CPA INSIDER

Listen! Here’s how to improve client experience

A three-step process can help accountants build an effective customer-services strategy.
By Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA

Attracting new clients is hugely important for accounting firms, but the development of the firm-client relationship after the engagement letter is signed is arguably even more important. Firms often focus so intently on getting new business through the door that they lose sight of the need for a real customer-services strategy.

Once a newly signed client is assigned to an accountant, the focus sometimes shifts to finding the next client. Firm leaders often don't always think about every touchpoint that each client will, or should, encounter in the firm. In the current business environment, clients do not stay with a firm just because they have always been a client. A once-happy client's needs may change, and if your client service is lagging, the client may seek that service with another firm, costing you long-term revenue and potential referrals. So how do you strengthen your client relationships so they can grow and flourish long into the future? The following three steps can help you avoid losing touch.

1. Ask, listen, observe.

If you don't have a deep understanding of your clients' needs and goals, you might make incorrect assumptions about what they want. Make sure to ask your clients what they want from their relationship with you.

During this process, ask open-ended questions so you can learn as much as possible. Seek to understand what the clients want and why they want it. This will help you with designing the right offerings and experience.

Ask your internal team members why they think your clients love working with you and then ask your clients the same question so you can compare answers. This will show you where gaps are.

On the other side of my business life, I own a yoga studio. In designing the customer experience, I have found many parallels with client-accountant relationships. Often, the teachers in my studio request to offer certain types of classes on the schedule. However, if people don't show up for them, the classes won't be successful. So before we decide to offer new classes, we send surveys and also engage with our most loyal customers in a private Facebook group we set up. We use these tools to get feedback on class formats and schedules. We then listen intently to what the customer wants and decide if there is enough interest to warrant a move in that direction. We also observe the customers' actual behavior. They may ask for a class and fail to show up.

It's no different in an accounting practice. As you develop new offerings and new ways of using technology and delivering your services, maintain open lines of communication with your team and your clients to determine what is — and isn't — working. Observing your clients' behaviors as you work together can help you recognize patterns, innovate products and services, and develop a customer service strategy that matches your clients' goals and differentiates your firm from others.

2. Make net promoter score your guiding light.

How do you keep tabs on how your clients view your services? Often, I hear that firms do surveys, ask their clients individually, or simply assume clients that stay with the firm must be happy. However, the best measures of client happiness are loyalty and whether your clients would refer you to someone else.

One of the premier tools you can use to measure this is net promoter score (NPS). NPS creates a quantifiable way for you to determine the likelihood clients would recommend your services to others. The score is calculated by how customers answer the question: "Would you recommend our services to a friend, family member, or colleague?"

Clients can be asked via email survey to select a number from 0 to 10 on how likely they are to recommend you. The survey includes only a couple more questions, such as, "If you didn't rank us as a 9 or 10, what could we do to earn that in the future?" and "If you did rank us a 9 or 10, what did we do to earn that rating?"

These questions take a client no more than a few minutes to answer, but they can give you valuable unfiltered feedback. NPS results can help highlight possible flaws in your customer service that clients might not otherwise communicate to you. An NPS score also allows you to uncover what things you should continue to do. You can use the results to establish a benchmark and create actionable goals for improving your NPS score the following year. This process provides a concrete way for your whole team to be involved and for each individual to see how to make a meaningful impact on the overall results.

3. Keep client experiences exciting.

Communication goes both ways. If your team is not excited about your services, your customers won't be either. Having regular touchpoints with your team — whether weekly or monthly — is an important part of keeping a focus on the client experience. Brainstorming sessions on ways to innovate and make your clients feel special can be a fun way for your employees to feel part of decisions made in the firm.

In my yoga studio, I meet with the leaders of different programs to brainstorm what is going well — and not so well — at least once a month. We also create new ways to engage customers and get them engaged with the yoga community. When the team takes part in the creation of ideas, that enthusiasm carries over to customer interactions. When your clients see and hear how energetic you and your team are about your services, they are much more inclined to join you and, most importantly, recommend you to others.

Providing excellent customer service is perhaps the hardest part of any business growth strategy. But by having a customer service experience plan in which you listen, observe, lead, and use effective communication tools, you'll be in a good position to secure customers who are happy, loyal, and complimentary about your services. A little effort in the right places can make all the difference in whether your clients stick around or find someone who will listen a little better to their needs.

Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is the CEO of The B3 Method Institute, a keynote speaker and adviser, Technology Innovations Taskforce leader for the AICPA's Information Management and Technology Assurance (IMTA) Executive Committee, and the author of the book Integrative Advisory Services: Expanding Your Accounting Services Beyond the Cloud, published by Wiley. Learn more at amyvetter.com. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com

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