Utilizing Client Advisory Boards - with Ryan Travis

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Ryan Travis

Results Accountants Systems


In addition to these transcripts, be sure to see the supplementary materials and frequently asked questions about CAB's contributed by Results Accountants Systems.

Scott Cytron: Hello, my name is Scott Cytron and I will be your workshop facilitator today.

The AW Workshop Series is brought to you in an interactive format. This means that at any time any of the participants can join in on the discussion. Feel free to do that. To ensure that we answer everyone's questions, I'll be making a note of those that do not get answered. Don't worry! We'll come back to them.

Now, I'd like to introduce our Workshop Leader, Ryan Travis with Results Accountants? Systems.

A native of Northern California, Ryan's desire for a change led him to Boulder and the University of Colorado. After graduation, he remained in the area and worked in the Financial Service Center of a large engineering firm. Other useful experience was gained during a stint with Southwest Airlines, known throughout the business world for their innovative and quirky approaches to succeeding in a very competitive industry.

Now he's back in California and working as a Professional Development Consultant with RAS. He's really getting a chance to put his experience to use. His primary role is to work with graduates of the Accountants' Boot Camp and help them implement the ideas they take home. To date, he has helped over 100 accounting firms from across North America reengineer their practices and redefine their vision for success. A vital part of this process is discovering client wants and needs in a Client Advisory Board, a process which he has helped numerous firms facilitate.

Ryan Travis: So who here regularly collects feedback from clients?

Denine Rood: We have sent out surveys in the past, but the feedback was less than useful.

Ryan Travis: Did you do any follow up after the surveys came back?

Denine Rood: That's the interesting part. They were all so positive there was nothing to follow up ON! But I KNOW that we need improvement!

Michael Platt: I've always been very skeptical of all positive response on a survey!

Ryan Travis: Well, we'll talk about a process you can use to get REAL feedback from your clients, a CAB, or Client Advisory Board.

So, the first question I'm often asked is what is a CAB?

A Client Advisory Board is simply a meeting between a group of clients and a representative of your firm with the purpose of getting feedback. The purpose is to see what your clients would like to see more of and of course, less of.

Leesa Petrie: What is the recommended size for this group?

Ryan Travis: Anybody thinking this might be more of a hassle than sending out a survey?

Sandy Broussard: No, I would love the opportunity to meet with our clients and get some one on one feedback.

Ryan Travis: Leesa, this would include about 6-12 of your best clients, the ones whose feedback matters most.

Denine Rood: How do you make it worth the client's time?

Ryan Travis: Let's imagine a scenario that will show you the value in the process, and then we'll talk about logistics..

Imagine one of your clients sitting down at a luncheon with several other business owners. The subject of accounting services comes up. What will your client say about you and your firm?

Will it be positive? Will it be negative? Or worse yet, will it be nothing at all? Will your client, instead, be silent, listening carefully to what's being said by others while internally running down a list of comparisons of your firm vs. the other firms being discussed?

It's a given that clients are thinking about you and the service your firm provides. Even if they aren't talking about you to other business owners, they're evaluating your firm every time you provide a financial statement, tax return, or other service. They're also evaluating your firm every time you answer the phone, return a call, or send out an invoice or other correspondence.

It comes down to the issue of perceived indifference. You know, the little things that communicate to the client that they aren't as important to the firm as they think they should be. The process is really about finding out what your areas of perceived indifference are in your client's eyes...and of course, working to fix them. Denine, this is what's in it for your clients, a chance to be heard, with a promise that they'll see results.

We'll get into how you follow up with them in a bit.

So what other questions do you have about logistics?

Michael Platt: Who administers it? Outside facilitator or in-house person?

Denine Rood: Is this a one-time focus group or on-going advisory board?

Ryan Travis: Good question, this comes back to the issue of getting REAL feedback. It needs to be a person outside the firm. Perhaps a business advisor, a banker, an attorney you work with.

Denine Rood: Or a professional facilitator??!!

Ryan Travis: Denine, this would be a group that would meet as we suggest every 6 months. First to give input, then to comment on how the changes are developing.

Michael Platt: Would it make sense for a CPA firm to facilitate a lawyers CAB and have them facilitate ours?

Denine Rood: That's a GREAT idea, Michael!

Ryan Travis: Exactly, Michael! Not only will you benefit from the info you receive, but often those who attend will be interested in having you facilitate one as well..

Ryan Travis: Let me go over some other common questions, and feel free to throw yours in as well.

How long should it run?

It really depends on the overall objective. Your meeting could run for around 2.5 or 3 hours. The length really depends on how much feedback you need and the group dynamics

Michael Platt: Should we avoid clients from the same industry?

Vicky Lanier: We did a CAB with our "A" clients - Very enlightening

Ryan Travis: I would suggest mixing it up, to get a good representation of your client base.

Denine Rood: How do you deal with issues that can't be changed, or are just perceived problems (i.e. high fees)?

Ryan Travis: Vicky, what were some of those results?

Vicky Lanier: You think you know what your client's needs are but until you facilitate a CAB you really don't have a clue.

