What do your clients really want? Conventional wisdom gives some obvious answers, and they are not news.Clients want help in growing their businesses and solving their business problems. They want a relationship that gives them comfort, and the feeling that their professionals really care. They want to know that their professionals are the most skillful available.

Add to this the traditional concepts of client service. Be concerned. Be courteous and helpful. Serve with a cheerful and willing staff. Answer phones courteously, and return calls promptly. Be responsive and deliver services in a timely manner. These concepts are in the service inventory of every accounting firm, and as old-fashioned as they may sound, they are still applicable.

But if all that is enough in today's competitive arena, why, then, do clients leave one firm for another?

Clients come to accountants in the first instance because they have to cope with a problem that requires skills beyond their knowledge or experience. They know that the intricacies of accounting and auditing processes are beyond the capabilities and experience of the non-accountant.

Today, though, three things temper the client-professional relationship:

* The complexity of business and business practices in today's economic environment.

* The wide array of service providers available.

* The changing public perceptions of accountants.

These three factors alter and redefine the nature of the relationship between the client and the accounting firm. They go beyond the classic definitions of the demands for the services of a professional. And, most significantly, they define the needs of clients that, in many ways, differ from one client to the other. There is, then, no longer a single tent encompassing everything clients want.

This means that what today's client needs and wants is not only greater sophistication and skills, and more imaginative applications of those skills, but a more meticulous understanding by professionals of what each client needs and wants, and how best to meet those needs.

No longer can the professional say, "This is my inventory of services - take it or leave it," but rather, "Tell me your problems and I'll show you how my skills can help you solve them." The client, not the professional, is thus at the core of the practice.

To function competitively, today's accountant must be more aware than ever before of changes in clients' businesses. Today's professional must recognize that today's client knows that there are options. In the past, client loyalty was a tradition, free from intrusion from professional competitors. The Bates decision changed all that. Competition moved the reins of the relationship from the professional to the client. It educated the client, who was once willing to accept credentials and skills unquestioningly. Not any more. Today's client knows what they want, knows the right questions to ask to get it, and demands more service than relationship. The time is past when just the presence of the professional was its own comfort factor.

This plays out in a number of ways:

* Clients no longer accept the advice of the professional without questioning, challenging and demanding more reasoning and detail.

* Because of the complexity of business today, clients demand that their professionals know more about the client's business and industry than ever before. Where once the narrow structures of a profession were sufficient to serve clients, clients now demand a broader spectrum of capabilities.

* Professional services always function best when trust is at the heart of the relationship, but recent corporate scandals have eroded that trust. That trust must now be regenerated.

* Clients understand that with many qualified professionals in each discipline, they have a choice. It falls to the accountant to attempt to influence that choice - to demonstrate a firm's capabilities as more responsive to the clients' needs than those of the competition. In other words, to market better.

* Sophisticated clients know the difference between marketing promises and professional services delivery. While clients have always enjoyed the fuzzy warmth of client relations, today's client wants - needs - more service and solutions to go with that warmth.

Today's accounting firm clients are no longer naïve business people, gratefully accepting the professional's mystical process or words of wisdom. Today's client is a participant in the accounting process. Any accountant who isn't willing to accept this new relationship is going to lose out to the professional who does accept the new paradigm of client service.

MEETING THE NEW NEEDS

We know now that marketing, essentially, consists of four crucial elements:

1. Know your market. Understand its needs, its opportunities and its practices. A market is a cohesive group of consumers with a generally common need or opportunity, and for whom your services are appropriate and needed, or whose members can be persuaded that your services are needed, and that your services are preferable to those of your competitors.

2. Know your firm. Understand your firm and its skills in terms of the needs of the market you want to serve, and your ability to meet those needs.

3. Know your tools. The tools of marketing are finite, and are available equally to you and your competitors. But marketing is not mechanics - it's strategy, and the artistry with which those tools are used to help you keep your firm relevant to the needs of your market.

4. Manage your tools. Use the tools of marketing skillfully, imaginatively and effectively.

Defining a practice begins with understanding the needs of the clients in your markets, and then structuring your firm to meet those needs. It means learning to learn more about a client's business and industry.

Where once marketing was thought to be using the mechanics and tools of the process to get clients, we know now that clients are won, and practices are built, by keeping a firm relevant to the clients' needs by becoming an integral part of a client's business, and not ancillary to it. This is accomplished by keeping the client, not the profession, at the core of the practice.

August J. Aquila, is chief executive of Aquila Global Advisors (www.aquilaadvisors.com), a full-service consulting firm specializing in strategic and partnership issues and mergers & acquisitions. Bruce W. Marcus is the editor of The Marcus Letter on Professional Services Marketing (www.marcusletter.com), and the author of four books on marketing professional services. This article is adapted from their book, Client at the Core (Wiley, 2004).

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