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Customer case research can teach you about your clients and improve business.
BY DENISE NITTERHOUSE AND GERALD BERSTELL

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
CUSTOMER CASE RESEARCH (CCR) can reveal how a company’s people and circumstances influenced it to engage one CPA and not another or to obtain one accounting, tax or consulting service and not another. Such case studies illustrate situations business managers must solve all the time, and CPAs can use the information to make marketing decisions.

A CPA OR RESEARCHER SHOULD WRITE an outline to help clarify the firm’s purpose and organize questions. Your inquiries can’t be a boilerplate script because client stories must be able to go in their own direction.

THE PROCESS PROVIDES THE FIRM with data about how a client perceives its service, but the interviewer concentrates on the client’s purchasing procedures and internal influences rather than the degree to which the firm’s work has or hasn’t pleased the client.

A CPA SHOULD BE ALERT TO ISSUES clients raise so he or she can dig for the underlying dynamics. Case studies of defections, both to and from a firm (it’s OK to interview former clients for this information), may signal when a client likely will switch.

IT’S A GOOD IDEA FOR THE CPA/RESEARCHER to share early findings with other firm members after the first few CCR interviews. Staff reactions may spark questions the firm can use in the rest of its research, and implementing changes is easier when staff participates.

SOME CCR PROJECTS CAN MEET the firm’s needs in as few as five interviews; 10 to 25 typically will yield a more substantial range of information. The implications of client reports sometimes emerge fully only after several narratives combine to reveal a pattern.

Denise Nitterhouse is an associate professor in the School of Accountancy and Management Information Systems at DePaul University, Chicago. Her e-mail address is dnitterhouse@mba1977.hbs.edu . Gerald Berstell is a marketing research and strategy consultant who performs CCR. He is based in Chicago. His e-mail address is gberstell@post.harvard.edu .

emember the dating joke that went “Now let’s talk about you—what do you think of me?” Customer case research (CCR) asks clients, one by one, to describe in detail why, when and how their company decided to ask your firm out (that is, chose your CPA firm for services). As a research method, CCR chronologically examines the client company’s people, circumstances, decisions and events that led it to engage one CPA and not another or to obtain one accounting, tax or consulting service and not another. Such service-selection case studies illustrate, sometimes vividly, situations business managers face and must solve all the time. The perspective these findings offer can help firms better focus their practice development strategies. Here’s how a firm can use CCR.

MULTIPLE REWARDS
The goal of a CCR interview is to learn about the client’s purchasing process and internal influences, not whether your firm’s service has or hasn’t pleased the client. In the course of discussing how they made their decisions, clients often express business observations CPAs can turn into other engagements. Information gleaned from a CCR interview can
Still the Crux
Practice growth remained among the top 10 CPA issues, said 73% of CPAs interviewed.

Source: PCPS/MAP Top Issues Survey, AICPA, 2002.

Reveal business-cycle factors that influence a client’s financial-services purchases. Cycles—short or long—are part of business. For example, a printing plant may have an intense yearly production season for Christmas catalogues and need a better way to inventory its paper supply. Longer term, companies in later stages of growth may need more business advisory services and fewer of the tax and accounting services start-ups require.

Point out who behind the scenes influences a decision to engage CPA services. In one case, disclosure that a middle manager (not the CFO) was the person who tipped the scales in a decision to switch CPA firms showed how decision makers wield hidden power within some businesses.

Highlight obstacles to some types of engagements. A CPA firm that discovered a company’s outside network consultant had been undermining its recommendation for new accounting software decided to work with other clients’ information technology suppliers early in any proposal process to avoid such a setback. If your new CPA service or marketing approach hasn’t taken off, it may be based on faulty assumptions. Using CCR to talk to clients can help you discover what’s important.