Ryan Travis: Denine, not everything will be able to be changed, but it let you know what your client's concerns are...and then you can address those.

Denine Rood: Vicky, how did your clients respond to your request to serve on your CAB?

Vicky Lanier: We hired a professional facilitator to come in and run ours. We taped the results so the team could hear what the client were saying.

Ryan Travis: Perhaps in the case of high fees, it's a matter of better communication to let them know what services are available to justify the fees.

Michael Platt: What about location? Should it be somewhere other than your office?

Ryan Travis: Michael, we definitely recommend a location away from the office, it encourages more open feedback..

Scott Cytron: Vicky, did you have a problem getting clients to participate?

Denine Rood: Vicky, did any clients refuse your request to serve?

Ryan Travis: That's a great point Vicky, who would be nervous about taping this meeting?

Vicky Lanier: We only ask 10 of our "A" clients to participate. They were glad to do it. We took them to a local country club, bought them a monogrammed leather notebook as a gift and them served them dinner. Not one of the clients refused. I think they were glad to give us the feedback. We gave the clients the option not to be taped. No one had a problem with the tape.

Leesa Petrie: Vicky, what type of follow-up did you do from the CAB meeting?

Denine Rood: Vicky, how different was your perceived results from your actual results/feedback?

Vicky Lanier: We answered all of their concerns in a letter to each of them approximately 10 days later.

Ryan Travis: Taping is essential as it makes sure you don't miss any feedback.

Vicky Lanier: Some of the information was what we expected. But, there are always eye openers to the way you are doing business.

Ryan Travis: Give us an example, Vicky.

Vicky Lanier: One client stood over the microphone to the tape machine and said "Joe are you listening to me?" And, then processed to make his point on something that he thought we should be handling in a different manner.

Ryan Travis: Anybody have a sense of what time of day it should be held?

Denine Rood: Mornings, mid-week?

Annie: Do you set up CAB meetings on a regular basis with the same clients? If so, how often?

Ryan Travis: We generally suggest that the time of day is not as important as matching it to the scheduling needs of your clients. Some firms have found a breakfast meeting easiest. Others have found that an extended lunch or late afternoon works best. There are no hard-and-fast rules.

Colleen: Could a CAB also be successful to help gather information about the industry the client is in?

Ryan Travis: Annie, you can keep the same group to see how the changes are followed up on, or get a new group to get some fresh opinions. Either has definite benefits.

Michael Platt: Ryan, what has been the biggest downside risk or mistake that you have observed in working with CPA firms on establishing CABs?

Ryan Travis: Not following up...the whole purpose is to get feedback for the purpose of refining your client service strategy.

Lee Ann: Does the facilitator have a set of questions specifically to use or do they just open the floor to the clients?

Denine Rood: Should the request the client to serve on a CAB come from the facilitator, or a Partner within the firm? Or the client's partner?

Vicky Lanier: We found it useful for the facilitator to have a list of questions.

Ryan Travis: Be sure to keep in contact and let the clients know what changes they can expect to see as a result of their input.

Denine Rood: Would you say, Ryan, that it is better NOT to ask your clients if there is no intention of following up, rather than ask and not respond?

Ryan Travis: Exactly Vicky.

Vicky Lanier: We ask each of our 4 owners to choose 2 or 3 of their "A" clients that would like information from.

Ryan Travis: People often ask about what types of questions to ask…And roughly the most popular ones fall into several categories.

Historical which might include: Has anyone ever used another accounting firm?

Vicky Lanier: Has anyone done a CAB with Clients, non-clients and possibly bankers?

Colleen: Ryan, how successful is a CAB within an industry group with the purpose to gather information about that industry?

Ryan Travis: It could be very successful if it was positioned as gathering information about what types of services you could offer that be of benefit to people in that industry. It could be an opportunity to market additional services..

Vicky Lanier: We are getting set up now to do a CAB for a client.

Ryan Travis: Other typically asked questions during a CAB include questions on competitors, customer service, billing, etc.

Is this the first one that you are facilitating, Vicky?

Vicky Lanier: Yes

Ryan Travis: And you have a copy of the tape from the your CAB to refer to?

Vicky Lanier: Yes

Ryan Travis: Great! Another benefit of taping and a reason why we recommend that you have one done for yourself before you do one for a client.

Michael Platt: Are there any different ground rules when doing a CAB for a client?

Ryan Travis: Not really Michael, it's a very similar process to having one done for yourself.

Denine Rood: Excellent new service idea, Vicky! Thanks!

Vicky Lanier: You just have to be prepared that you might not like all the answers that you ask for.

Ryan Travis: Now, there are some common benefits that we see resulting from CABs that you should be aware of.

Benefit 1: Adding value to your clients by listening and responding to their needs

Vicky Lanier: Absolutely! Consulting is the name of the game.

Ryan Travis: Benefit 2: Clients often provide feedback on their need for business development support, which converts into additional services for you.

On this point, how many people here are doing business development consulting with clients?

Denine Rood: Our firm does (myself and others).

Vicky Lanier: This is an area that we are developing.

Hobie Frady: Going back to the question that Vicky asked earlier, has anyone involved any non-clients?

