Clients who feel an emotional connection to your firm can be your greatest assets — especially in an age where accounting work is becoming increasingly commoditized. In this podcast, Julie Littlechild, founder and CEO of Absolute Engagement, and author of The Pursuit of Absolute Engagement: Intentionally Design a Business That Supports the Life You (Really) Want to Live, discusses what her organization’s research reveals about how clients become truly engaged with an accounting practice.
In this podcast, you’ll learn:
- The difference between a satisfied client and an engaged one, and why that matters.
- Practical steps CPAs can take to increase client engagement.
- Two trends that can help you decommoditize.
- The “client journey” and what it can do for your practice.
- The link between clients’ engagement and firm owners’ well-being.
Play the episode below:
To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.
Courtney Vien: Hello and welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. I'm Courtney Vien, a senior editor with the Journal of Accountancy. I'm speaking with Julie Littlechild, founder and CEO of Absolute Engagement, a client research and training organization based in Toronto, Canada.
Julie has spoken at many events, including our Engage conference. She is the author of The Pursuit of Absolute Engagement: Intentionally Design a Business That Supports the Life You (Really) Want to Live. She'll be telling us about ways you can increase your clients’ engagement with your firm.
And we’re back. Hello, Julie. To start with, how would you define client engagement?
Julie Littlechild: Oh, that's — I mean, it's a great question.
I think when we think about engagement we're thinking primarily about the depth of relationship that professionals have with their clients. And we contrast engagement with great service, for example. So an engaged client, in the research we do if we want a more granular definition, are those clients who are not only at the top on satisfaction, but have also referred. So when a client's engaged they are deeply satisfied, profoundly satisfied, and they're also your biggest advocates. And then, of course, our job is to understand what makes a client engaged.
Vien: So why is client engagement important?
Littlechild: You know, we do a lot of research with end clients and we find that by and large they're incredibly satisfied with the professionals that they are working with. And as much as that's good news, obviously, it also creates a unique challenge, because it means that having satisfied clients just doesn’t set you apart. So we really believe that if part of your goal is not only to deliver great service, but to really stand out, to have something that's differentiated, then we really need to set a higher standard and for us, that higher standard is engagement.
Vien: What's the difference between a satisfied client and an engaged one?
Littlechild: Starting at a really granular level a satisfied client is one who just reports a high level of satisfaction, whereas an engaged client is one who's both satisfied and has referred.
So what's interesting, I think, about that definition is it sounds simple enough, but when you really look at the differences, when you take that group of clients who are engaged, who meet those two criteria, what you start to find is that they're also much more loyal. You tend to have more of their business; that is to say they're not working with a lot of other professionals to do the same work. They tend to be less fee- or price-sensitive. So there's all sorts of implications of being in that engaged category.
And when we start to deconstruct that a little and dig into what the real differences in the experience are, what we find is that when clients are satisfied what they're really saying in another way is, "You're delivering on what I expect. So I came to you for accounting services" or "I came to you for wealth management and you are, you know, you're smart, you do what you said you were going to do, you meet me often enough, the work is good, you make few mistakes and if you make them you fix them." I mean, it's just it's sort of what we expect. And when we deliver on what clients expect they're generally very satisfied.
However, the nuance that we see when clients are engaged is that it's less about what the professional is delivering and a little more about how clients experience that.
So let me take a silly example in a way just to look outside the industry to maybe highlight the differences. I'll pick Starbucks because we all get what it is and just try to create a little picture of the difference between what we see as satisfied and good service and engaged. Here I'm talking really about the experience.
So if you assume you went into a Starbucks and they delivered a cup of coffee to you, you know, that was hot and it was quick and you didn’t spend an hour waiting in line. You know, just the fundamentals, they were nice enough to you, you know, the fundaments were in place. You would have been satisfied; you would have received exactly what you want.
But if the next step for Starbucks was they created an amazing cup of coffee, you know, it was just a great cup of coffee, now it's delivered efficiently and the product itself is really wonderful. Well, now we're starting to move a little more toward a different experience and deeper engagement.
But the reality is when you walk into Starbucks it's not just about the service and it's not just about the coffee, it's the whole environment, right? They have figured out how coffee fits into the lives of their customers. So they've got the long tables and the power outlets, and you can sit there for a couple of hours and nobody bugs you, because that's how people want to consume coffee.
None of that has anything to do with coffee if you think about it, but that's a different experience and in a way that just sort of typifies the difference that we see. We go from just delivering efficiently, to having a good product, to creating a different kind of experience. And when we can do that — now obviously if we're in professional services it's not, it's different from Starbucks, but that is where we start to see engagement really kicking in.
