The Importance of Customer Focus

Knowing your clients' needs.
BY BARRY R. BROWNLOW

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • FOCUSING ON CLIENT NEEDS begins with creating a client service plan to use with each client at least once a year. The client service plan helps you learn not only what each client needs but also what it thinks your firms strengths are and how those strengths are of value to it.
  • MEET WITH YOUR CLIENTS on a regular basis to update the client service plan and to hear what services or products they would like to see changed, modified or improved.
  • SET UP A METHOD, such as a client satisfaction review, that encourages your clients to tell you what they need to better their businesses. Communication is key—let your clients reveal aspects of their operations as well as their concerns and hopes that your firm may not have been aware of.
  • INCREASE THE NUMBER OF WAYS your firm can satisfy your clients needs by working with experts and specialists outside the profession. With expert alliances you can create links to diverse areas of expertise including marketing, sales, distribution, human resources and information technology.
BARRY BROWNLOW, CA, is a partner of Brownlow, Thompson & McKay in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. He has served on the American Institute of CPAs special committee on assurance services' customer needs and new lines subcommittees.


By the early nineties, our three-partner firm in Ontario, Canada, had realized that we had to change the way we did business to remain competitive into the next millennium. There were more public accounting firms fighting for clients and more consulting firms, accounting software companies and banks threatening to erode our client base.

Our firms goal was not merely to survive but to thrive, to create a stronger firm and to make substantial improvements to our long-term profitability. Most important, we wanted to learn how to serve our clients in a comprehensive way, to surpass their expectations and to have them endorse us to prospective clients.

We met our goals by focusing on our clients needs and giving them what they wanted. To do this we went one-on-one with each of our clients to find out what services they considered most valuable to them. This article discusses the communication process that assists us in understanding our clients current and future needs. It also explains how we have developed new services that not only meet those needs, but also differentiate our firm from the competition.

Three Steps to Prosperity
1. Set up a client service plan that includes a services and products checklist. Follow it up with a client satisfaction review.
2. Develop new services that will make you different from your competition in the eyes of your clients.
3. Form and manage alliances with other companies to be able to satisfy all your clients needs and improve your products and services.

WHAT ARE YOUR NEEDS?
Our first step was to identify the factors integral to maintaining satisfied clients. To do this, we devised a client service plan and a client satisfaction review.

The client service plan. At least once a year we sit down with our clients and complete a client service plan that outlines their goals for the next two to three years and lists the services they require from our firm. The plan includes a checklist of our firms products and services the client uses to determine what services are of most value to his or her business (see checklist ). This checklist ensures our client is aware of our complete array of services and gives the client a chance to tell us what it needs as opposed to what we think it needs. The checklist also is useful at pointing out the products and services that are less important to clients.

Once we have determined what each clients needs are, we draft a client service plan that acts as our engagement letter. The plan outlines what we are supposed to do over the next 12 months, who will do it, when it will be done and how much it will cost. For example, it could call for the completion of financial statements and tax returns in February, a quarterly performance review to be performed in January, April, July and October, a detailed corporate tax review in August and two personal financial plans to be completed in September. The partner in charge of the day-to-day management of that client is responsible for overseeing that the services promised in the client service plan are delivered.

The client satisfaction review. We rely on the client satisfaction review to continually improve our relationship with our clients. The review includes basic open-ended questions that prove to clients that we are very interested in their feedback. We ask them to tell us if we met their expectations and how we could improve our services to satisfy their needs before our next satisfaction review. Basically, we ask, "What can we do to serve you better?"

It is here that we learn what services actually were of most value to a particular client. The services that our clients said they valued most include

  • Helping them identify potential problems and opportunities in their overall operations.
  • Adding relevance and analysis to the financial information in their financial statements.
  • Helping them focus on performance.
  • Reducing their tax burdens.

