Communication is essential to retaining clients

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For accounting firms, showing clients some love – or at least that their patronage is appreciated – is not just for Valentine’s Day or tax time. Client retention and appreciation strategies are tools that should be employed year-round to cultivate healthy, profitable, and long-lasting relationships. Bill Grabarek reports.

Strategies to retain and show appreciation for clients do not need to be overly complex. Industry experts agree simple strategies can be just as effective. “Client retention isn’t rocket science. It’s just showing that you care,” Michelle Golden, president of Golden Practices Inc., a St. Louis-based practice-management consulting firm, told AccountingWEB.

For Eva Rosenberg, her strategies are as simple as picking up the telephone or spending an extra 30 minutes with clients. Freshly baked cookies for clients who visit the office help, too, she added. Rosenberg is the founder of Los Angeles-based, a Web site offering free tax information.

“We return phone calls. That’s a huge thing,” Rosenberg said. “I worked for a national CPA firm where clients who urgently needed information could not get their calls returned. When you’re dealing with clients who need to make a decision right now and the partner doesn’t call them back for weeks, you’re not going to retain the client.”

If failing to return phone calls is on one end of the client-communication spectrum, Rosenberg’s practice is most certainly on the other end. “We’re very proactive. We bug our clients if we know there’s something that affects them and we make sure they’re addressing it,” she said.

What’s more, Rosenberg allots 90 minutes for appointments instead of the industry standard 50 to 60 minutes, “so we really have time to spend with them even if [the appointments] are for quickie returns. We give them personal attention,” she said.

Do Rosenberg’s methods work? She said she has been trying to phase out her tax practice since August of 2000, but clients continue sending her referrals.

Like Rosenberg, Napa, CA-based public accounting firm Ganze & Co. believes in the importance of communication between the firm and its clients. “We have policies in place regarding client communication, such as responding to e-mail and phone calls in a timely manner,” Carla Poggemeyer, firm administrator, told AccountingWEB. “We train our newer employees on business communication etiquette.”

The firm’s internal culture impacts client retention, too, according to Poggemeyer. Ganze & Co. has a flat management structure where everyone is encouraged to collaborate on projects.

“We meet regularly for training and team-building exercises,” Poggemeyer said. “Appreciation for a job well-done and constructive advice on areas that need improvement are signs of the positive, rather than a negative, atmosphere in the office.”

Face-to-face feedback

Approximately five years ago, Camp Hill, PA-based McKonly & Asbury LLP began what it calls its five-star client surveys. Rather than sending clients a short questionnaire, the partners will visit with the firm’s top 25 clients to solicit ideas about ways the firm can improve and how it can better assist clients with issues they are facing.

“We’ve found it’s one of the best things that we do. We get honest feedback and they recognize that we really care about trying to provide great service,” Scott Heintzelman, a partner at McKonly & Asbury, told AccountingWEB.

“There is good responsiveness to the outcomes that are suggested and we make lots of changes. We have found it to be extremely valuable in client retention,” said Heintzelman, who added that the 80-20 rule applies to his firm, in which 20 percent of McKonly & Asbury’s clients represent 80 percent of its profits. “We never want to take for granted our top clients.”

In the past, the firm sent short service questionnaires in an attempt to monitor client satisfaction with unsatisfactory results, according to Heintzelman. Not only is visiting clients more “powerful,” the visits are an effective cross-selling tool.

“Sometimes a client will mention something and we’ll say, ‘You know we can help you with that. Here’s how we’ve done it with another client.’ And, oftentimes, we’ll come back [from the visit] with new opportunities because of the conversation,” he said.

McKonly & Asbury’s five-star client survey program evolved from the firm’s efforts to measure employee engagement by applying concepts from HumanSigma, a methodology for successfully managing employee-customer interaction developed by research and consulting firm Gallup, Inc.

“We’ve been measuring employee engagement for a long time. That’s great but if it doesn’t make the company profitable, it’s worthless. You have to compare employee engagement with client satisfaction… so we have been trying to marry these two concepts together,” Heintzelman said. “Happy clients and happy employees make happy partners. This mindset is not new, it’s just trying to tie it together and evaluate it as one.”

In addition to the face-to-face meetings to gauge client satisfaction, Heintzelman said the firm also engages the more standard client-appreciation practices, including dinners and tickets to concerts and sporting events. He said McKonly & Asbury is the only accounting firm in the area with a luxury box in an arena in nearby Hershey, PA. “Clients are very appreciative,” Heintzelman added.

Communication is critical

Frequent and honest communication with clients is crucial to retaining them, according to Golden Practices’ Golden. “Showing that [clients] are front of mind is important for any relationship you’re nurturing,” she added.

Tax time, Golden said, is a great time to reach out to clients. Furthermore, it is the time of year when clients expect firms to be the most proactive.

“Getting back to them in July is not as appealing to a client who hires us for tax work,” Golden said. “Being in touch with them multiple times during the busy season [is important], not just when they drop off and pick up their return.”

But client “touches” are only half of the equation. Being upfront and providing them with substantive information is the other half. Communication regarding the business relationship – the scope of work and pricing – is imperative.

The practice of what Golden calls “bill and duck” will destroy a client relationship. If a firm hasn’t been up front about extra work that needed to be done or additional costs, thereby surprising a client from a fee standpoint, “they lose trust in you and that’s going to undermine all the touchy-feely stuff that you could ever do,” Golden said.

As these industry experts have illustrated, client retention and appreciation programs can be as simple or comprehensive as a firm wants them to be so long as the overriding message to clients is, as Golden said, “something relevant, meaningful, and applicable.”

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