According to pithy little sayings, if you “try and try again,” and expect to succeed when you haven’t before, you’re insane.
In reality, virtually nothing is true all of the time and for an accounting profession on the verge of total transformation, anything about client relationships warrants serious interest.
Here’s another contradictory phrase: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” vs. “Out of sight, out of mind.” So, which is it? If they don’t hear from you for a while, are your clients going to miss you or forget you?
Let’s go out on a limb to say that the former is reserved for more intimate relationships like family, friends, and loved ones. That means that for the realm of the accountant-client relationship, we’re probably a lot closer to, “Out of sight, out of mind.”
This matter a lot. If you want to keep your clients, particularly during a market transformation, you’re certainly better off avoiding “out of mind.” If a client is not thinking about you when an opportunity for a new approach (competitive to you) presents itself, your chances of losing that client are considerably higher.
This isn’t just common sense, it’s neuroscience. The “availability heuristic” describes the mental shortcut we all use that causes images and ideas that are top of mind (aka more “available”) to be far more influential than those that are “out of mind” (aka less available).
It’s fairly easy to see how being top of mind can be so beneficial when a client is considering a competitive product or service. But what about during periods of transformation, when change occurs so dramatically that historic value propositions no longer matter? In those cases, it’s not enough that clients are thinking of you. What matters is how they think about you.
There is a great focus in the accounting profession on expanding strategic advisory services as tax services become more commoditized. It’s an excellent strategy, but before it can work, clients have to see their accounting firms in a new light. After all, it would be hard for a client to think of your firm for help in Human Capital Management (HCM) if they have no idea that you have expertise in HCM.
As such, there exists a meaningful opportunity for accounting firms to a) raise the cognitive availability of their firms in the minds of clients, and b) expand how clients view their firms, so they will reach out for new services. While there are many ways in which firms can approach this, one particular solution is more scalable than most, and is particularly effective delivered through “nudges”: a good content strategy.
If you can create content that is compelling and useful for your clients, you can begin to occupy greater cognitive availability in their minds, supporting your current and future relationships. Of course, “compelling and useful” is easier said than done. (Insert joke about this article here.)
Considering the email newsletter you enjoy receiving vs. spam is all the evidence you’ll need that quality can’t be overlooked in a content strategy. Fortunately, creating compelling content is within reach – even if you don’t have great writers and designers in your firm, there are many external resources to which you can turn.
You will have choices to make about the kind of content you create. E-mail newsletters, blogs, Webinars, podcasts, and even live events are viable options. You’ll also have to consider frequency and length. But perhaps the most important decision is what you choose to write about.
Strengthening Your Current Relationships
You can use your content in order to strengthen your existing client relationships. You may write about the changing regulatory landscape, along with the assurance that you can help take care of them.
You may share with your clients the work you do on their behalf but out of their view. (In fact, research in behavioral economics demonstrates that operational transparency - sharing this work with clients - can increase their satisfaction.) You may even share stories of your firm’s philanthropy or cultural initiatives. You may highlight what makes your firm unique, and how your clients benefit from that.
When working with these kinds of stories, it helps to be short - remember that clients don’t find you nearly as interesting as you do. You don’t want to create work for clients in having to get through it. And you don’t want to come off as selling something. But as far as giving your clients reasons and reminders to appreciate your firm’s services, this is a great way to go.
This type of content allows you to provide something of value to your clients. In exchange, you a.) reserve mental shelf space in their heads, and b.) trigger the influential power of reciprocation. It can be difficult to measure the benefits of thought leadership content directly, but if your client retention improves, or if clients begin reaching out to you in new ways, it’s a good sign it’s working.
Of course, for thought leadership content to have any impact, the content has to be of value in the eyes of your clients. So, it makes sense to focus on them.
- What issues do your clients care about?
- What problems are they facing?
- What’s happening in their markets?
- When you look into the future, what do you see, and how will it affect them?
- What resources should they be aware of?
- What insights of yours might be of value to them?
If you can provide content they want to read because of its utility to them, you have scored a major win. Fortunately, there is a foolproof way to discover what your clients want to learn about – asking them. And it’s not even considered cheating!
Strengthening Your Future Relationships
While no one can predict exactly when and how the accounting profession will transform, the general consensus seems to be, “Buckle up.” It seems reasonable for firms to be thinking now about how they will provide value to their clients in the future.
But it is not only the firms that need to be prepared to pivot– it is the clients as well. Firms cannot simply add a new domain expertise and expect clients to start lining up. It is important to bring clients along on these developmental journeys with you. And a good content strategy can help with that.
Don’t merely announce a new initiative to help clients apply big data analytics. Write a series of articles demonstrating how firms can benefit from big data analytics. Create the demand for your new services before you’re even offering them. Done effectively, your clients will already be thinking of you as they prepare to lean into big data.
Don’t merely introduce enhanced estate planning services. Write a series of articles demonstrating the gap that is being left by traditional services, the complexities that people are missing, and the real-world consequences that creates. By the time your clients understand the problem, they will be ready for you to provide the solution.
Don’t merely offer new compensation management services. Write a series of articles describing the problems and implications of over and under compensation, and describe how organizations stand to benefit through the use of compensation benchmarking. If they learn about the challenges from you, you become their default go-to for a solution.
Content can help solidify relationships with your clients in the present, and prime them to grow with you through a changing market. ou may find motivation by remembering that you have one enormous advantage over every competitor you will ever face: these are your clients.
You have an existing relationship based on well-earned trust. If you can anticipate your clients’ needs, you are the favorite to keep them. But it requires pro-active attention, starting now and all along the way, an effective content strategy can drive you to success.
About Jordan Birnbaum
Jordan Birnbaum has been with ADP since 2015 as VP and Chief Behavioral Economist. He directs the application of behavioral economics principles into new product development in the human capital management market.