A veteran business reporter once advised me that if I really wanted to gauge the culture and future of a company I was writing on, check out their customer service department.

He said that if the company in question was a retail outlet, then see what type of response you get when returning an item, or asking for sales help. If it’s a service provider, such as a telephone company or a bank, monitor how long it takes an issue to be resolved.

I’m sure many of you have experienced familiar customer service nightmares such as the automated help line that requires a GPS to navigate, or a poorly trained salesperson who couldn’t tell you if a certain product came in brown.

Conversely, I once did an article on a mid-Atlantic restaurant chain, whose service motto was, “The answer is yes, what’s the question?” It backed up what it preached. I learned of a family who came in for dinner accompanied by their picky five-year-old. When nothing on the menu captured his attention or appeased his taste buds, the waiter excused himself, walked across the street to the local McDonald’s, and returned with a Big Mac.

I mention this because a poll released last week revealed the best and worst customer service companies as determined by several thousand consumers. The ones that finished at the bottom are all national brands, including Sprint, Bank of America, Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner.

Of that bottom five, I’m a customer of only one, and I’m a bit surprised since they’ve always been more than helpful with regard to customer service matters.

However, since there’s no annual customer service poll on accounting firms that I’m aware of, how do you, as a principal or managing partner, measure your customer service quotient?

Do you calculate the annual percentage of client retention, or perhaps the number of client referrals? If it were me, I’d place a bit more weight on the latter, given that unsatisfied -- but not yet frustrated -- clients more often than not feel it’s more of a hassle to change firms than to remain with the status quo, as opposed to clients who would freely give out a referral.

How about quantifying the wait time it takes for a client call to get to the correct person in the firm? Should you hire “mystery shoppers” to visit the office and inquire about your services and subsequently report back?

How about simply sitting in your reception area for 30 minutes and seeing what kind of message and ambience it sends out to visitors? Does the receptionist -- your first line of contact -- greet callers professionally, or more like an interruption?

The concept of maintaining good customer service levels is neither new, nor radical. But it has taken a bit longer to penetrate the world of medical and financial professionals such as doctors, dentists and, yes, accountants.

At this stage, I can’t envision many CPAs running out to grab a Big Mac for a client.\

But the ones that do will be making an investment in the future.

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