Voices

Improving client retention: Pick up the phone

When was the last time you called a client just to find out what's new or different?

Accountants in small firms should pay more attention to the frequency of contact and the way they interface with clients. Most firms only reach out on an as-needed basis revolving around a tax or audit deadline, rather than taking a more proactive approach throughout the year.

An article in the Journal of Applied Research reports that effective communication is positively related to client satisfaction and negatively related to firm/client conflict. In short, accounting firms can effectively use collaborative communication techniques to manage client relationships.

With seemingly endless online and offline ways to reach clients, what methods make the most sense? High-tech is great, but I say it's time to get back to basics. Very often, low-touch techniques are ideal for small firms to develop meaningful one-to-one conversations.

Establish a schedule. Let's face facts: we're all human, and life's interruptions come up each and every day. However, like other tasks, if you don't set an appointment or have some kind of plan, will you follow through?

It's not too much to ask to spend up to five hours a week working on client relationships. Although this time is not directly billable, everyone must spend some part of their week improving their practice management through client development. If you're directly responsible for helping to bring in new business, nurturing client relationships is a must. If this is not in your job description, you should do it anyway; the more business you bring in, the faster you'll rise to the top.

Pick up the phone. It's amazing how many practitioners are scared of the telephone. Younger professionals have a hard time making a call because they would rather text, email or use social media, while older accountants tell us they hesitate to make a call because they might hear bad news from the client.

How backwards is this thinking? Wouldn't you rather know if there is a problem before the problem escalates or the client takes his business elsewhere? If you do hear something unpleasant — and assuming you run a competent practice — the problem very often isn't with your services; it's due to something else that may be out of your control.

Whatever the problem may be, it's up to you to assess the situation and provide the best advice you can. Attempt to resolve the problem straight on before the client hangs up.

Regarding the problem of trying to get millennials and Gen Y staff to make a phone call, the best advice is to provide some training and ask the managing partner or someone high up to stress how important it is to call rather than send an electronic message.

Have a plan. What will you talk with your clients about? Here are a few suggestions:

• Offer an annual review and schedule it for summer or fall when you may not be as busy with other clients. Visit the client in person. Find out what's changed since the last time you met. Reviews reassure clients you care about their future, while helping you cross-sell firm services.

• Evaluate the most recent engagement. Many clients interface with the firm throughout the year. Pick up the phone and ask the client about the most recent engagement. Of course, you should know before you pick up the phone whether there was any kind of problem associated with the client, so you're not really calling to evaluate the engagement. You're phoning to provide another touchpoint with the client so that you appear to remain always available.

• Exchange referrals. You're in a business that thrives on referrals, and chances are your client is as well. Offer to meet with the client for lunch, or at his or her place of business, with the intent of learning more about each other's companies and needs. This exercise helps create a solid relationship built on more than a once-a-year meeting during busy season.

There's nothing as impressive as personal contact with a client. Although the time it takes to maintain client relationships may seem frivolous because there will not necessarily be any immediate cross-sell of services or results, accountants must commit to improving client service through one-to-one communications. This starts with picking up the phone.