[IMGCAP(1)]There is a huge difference between being a vendor and a business partner.

Many accountants say they are business partners with their top clients; however, they function much more like a vending machine. Being a true business partner has its rewards; but the question is “which one are you?”

Vendors are reactive; I put my 65 cents into the machine, press the drink I want, and then wait until my drink comes. Vending machine CPAs wait for their clients to call with an issue, are afraid to talk price, are afraid to bill, and spend their time putting out fires.

Vendors are territorial. Our office machine only serves the products made by the manufacturer and is filled by the same guy over and over. Vending machine CPAs have the “my client” mentality. They only offer services that they can provide and are the only face the client knows.

This limits the types of services your firm can offer its top clients and makes you, not the firm, into the business advisor. This also puts a client at significant risk when another firm comes offering more services or a team approach.

Vendors have a high level of competition. Go to any mall and look at the location of the vending machines. There is not just one, but several brands, and all sorts of treats fighting for the same $1.50. Vending machine CPAs are in a highly competitive market and when nothing else distinguishes your firm, price will and you have to be the cheapest provider to get the work.

Vendors under-serve their clients and under-serve their firms; sometimes I want a Coke, other times I want a Vitamin Water or Mountain Dew, but I only get a Coke out of our machine. When I want something else, I have to go somewhere else. When you wrap the three things listed above, vending machine CPAs under-serve their clients. They also under-serve the firm by limiting client fees and putting top clients at risk.

Partners are proactive in communicating with their clients. Partnering CPAs seek out opportunities to meet with their clients and talk about them. Some even build in quarterly meetings the clients pay for! They are confident to discuss fees and proactively bill their clients, which protects the client’s cash flow and reduces or eliminates WIP and AR concerns.

Partners bring in the rest of the firm. Partners know that sometimes they cannot completely service all that a client needs, so they bring in other experts from their firm. They know cross-serving is the best way to bring new ideas to their clients. This better serves the client and produces higher fees for the firm.

Partners have low competition. Partners provide consultative or enterprise relationships to their top clients. These relationships typically require a sharing of systems, proactive and innovative ideas, in-depth industry knowledge, and the ability to provide high value. Client service at this level is viewed as extremely valuable to your clients and prospects. When you can differentiate your firm in this way, competition is low.

Partners provide superior service. Through proactive communication, offering the additional expertise of the firm and bringing industry knowledge and innovative ideas, partners can provide superior service that their clients are willing to pay more for, and often do. This provides maximum benefit to the client and to the firm by obtaining high fees and securing the relationship.

It is easy to say your firm provides quality client service, but are you truly partnering with your firm’s top clients? If not, then it is time to start a restoration project on your firm’s client service expectations and procedures. Being a true business partner will allow you to proactively build the firm that you want, with the clients that you want and obtain the fees that you want. And the best part about being a true business partner with your top clients is they will thank you for it.

Bryan Shelton, M.S., is a senior consultant with the Rainmaker Consulting Group.

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