The service mindset

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As we approach the dawn of a new decade, there’s no doubt that advanced technology will be the subject in accounting for 2020. Automation, blockchain and other advances have the potential to change accounting as we know it, so it’s no surprise they take up the headlines. However, in all the rush to speculate about what technology will do in the coming years, don't lose sight of what it can’t do. Occupying that human space in a new way can be hugely useful for accounting firms, especially those without the financial might to dump into R&D and early adoption. The number one thing a bot can’t do now and won’t be able to do for the foreseeable future is to provide a service experience that makes clients feel valued and that they matter.

The rise of computational technology has given rise to an important distinction between compliance and advisory services in our profession. Computational accounting, getting the numbers right, is better than ever before. As a result, advisory services are of increased demand. While learning particular advisory practices is essential for firms of all sizes, none of those practices will drive growth if they’re not coupled with a focus on providing exceptional client service in the most elemental sense of the word.

The old model is dead

While accounting has never had the reputation of hostile customer treatment that has plagued telecommunications, it’s not a world known for creating sterling customer experiences either, mostly because it wasn’t necessary when delivering compliance services. These offerings provided by accounting firms were so essential and so specialized that nobody expected them to deliver anything beyond what was required. If the taxes got paid and the books balanced out, the job was done. However, today and in the future, you will need to do more than be accurate. You will want to be a strategic and valued partner in their business.

Consumers have more choice than ever before, whether we’re talking about where to buy our produce or how to watch our favorite TV shows. Accounting firms need to be ready because we are dealing with the same things. Not only do prospective clients have more firms to choose from, but they also have options outside of traditional firms. Emerging companies like Bench are offering the Netflix equivalent of accounting, providing subscription services for accounting. In this environment, standing out is as much about making clients feel cared for as anything else. As Jeff Bezos, who knows a thing or two about the contemporary customer, once said, “If you build a great experience, customers tell each other about that. Word of mouth is very powerful.”

Looking for inspiration

When it comes to technological innovation, there’s wisdom to be found in searching further than the profession in customer delivery. And there’s perhaps no better example to follow than the service industry itself. Restaurants differentiate themselves by creating an experience so desirable that customers will pay for it again and again, whether or not they can make better food more cheaply at home. In “Setting the Table: The Transformative Power of Hospitality in Business,” Shake Shack mastermind Danny Meyer writes, “Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.” As an accounting professional in an increasingly service-based marketplace, that is how we can differentiate ourselves.

Another way to think about the concept of customer service came up in a recent episode of my Breaking Beliefs podcast. In it, Jennifer WIlson of Convergence Consulting stressed the importance of selling with an eye toward the customer’s benefit rather than your own. “Selling things for your reasons selfishly because you need a deal or you need the engagement or the commission or your hours are slow, etc., is not the right approach and it won't succeed,” she said.

This simple idea is the essence of the service mindset. It’s not “if you build it, they will come,” but rather “if you serve them, they’ll come back.” No matter whether you're meeting a client for the first time or providing them regular reports on their business, the ultimate goal has to be making them feel valued by you. No matter how sophisticated technology gets, that relationship piece will remain essential.

Making service your purpose

I’m not saying you need to become the most charismatic person in the room to be effective. There are countless ways to provide exceptional service, and you can create an outstanding client experience based on the nature of your personality and the strengths of your firm that differentiate you. Creating that experience for your client is a vital part of the equation.

Even when robots can cook meat to perfection, I have a feeling people will still be going to restaurants. How can you think about your experiences that you create in the coming year so you clients keep coming back to your firm?

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