Client retention is the No. 1 issue facing accounting firms today. Firms are trying to protect their most profitable clients from the pressures of new business challenges and various threats that weren't even on their radar screens just two years ago.

Now, larger competitors are going "down market" to find work, firms are opening new offices outside of their established geographies, and industry concentration through mergers and acquisitions is making retaining clients even more difficult.

At the same time, clients continue to become more sophisticated and demanding. They can easily find lower-cost providers who promise better service without having to sacrifice quality or take on more risk. In today's business environment, these are compelling reasons for even the most loyal or smallest clients to review their relationships with their accounting, tax and business consulting firms.

If you are already doing client satisfaction surveys, then you are well-positioned to go to the next level - understanding the drivers of client retention. While frequently thought to be the same, the two are very different. Client satisfaction involves measuring a client's experience versus its expectations. It is transaction-oriented. The drivers of client retention involve understanding why clients retain a firm in the first place and then elect to maintain that relationship over the long term.

By implementing a voice-of-the-client listening process, you will gain the insights and findings necessary to retain your best clients. By incorporating these insights into your marketing and business development campaigns and proposals, you will be able to separate yourself from your competition, accelerate your growth, improve your profitability, and increase partner compensation.

A SIMPLE PRESCRIPTION

Improving client retention begins with listening to your clients. Not selling them something, not entertaining them, not giving them something for nothing - just listening to them. This is best done using a structured interview process that produces results within two to three months, requires as little as one to two hours of time each year with each client, and leads to insights that can improve the returns on all of your business development and marketing campaigns.

* Step 1: Start small. Select a key segment of your business - a strategic industry, service or geography - that is led by a progressive leader who is open to new ideas. This has two benefits. First, you only need to interview 15 to 25 clients to get the key findings and insights. Second, proving and fine-tuning the process in a segment of the business significantly increases the likelihood for success and rapid adoption across the firm.

* Step 2: Design a questionnaire. Create a questionnaire consisting of both qualitative, open-ended questions and quantitative questions that together lead to understanding the strategic issues that your clients are facing. You also want to find out what differentiates your firm from the competition, and what you can be doing differently to meet your client's current, unmet and emerging needs.

* Step 3: Use third-party interviewers. Clients will give the most candid and direct responses to your questions when people unrelated to the engagement ask them. The most important characteristics of a good interviewer are the experience and ability to ask the questions that should be asked. Interviewers can be partners, the heads of your finance, marketing and business development departments, or people from outside the firm. The latter are particularly credible and effective when they have firsthand experience as clients of professional services firms.

* Step 4: Arrange the interviews. Before setting up an interview, the partner-in-charge of the relationship with the client should contact them. Let the client know about the program and that someone will be calling them shortly to schedule the appointment.

* Step 5: Do your homework. Before the interviewer meets with the client, be sure that they know how long the client has been with the firm, what services they use, and if there are any issues they need to be aware of.

* Step 6: Conduct the interview. Two people should conduct the interviews, because we all listen and hear things differently. It also demonstrates to the client that you take this process seriously. The interviews should be limited to one hour and be conducted either in person or over the telephone. Again, listen and learn, but do not sell or defend.

One of the biggest benefits that you will realize is the identification of opportunities at existing clients that you were previously unaware of. My own experience is that one out of three interviews leads to the chance to bid on an engagement that would otherwise have been awarded to a competitor.

* Step 7: Identify themes and threads. After completing all the interviews, review what you heard, look for common themes and threads, and identify the gaps between what clients say they need and what you thought they needed or were providing. Document these findings and share them broadly.

* Step 8: Turn insights into actions. Developing an action plan and holding people accountable for implementing it is the most important step. Be committed to acting on what you have learned from your clients. Don't waste the goodwill you have earned over the years with your clients by not being responsive to their needs after you have asked for their input.

SUMMING IT ALL UP

If a firm wants to retain its best clients, the ones who have high financial value, are less sensitive to fees, are most likely to buy multiple services, and are the best source of referrals, they need to adopt new approaches to nurture client loyalty. Firms only need to look as far as their clients to learn how to retain their business. Just remember three things to be successful - start small, listen instead of selling, and be committed to turning your insights into actions.

Lee Eisenstaedt is the founder and managing director of L. Harris & Associates LLC (www.lharrisllc.com), and works exclusively with leaders of accounting firms who want to retain their clients, grow their practices and increase their partners' compensation. Reach him at lee@lharrisllc.com or (262) 412-4710.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Accounting Today content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access