Ryan Travis: CABs can often be a way to generate interest in Business Development work in the clients you invite to yours.

Denine Rood: We started in earnest three and one-half years ago with just me. Now we have four Management Consultants and two HR consultants.

Ryan Travis: Hobie, certainly invite clients to observe. It can be a person you would like to work with as a referral source (to show them the value you add to clients) or non-clients you would like to do work with (again to show them you are different).

Hobie Frady: We have a significant industry niche that we are continually trying to expand and thought that someone that we are not currently working with might have suggestions for additional services.

Ryan Travis: Exactly, Hobie, the more info you get, the better.

Hobie Frady: Ryan, you're right, just showing a prospect that you are interested in improving your services is a great marketing tool

Leesa Petrie: Outside facilitators seem to be the way to go--any recommendations on a good vendor source?

Vicky Lanier: Ryan - Is this a consulting field for RAS?

Ryan Travis: It should be someone you have a relationship with...it could be RAS, in the case of our clients, or anyone else you have a business relationship with, who knows your firm

Vicky Lanier: Leesa - One suggestion - Have your facilitator ask the hard questions.

Scott Cytron: It's about 15 until the hour. Ryan, would you like to answer a few of the questions we missed previously?

Ryan Travis: Sure, Scott.

Leesa Petrie: Thanks Vicky---I'll do that!

Scott Cytron: Is this a one-time focus group or on-going advisory board? How often do they meet?

Ryan Travis: It should be an ongoing process, but the make up of the group can change from time to time, it's up to you. We recommend every 6 months, no longer than annually.

Scott Cytron: Should we avoid clients from the same industry? What should change if you focus on an industry?

Annie: Do you have some of your staff in the room with the clients or is the facilitator in there alone?

Vicky Lanier: Facilitator is the only one in the room with the clients.

Ryan Travis: I recommend the facilitator be alone...it's the openness factor

Michael Platt: Ryan, any advice you can give for following up internally? We all know the pressures and priorities in a firm -- and the reluctance to change. How do we break the default-habit of letting things slip after a meeting of this type? And "easy" method that you can recommend?

Vicky Lanier: Michael - Our commitment was from the senior partner and therefore, no failure to implement.

Ryan Travis: You'll have a tape to refer back to, so you won't miss anything.

We recommend that you send out a follow up report to the clients after the CAB

The report outlines essentially 4 things. They are:

  1. a list of issues raised
  2. a list of actions associated with each issue
  3. a champion in the firm who will follow up
  4. and a deadline for the issue to be dealt with

It's the last two that cause the follow through not to be forgotten, people have been made responsible.

Scott Cytron: Is this "report" a report that RAS prepares after a CAB?

Michael Platt: Can a commitment to change work if the commitment is made by less than 100% of the partners -- enthusiastically?

Leesa Petrie: Was there a group responsible for making and managing change such as a quality circle?

Hobie Frady: Michael, for our advisory board that we are setting up, we assigned the coordination to a team member. Owners and managers will get the commitment from the people to serve on the board, but the team member coordinates the event.

Vicky Lanier: Scott - Our facilitator came back and sat down with the owners and went over the information.

Scott Cytron: I see.

Ryan Travis: You are right Michael, a commitment needs to be there.

Often the info from a CAB can get the partners on the same page as to what needs to be done and often it is given heavier weight because it came from an outside source.

Denine Rood: Repeat question: Would you say, Ryan, that it is better NOT to ask your clients if there is no intention of following up, rather than ask and not respond?

Vicky Lanier: Denine - If you don't plan to make changes, I would say you might be wasting the time of all the people involved

Ryan Travis: Denine, I would agree, there needs to be a commitment to provide the best service possible to the clients before this process begins

Denine Rood: I agree... just getting ammo ready for the partner presentation!

Ryan Travis: Vicky, is the CAB you are doing with an attendee of your CAB…meaning one of the clients you invited?

Vicky Lanier: No, we're doing one for our specific niche industry.

Ryan Travis: Before we wrap up, I wanted to talk a bit about the next step: Marketing CABS to your clients

The first people to target CABs to are the people who attended your CAB. They will have seen the process firsthand and would be the most logical ones to invite you to conduct a CAB with their clients. You, of course, will have already seen how the process is conducted and listened to the audio tapes of the CAB. It's just a matter of repeating the experience for your client. It really is that simple! Same logistics, perhaps a modified question list.

Colleen: Would a niche industry CAB follow the same guidelines that have been discussed here?

Scott Cytron: This has been a great workshop, Ryan! Thanks a lot for your time. Before we sign off, are there any other questions?

Michael Platt: Could I ask everyone to please see if there are any materials that you can share with the rest of the AccountingWEB community on ways to maximize the utilization of CABs in your practice? We can post what you have on the site and make it available to everyone. Your cooperation will be most appreciated by all! You may send what you have to me at [email protected] and we'll take care of the rest.

Ryan Travis: but often the question list will change from CAB to CAB, depend on what info you are looking for.

Ryan Travis: Great Michael, I'll contribute!

Thanks for your time everyone!

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