The power of the red chair

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One day, we were having a team meeting. I was becoming particularly frustrated with the discussions we were having.

We love a healthy discussion with opposing views, but it seemed like we had crossed a line and were just spinning our wheels instead of making progress. We were discussing potential new services to roll out, new billing methods to offer and a better client portal. We couldn’t seem to come to a consensus and then it hit me: It doesn’t matter what we think. That only thing that matters is what our clients think. What can we implement that will make their lives easier and make them happier with the experience we provide?

To break the stalemate, I blurted out, “Suppose Susan (one our top clients) was in the room right now. What would she say?” When your team knows that a client is sitting right across from you, or within easy earshot in the hallway, that changes everything from the way you converse with each other, to the way you state your case, to the way you outline the pros and cons of each new offering you’re proposing.

The person sitting in the “client chair” can trump every decision that we make—or want to make. Clients trump decisions because that’s who we work for. Whichever member of my team is sitting in the client chair is expected to answer any question that comes up in the meeting. At our firm, we have a special red chair at the head of the conference room table reserved for the “client.” All the other chairs are gray, so there’s no mistaking whoever sits in the client chair on any given day has the responsibility to be the client advocate in our internal meetings.

Even if only two of our staffers are in a meeting, one must sit in the red chair and speak from the client’s perspective. For example, it wasn’t easy for our office manager to let go of her habit of questioning every new idea that involved spending more money. But she was committed to the idea of having a client advocate in every meeting so when it was her turn in the red chair, she learned to let go of her job role and embrace the purpose.

It doesn’t have to be Susan every time. Rotate your top clients into every meeting. Ask yourselves: “How are the Joneses going to answer this? What are the Jacksons going to say about that?” As soon as you establish a framework like that, it’s going to permeate the culture of your company.

Over time the red chair mentality will permeate the culture of your company and be the lens you use to make decisions. Suppose you overhear an employee in the hallway explaining her rationale to a colleague for voting against investing in a customer relationship management system, rolling out a new client service offering or taking a CPE class after work. But, before you can jump in, her colleague says, “Do you think Taylor would be supportive of that?”

Bottom line: Don’t say anything in a meeting that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in front of clients—clients who are sitting in the same room. That’s how you know you’re making the right decisions.

Let’s look at some examples:

Billing: Hourly billing is designed for inefficiency. Clients will always tell you they don’t care how long it takes you to get an assignment done as long as it’s done well. Brain surgeons don’t get paid by the hour. Their job is to keep people alive. CPAs’ job is to keep clients financially healthy.

Technology: I can assure you clients are going to recommend any solution that’s helpful for them, that makes their lives easier—things like eSignature, electronic filing, The Vault.

Tax planning services: Which services are they going to tell you they find most valuable? What about when they meet with you? What does the agenda look like? What sort of collateral do we deliver? What does our client service model look like?

Customer relationship management: Many in your office might not want to invest the time and money it takes to get a CRM system up and running. But, don’t you think your clients find it valuable for their CPAs to be able to instantly retrieve everything about their personal and financial life that’s relevant to solving a financial goal or challenge?

People don’t leave their CPA because they charge too much. They leave because they don’t feel valued and appreciated—and because they don’t feel listened to. “We went out and bought this chair to show you how much your opinion matters to us when we make any kind of decision,” they might say. This is how we should already be making our decisions. Use the chair as a catalyst to build the service level your best clients want and may soon demand.

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