Focus on clients, and revenue will follow

By Sarah Ovaska-Few

Want to see your client list grow and your profits increase? Start listening to clients. And then keep listening.

Hearing client experiences is the best way to find out what CPAs in your firm are doing well, and also what’s not going so well, said Mitch Reno, a principal and director of client experiences at Rehmann, a Michigan-based accounting and financial services firm.

Firms that adopt customer-centric strategies end up being the ones that win new clients, or successfully increase the number of services provided to existing clients, said Reno, who spoke about improving client interactions at the AICPA ENGAGE 2018 conference Tuesday in Las Vegas.

“You are going to have a winning formula in the marketplace when you listen to clients and anticipate their needs more effectively,” he said about focusing on client interactions.

During an interview before the conference, Reno provided a closer look at how to write that winning formula.

Keep your ears open

The best way to see revenues at your firm improve is to begin paying close attention to your existing customers, Reno said.

Focusing on the voice of the clients and understanding their needs is a simple idea, but it’s difficult to do well, he said.

There are plenty of ways to get feedback that will help you understand what matters most to clients. Personal interviews and surveys with existing clients are the foundation of building better client experiences, Reno said. Firms can send out surveys to targeted groups of clients and have a completed analysis in a few days with easy-to-use survey tools available today.

Focus groups of existing customers can be used to help launch a new product or service. Want to move into targeted financial advisory services? Invite a small group of clients to learn what could benefit them the most, and hear what they’d be excited about using to meet their company’s goals.

It shouldn’t be hard to get clients in the room, Reno said, with most people viewing the relationships with their CPAs as trusted and collaborative. Similarly, this tactic can be used to listen to clients who have parted ways with your firm.

Many organizations conduct exit interviews with employees who leave for another job in order to get feedback on what can be done better. Interviews with lost clients can provide powerful insight for firm leaders, Reno said.

Analyze encounters

Reno wants people to stop thinking of simply providing good customer service as the goal and begin to look at client experiences as a journey with your firm.

Putting out decent coffee in the waiting room and responding quickly to questions are actions that Reno would consider good customer service standards of behavior but have become givens in today’s business climate.

Instead, he describes customer experiences as planned interactions, from thought-out email communications to in-office meetings, and something that all members of the firm should be oriented to making a top priority.

“We engineer [better experiences] to elevate brand loyalty and satisfaction, which drives clients to buy more services and refer us more often,” he said.

To improve client experiences, he suggests mapping out every interaction a firm has with a client, starting with the very beginning of the relationship with them as a prospect, and then looking to see where the firm interacts with them over time. This helps to understand how the firm’s workflow and service efforts are working.

Having that level of detail will show firm leaders where the missed opportunities can be found.

Keep the conversation going

Accountants have an advantage over many professionals in that some of the services they offer are required by regulatory bodies. If they prepare tax returns or audit financial statements, their customers are required to interact with them on a regular basis.

They also tend to be respected. Independent research commissioned by the AICPA in 2015 showed that business decision-makers rank CPAs as their most trusted adviser, the highest of all finance professionals. Among all professionals, only physicians were ranked as more trusted.

“We’re one of the most trusted professionals people work with, which gives CPAs a leg up on moving from compliance work to advisory-focused conversations,” Reno said.

Unfortunately, too many firms interact with their clients only during tax season or during audits, and months can go by without much interaction.

“The client feels forgotten between busy seasons, and the positive, constructive experience pretty much ends,” Reno said.

That’s a mistake, he said.

Firms small and large need to plan ways to engage with their clients throughout the year. You could find out if a small business client is considering expanding and needs advice on the tax implications. Or a larger client may need some strategic advice, which can lead to the opportunity for a firm to provide consulting services and generate more revenue.

Find a niche

Another way to build your business is to differentiate yourself instead of trying to be everything for everybody.

Some firms have become known for having cross-functional teams, where an individual can get his or her taxes done and see a financial adviser to talk about long-term wealth-building strategies. Others have found their specialties in serving particular industries, with practitioners in the office who have a deep level of knowledge about an industry’s particular challenges or tax implications, Reno said.

Or maybe your firm has found it serves a large number of people from a particular community or profession. It’s something to point out and something to build on. Specialization in a niche or industry can help you build a better experience for clients and be different from your peers.

“Being different allows you to differentiate your brand, your product, the client service,” he said. “All of that can be used to attract and retain clients.”

Sarah Ovaska Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, a JofA editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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