Vien: What are some ways that CPAs or CPA financial planners could start creating this experience?
Littlechild: Well, I think that if we think in the same terms, you know, not just what's the product being delivered, but how does this product or service fit into the lives of our clients? That's kind of the first broad question that we would ask.
So more specifically, for this industry, let's take client communications as an example.
If our goal was to have clients who are satisfied we'd deliver on the product and we might send them, you know, budget updates, investment updates, you know, information, interesting communications that related to the service that was being delivered, and no one would complain about those and they would think they were generally interesting, but that would be really the end of it. We'd feel OK about the relationship.
What we're starting to see is professionals really stepping back and saying, "OK, well, who, first of all, who is my target client here and how can I build the experience around them?" So if the key client, the ideal or the target client was a business owner, for example, that's our first step. Let's figure out who we're designing this experience to support.
So let's assume now I'm thinking about a business owner. Well, then my next question might be, "What are the needs and challenges that they face in their businesses on a day-to-day basis?" Really start to try to get outside of the notion of just, "How do I interact with them?," "How do they consume my service?," but what are those broader needs and interests that they have and then begin to craft a communications plan that supports that.
So, for example, we might find that business owners are particularly concerned with succession or they are concerned with employee engagement. I mean there are a whole range of issues that we could face that really have nothing to do with accounting or wealth management.
So what we can begin to do is craft a communications plan that supports them — go beyond the core, add value in different ways. So that might be sending articles on succession planning. It might be having a workshop where we bring business owners together to share ideas and best practices on how they develop and retain key team members. It might be sending a link to a podcast or to a TED talk or, you know, but we're trying to go beyond just the product, we're trying to really hone in on what it is they're thinking about, what they care about, what they worry about, and create a different kind of experience. I mean that's just one example, but it's an example of how we can think a little more broadly.
Vien: We hear a lot about disruption these days, and you've observed that, like everything else, client engagement is being disrupted by some of the new trends that we're seeing today. Can you talk a little bit about why that's happening?
Littlechild: Well, I mean, I think there's the "why" and the "how," I guess. The "why" it's happening, I think, is for the reasons that really we started out talking about and that is the fact that organizations whether they're big or small are looking for ways to stand out, and delivering on the core product and service is just not enough, because frankly everybody — well, not everybody — most good professional firms deliver on the core product and service.
So I think that's driving firms to say, "How can we stand out?" "How can we be different?" "How can we decommoditize our offer so that we're delivering an experience that is unique, that is engaging, and that clients can't get anywhere else?" So I mean I think that's the "why."
The "how" — gosh, there are a few different trends that we've observed, largely outside of our industry, in fairness.
You know, one is co-creation of value. Now this is a concept that had been around for a very long time, it's an academic concept. But I think the importance of it is really starting to come to the fore. And co-creation of value, simply stated, means that the value that's being delivered is quite literally co-created between the client and the professional. So it's almost hard to separate the two.
So practically speaking you see that manifested in a few ways. It could be something like we talked about gathering feedback.
Well, in a way, when you gather feedback you're co-creating the experience. I mean you are if you listen to the feedback, I suppose. But you're asking people what they want, and then that's being reflected in the service. So that could be everything from how often do you want to meet, where do you want to meet, what kind of meetings, what kind of technology should we use for meetings, you know, all of those different things.
Co-creation can also be in the level of involvement. We see this a lot with self-serve tools, technology. So do you want to be able to log in to your own account and run scenarios yourself? That's a form of co-creation, because again the client is more involved. So I do think what we're seeing is just a fundamentally different role for the client both in terms of the input they provide but also in the way that we're trying to look at the experience through their eyes.
I mean — a really simple example of this, just to make it very basic. We worked with a firm some time ago. They had — when it was tax time in particular — they would have the review with the client. They would often meet and, you know, go through all of their various returns and the other work that they were doing with them. They felt like every year it was the same, in a way; it was just a process that they would go through. It was good, it was important, but it wasn't adding significant value.
One of the little changes they made was prior to the meeting they sent out a poll and it just said, "In advance of the meeting can you respond to the following questions?" and they gave them a series of statements and they asked, "Can you rate your level of concern with the following?" And so again it could have been succession planning. It could be building long-term value in my business. If it was an individual, it might be leaving a financial legacy for charity or ensuring my spouse or partner’s taken care of should I pass away. And they just asked clients to rate, so to 1 to 5, "this doesn't worry me at all" to "this keeps me up at night." Then the review meeting was tailored around the things that clients were worried about.
Now, when you think about that, it sounds quite simple, but what they were effectively doing is co-creating the entire review process and bringing in issues that they probably would not have addressed, but which might have been on the minds of their clients.
