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Putting the 'C' in CRM

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Customer relationship management is an essential part of an accounting firm’s business, but it often gets overlooked in favor of the good accounting work the firm does for their client. But CRM systems have a lot to offer firms, and implementing one can push a firm to take a necessary look inside how they manage client relationships.

I’m not going to detail what to look for in a CRM application other than the tools necessary to prompt the client when you need something (like tax return input) along with the capabilities of tracking the process from inquiry to delivering the final product to the client. To be effective, a CRM system needs to interface closely with, or include workflow functionality. Some CRM systems do have this capability; others may not, but might have the capability to interface with stand-alone workflow applications like XCM, Karbon or a host of others.

But in my mind, that “C” in the acronym also stands for something else — customer (or client) service. And that’s not necessarily the same thing as managing relationships. Sure, maintaining a great (not just good) relationship with your clients means following up on due dates and other time-sensitive services your practice provides. And that’s the purpose of CRM and workflow systems. But customer service goes beyond that to address client problems and concerns, rather than to provide new clients and sell services.

And a good customer service system is designed to do just that. When a client calls with a question, how quickly do you get back to them? Sure, there are instances where you’re in the middle of a call or meeting with someone else, or performing client work that is on a tight deadline. But minimizing the time between a client reaching out and your response is the ultimate goal. Even if it’s just a “busy at the moment but I’ll get back to you in a few minutes, a few hours, or soon,” message, the less likely they are to become annoyed at not reaching you immediately. The key word here is immediacy. The simple truth is that a client doesn’t care if you have other clients. They don’t care if you have work that isn’t for them. In a client’s mind, the only client your practice has is them.

Along with this, another important consideration in customer service is problem resolution. Who in your practice handles this? Is there a formal system in place to address a problem that a client brings you? A system to address that problem quickly, and hopefully also resolve it quickly? Does your problem resolution system bring the client into the mix early on so they know that you are working on it? And if the problem the client has stretches out over time, does your system permit (and remind) you to periodically update the client or does it put the client in the position of having to call and nag you?

Some CRM applications have good customer service capabilities, and some have poor or no such capabilities at all. There are customer service applications you can implement, but many of these are meant for entities like repair businesses, and might not be suitable for your practice’s needs. Some, like Zoho’s Desk, can be successfully implemented in a smaller practice and are fairly inexpensive. In considering a help desk/customer service management application, make sure that you don’t go overboard with features that are irrelevant or your practice won’t ever use. Keep in mind the mantra: “If it’s difficult to use, it won’t be used.”

Software might be the solution, but then again, it might not. A smaller practice can sometimes get away with a simple whiteboard and color-coding service problems that need to be addressed, with red being urgent, yellow being important,” and blue indicating something that is less time-sensitive.

A larger practice might consider actually hiring someone whose only job is to address client concerns, funneling a question, concern, or complaint to the right person or department, keeping track of how it’s being handled, and assuring that the client is in the loop. Finding an approach that works for your practice, its staff, and effectively addresses your clients’ needs and concerns isn’t always easy, but is always important.

Your practice may very well be handling these sorts of problems in a timely and effective way. But if you’re not, the start of a new year is a good time to look at your processes, and make sure they are in place and effective before the craziness of tax season makes such a system audit impossible.

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