By Deanna C. White
If you ask many account managers at small to midsized accounting firms how they would rate the performance of their practice, they'll tell you everything is perfectly "fine." They turn their audits around in a timely manner, their revenue stream is good, and they communicate with their clients on a regular basis without any complaints.
But occasionally, they still see a handful of their perceived "loyal" clients quietly shifting their business to other firms, or they're having trouble identifying new opportunities to grow their business.
That's why Tom Cates, president of Brookeside, an Acton, Massachusettsâbased management group that specializes in consulting and training with a focus on building better client relationships, says it's important for accounting firms to survey their client base.
A client survey, Cates said, is the only way for a firm to truly decipher what's working, what isn't, and where new opportunities lie.
"It's very easy for account managers to fall into the 'fine syndrome.' But many times the survey data will point me to areas where clients feel things are actually not fine, or they may feel things are fine, but they're not great", Cates said. "A survey can show firms where their blind spots are in terms of client relationships and where they can focus their energies to expand."
For many accounting firms, however, conducting a survey is a daunting task. Where is the right place to start? Is it necessary to hire a third party to conduct the survey, or is a generic platform offered on the web sufficient? How should survey questions be structured?
When considering the best place to start a survey and what factors firms should consider when trying to decide on a survey method, Cates said firms should:
- Consider how they'll use the results before establishing the survey. Clients will expect the firm to address any issues they bring up in the survey, so there has to be a mechanism in place to put items into action.
- Don't assume it's necessary to survey the entire client base in one fell swoop. Break up surveys into manageable chunks so teams can act on issues that arise from the responses.
- If possible, make the client aware that the survey is coming via e-mail. Advance notice will garner greater participation.
- Treat every survey respondent as an individual rather than a segment to the extent that it's economically viable to do so.
- Don't focus on the numbers. Look for the broad themes and messages embedded in the feedback â what is the client really trying to convey?
- Managers of the process need to be prepared for a visit from SARAH: shock, anger, rejection, acceptance, and help. Staff will need to process at least a few of these stages as they receive feedback.
Cates also said a firm should use several strategies to ensure their survey is properly structured, including:
- If the survey is administered online, include a progress bar that displays percentage of completion to reduce survey abandonment.
- Include a mix of Likert scale (strongly disagree through strongly agree) and open-ended questions to get varied, valuable data. At the end of the survey, allow the client to comment on any concerns not addressed in the survey.
- Use an even number on the Likert scale so that respondents cannot be neutral. For instance, if you have a six-point-scale question, respondents must pick a side: either three or four.
- Avoid the word "and" in a question whenever possible. For instance",Do you like chocolate cake and ice cream?" How do respondents answer if they only like one option?
- Begin with the end in mind. Work backward from the traditional "boil the ocean, collect a lot of data, and see what it tells you" approach many firms use. Keep your intention with you as you draft the questions.
- Design the questions around the goal of capturing specific behaviors and tactics clients like that can later be used for best practices. For instance",What did your account manager do well?"
- Pilot test your questions or use proven questions from the experts.
Finally, Cates said it's important that firms focus on how to best use the information garnered in the survey to improve current practices and target new business opportunities. They should:
- Remember strengths are just as important as weakness. Don't focus exclusively on what account teams might be doing wrong.
- Identify positive trends and consider putting them in place as best practices across the firm.
- Take averages with a grain of salt; i.e., knowing that 43 percent of clients find a billing process cumbersome is marginally helpful. Knowing your biggest client is having difficulty adapting to the firm's billing software is invaluable.
- Use clients' responses to highlight urgent items to address, both in terms of defection, and up-sell and cross-sell opportunities.
- Ask staff to take self-assessments about what they think the client thinks of them and directly compare those results with the client feedback. There's a strong correlation between relationship strength and whether or not staff understands what the client is thinking.
- Once employees are scored, they must be given the means to improve themselves. The survey is a road map for the next discussion with the client - NOT a report card.
Ultimately, Cates said, client surveys are invaluable tools in helping firms understand the difference between competent service vs. great service.
"You may assume you're delivering the basics of service on a comparative standard with other firms, but you need to ask yourself if you're really going above and beyond", Cates said. "You have to measure yourself relative to what the client expects if you really want to excel."