Know thy client

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By Glenn Hunter

A partner at a client service-focused firm returned from lunch to find a large box on his desk. Upon closer inspection, the partner realized he had a returned gift from a major client.

The partner knew that the client’s CEO was a huge college football fan that had been a prominent leader in the local business community for more than 20 years. The gift was a commemorative football from the local university. Unfortunately, the client was originally from a neighboring state and his allegiance was with the local university’s arch-rival. After the client’s executive team had a good laugh at the CEO’s expense, he returned the gift. Why didn’t the partner know that this major client’s CEO was not a fan of the local university?

I recently looked at our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. I saw data fields for names, addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. I looked closer and saw fields for birthdays, spouse’s names, anniversaries, hobbies, and favorite sports teams. I even saw fields notating areas of expertise and special interests. With all this information, we should know a lot about anyone in our CRM database. But does knowing a lot about my clients mean that I really know my clients?

The crucial question is do you know your clients, or do you just know facts about them? Consider your largest clients. Do you know their motivations, aspirations, or fears? If your client is a golfer, you may know her handicap. But, how many mulligans and foot wedges are in that number? Does your client really have integrity? Is she a risk taker? To truly know your client, accountants must spend quality time with them. Quality time is not just more billable hours accumulating data and compiling reports, but communicating with your clients about how they make decisions. More importantly, analyze why they make decisions. If your accounting work is going to improve the client’s financial position, then an accountant needs to understand why the client is in his or her current position.

To solve the riddle of knowing your client, first you have to care. Not just care because it is your job or so you can get your fees, but care because you want the best for your client. If you don’t want the best for your client, then someone else will. That is called client attrition. Caring extends beyond just a few key individuals, but includes the organization’s well-being. During your time together, ask the type of questions that a trusted friend would be able to answer. Be attentive to the old industry joke that says clients will tell things to their accountants that they won’t tell their wives.

Before your clients believe your solutions, they have to believe that you know what is in their best interest. When asking a client about aspirations and plans, interjecting, “And then what?” following their responses helps deepen the understanding. Truly knowing your client does not happen in one sitting. The information is acquired over time to create a profile. The profile’s purpose is to understand individuals and organizations, not just gather facts to place in the CRM system.

Accountants must regularly connect with their clients to have a loyal, value-driven relationship. This means knowing the stories behind the CRM system’s populated fields. For example, an individual client has kids. As they grow into teenagers are they preparing to go to Harvard or State U? This fact makes a big difference concerning tax strategies. Another client has a boat. Is she spending more time on her boat, or is she planning to die of old age at her desk. This information factors into the analysis concerning a potential acquisition. For accountants to be effective number communicators, their technical skills have to coexist with taking the time to know their clients.

Know thy client means understanding his or her personal and organizational objectives. Longstanding, profitable relationships result from understanding individual character and corporate culture. Furthermore, gathering critical information to create client profiles involves more than just the partner. Intelligence gathering and reporting is the responsibility of everyone in the firm that connects with any aspect of the client.

Also, know thy client means sharing with your client how your firm is growing, and how your people are developing. Growth and development does not just involve making more money. It reflects how you and your team are proactively getting smarter, so that you can, in turn, deliver more intelligent solutions. Tell your clients what you learned at a conference or in training. Then, tell them how your increasing knowledge applies to them directly. It’s not only what you know. It’s not even who you know. It’s what you do with what you know.

Use what you know to take care of your clients. Ensure that they get the most relevant and timely advice from their proven and reliable source – their accountant! Ask so that you know their needs, their desires, their priorities, even their alma mater. And be sure that you send the correct team’s merchandise in the gift box! The little things really are important.

About the author:

Glenn Hunter is the director of Member Development for The APA/ Enterprise Worldwide, a division of Five Star 3, LLC. Glenn focuses on connecting certified public accountants to resources and other professionals so that they get the most value from their association membership and contribute to their firms’ performance improvement results.

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