There is little doubt technology has changed the customer service model in nearly every sector of business. Today's hyper-informed customers demand more "on call" personal attention in their shopping and service experience. Clients now expect their CPAs to be more familiar with detailed nuances of their personal needs, according to BKR International, one of the top 10 global accounting associations. How do you measure up?
Today's more sophisticated clients expect their CPAs to proactively advise them about their individual taxes, compliance, business operations, and overall life plans, and keep them informed about general developments in their industry—through a phone call or electronic newsletters, eblasts, or even webinars, according to BKR Executive Director Maureen Schwartz.
"CPAs can't wait for the phone to ring", Schwartz said. "They need to be in touch with their clients throughout the year with information that is directly relevant to their needs."
So how, in this era of increased client expectations, can CPA firms, particularly smaller firms that don't have a vast cadre of niche specialists at their disposal, build client loyalty through exceptional customer service?
BKR recently released a list of five strategies CPA firms can use to make the client experience more personal—and therefore, generate more loyalty. According to BKR, CPAs should do the following:
1. Ask more questions.
Sales and cross-selling today are all about asking the right questions to pinpoint someone's need or pain, explained Howard Rosen, CPA, worldwide chairman of BKR International and president of Conner Ash P.C. in St. Louis, Mo. "Instead of assuming what they need and talking all about your services, spend most of your conversations listening to what is happening in their lives or businesses or what they are seeing as trends that will affect them. Encourage them to share what keeps them up at night", Rosen said. This focus on their needs will build trust, Rosen said.
2. Do the little things.
People don't always remember the day-to-day work you provide. They remember the times you came through for them in a pinch, returned a phone call on a Sunday, or helped out a family member with a financial issue without any charge. Never underestimate the power of a phone call or a handwritten thank you note for being a great friend and loyal client. These become the big things that keep clients coming back to your firm.
Other examples of small gestures that mean a great deal to clients—a holiday card on a non-December holiday; a gift when they reach a goal; well wishes for a child's graduation or wedding; condolences for difficult times in the client's life; or giving to a client's chosen charity or participating in a cause like a fun run.
If you don't feel comfortable with a personal gesture, Schwartz said, industry-specific tax or compliance information that is short and to the point is always appreciated.
3. Automate, then test it.
There are lots of ways to use technology today to make your life or your clients' lives easier. Just make sure the automation actually results in less hassle, not more. From your client portal to your website, test the technology yourself to make sure that it is intuitive to the user and works as intended. Broken links or a slow page refresh or inability to upload or download can really affect your clients' sense of personal convenience.
The same holds true for using technology (such as electronic newsletters and e-blasts) to communicate with clients about their niches. Reach out with information that is truly useful and germane, but beware of information overload.
"CPA firms, like any other professional firm, must be careful about how much and how often to communicate so as to not overwhelm clients", Schwartz said.
4. Meet outside the office.
Some clients prefer to focus on business, but you don't always have to meet at the office. Invite them to talk over coffee or lunch or happy hour, said Jason Tonjes, CPA, BKR International Americas Region chairman and managing shareholder of Bland & Associates, P.C. in Omaha, Neb. "Share some food while you discuss their plans. It helps you get to know your clients better and often relaxes them to reveal concerns or ideas you can support", Tonjes said.
Schwartz acknowledges some CPAs may be understandably wary of suggesting an "outside of the office venue" for a meeting, but knowing each individual client's expectations and preferences can help avoid any potential social gaffes on this front.
"Some clients are very busy and prefer a phone call or for you to stop by their offices. Other clients love having coffee or lunch as a way to take a break and really focus on their next steps", Schwartz said. "This is part of personalizing the experience for the client. Ask them how they want you to communicate or touch base."
5. Get in touch more often.
Don't wait for the phone to ring. No news is not always good news when it comes to client loyalty. Put a note on your calendar to touch base with clients at least quarterly, even if you only work with them once a year, said David Goldner, CPA, BKR International Americas Region vice chairman and managing partner at Gross Mendelsohn & Associates in Maryland. "You will show you are thinking about them and looking out for their financial wellbeing. More often than not, they'll have a question", Goldner added. They will also feel important—the number one reason clients say they choose to stay with their CPA.
Schwartz says she understands many smaller firms may feel challenged by their clients' growing expectations, and the competition with mega-firms to meet those demands, but "it doesn't mean CPAs have to sit by and watch their market share erode", she said.
"Additionally, smaller firms can market themselves to new clients as boutique or specialty firms by developing a niche such as bookkeeping, CFO services, or estate planning to support a strong market position while remaining small and local", Schwartz said.
They can also capitalize on their status as a smaller firm—one that truly knows, understands, and cares about each individual client—to retain clients who are being enticed by larger firms with a greater array of specialized services.
"Smaller firms in particular need to stay in touch", Schwartz said. "Let clients know that you are aware of other firms interested in their business. Ask them what you can do to support them in a way that is relevant, cost effective and timely. Introduce them to other team members and additional services so they know the full breadth of what you offer."