Point out unexpected openings for new clients or services. A dark cloud of local layoffs had a silver lining for a CPA firm that provided financial and retirement planning services. The firm helped many unemployed professionals roll over 401(k) plan assets and modify financial plans to weather the difficult transition. That firm now closely follows news of layoffs and provides free seminars to attract potential PFP clients. Another firm used CCR to learn how to pitch a new client service that analyzed pricing and sales compensation.

Reveal service strengths you were unaware of. One CPA found that her firm’s ability and willingness to refer other local small business providers of complementary services such as human resources consulting had played an important role in several clients’ deciding to retain her firm.

Rick Sgarlata, CPA and president of Frost, Ruttenberg and Rothblatt PC of Deerfield, Illinois, suggests using CCR to “look at what additional services a client would buy from an accounting firm.” His firm’s audit proposal to one CFO “led to other opportunities with the CEO and COO for consulting on retirement plans, deferred compensation programs and employee incentive policies.” Although the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 has changed how and what CPAs can cross-sell to publicly traded audit clients, it so far has had little impact on nonaudit and privately owned clients, sources say.

SET UP AN INTERVIEW
Whether you employ a marketplace research consultant to talk to clients or you do it, the interview should take place at the “point of purchase”—your client’s office. There a subject will have access to files or another staff member to refresh a memory or confirm a fact.

Introduce your appointment request with a statement such as, “Our firm wants to learn more about your needs to help us give you even better service in the future.” Assure your subject you will not bill his or her company for this work. Request a one-hour appointment for an in-person interview or half an hour for a telephone interview at a time convenient for the client.

Make sure people understand you want to hear their stories, not tell them yours. When clients realize you genuinely want to know more about their business, they often will spend the time to tell you what you want to know. Be prepared to stay put and listen if the client continues talking.

PRACTICAL TIPS TO REMEMBER

To get the most out of customer interviews

Focus on one service the firm recently introduced or a traditional one that is losing clients or has declining billing.

From your existing client base select interview subjects who are likely to provide important insights because they switch providers frequently, use multiple providers for similar services, have recently changed CPAs (whether to or from your firm) or use your firm even though it is not the most geographically convenient or least expensive.

Assure your subject you will not bill his or her company for this work. Schedule the appointment at a time convenient for the client.

Write an outline or guide before the interview to help you clarify your purpose and organize your research questions.

Use staff or partners for interviewing who thoroughly understand your client’s business, are good with people and are willing and able to learn about a client’s needs.

Translate what you learn into actionable plans to strengthen your relationship with existing clients as well as to develop new business.

HOW TO APPROACH CCR
Whether you or a consultant performs the interview, use these guidelines:

Focus on one service. Choose the topic you most want to know about. Good areas for market feedback include services that have been losing clients or have experienced declining billing, or new ones the firm recently introduced and wants to strengthen.

Pick good interview candidates. Select from your existing client base. Choose clients who use the service you are researching and who are likely to provide insights because they

Have switched CPAs recently (whether to or from your firm).

Use multiple providers for similar services (have one CPA for taxes and another for benefits and compensation, for example).

Use your services even though your firm is not the most geographically convenient or the least expensive.

Case studies of defections, both to and from your firm (interview former clients for this information, too), may reveal a cluster of circumstances that signal when a client likely will switch. Use what you learn to strengthen your relationship with both established and new clients. For example, improving existing business might consist of sending clients detailed invoices if feedback indicates confusion about what they’re paying for.

An example of a marketing-new-services situation could be a firm with a recently credentialed business valuation (BV) partner who has done a few engagements and wants to expand the segment. CCR interviews of that firm’s BV clients can find out what types of situations triggered their need for BV (a sale, a succession plan or a divorce, for example). Their specific situations may provide insight to help you pitch BV to firms in similar circumstances. Also, you may learn why a business might (or might not) want to use the same firm that does its taxes for other work such as valuations.