Vien: What’s another trend that disrupting how firms interact with their clients?
Littlechild: We see personalization as a big trend. A lot of that would be technology-driven, but that could be as simple as asking clients how often they want to meet and then automating that process. It could be asking them about their needs and interests and then tailoring the client communications plan to those needs or interests. Again we see all sorts of examples of how the process is being personalized. Those are a couple of big ones that I think will drive engagement going forward.
Vien: I can see how those would be really powerful ways of connecting with clients. I know if I was a CPA hearing this I'd think, "Well, wouldn't that take a lot of time and effort to tailor all those meetings to individuals?"
Littlechild: Well, I think that, you know, I think our best bet is to automate what is routine and then take the time to do what only a human can do. I mean, to some extent it's our last defense against digitization, you know, in a negative sense. You know, I think it can be used for a powerful good. So if we can automate much of the, you know, the work that happens, if we can create workflows around setting those meetings, if we can send information in advance so that clients can see that.
You know, I think there's all sorts of things that we can do, so that when we're sitting down with our professional we're really tapping into their wisdom. I'm talking about myself as a client here. I don’t need my CPA to walk me through what I can read, but I certainly benefit from his or her experience in more strategic issues.
So in a way I think it's used, you know, let's use automation to standardize what we can and then accept that this is how we're going to differentiate ourselves.
Vien: I've seen in your work that you use the term "client journey.” What do you mean by that?
Littlechild: So we look at client journey and client journey mapping in particular, which is really a design process for client experience. So our traditional approach to thinking about client experience would be to sit down and say, "OK, well, you know, what am I going to deliver to my client?" And perhaps that changes depending on the size of the client. And "How often are we going to meet?" You know, "Here's what I'm willing to offer."
Client journey mapping really turns the process around and says, "What is the journey that the client is on?" and then, "How do we support them on that?" So it's a process of identifying the stages that a prospect and then client goes through — everything from perhaps deciding that they need to change CPAs or perhaps the first time they get professional advice, to how they research, who to work with, through initial contact, the initial meeting, the onboarding process, ongoing reviews, ongoing communications.
So every — you map out the stages based on what a client goes through. Then you step back and say, "OK, well, what is the client thinking, feeling, and doing at each stage? Now what's on their mind? How are they interacting with us or others?"
When you take that approach all of a sudden the opportunities to innovate appear, because you're thinking less about, "here's what I deliver, how do I do that better and faster?" and you're thinking more about, "Here are the challenges my clients are facing all along the way and what can we do to support them?"
And so, so that's the — I mean that's a very truncated, obviously, definition of client journey mapping, but that's the essence of it. You know if you looked at any progressive firm today in client experience. I mean, pick the Ritz Carltons or the Disneys or the Nordstroms or whomever. I'll almost guarantee you that they're going through a process of client journey mapping in part to remove friction at each stage and in part to see how they can add value at each stage.
Vien: How does client engagement affect firm owners’ well-being?
Littlechild: Sure. I mean it's — I have spent my entire career focusing on client experience and all of the research has been going into that working with professionals. There was a period of time a few years ago where — and this may be in fairness just because of what I was transitioning through in my own business — I began to look more at the people, the professionals themselves, and noticed that some of the most successful people that I talked to were not just running good and great businesses, growing businesses, but had almost a sense of personal joy and lightness about the way they were going about it. And I was intrigued by what the differences were.
So we began to do some research with professionals who were successful and identified this group that we called "the absolutely engaged," who were about 15% of the population. They were generating more revenue. They were generating more revenue in less time. They were clear and focused on the future. They had clarity around what they were going to do. They also reported lower stress and better health and more energy. So it was quite an amazing little sample.
What we really discovered and what this book was about was what was different about these people. We found it was a clear alignment between their own personal vision for what they wanted to do not just in business, but in their lives and then connecting that vision to their client experience and to their team experience.
You could almost draw a straight line. So it was just it was a really fascinating look not just at “how are we working with clients?”, but you know, “how are you?,” was the question that we were really asking. So much of it just came down to the fact that — and I know this is certainly where I was — a lot of professionals get to the point where they've got a successful business and they're going, but it's almost like, we call it the "fulfillment flatline," because the vision forward is no longer clear, because it's changed, what's important changes.
So it was just a — it was kind of a thought process and some research to say, "OK we've got to deal with client experience, we've got to deal with team experience in business, but if that's disconnected from your personal vision none of this is going to work."
Vien: That was Julie Littlechild of Absolute Engagement. You can find her at absoluteengagement.com. This has been the Journal of Accountancy podcast. Thank you for listening.