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Love the Client, but does the Client love me?

David Rynne - Friday, March 08, 2013

The Beechworth Baker, Tom O'Toole is famous for his quirky, unconventional presentation style. However he is highly respected and sought after as a speaker on the topic of customer service. Tom's philosophy of 'looking after the customers and they will look after you' is an approach that I have taken in running my own accountancy practice for small businesses and individuals. 

Another guy I admire is Jason Blumer  a CPA from Greenville, South Carolina. Jason's approach to client service is to engage in a regular conversation and to work in collaboration to change the lives of his clients. It's not just another tax return or set of accounts. Jason's firm provides a complete experience where clients receive coaching, knowledge and help in making their business more efficient. These are valuable services. Jason's client's really appreciate the effort of his firm in improving their businesses.   

My approach to accounting

Since the day I started out in business, I have adopted a 'personal' service approach. Clients always have appreciated that they can contact me at any time, that I have a hands-on approach to their work and that I don't charge exorbitant fees for little value.  In these ways, I differ to the larger, corporatised accounting practices where the time-clock is running whenever they take a client's call.  
The personal service approach has worked. Virtually all of my new clients have come on board via word-of-mouth. It it is always a privilege to receive referrals.  A referral is like the ultimate in client thanks :  'Thank you for looking after us. We have faith in you'. 

Over the years, many of my clients have become good friends. We might catch up for a coffee, lunch or a drink and talk about some more personal stuff that transcends the client / business advisor space. I have given my personal opinions and counselled on family, business relationships, having children, politics, religion and fitness. 

I love my clients. I really do. 

But do the clients love me ? 
Are my clients truly satisfied ? 
Is my approach working ?  

Why ask these difficult questions?

A recent case has led me to believe that a client hasn't appreciated my advice or assistance in helping them get out of a difficult financial situation. Okay, there will be times when clients don't follow your advice and put themselves back into a hole.

Next thing. I have a receivable from a long-term client which has been outstanding for over 18 months. Admittedly I have a relaxed approach when it comes to receivables management. But has this client called to say "Dave, I cant pay you this month as my cash flow is tight. Can I pay at the end of next month?". Nope. He will pay in due course. But it has made me a bit resentful and I might become reluctant to give any priority to his work. 

Lets go deeper here.  I have been chasing another long-term client for some of their financial documentation for six months now. I have 90% of what I need to start their tax work. Is the client too busy with family life, too unorganised, too lazy or just doesn't appreciate that I need this information? 

Is my relationship with these clients failing ?

We haven't broken up yet. I haven't been dumped and I haven't received the professional equivalent of the "Dear John" letter via another accountant.

Accountants can become so immersed in number crunching stuff (Sometimes I call it paper shuffling on behalf of the Tax Office) that the only time we talk to clients is when we have a reason to:  When the tax is due, when they call with a problem.

This whole 'love' thing has to be a two way street. Its one thing to respect and appreciate your customers. But do these clients value or love me? Are they satisfied with the service that I am providing?

What do accounting clients need ?

This is what I believe clients need:

  1. Timely and accurate financial picture. Knowing where they stand. And the accountant needs to take the time to explain it.

  2. Identifying ways to run businesses more efficiently. For my clients, Xero has been a tool to reduce time on mundane bookkeeping tasks and focus more on budgeting and business planning. Xero has integrated cash flow reports and budgeting tools making it easy to run reports on budget v actual.  

  3. Proactive tax planning. Clients hate hearing that they should have done something that would have saved them money. 

  4. Peace of mind. All lodgements are are taken care of and the client is compliant with the tax laws, employment laws, superannuation, Workcover and ASIC.

  5. Identifying issues before they become a serious problem. Would a doctor not tell their client they are going to die? Accountants must be prepared to have hard discussions about business performance, roll up their sleeves and help solve their client's problems. 

  6. Regular opportunities to meet. Catching up for a coffee and just chat without the pressure of the time clock. The accountant / client relationship should involve an investment of our time and sharing other aspects of our lives. 

  7. Phone calls answered and emails returned. Most questions that clients ask can be resolved in a few minutes.   

These are valuable services and they cost real money to deliver. But none of this works without open and clear communication channels.

The real product of the professional accountant should be using the numbers to change clients lives : helping them stay in control financially, to make better decisions, become more efficient and get the most out of their business so they don't have to worry about making ends meet at retirement.   

No business is ever perfect. Mine is not. This blog post is more of a reflection of a few problems in my business with a few clients.  I believe that I provide a superior service and experience for small businesses than the majority of accounting firms. But if there is a problem with a few clients, maybe there are unknown issues with a few more clients?  

Doing it better. 

There is a need to engage in a deeper conversation with clients and connect more closely and frequently. A need to pick up the phone and have that conversation about the outstanding fees, the missing financial data.  

The accountant-client relationship can be analogous to a marriage. The initial excitement of working with someone new, the engagement, the good times. But then when things get rough, we stop talking. The advice dries up. The client stops asking questions. 

Would we give up on a marriage without putting in an effort to fix the problems?  We all know it is expensive and time consuming to market to new clients. So why give up on an existing relationship when all we need to do is re-engage in conversation and be honest ?

Love in a personal relationship entails open communication, honesty and helping without being asked. Its no different in business.