In my last article on accounting firm management I focused on attracting the right clients and promised another article on retaining them.
Although I’m writing this in respect of accounting firm management, the principles can be applied across other businesses, particularly service businesses. I could write books on this or run detailed workshops but here are five things you can do to retain and delight the right clients for your business.
- Understand your client
I have put this first as I believe that to truly delight each client you need to take some time to listen to him/her and understand their situation. This is a natural continuation of what you would have done to win the client in the first place, as I discussed in my previous article.
As human beings we love it when people listen to us! And when you truly understand your client you know what the pain and pleasure points are and can assist the client accordingly. You know what they need and what they want, and understand that they may not be the same.
Yes, this can take a bit of time but I believe the ROI on it is high. It really is the foundation for a successful client relationship.
- Create clear expectations
Manage your client expectations in terms of every aspect of your interaction. So this means things like:
- What is the preferred method of communication and how will communications be managed?
- Which of your team members will be looking after the client?
- Who should he/she contact for what?
- What does the client need to do? (what and when)
- What is the scope of work covered?
- What it the timetable for completion of work?
- What is the fee for the agreed scope of work?
I believe certainly around fees is really important. When I buy anything I want to know up front what my financial commitment is going to be and I believe most people do too. (For example, we don’t buy airline tickets on the basis of “we charge you on the day depending on how many people turn up for the flight”!) There may be some services you offer to a client where it will be hard to fix a fee up front. However, in my experience there are not that many and it is a cop out to use “estimates”. Have a fixed fee for an agreed scope and an understanding that if the scope changes then a discussion will be held before any additional work is done.
In my experience another key part of certainty for clients is around your team members. Put succinctly, clients hate team member churn. There are a number of reasons why changes to a client’s service team may occur, but I recommend minimising these. The development of team members will naturally lead to change over time but if you proactively manage your client’s expectations on this then it should be fine.
Most people like certainty and creating clear expectations is part of providing that. The second part is of course then delivering on those expectations.
- Meet the expectations you have set
Fundamentally this is about doing what you say you will do. To be able to do that you need your team to understand that for each of them this is a core promise. A “do whatever it takes” approach is often needed. There will be an occasional situation where despite your best efforts, it becomes obvious that you will not be able to do what you said you would do. In that case communicate with the client promptly to explain the situation and reset expectations. In my experience the client is fine with this in most instances, particularly if you have given them reasonable notice.
Another part of meeting expectations is ensuring you have appropriate systems in place to support on time delivery. This means appropriate progress reporting and in particular early warning of work that looks like it is in danger of not being completed on time. I am surprised by the number of firms who do NOT have a system for this.
My final comment here is about telephone calls and emails. As part of managing expectations I think it is vital that you have agreed with clients the rules of engagement around phone and email communication. Some firms clearly spell out that calls and email will be returned within X business days or even Y hours. Whatever you agree on, you must deliver on. Even if it means a short email or call to say “I received your question and it is going to take a few days to get back to you because I need to….I’ll get back to you on..” If you have an assistant use him or her to help return calls and emails and schedule calls if needed.
- Show that you care
If you’ve done 1. well and truly understand your clients you will have already gone a long way to show you care. However, there are lots of little things you can do to further demonstrate your care. For example:
- Know the names of the spouses, partners, children
- Acknowledge birthdays and other important milestones
- Know what their interest are
- Visit your client’s premises from time to time
- Put their name on the welcome board in your office when they come
- Know what they like to drink and snack on
- Deliver the occasional positive surprise
Each of these individually may seem like a little thing, but they really do make a difference.
- Be a step ahead of your client
There is regular research that shows the accountant is a trusted advisor to business. As part of that I think there is a reasonable expectation that the accountant will indeed be ahead of the client. In practical terms this might mean things such as:
- Monitor industry and business news for items that may positively or negatively impact the client
- Have an established process for your team members to consider improvement opportunities for the client
- Send an occasional article or link to the client on a topic you believe he or she will find of interest
No doubt you will think of more things along similar lines.
Finally, a note on why this is about retaining the right clients. To an extent I have assumed you have followed my earlier articles and so the clients you bring on are indeed the right ones. Having said that I recommend a review of your portfolio once per year to see if there are any clients who are no longer right for you. If they are not right, take a professional and caring approach to moving them on to another accountant, for whom they will be a better fit.