Fortifying client relationships: A sure-fire strategy for enhancing key client loyalty and expanding current client engagements

By Amanda Garner

Client retention is an essential ingredient for a solid marketing plan. Oftentimes, accounting firms get bogged down looking for new clients and miss important opportunities to serve their current client base. Further, firms leave their most precious client relationships open for competitors to target when they don’t use effective client retention strategies. 
 
According to The Wall Street Journal, 68 percent of clients change accounting firms based on individual treatment while only 15 percent leave because of poor technical quality. Further, only seven percent consider price to be an important catalyst in their choice to switch accounting firms. The CPA Journal also conducted a study on key factors contributing to client loss. Their research confirms the main reasons for change are that the incumbent accounting firm:
·         was not proactive in serving the account,
·         was not responsive to client needs, or
·         lacked new ideas for the client business.
 
Beyond protecting client relationships, client retention strategies often help firms harvest their lowest hanging fruit by creating more expansive engagements with each of their important clients. When clients feel like they are receiving proactive and responsive service, they tend to view their accountant as a “trusted advisor.” Accordingly, the newly established trust creates opportunities for further client projects, resulting in new revenue for the accounting firm and better, more comprehensive service for the client.
 
Based on this reasoning, one Midwestern firm launched an account review program aimed at client retention and new project development. (Note: This is an actual case study featuring a TGP client using this program – the firm has chosen to remain anonymous to protect their strategy from competitive firms.) This program, authored by the firm’s outsourced accounting team at The Growth Partnership, was rolled out in June 2009 and has already incorporated roughly eight clients. Each of the firm’s partners identified their focus clients with the expectation of performing a thorough account review for one client from each partner’s list on a semi-monthly basis. 
 
The process for this initiative, called a “Client Spotlight,” occurs in four major phases:
·         Pre-Assessment
·         Spotlight Meeting
·         Client Letter and Meeting
·         Project Rollout
 
Pre-Assessment
 
Once the partner selects a candidate to “spotlight,” members of the client’s engagement team are asked to complete a simple worksheet to contribute field information to the account review process. The engagement team questionnaire explores issues, which may have been raised or uncovered while firm personnel were working at the client site, including problems or opportunities facing the client, complaints or concerns that have been raised, and thoughts on how to improve client operations or profitability. 
 
Once these worksheets are completed, they are returned to the engagement partner, who compiles the answers and completes a separate worksheet with more detailed information. The engagement partner’s questionnaire looks at client growth, firm realization on the account, the overall value of service the firm provides to the client, and the true level of proactivity undertaken in the relationship.
 
While these forms are not necessarily collected and analyzed, they are useful tools for generating thought on how the account is handled currently and brainstorming on efforts to improve the engagement moving forward. The pre-assessment process is complete once the engagement partner has collected all the team worksheets and completed the partner worksheet.
 
Spotlight Meeting
 
Once the pre-assessment is finished, all members of the engagement team are included in a one-and-one-half-hour meeting to review or “spotlight” the client account. The spotlight meeting is best facilitated by a staff member, marketing or administrative, who is not part of the engagement team. The discussion facilitator can help keep team members on track, take notes during the brainstorming sessions, and can generate conversation by interjecting at key moments.
 
During the spotlight meeting, the engagement team begins by discussing the history of the client: how long he has been with the firm, what his business actually entails, and how his management structure is designed. At this point, the team also may review the client’s key objectives, current and projected revenue levels, and any recent changes that have taken place in the client’s business.
 
Once the history of the client is reviewed, the spotlight facilitator guides the team to discuss current annual projects completed for the client. This section of the discussion is focused on highlighting the core engagement functions. Areas often addressed during this time include tax and assurance work and financial or business advisory projects that are annuity and/or retainer based.
 
Following the annuity portion of the dialogue, the facilitator asks the group to identify any special project work completed in the last 12 to 18 months (or currently in process). In identifying areas where the client is receiving special project assistance, the team can begin to see opportunities for addressing additional client needs.
 
When the project list is complete, the spotlight facilitator makes a request for group members to change their mind-sets and start thinking as though they are the full-time CFO for the client under consideration. At this point, they are asked to identify any areas where the client may need assistance. The discussion leader guides this portion of the meeting using a spotlight meeting checklist, making sure several key areas are considered in the brainstorming process.
 
The spotlight checklist first addresses “Financial Reporting and Control,” including many of the core services like audit, financial reporting, accounting services, and fraud investigation. The “Business Planning and Organization Development” portion of the discussion centers on issues like strategic planning, financing, ownership succession, and acquisition/sale facilitation. Profitability analysis, cash-flow analysis and planning, cost-segregation studies, human resources needs, and inventory management are some of the issues included in the “Business Operations” section of the checklist. This document also guides the facilitator through brainstorming stimulator areas including personal taxes, estate and gift planning, business taxes, litigation support, and technology services. Any areas where the firm offers significant expertise (for example, investment management, human resources, or profitability consulting) should be highlighted during this brainstorming session.
 