Customer Needs Checklist
Our Value Proposition
We help our customers make better decisions that improve their long-term profitability. Each of the following programs supports that value proposition. Are any of these programs of value to you?
What should be done?
(Goals are written down and understood by all)
Getting the right things done!
(Goals are measured and evaluated)
Learn about ourselves and profit
(Holding a mirror to management)
Minimize taxes, maximize wealth
Capital/financial requirements are determined in advance
Aggressive inquiry identifies potential problems
Risks are identified and managed
Objective third-party review provides support
Personal financial plan helps you sleep better
Planning my estate
The sale of my business has been properly planned
Outside expertise is used effectively when needed, such as
  • Sales and marketing
  • Production/distribution
  • Administration
    • Human resources
    • Information technology
    • Strategic planning
    • Satisfied customers, increased profits and market niche dominance
      (Market-driven management)

      NEW PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT
      We understood that we would have to develop new services to satisfy the needs identified in our client satisfaction reviews. One of our most popular new services is a communication tool we call "holding up a mirror to management." This service, which is performed quarterly, is designed to provide business owners and managers with a better understanding of their businesses, help identify potential problems in their operations and add relevance to their financial information.

      The first step of this service is to meet with the clients senior management and create a "leadership team," which includes two or three individuals responsible for running the organization, such as the chief executive officer, chief financial officer and other senior managers.

      The leadership team presents—to us—an analysis of the companys financial statements and compares them with the companys performance goals. The team also compares company performance with industry trends.

      Then we hold a mirror to management by presenting to the team our interpretation of the companys financial statements in relation to the companys goals and performance. We also present our own analysis of how the company fared in comparison with industry trends.

      This dual view can result in a more "relevant" picture of the clients performance. As a result of this service, our client learns more about what the financial data mean and our firm learns more about our clients business and performance compared with industry indicators. We then follow up with a client satisfaction review.


      PREPARED TO OFFER ALL SERVICES
      Because small firms like ours do not have all the in-house resources, information and expertise necessary to develop new products and services, it is essential to create alliances with experts and specialists outside the profession. Our firm has made an effort to create links with a diverse group of experts, including professionals in marketing, sales, total quality management, distribution, administration, human resources, strategic planning and information technology. We also need these experts to deliver services that will provide solutions to the problems we identified with our clients.

      Our firm facilitates the initial relationship between our client and the expert. We follow up with the client to ensure the client was satisfied with the work.

      We do not charge the expert for the referral. Instead, we charge the client for the time we spend matching it with the specialist and monitoring the progress of their work together. We do not worry about losing business because the alliance allows us to upgrade the quality of the services we provide. We are more competitive because our firm becomes part of the clients solution.


      VALUE-ADDED SOLUTIONS
      We are able to help our clients identify potential problems and opportunities, better understand their businesses, make smarter decisions, improve their focus on performance, create enhanced financial relationships and more clearly understand how to better manage their risks. Most important, our unique client interface process has systemized our interaction with clients, and our new products and services, such as holding up a mirror to management, are continually evolving because we invest more time in listening to clients needs.

      How An Expert Alliance
      Solved A Clients Problem

      One of our clients, a large retailing company, had seen its sales drop below targets it had set in its budget. Our firm wanted to push for an explanation, so we decided we should hold a mirror up to management, and we set up a leadership team to review operations and peruse the financial statements. In our discussions, the companys president mentioned that the company had received a number of letters complaining of poor service. In fact, we found that the company had received at least 5 letters of complaint in a two-month period. We recommended that the customer speak directly with an expert in this area.

      We chose a customer service expert with which we had prior experience and set up a conference call with the leadership team. We provided the expert alliance company with background information on the company and briefed the leadership team on the kind of work the customer service expert could do for it. During the conference call, the service expert told us and our client that

      • For every written letter of complaint the client received, usually there are approximately 20 other individuals who are dissatisfied with the quality of service.

      • We could calculate the annual effect of this poor service by multiplying by 20 the net income lost from the 5 written complaints per month annualized for the whole year.

      • Although the client was one of the best retailers in the area 5 to 10 years ago, it had made few changes since then and customers expectations of value had exceeded what our client was offering.

      After the conference call, we went over the 5 complaint letters with the leadership team and found they were written by some of our clients best customers. These customers had purchased an average of $650 each per year, with the annual effect on income as much as $130,000.

      Our client asked us to arrange a meeting with the customer service expert, which we did, making sure everyone would get off to a good start by doing the following:

      • We suggested the customer service expert develop a service plan that included fee estimates.

      • We asked the client to pinpoint what it needed from the service expert.

      • We periodically checked on both parties to ensure they were happy with the progress.

      How did we benefit? We helped keep our client focused on the solution to its customer service problem. By introducing an expert in which we had confidence, we helped the client solve its problem more quickly. And our client knows that we have done everything we could to help it make the changes it told us it wanted to make.

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