When choosing a mid-market CPA firm, many clients pay more attention to the ability to “connect” with the client service partner and staff than to the quality of the work performed.

Many clients are unable to distinguish between outstanding technical work and competent technical work. Even if clients are sufficiently sophisticated and able to distinguish between outstanding and competent work, their technical needs may simply require competence. As a result, when it comes time to evaluate the firm, many, if not most, clients place more emphasis on an enhanced client experience, including responsiveness, attitude and other nontechnical “service" criteria, not the quality of the technical work.

To illustrate the point, here are a few client comments on the client experience that might sound painfully familiar:

• “I sense that technically they are fine, but I can never get hold of them. They don’t return phone calls, emails or text messages!”

• “I wish they would keep me informed of progress. This may be just another engagement for them, but to me it’s critical. I want to know what’s going on.”

• “I continually get surprised by the last-minute upward revisions to my quarterly tax payments.”

• “I’m tired of continually getting my return delivered late in the day on April 15.”

And while most clients place more emphasis on an enhanced client experience than on quality client work, just the opposite is true with many mid-market CPA firms who place considerable emphasis on quality client work and very little emphasis on an enhanced client experience.

Here’s an example to drive the point home. Let’s say a client needs some last-minute international tax planning done and shortly thereafter needs to file federal and state tax returns.

A few weeks after the advice or guidance and the filing deadline for the returns, a country-club friend of the client (who knew about the required services) asked if the firm accomplished the required tasks.

The client answered, “I think so. I have the impression that the partner and staff provided quality international tax advice and the returns were certainly filed on time.” Then the friend asked, “How would you rate your client experience?” The response was “the experience could have been considerably better. It takes days for these guys to return my email or telephone call. They just don’t understand client service. I’m not particularly happy with the firm.”

You, as a firm leader, are told about this client’s comments, and you approach the client service partner about them. The reaction is “how could the client possibly be unhappy? Our team provided high-quality advice and the returns were filed on time.” With that reaction, you might go on to ask the following questions:

• Were you easily accessible to the client?

• Was the client able to easily set a meeting with you to discuss needs and expectations?

• Did you provide the advice and prepare the returns expeditiously?

• Did you take the time to explain what you did and why?

• Did you ask intelligent questions to help determine the scope of the work and a fee estimate?

• Did you make the client feel important?

• If complications arose, did you contact the client as soon as you became aware of the complications?

• Did you provide forward-looking advice that would be helpful next year?

• Did you return emails and phone calls in a timely way?

• Any untimely surprises with the fee?

Many CPA firms fall short when answering questions such as these and that’s why, while many client service partners provide superior work, it is not perceived as such by the client. In addition, many partners invest significant amounts of time and effort in dealing with unforeseen contingencies but, because clients did not expect the contingencies, they’re irritated by the extra delay and expense rather than thankful for the skills and effort. To compound the problem even more, many times the work performed isn’t very profitable because of inefficiencies and poor communications that could have been avoided by addendums to engagement letters.

Firms lose clients every day because of poor client service, but many times these losses are simply attributable to the lack of a relationship and of timely communication with the client. Both characteristics are avoidable if client service partners remember that quality client work does not mean an enhanced client experience.

As a managing partner or senior partner in your firm, ask yourself these two questions:

• How many of your client service partners truly understand what quality client work and an enhanced client experience mean?

• How many of your client service partners know the difference between the two?

An enhanced client experience extends beyond providing tax advice or preparing returns (i.e., quality client work). To provide an enhanced client experience, a client service partner needs to not only provide profitable and efficient work in a quality fashion, but is also required to meet, if not exceed, client expectations regarding responsiveness, attitude and other non-technical “service” criteria.

All CPA firms and their clients continually grapple with the problem of providing an enhanced client experience. Some firms attempt to tackle the challenge by using vague terms, with the assurance of personal attention, commitment and hands-on involvement—descriptions that are general to all clients, but specific to none. Other firms focus on handling negative situations, such as correcting errors, resolving problems, or explaining difficulties.

To demonstrate that all CPA firms are not the same, we believe that firms need to move beyond these vague distinctions by providing a service that helps set them apart from the competition. That’s considerably easier said than done. Many firms struggle with changing paradigms when it comes to client service. Nevertheless, one approach that is simple in concept but significant in its implications is asking clients to participate in developing a client service plan for an enhanced client experience that collaboratively (client and client service team) defines standards of performance for various aspects of service. Once established, these standards serve as precise indicators of the advice, information and communication about a client’s business and the work that’s expected.

As part of the client-service plan approach to an enhanced client experience, at appropriate times during the year, the client should be asked to evaluate whether the client service team is meeting expectations. The partner will also meet with the client, at least annually, to review the client service plan to consider whether any revisions to those standards are warranted.

This approach to creating an enhanced client experience provides significant benefits to clients as it presents an opportunity to:

• Indicate what aspects of service are most important and how the client would like to be served;

• Establish performance standards with key members of the client service team; and

• Evaluate and provide feedback on the performance of the client service team.

Most importantly, this approach provides a common framework for determining that the client is going to have an enhanced experience. Through this process, the CPA firm establishes clear indications about what is expected and what will be delivered, with little chance of misunderstanding. Try it, and you will find tangible results.

Dom Esposito

Dom Esposito

Dom Esposito, CPA, is the CEO of Esposito CEO2CEO LLC, a boutique advisory firm consulting with small and midsized CPA firms on strategy, practice management, mergers and acquisitions.