Not all complex problems require a complex solution, and a more elaborate solution doesn't automatically make it a better one. Bigger and faster is simply bigger and faster; it's not better.
When an accountant helps a client grow, it's usually done through a logical, reasonable approach to reducing tax liabilities, speeding workflow and implementing sound accounting practices. If successful, the firm will retain the client on a long-term basis. However, in today's increasingly competitive environment, it's not enough just to provide this "reasonable" approach. Clients will jump ship and head for the firm with less expensive fees and smarter strategies.
It's time, then, for firms to adopt an "unreasonable" approach to solving client problems. Not only will the firm show it can think differently than its competition - the firm can use this approach to retain clients for life.
It would be ridiculous to re-engineer all of the processes a firm has in its day-to-day service delivery. Take a tax practice: Most accountants are bound by laws and regulations to adhere to a set of standards. A 1040 is still a 1040, no matter how you look at it.
While the numbers may look the same, how you get to those numbers is up for debate. This isn't creative accounting; it's just a different way to approach an outcome.
Put yourself in your clients' shoes. If you had a similar set of books for the last 10 years, and your accountant filed the same set of returns with little to no discussion about what you could have done differently, wouldn't you seek out a professional who could energize your returns? Just because the forms are similar doesn't mean the approach to arriving at the final numbers should be the same.
Find creative ways to discuss your clients' business and be innovative with your approach. For example, present the information in real-time through a portal.
Remember that there are many firms that have yet to create a portal on their Web sites - if they have a dynamic site at all! A portal offers clients the means to see their returns, financial statements and practically anything else in real-time versus delivery by e-mail or - even worse - snail mail. Be sure to stress to the client the "real-time" commitment you're making to their business.
Another creative way to present information is to deliver it in person - that's right: live and in person. By hand-delivering a return in person, you are making sure your clients are happy with the work. Tell them you are "just in the neighborhood" and they'll be impressed with your creative approach.
HOLD THE BUN
If you order a hamburger, you want the bun. It's like peas and carrots or Hepburn and Tracy, right?
Again, wrong. By taking an unreasonable approach to ordering your burger, you change the traditional model. Now compare this to your competition. With all other things being equal, how can one firm differentiate itself from another?
The complicated approach is to have a firm retreat, write a strategic plan, ensure that the plan aligns with the firm's mission and vision, and spend numerous non-billable hours cussing out the plan once it sits on the shelf for more than six months gathering dust.
Instead, the answer comes down to two thoughts: Who do we serve and what are we trying to achieve? If you can answer these two questions in 140 characters or less, bravo! Of course, we don't live life by the code of Twitter, but here's the point: You can discover gold in knowing the clients you serve, the prospects you want to become clients, and how you want to serve both audiences.
A simple approach would be to make a list of your clients according to industry and the services you currently provide. If you have a customer relationship management system, that's good, but be careful not to let technology lead the way too much; the best solution still resides in your own review of your base, not necessarily a review enabled by software.
Next, determine what you are trying to achieve. If all you want to do is provide the same set of services to the same clients, then you're done. Yet you shouldn't be complacent. You can figure out where you want to go by remembering how you want to stand apart from other firms. The unreasonable approach is to look at this in just a few steps. What could be less complicated than that?
TALK TO ME
When was the last time you picked up the phone to call a client? How about the last time you shook that same client's hand?
Most firms take a reasonable approach to client retention and recruitment. Practitioners wait for their clients to contact them, remaining confident that the client will eventually contact them one way or another.
Wow, is this ever reasonable! Yet how much effort does it take to dial a person's number?
So what's the unreasonable approach to converting prospects into clients and retaining clients forever? While there is no textbook solution, the approach lies in your own ability to ensure that your clients understand that you really care about them.
If you send a monthly newsletter, that's great, but we all know your clients get many newsletters. How can your same generic e-mail possibly make a difference? It doesn't, and neither does your annual tax organizer or reminders about quarterly payments. Instead, stand out from the competition and seal the deal, forever, by taking an unreasonable approach to communications.
Pick up the phone, arrange a coffee or lunch meeting, and take a consultative approach to providing great service. Or encourage your clients to call you off the clock; they could call about something related to their accounting or - in some cases - just seek your advice as a sounding board.
We keep messing up our practices by complicating the situation or, even worse, ignoring the obvious. Take an unreasonable approach; you're going to find out very quickly that all it takes is focus, commitment and energy. That's the way to win the match and that's the way to outlast your competition.
Kimberly Hogan is business development manager for ScanSnap sales at Fujitsu. Follow her on Twitter @ScanSnapKim or reach her at email@example.com. W. Michael Hsu, CPA, MSA, is chief executive officer of DeepSky, an outsourced accounting department. Follow him on Twitter @DeepSkyCo or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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