Let’s be fair, client service is certainly important, but research shows that there are other factors that are more powerful when it comes to attracting new clients to your firm.
In fact, as a differentiator for your firm, client service simply does not resonate because it fails to take into account how clients shop for accounting services. What clients are truly looking for is relevant expertise and industry experience solving the kinds of issues they face.
In short, clients want a firm that can and will solve their specific problems. Buyers assume that client service is a given. How could you be in business otherwise? If it’s not, they will eventually replace you. But it is generally not anywhere near the top of the shopping list.
Here is another sobering fact: Almost two-thirds of accounting firms (63%) claim that superior client service is their differentiator! Imagine that. It’s no wonder that many prospects feel as though “everyone says that”.
In reality, there are much more powerful ways to differentiate your firm. Research shows that accounting firms that tout superior customer service as their primary differentiator grow at about 7.1 percent a year, which is on par with the average growth rate in the accounting industry.
Firms using other differentiators see growth rates averaging 17.8 percent. That kind of difference justifies considering major changes, even if they are difficult.
What factors drive that kind of growth? In a recent study by Hinge, we looked at 10 factors that can tip the scale in the buying decision.
We asked both the firms that were selling services (accounting firms) and the companies that were buying (prospective clients). Some things that matter most to buyers where a good reputation, an existing relationship and specialization or expertise.
The study also revealed some interesting misperceptions that are widely held. For example, for all the talk we hear about referrals and references, buyers rated both items extremely low.
Do you know what else came in low? Client service. Buyers rate it last on the list of things that drive them to sign a contact. Significantly, firms selling services rated it much higher.
So how can you find a differentiator that can sharpen your competitive position? Here is one example that also comes from the research cited above. As it turns out, the involvement of senior leadership trumped customer service as a selection criteria in the eyes of buyers.
Who wouldn’t want the best brains working on their account? This same factor was rated so low by sellers that it was barely on their radar. For some smaller firms looking to grow, that might be a substantial insight.
Overall, the takeaway is that it pays to sync your firm’s differentiators to the factors that drive client decision making around which accounting firms they choose. The research here is a great start.
The next step is to go farther down that path and conduct your own research into your own target client pool. A survey of clients past and present -- and prospects, -- that asks about what drives buying decisions can provide information that is extremely valuable to your marketing efforts.
Concentrate your research on important client priorities so you get an understanding of what challenges your potential new clients are struggling with. Also, walk through the buying process so you understand how they think about it and what they see as important.
I can pretty much guarantee you will be in for some eye opening surprises. The more you know about what clients and prospects want, the more you can customize your marketing outreach, your proposals and your sales conversations.
In many cases, the fact that you have done research and can speak to specifically to client needs will itself be a powerful differentiator. Of course, client service is not to be minimized in overall picture.
True, it is not likely to be a growth engine for you firm. How you treat clients and address their needs matters -- and it matters primarily when it comes to retention. You need good service to keep your clients returning year after year.
But when it comes to differentiating your firm from its competitors, look hard at what drives their decisions. It may not be what you think.
About Lee Frederiksen
Lee W. Frederiksen, PhD, is managing partner at Hinge, a marketing firm that specializes in branding and marketing for professional services. Hinge conducts groundbreaking research into high-growth firms and offers a complete suite of services for firms that want to become more visible and grow.