by August J. Aquila

Expanding client service should come naturally to CPAs, but the fact is that most clients are underserved. If you ask a partner if their clients are properly served, they respond with a resounding "Yes." They feel that they are providing all the additional services that the client needs and wants.

Clients, unfortunately, tell us something quite different. They have many unmet needs. It seems, then, that this should be a natural fit for both the client and the firm. Firms are looking for ways to generate more work; clients are looking for more help. And yet, current clients still remain underserved.

How, then, do you bridge that gap between the accountant's perception of service and the client's? Accountants, as we know, have been trained to follow rules -- the Internal Revenue Code, audit procedures, Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, and so forth. Why not have a series of internal rules when it comes to client service? Having a process may help partners feel more comfortable when talking with clients, and permit them to work under a process that they have been trained to work under.

The question is, how do you make this a reality in your firm?

Develop service knowledge
While every partner needs to be able to discuss all the firm's services, it's not necessary for each partner to actually be able to deliver all the services. That's why there are other partners in the firm.

Nevertheless, partners today should be able to discuss a wide array of topics with their clients. These include, but are not limited to, estate planning, wills and trusts, insurance needs and different types of insurance products, buy-sell agreements, strategic planning, goal setting, technology, succession planning and business valuations.

If partners cannot talk intelligently about these and other topics, they will never be able to identify unmet client needs or effectively cross-sell the full array of the firm's services.

Get clients to talk
It is not easy task for clients to discuss their unmet needs. Sometimes they just don't know how to articulate them. Some clients just don't like to talk. Nevertheless, clients or prospects will share their concerns about their business with you, especially if they believe you can help them.

The way to get clients to talk is to ask them questions. This may appear simple, but you need to know what types of questions to ask and then be able to listen to the answers. Remember, the more that you talk, the less you will learn about their needs.

Since you often don't know what the client or prospect is trying to solve, initial questions have to be more general in nature, non-threatening, and especially non-selling. There are four types of questions that you and your partners should be asking. Start with fact-finding questions.

The less we know about someone, the more fact-finding questions we need to ask. For example:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • How many sales people do you have?

But if you really want to get clients to speak, you must learn to limit these types of questions. The reason for this is that fact-finding questions help you, the seller, much more than the prospect or client. Clients are merely telling you what they already know.Much of the information from fact-finding questions can be found in other sources, such as sales literature, the Internet, etc. Do some homework first, before you start asking too many fact-finding questions.
The opposite of fact-finding questions are feeling questions. They take an emotional reading of the client or prospect. These questions explore the client's fears, emotions and feelings. Buying decisions also have an emotional element to them.

Here are some sample questions:

  • What concerns you about the buy-sell agreement?
  • How do you feel about the increases in employee health care costs?
  • How do you feel about the inventory turnover of the last four months?

These questions ask the individual to describe feelings. They are non-threatening. They provide you with subjective information that will help youfurther understand the client's needs. You should always be asking these type of feeling questions throughout the entire process. For example:

  • How do you feel about the changes we are proposing?
  • What's your biggest worry about this engagement?
  • How important is this engagement to you?

Third, you need to ask problem questions. These focus on exact areas of dissatisfaction or problems. Each question in this category asks the client to specifically address an issue. For example:

  • What are the disadvantages of continuing to do . . .?
  • Are you satisfied with your present inventory system?

Now just because you uncover a problem, it does not mean that there is a pressing need to solve it. You need to probe a little further to understand the seriousness of the problem.This leads to seriousness questions. These are questions that help you close the sale. You and the prospect/client need to know what the problem is costing in terms of poor quality, excessive training, overtime and so forth. Once you and the prospect/client have this information, then you can propose a solution that costs less than the problem's current cost.
Although there is much more to understanding client needs, the framework introduced here allows you to provide the additional services that the client needs and wants.
August J. Aquila, Ph.D., is the director of practice management consulting at The Growth Partnership Inc., a full-service consulting firm for CPAs. Reach him at aaquila@thegrowthpartnership.com or (952) 930-1295.

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