Adopting a Ritz Carlton mentality
If you’re feeling like busy season is especially…well, busy this year, you’re not alone. With late nights, deadlines and tax reform weighing down on you, it’s tempting just to check things off the list as quickly as possible and move on to the next client obligation. Before checking another box, take a step back and identify what your service really is: a luxury.
Now, I know you don’t identify your accounting firm this way. By definition, a luxury service is something that is an indulgence rather than a necessity. Your clients don’t have to work with a professional—they choose to work with that professional in order to make their lives easier, and to make better decisions. At the end of the day, you are a luxury service provider, and you are only as good as the client experience you provide them.
World-class luxury brands understand this. Take the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company. What sets it apart from the competition is its stunning properties, high-quality amenities, and most importantly, how each and every one of its hotels handles mistakes.
When you’re in a client service business, things will inevitably go wrong. The great brands go above and beyond the call of duty to make things right with their guests, i.e., clients. From complimentary champagne or dinner on the house, to free golf or tennis lessons, or some other perk that doesn’t show up on your final bill, great hotels know that when you give guests more than they expect, they will keep coming back and they will tell their friends about the great experience they had with you.
Making clients a walking billboard for your firm
Here’s a true story of mine that happened more than 10 years ago: One night, at a popular steakhouse near me, I asked our waiter for a slice of key lime pie (my favorite dessert) as the main course was being cleared. He politely informed me they didn’t have key lime pie that night. “No big deal,” I said, since our party of 10 had enjoyed a great meal and the waiter was working very hard to keep us happy. In most establishments that would have been the end of it since they had plenty of other tempting desserts on the menu.
About 15 minutes later, the wait staff brought an array of delicious desserts to our table—including an entire key lime pie! Someone in the kitchen took it upon themselves to purchase an entire key lime pie from the seafood restaurant across the street. It probably set them back $50, but it was a small price to pay considering the cost of our meal — and how many times I have retold the story to friends and colleagues over the past 10 years. You can’t buy that kind of advertising!
“OK,” you’re saying to yourself, “we’re a CPA firm. We’re not in the hospitality business.” Wrong! You’re a luxury service provider and there are all kinds of things your firm can do for clients to make their experience more memorable. You could send an Uber to pick them up for an appointment at your office. You could send a complimentary courier to pick up time-sensitive documents at their home. You could send a tech savvy staffer to their home to help them learn to use your online portal more effectively.
Think about how much those clients pay you every year. Now compare that to the hourly rate of one of your admins who is not in the office for a few hours. That’s a pretty good ROI, especially when you think about how many referrals that client will give you for the personalized services that no other firm in town will offer.
Your job is to make a client’s financial life easier
Most clients hate pulling together all their documents, receipts, statements and paperwork at tax time. Don’t complain about how disorganized your clients are or about how much they procrastinate. The reason clients pay you is because they don’t want to deal with the mind-numbing forms, paperwork and complexity involved in tax prep for successful people.
Don’t strive for perfection
Sure, we’re in a highly detailed profession, but you can’t expect to be a perfectionist. Mistakes are going to happen no matter how smart, technically competent and well organized your team is. What sets great firms apart is how they react when snafus occur. They own their mistakes rather than making excuses or blaming others. They apologize to clients when they make an error and they go above and beyond to fix it. By establishing a great client service reputation for your firm, there’s another big benefit—you’ll have some leeway when mistakes inevitably happen. However, if you only do the bare minimum that’s required in a client engagement, you’ll have nothing in reserve in the “emotional deposits” bank. As long as things go smoothly with that client, there’s nothing to worry about. But next time you hit a bump in the road, you’ll be overdrawn and you may not have another chance to set things right.
I have a great client who’s very particular about her morning brew. When she arrives, we have her chai tea nonfat latte waiting for her piping hot. Do the math: $4 for the latte and $6 worth of an admin’s time to run over to Starbucks to get my client her favorite morning brew. “Big deal,” you think to yourself. Well, that’s all my client ever talks about with her friends. She never tells them about how well or how quickly we did her tax return. She can’t judge us on technical competence. She assumes we are professional and competent. She can only judge us on the way we make her feel. Because of little things like that, my firm is going to beat you every time no matter how technically competent you are. I’ll make that $10 investment every time.
You’re in a luxury service business. Never stop looking for ways to pleasantly surprise your clients. If a client says they want a Grande, take it up a notch and surprise them with a Venti. Stories will be told about you one way or another. All you can do is control the narrative. It’s up to you how you want to be portrayed.