APPLY GRACIOUS PERSISTENCE
Whether an interviewer is a consultant or is from your firm, researchers need to have business experience broad enough to enable them to recognize important insights when they hear them, and they must be able to graciously yet persistently pursue a line of questioning to its conclusion. Choose experienced staff or partners who thoroughly understand enterprise, are good with people, are willing and able to learn about a client’s needs and have experience translating data into actionable business-development plans. (Although really deep knowledge develops only from years on the job, encourage your firm’s junior staff to listen carefully for client insights—it will help later.)

Choose a CCR interviewer who listens. Avoid interviewing pitfalls such as someone who talks about your firm rather than the client’s business. Instead talk about the client’s purchase process; follow up on potentially useful client statements.

Make the interview a conversation. Briefly thank the client for taking the time to meet. Reiterate that your purpose is to hear his or her description of the engagement process for the specific type of service you are researching, such as tax planning or auditing. Answer any of his or her questions, but return to the subject of the client’s experience quickly. Again, you’re not there to talk about your firm.

Prepare a written guide. Before starting, write an outline to help you clarify your purpose and organize your questions. In contrast to survey interviews, you won’t read from a script that asks clients questions such as “How did you hear about our services?” and instructs them to select an answer from a list of alternatives such as: “ad, referral, other.” Your questions can’t be a boilerplate script; client stories must be able to go in their own individual directions. Use written guides as you would an engagement checklist to make sure you cover all the bases.

Tailor your questions. To get clients to speak in their own words, make your questions personal. Tailor them to the client and specific situation. If an existing client recently began to use a new service, ask, “What brought you to add this service now?” Inquire of new clients “Why did you retain our firm at this time?” and “How did you find us?”

Each interview will follow a unique path depending on the client and the details of the engagement you’re discussing, but the following key questions may elicit insights valuable to your firm:

What started you on the road to using this service?

Why at this particular time—and not before?

What was the hardest part of this process, and why?

Did you get stuck at any point? If so, how?

How did you decide the price for this service was acceptable?

Should I talk to anyone else to get more of the story behind this decision?

If you retained another firm to provide this service before, how does the past experience differ from the most recent one with us?

What made you decide that you trusted our firm to work in your best interests?

Pay careful attention to the answers. Keep asking for additional details and concrete examples until you understand how the client made the decision to retain your firm for the particular service. Also,

Take notes—discreetly. Most researchers take handwritten notes and transcribe them after completing their interviews. Use a tape recorder or laptop as a backup if the client is comfortable about it and it doesn’t interfere with the process.

Go beyond the superficial. Be alert to issues raised so you can dig for the underlying dynamics. In a written survey a client might name quality or price as particularly important to a purchasing decision, and the information will end there. CCR gives you a chance to learn more.

For example, if a client says, “I wasn’t happy with my previous firm,” a researcher should ask what specifically he or she didn’t like. In one case, probing led the client to give the interviewer concrete answers such as: “They sent out three different new accountants in each of the past three years” and “No one in the firm understood my business and could give me advice.”

TURN PATTERNS INTO ACTION
Share early interview findings with other firm members. E-mail every employee involved in the process of getting, serving or keeping clients: partners, senior, junior and administrative staff who interact with the public. Ask for their input about clients’ stories. Your staff’s responses may spark questions you can use to delve deeper for information. Note that employees likely will cooperate with future implementation changes if you solicit their input and take them seriously. Other good news: It’s possible to design, conduct and complete a survey in less than a month, and it doesn’t require a huge budget to do it. (Look at http://directory.google.com/Top/Business/Marketing_and_Advertising/Market_Research_Suppliers on the Internet.)

Some CCR projects can tell you what you want to know in as few as five interviews of different clients, but 10 to 25 typically will yield a more thorough range of information. After you collect all the material you intend to, analyze it for themes. Many firms have clients in different businesses with different needs and preferences, so the implications of their reports may emerge as a pattern only after several narratives combine. Discuss with others in your firm any issues that come up repeatedly, and then decide how to translate the data into action.

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