The 3-step rule to happy clients

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Making sure you have satisfied clients should be at the top of the list for every accounting firm. Yet, while your clients may seem happy, how much do you really know about their satisfaction with your firm and its services?

Better yet, how can you figure out if they are actually happy? If a firm can figure this out, it can soar above its competition and truly experience long-term survival.

I refer to this as the "3-Step Rule to Happy Clients:" Trust + Loyalty + Referrals = Value.

How to build trust

Clearly, trust is key to any professional relationship and is the most important component to the accountant-client relationship. Without trust, the client will always doubt whether the accountant is making the kinds of business decisions that bring them the most benefit possible.

How do you build trust? Consider these points:

  • Establish trust right away. Although it might take a bit of time to develop 100 percent trust, keep in mind there will most likely be some kind of inherent trust from the get-go, especially if the relationship developed from a personal or professional referral.
  • Honest and consistent communications is key. Explaining a new tax law, for example, or talking to a client about estate planning, establishes an issues-oriented dialog that positions the accountant as a believable source of information.
  • Frequency of contact is important. Consider the accountant who has frequent contact with a client versus the accountant who only contacts the client prior to busy season. All it takes is a quick phone call to demonstrate the value of the relationship.

The trust factor in every relationship will be different. However, the accounting profession is fortunate to have the "trusted business advisor" status attached to it. Despite the fact that some really large accounting mistakes brought down multi-billion-dollar businesses, the public still views the accountant as someone they trust.

Establishing loyalty

Loyalty is something that can't be bought, and similar to trust, it doesn't occur overnight. However, with the right kind of approach, a firm can talk about the fact that its clients are loyal to the firm and their specific accountant.

What does loyalty mean? Sure, clients can go elsewhere for the same kinds of services, but why would they do this if the firm constantly demonstrated quality?

As consumers, we are loyal to specific brands because we know what to expect from that brand. If you go to Disney World, you know it's the "Happiest Place on Earth" because you will get a quality experience you will talk about for years to come. People buy iPhones and iPads because they believe Apple combines innovation with practicality to develop the absolute best device.

Accounting firms are similar. A client continues to do business with a specific firm because they are "loyal" to the firm. Unless the firm makes an irrevocable mistake, clients will continue to show their loyalty. Yet, quality output is not nearly enough; it's up to the firm to promote its strengths to clients and prospects.

Some firms even ask questions like, "How can we improve our service for you?" A firm that asks a question like this wants to improve by understanding the reasons. At the same time, the firm demonstrates that it is absolutely interested in knowing its clients' opinions in order to maintain loyalty.

Referrals are a two-way street

The third part of the 3-Step Rule, "referrals," is one of the most important components of the accounting-client relationship but is hugely neglected.

No one wants to come across as an oily insurance salesman asking for leads. Yet, clients want referrals to their business as badly as you want them for your firm. Who is going to ask the first question?

Referrals should be a natural part of any "how's business" exchange, but it is incumbent on the accountant to initiate the conversation. Quite often, all that's needed is to schedule an informal meeting with the client over coffee or lunch with a very specific intent: instead of talking about a specific accounting issue, talk about business in general and discuss what's new with each other's business.

What you're trying to create is a nonthreatening environment that naturally leads to an exchange of referrals. If the client says, for example, that they need to shop around for a new medical provider, you might be able to offer a referral to someone you know who offers this service. The client, most likely, also is looking for additional business — and you are in a unique position to offer referrals based on your own network. In exchange, the client will want to offer you referrals to friends, family or businesses you can call on some time in the future.

As a result, giving and receiving referrals is integral to your business because it not only positions you as a provider of accounting solutions; it shows you are a problem-solver and a true partner to the client. What you get is additional business, but you also reinforce trust and loyalty.

Value as a true result

A firm that creates trust, establishes loyalty and offers referrals reinforces value. It is this "value" that clients and prospects will find engaging, thereby offering a compelling reason to continue to do business with your firm.

While a firm cannot always demonstrate the 3-Step Rule in cookie-cutter terms, it can train its staff to always remember the three steps and how each step plays a role in enabling a firm to retain clients and recruit prospects. At this point, the 3-Step Rule becomes a winning formula for success.

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Client relations Client retention Client strategies Client communications Referrals