As the facilitator leads the team through each of the areas of discussion, he or she is taking detailed notes on the suggestions brought to the table. In their critical CFO role, the engagement team members may identify between five and 25 projects that the client needs to consider in the next 12 to 18 months.
 
Client Letter and Meeting
 
Following the completion of the spotlight meeting, the facilitator and the engagement partner at the firm draft a “spotlight letter” aimed at creating awareness for the client about the engagement review. Additionally, the letter serves as a proactive assessment of the client’s account, highlighting possible important projects that should be considered. The letter is structured in an order to:
·         inform the client about the review process,
·         identify all current projects (annuity and special) to remind the client about service levels, and
·         deliver important suggestions determined during the review for the client’s consideration.
 
The letter is closed by reminding clients that, whether or not they choose to undertake any of the projects listed, the goal of the process is to make sure their engagement team is keeping its eyes open for issues that could significantly impact the clients’ situations.
 
On the same day the letter is sent, the engagement partner makes a phone call to the client (decision maker). The purpose of this call is to allow the engagement partner to explain the review process and let the client know a letter that contains a more detailed description of the process and its findings is in the mail. During this conversation, the engagement partner asks the decision maker if he can schedule a meeting to discuss the letter in a couple of weeks. He often tries to secure an appointment by the end of this call.
 
When the appointment takes place, the engagement partner takes along a fresh copy of the letter. After a quick reminder of how the process took place, the partner walks the client through each of the recommendations included in the letter, asking the client to prioritize important initiatives with an “A,” back burner issues with a “B,” and issues of no concern with a line-through. The purpose of this exercise is to get the client thinking about each of the identified areas for engagement expansion and how these projects can significantly impact the client's bottom-line.
 
It is important that this discussion does not turn to price. For the purpose of the conversation, the partners handle pricing questions by reminding the client that suggestions are only proposed based on the belief that there is an associated substantial value to be realized by the client.
 
Once the letter has been prioritized, the partner makes a copy of the list, leaving one for the client and keeping one for the firm. Upon returning to the office, the partner can begin considering a pricing structure for the areas the client prioritized highly.
 
Project Rollout
 
Project Rollout should be undertaken with care. The engagement team must understand the scope of the work in detail, the client’s expectations of value, and the corresponding pricing structure. Of course, it is essential that expectations established in the client’s mind by the spotlight process are met in full; otherwise, the process does more damage than it does good. Projects generated by the spotlight program are monitored carefully.
 
Summary
 
The client spotlight process accomplishes a number of extraordinary objectives with very minimal monthly time commitment. In less than six hours per month, this Midwestern firm has improved the responsiveness of their engagement teams, enhanced client trust and loyalty, and possibly generated lucrative special project work to expand key client relationships.
 
During the spotlight process, members of the engagement team, including new staff members, gain perspective on client interaction and learn to focus on listening to client needs. Involving staff in the client retention process can be a major step toward preserving key client relationships.
 
Additionally, the process prompts engagement partners to visit with clients outside of the regular annuity projects and offer objective and proactive advice for improving their business value and personal net worth. While it may generate no extra project work, this discussion lends to the client’s perception that his or her engaged accounting firm is exceeding expectations and providing important forward-thinking business, management, and financial advice. The client learns to value the relationship and sees the partner as a trusted advisor and a key to the business’s inevitable success. According to the aforementioned research, client loyalty is a guaranteed result of the spotlight process.
 
Finally, the discussions generated by the spotlight process often lead to special project work sanctioned by the client. Whether it be annuity work, a long-term retainer-based special project, or a one-off several hour consulting engagement, the revenue generated is an added benefit of the process. While partners won’t generate revenue with every spotlight completed, the firm has found the process to be a lucrative one, securing a couple of small projects during their year of implementation.
 
In a time when accounting marketing means your competitors are soliciting your best clients, you can’t afford to be lackadaisical in fortifying your key relationships. If you are searching for ways to build a fence around your top clients, consider a process similar to the “Spotlight Program” described in this article. When it comes to your best clients, protect, preserve, and proliferate with a spotlight.
 
About the author:
Amanda Garner leads the Outsourced Marketing Division of The Growth Partnership, and has worked with TGP since 2002. Amanda’s passion is creating effective marketing and communications programs for the accounting firms in North America. To learn more about this subject, attend Amanda’s workshop at the Solo and Small Firm Conference in Las Vegas on October 26-27, 2009. To obtain copies of Firm Spotlight practice aids, download the free Practice Development Tool Kit.

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