Pathways to Growth: Building a better client experience
Once upon a time, it all seemed easier. didn’t it? CPAs were referred in to do tax returns, audits and accounting. Beans were counted and cocktails were enjoyed at the country club. Today, we are told our “bread and butter” services will be relegated to artificial intelligence and other technologies. CPAs seeking to maintain trusted advisor status are being pushed into delivering more advisory services like strategy consulting, succession planning, and enterprise risk management, to name a few. This pivot intends to ensure the profession’s sustained growth and profitability. As a byproduct, this shift creates an entirely new move from client service to client experience.
That pivot and shift means everything to Mitch Reno, principal and director of client experience at the Michigan-based Top 40 Firm Rehmann. I recently interviewed Mitch to learn what client experience is and why it matters. As he tells it, “Professional advisory firms will have to become much better at designing and delivering better experiences if they expect to win the next battle.”
‘A pervasive commitment’
In 2001, as Rehmann’s chief sales and marketing officer, Mitch recognized that in order to remain competitive, firms would need to expand their scope beyond quality deliverables and begin to deliver a client journey that provides a quality client experience. Inspired by books like “Integrated Branding” by F. Joseph LePla and Lynn Parker, and the experience of innovators like the Disney organization, Mitch began to focus on the entire experience and every touchpoint with Rehmann’s clients, not as a bolted-on extra, but as an integrated process and product deliverable.
“Defining client experience is difficult because most default to simply considering it good service,” said Mitch. Rather, he describes it as “an outcome of a pervasive strategy applied across the client journey that affects every aspect of client interaction. It’s the cumulative perception and value delivered to clients.”
In a client-centric culture, all interactions among associates and clients are rooted in a common vision, mission, strategy, values and a set of behaviors that differentiate you from the competition. “We all know and feel a good experience when we have one. Now, as firms, we just have to operationally design what that better experience looks like for our clients, now and in the future, before our competitors do.”
Client experience plays out in large and small ways, like the simple confirmation emails sent with an estimate of when client work will be complete, which Mitch encourages advisors to send. I described a related initiative at my own consulting firm — a monthly call with the managing partner to discuss progress and roadblocks. Mitch agreed that every interaction needs to be considered and improved to optimize client experiences.
Virtual silver lining
A couple of years ago, Mitch was seeking resolution of a customer service issue on the website of a service business. The site offered to connect him to a chat bot. At first, he bristled, but, with no other option, he clicked. Within a few minutes he had his answer, his blood pressure had returned to normal, and he had a new appreciation for the company. His anticipated journey to an answer was different than expected — and much easier and faster. It was a personal moment of realization of how much digital client experiences were likely to change in our profession and how it would be necessary to make smart digital touchpoints, to create an easy, value-driven experience.
According to Mitch, the ongoing pandemic offers accounting firms an unprecedented opportunity to use technology to improve the client experience. With last year’s conferences becoming this year’s Zoom calls, he noted, “We are learning to effectively connect through virtual moments and touchpoints along the entire client journey far faster than we ever imagined we would. Firms are now being given an opportunity to build a future journey that integrates technology into many interfaces — all of which create an ultimate experience for clients. Finding your firm’s balance for human and digital interfaces will be key.”
Mitch, who is currently leading a large data-gathering initiative at Rehmann, encourages firms to use this moment to find out what experience clients want and value. With compliance slipping into the shadows and consulting enjoying its moment, the next generation of firm leaders must be prepared to make client experience a strategic priority. To that end, Mitch recommends the following:
- Learn and evaluate:Determine what “client experience” is and how your firm wants to define the scope of it to drive retention, loyalty, growth and profit.
- Get leadership buy-in:Build a vision of the client experience-oriented firm and educate ownership on how a differentiated experience will produce better results for clients and associates.
- Conduct a listening campaign: Conduct research to learn what clients and associates enjoy and dislike about the current journey of working together. And, take time to understand competitors and what the market is doing. Use the information to build a competitively differentiated and improved journey, with meaningful touchpoints and moments that create better outcomes.
- Map the future journey:Build and design client journey maps into every service. Mitch calls this “empathetic process mapping” that helps understand the human element in all moments of the journey.
- Teach teams to deliver an improved experience:Train associates on the new approaches and give them the tools to consistently deliver.
- Monitor and measure:Use appropriate metrics, business analytics, CRM and social media to track progress on how improved experience drives outcomes.
Easy as pie?
Don’t be intimidated by the idea of creating a better client journey and, ultimately, creating a better experience. You’ll need data, a road map and measuring tools. You’ll also need common sense, Mitch said, and an understanding of human behavior.
“Making a choice to improve the overall experience can be done in small, incremental ways that allow you to get better over time. Client experience as a strategic differentiator is scalable to any sized firm. But, no matter the firm size, the economic impact on top and bottom lines is assured,” he said.
My conversation with Mitch called to mind the experience my husband and I once had with a financial planner. Every year this provider would send greeting cards for the holidays and a pie for our anniversary. But his numbers did not hold up to our scrutiny and his counsel lacked depth. We switched to a planner who offered a very different client experience. There were no pies, but he created a regular schedule of meetings and a framework for decision-making that earned our trust and delivered better outcomes. No pies anymore, but way more value.
Had the first planner done his research, he would have known that treats were not what his clients needed or wanted. Rather, the experience we sought involved regular touchpoints, strategic thinking, and keen insight. Key takeaway — do the work and reap the rewards.