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To be more efficient, retain clients for the long-term, and continue building solid relationships to receive more referrals, accounting firms must be willing to change the way they work with their clients.

The experienced accountant with institutional knowledge, and years of intellectual capital and leadership, is essential to a growing firm. Equally important are the younger accountants – an entire generation that is social media savvy, possesses the know-how to network, and brings a freshness and creativity to the profession that can reignite a firm’s passion and success.

The key to driving firm growth and exceptional client service is combining the talents and drive of the mature and younger generations at work in our firms today. Below, some ways to collaborate and make huge strides in your firm’s client service culture today.

Technology

Perhaps the biggest difference in the last decade is technology. With innovations from client portals, paperless communications, mobile devices, cloud computing, social media and more, the proliferation of technology has burst on the scene and changed the way clients do business, as well as revolutionized how firms serve those clients.

Technology has increased our efficiency and enabled work to be conducted virtually, anywhere at any time, making the idea of traditional geographic competition and office hours a thing of the past. Because of their ease when it comes to all-things technology, this wave of electronic availability and capability has provided Millennials (born 1982 – 2000) and other younger accountants with a unique opportunity to change the future of the profession.

Sounds great, but technology placed in the wrong hands or used with the wrong intent can be detrimental. It’s critical that firms follow the lead of young CPAs and use technology to change our service paradigm and free up time. Equally critical is channeling that time into relationship development instead of using it to replace human contact. Here are three examples:

1. As your firm moves to a more virtual audit model to reduce travel time and burnout and maximize your resources, you should still plan to spend the time at the client’s business, focusing on relationships, and learning about the business and its stakeholders. If you are able to save efficiencies using computer-assisted audit techniques in the audit process, use some of the time you saved to add value to the audit report by providing insights available through benchmarking data.

2. As you begin serving accounting clients at a distance using a cloud computing solution, either because you are selling to clients outside your geography or supporting a staff person who lives in another location, be sure you spend time reviewing your clients’ accounting transactions or financial statements via video conference or teleconference regularly to maintain contact and add value to the work you’re delivering.

3. If more of your tax clients prefer to forgo the in-person meeting, find ways to be in touch throughout the year to say you care about the relationship and you’re interested in them. That could involve dropping off a handwritten note, texting, sending a “did you know?” email, or just calling to check in. The increased frequency of touches outside of the cycle of the traditional tax year will mean a great deal to your clients. It also adds a personal touch to your relationships and might help you retain them, too!

With any communications approach you’ll take, be sure to communicate with your clients using their preferences, not yours. More mature clients typically prefer “face time” and telephone calls, while younger clients may prefer texting or video conference. Asking about and honoring your clients’ communications preferences is always a winning strategy.

Client Retention is About a Client-Centric Culture

According to the 2013 AICPA PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues survey, client retention has been scattered across the top 10 issues in 2009, 2011 and 2013, no matter the size of your firm. Based on this data and our experience over the years, here are some of the issues that matter the most to your clients:

  • Get to know clients on a deeper level: Go beyond the realm and ask your clients to take your relationship deeper. Take advantage of the social media and networking factor by studying and reading about their business and sending them relevant links and articles they might care about. This shows you care about them and enhances your ability to act as their trusted adviser. On top of all that, consider calling the top 20 percent of your clients just to touch base, see how they are or what they’re up to. There’s a lot of time after tax season, and it shouldn’t all be spent on golf courses or with prospective clients!
  • Be accessible and responsive: Just like a department store or a restaurant, firms that rise to the top have great customer service. Establish a firm-wide commitment to get back to your client within 24 hours, either by e-mail or phone. Clients know they are important and feel valued if you make yourself available to them. Make it easy for them to work with you, and they will see your genuine commitment and quality.
  • Deliver what you committed to and keep your word: In life, your word is your bond, and as cliché as that may sound, it’s also vitally important in the accounting profession. As their trusted adviser, you have a lot of responsibility and you impact some of your clients’ most important life documents and goals. Bend over backwards to fulfill your commitments, and should you miss one, acknowledge it and see if there’s anything you can do to repair the issue.
  • Make a difference and be different: As a firm, you have to be able to explain what makes you unique, special and different. It cannot be generic with something as simple as the kinds of services you offer. Instead, decide how you represent your clients’ best options behind those services. In other words, why should they pick you? It’s a real difference that you make for them and should not be gimmicky. If you are truly great at what you do, give them specific examples and reasons why you are the one for them. Clients won’t forget the difference you make for them when you deliver.
  • Be a frontrunner in the race: There’s a lot that goes into being a Triple Crown winner. Everything from knowledge, preparation, daily or weekly training, and reaching the finish line first. Like horse racing, your accounting vision should be the same, when it comes to staying ahead of your competitors and retaining your clients for the long haul. Provide a consistent string of regular communication with them through emails, initiations, blog postings, newsletters, phone calls and more. This can be managed on a quarterly basis to show your clients you are there for them and want them to reach their full potential. Moreover, seeking value for them outside of tax season can give you the inside track and add the kind of value you never saw coming!
  • Have the staff in place to make the right decisions: Investing in learning for your staff is critically important in the knowledge business of accounting. You can’t – and shouldn’t – always be the voice of the firm, so your staff must embody your values and goals. To ensure your team members can lead and manage clients, give them opportunities to shadow meetings and phone calls to see relationship development in action, and document your firm’s client response time and accessibility guidelines. Also, discuss retention ideas and strategies in meetings regularly so that your staff knows how important retention is to long-term firm growth.

Times have changed in the profession – and we all must change with them. The older and younger generations can leverage each other’s strengths to give their clients the best chance to win. Practice these tips and reap the retention and profitability rewards that come with them. You’ll never look back.
Jennifer Wilson is partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching. Contact her at jen@convergencecoaching.com. Pascal Van Dooren is chief revenue offer for Avalara; contact him at pascal.vandooren@Avalara.com

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