or by tracking these things in fine detail for a period of several months if the information isn't currently available, your firm will have the data needed to price engagements and create a win-win situation for the client and for your practice.
Be Responsive and Prepare Your Infrastructure
Do you love working with your clients but feel buried in the pressure of trying to get the work out the door that you promised to complete in a day? At the same time, do you need to respond to every e-mail and phone call the moment they come in? This can make it impossible to prioritize and ensure that the most important things are being addressed first. It can also mean that it ends up taking us longer to return those phone calls and e-mails as they stack up, leaving clients and others feeling you've been unresponsive.
A great way to take control of this is by enlisting the help of a client service representative (CSR). As calls and e-mails come in and you check them periodically, route those items that can wait for your direct attention to your CSR. He or she can return the calls and respond to the e-mails quickly. This will show how quickly your firm responds when contacted, while allowing your CSR to schedule your return phone calls as actual appointments. The CSR can even help route some of the things requested of you in the various e-mails so that others can assist with filling those requests where possible. Having a CSR will allow you to rank those things that need to be done first - and need to be done by you - so you're able to focus and complete tasks with your full attention and with quality.
Providing clients with a five-star service experience every day doesn't have to be difficult. Not sure where to start? Consider taking an hour and jotting down all current "touch points" you have with prospects and clients, from the sales process through the delivery of ongoing services and even your billing processes. Put yourself in the position of your client and note how you would want each of those "points of interaction" to work. Better yet, conduct a client survey to get feedback directly from your clients so that they can share with you what they love about your client-centric firm and what they would love to see improved.
With your new list of changes and improvements you determine you want to make, address one or two at a time, review the results of those changes to make ongoing modifications as needed, and continue down the list. You'll love the increased efficiencies and positive feedback, and your clients will love the royal treatment!
About the author:
Jennifer L. Katrulya, CPA, CITP, CGMA, is president and CEO of BMRG, LLC. Katrulya provides advisory and mentoring services to growing and large CPA firms seeking to successfully establish best practices, educate, and motivate management and staff during periods of change and to streamline integrated processes in a hosted and SaaS environment. She is a frequent author and instructor on a wide range of technology topics. Katrulya also serves as a consultant for a number of software developers who seek input from her regarding their anticipated road maps and strategic plans, constructive feedback about solutions and/or features as they are developed, and ongoing feedback from her as her firm and BMRG's clients use many of the solutions. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.