How to Educate Your Clients to Work with You in a New Era
By Thea Foster, Added Value Corporation
A new era?
In this new era, the education actions need not change, but the method of delivery will. So we now email, where previously we sent letters. Now group emails, blogs and electronic newsletters have replaced letters and paper newsletters. But nothing replaces the face to face meeting, with all owners.
Smart firms have always worked to educate clients, and the “new era” has opened up more avenues for this.
What first comes into your mind when you read the words “educate your clients”? After your first thoughts, what next occurs to you?
My first thought was of fees. Next, I thought of educating clients on how we want jobs presented to us, then what we do when we progress a job.
“But was that all?” I asked myself. What about educating clients in business skills, how to turn a profit? Clients can be educated to understand their financial statements and the benefits of budgeting profit and loss, cash flow and projected balance sheets.
What about firm profits?
One interesting question is, do practices that “educate clients” make more profit? Initially maybe not, one hopes, there is less crisis management and more interesting work for the practitioners. Over time, with education and support, it is expected clients will make more profit, leading to structure and tax considerations, then investments, including SMSF. Happier clients and more work for the firm?
Also, one imagines it is easier to retain senior staff if they are doing interesting work and if they feel they are educating clients and helping them create a better result for.
Clever practitioners have standard scripts they use to set up the understanding about fees. First, they are clear about likely fees – over time they have learnt the perils of underestimating.
They speak with clients, work out issues, frame them as projects and set out the detail of what is to be done and the likely fee. They provide options with alternate prices, so clients can select the level of service they require. Clever accountants revisit the issue and explain the benefits that have resulted for the client.
Clients are educated to understand work costs: more work and better results cost more. Directly and indirectly you are educating clients to “do the right thing”. You create the expectation that you will be paid.
People seem to like certainty in pricing from their accountant. So, pricing agreements are a key part of the client education process.
What do you want from us?
One of my favourite presentation topics is “What do clients really want?” Sometimes clients need education to determine this. Yes, they want a set of financials and a tax return, but what they need is “peace of mind”, their “regulatory requirements met”, so they can focus on running their business. One accountant said “we create order out of chaos”.
How and when to present work
Some firms have engagement letters clearly setting out how work is to be presented to the firm, especially the level of completeness of records. Some also make it clear when they require a client to submit their annual compliance work. The difficulty with this is to ensure your language is not seen as too demanding. Some engagement letters can be client unfriendly. If you want your engagement letters reviewed, ask some business people you trust for their honest opinion.
“What we do when we do your work”
One practitioner decided he was fed up with client complaints about fees. So he listed all of the actions, including reconciliations, his firm did, when they processed an annual compilation job. At that stage there were 78 items on the list. Then he created a document, set it out well and began to supply it to clients.
It seems clients had never been educated in what the firm did in order to complete work, they did not know about inter-company loan reconciliations, reviewing the salary and wages expense to the total of the PAYG summaries and the amount disclosed for Workers Compensation Insurance, and so on and so forth.
“For a client like you, this is what we do…”
I recall one smart practitioner who didn’t offer clients too many options. That can confuse clients and they may end up feeling that we are neither decisive nor competent. What he used to say was “for a client like you with a business like this, what we do is…” then went on to explain about monthly review of results and quarterly meetings. So clients were educated to understand how similar business people managed their business.
It can be easier to educate new clients, rather than work to remove existing bad habits. In the latter case, education can help clients understand why you appear to be changing the system.
How much do you know and have you learnt about business?
Some clients may be in a specialised industry or franchise and therefore received important industry training. They may attend industry conferences to hear about new developments for their industry and clever management ideas. Do you attend the industry events with your clients?
I recall one firm who ran successful business skills workshops to educate clients. Another firm has set up Client Mastermind Groups, so clients can meet each other and share issues, ideas and answers.
Budgeted profit and loss, projected balance sheet and cash flow projections
For many years one firm has always required any business client to have a month by month budgeted profit and loss, projected cash flow statement and balance sheet. They then use this to help the client plan for the next twelve months. All clients are educated in the benefits of budgeting.
“This is how the accounting formula works …”
One practitioner educates clients on the balance sheet and profit and loss. He says “don’t overcomplicate it”, but do explain how things relate. He also covers the various accounting methods, including the cloud accounting options.
I recall one man who built a successful business speaking to business people and explaining the difference between mark up and GP percentage. He felt many business people were incorrectly calculating discounts and giving away profits.
Do your clients understand their structure? It helps to have briefing papers that clients can read at their leisure. They create efficiency in educating clients and can cover the “Elements of a Trust”, “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Operating via a Company”, “A Self-Managed Superannuation Fund and the Responsibilities of Trustees”, “KPI’s, How They Work and Why Use Them”, to name a few.
These days, many people are educated one way or another on the topic of superannuation. Some of your clients pick up information via various newspaper articles, speaking with friends, talking with banks, and so on. The difficulty is sorting through the clients’ understandings on superannuation to correctly educate them – there are horror stories on the diversion of SMSF monies. Educate your clients to behave ethically, for their own benefit and in accordance with your requirements.
One practitioner explains to clients that the object of running a successful business is to produce profits and cash flow, outside investments, and then to sell the business. He cautions “don’t get too emotionally involved in your business. Down the track the aim is to sell the business.”
Regular board meetings
Successful practitioners have for some time operated with a professional family business process which includes regular family/business board meetings. Educate clients about the importance of operating board meetings with pre-meeting board papers and reports. If you think it is helpful, offer to facilitate the meetings.
When speaking with people about their businesses, I like to ensure I cover all bases. My list of Nine Universal Business Elements helps me raise all the aspects of a business.
Some business owners concentrate on only the part of the business for which they have a passion – generally the area they used to work in before they became a business owner. People with a sales background tend to run businesses where the sales function is booming, but the administration, delivery and people issues receive little attention and reduce the likely profitability of the business.
It is up to accountants to educate owners on the need to focus on all elements of their business, not just those of particular interest to the owners. For the other areas, they can have people with particular talents work there, but the owners must ensure each business element is adequately covered.
What do you want clients to say about you? What do you want them to do?
If you want clients to speak well of the firm, its competence, understanding and support, then you need to help clients with a script. Firstly, check with clients, “If someone asked you about the firm, what would you say?” Hopefully the answers will not be surprising.
Do you want your clients to be an advocate for the firm? Ask good clients who have never referred a new client to you, why this is so. Do they feel you are already too busy? Educate your clients to refer projects and potential clients.