When clients say that things are fine, firm partners should look a little closer.

Third-party interviews of "A" clients reveal areas of discontent or service issues that clients may not share directly with the firm -- and it's too late once they switch providers.

Interviews also reveal important competitive differentiation and service opportunities that accounting firms can leverage now to boost brand visibility and revenue.



At Freed Maxick, a New York-based Top 100 Firm, client interviews provided research for a new brand that better represented the firm's larger market presence.

"We chose our 'A' clients for this exercise because their experience really represents what makes our firm successful," said marketing director Eric Majchrzak. "Knowing why they choose us and stay with us becomes part of our brand." The interviews resulted in some dominant feedback regarding Freed Maxick's integrity, which supported a new brand tagline: "Trust Earned." They also were pleased to learn that clients value the firm's commitment to community involvement, as well as its consulting beyond tax and compliance.

Besides launching a new brand, Freed is emphasizing differentiation through strategic consulting and making sure that clients are more than "fine." "Opposition firms will identify your firm's weaknesses during the prospect interview and scoping process. Don't give your clients a reason to go out to bid or seek another provider," Majchrzak added.



Jim Kraft, a partner at Lindquist, von Husen & Joyce in San Francisco, preaches to staff that technical skills must go hand in hand with client relationships.

LvHJ conducted client interviews to create client service standards. They also identified the firm's true market position and value. The interviews validated that clients relied on their technical skill and attention to detail and deadlines. But the client feedback also reminded Kraft that accountants can't lose sight of service in the deluge of work.

"It was a blessing to hear where we could find ways to improve. The feedback was very candid and it's helped us strengthen long-term relationships in ways we wouldn't otherwise know about," he said.

LvHJ reaches out proactively to clients throughout the year. A successful marketing contest last fall included the entire staff on numerous opportunities to regularly communicate and share important information with clients. The tactics in the contest emphasized key themes that emerged from the client interviews, including the desire for service at all levels of the organization and flexible strategies to help clients deal with change.



John Edson, a partner with BPK&Z in Minneapolis, was surprised by comments from a couple of long-term clients who weren't familiar with all of the firm's services. "Since those interviews, we ask clients questions like, 'Is there anything we're not providing now that we should?' or 'What keeps you awake at night?' It reveals new opportunities, especially when we're considering a new service offering," he said.

BPK&Z also learned that its ideal relationships begin with the owners of closely held businesses, and are augmented by the chief financial officers and internal accounting staff. Going beyond expectations with those audiences can strengthen their loyalty.

Firms also found that clients and referral sources are more than willing to provide feedback in a third-party interview. By promising that the interviews will be short and focused on the client's experience with the firm, firms can build goodwill. "When we conducted the interviews, clients told me, 'I appreciate that you care about my opinion,'" Edson said.

The firms agreed that client feedback should be shared across the firm, not limited to partners. The good feedback builds morale and reinforces the brand, while the constructive feedback supports service standards and business opportunities.

"When you know what clients really value about you, you can share it with your staff, but also with candidates and prospective clients," Kraft pointed out.

Dawn Wagenaar is chief operating officer and co-principal of Ingenuity Marketing Group in St. Paul, Minn. Reach her at dawn@ingenuitymarketing.com or (651) 690-3358.

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