Reconstructing Client Engagement from The Ground Up
Dale Crosby, Business Aptitude Consulting and Training Beyond Accounting
The principal of an accounting firm once told me that he was disappointed that a major client had left to join another firm. I was advised by the principal that he had always attended to the client’s tax and accounting matters in a timely manner and had always been available to answer his client’s queries. When following up with the client, it became clear that whilst they recognised the value of the technical advice received, they were disappointed that their accountant hadn’t taken more of the lead in better understanding them to help them achieve their financial goals.
The future of client relationships is far more than the reactive approach adopted by many accounting firms in the past. Progressive firms are interested in what they can do to really understand their clients through conversations, real engagement and feedback. They know that unless they do so, their most valued clients will eventually leave.
Feedback we’ve received over the years from clients suggests that they want their accountant to:
1. Understand them and their financial issues;
2. Know what their business is all about;
3. Help them to achieve financial security;
4. Come up with ideas to help them;
5. Help them make the right decisions;
6. Tell them if scope of work changes; and
7. Call them before they call.
How would your clients rate you on these measures? Are you interested in becoming more proactive in the way you manage your client relationships?
5 Steps to really engage clients
This process starts with initial client engagement and then moves towards really understanding what clients actually need and why. In this ‘brave new world’ of public practice accounting, the firms that thrive will be those that really take hold of the client relationship and give true value.
Step 1: Manage scope of work proactively
It’s not surprising that many managers and partners still struggle to effectively communicate scope of work to their clients. Variations in scope of work are often dealt with when matters are being completed, rather than when issues are first identified. It’s a simple matter of managing expectations from the commencement to the conclusion of the engagement process. Often scripts, documents and templates will help, but it still relies on someone to identify variations in scope of work up front.
Consider this 5-step process to more effectively manage scope of work:
1. Clearly communicate scope up front;
2. Explain value of service up front;
3. Explain process for managing work outside scope;
4. Inform the client up front if work is outside scope; and
5. Invoice the client in a timely manner.
Step 2: Develop stronger communication skills
Do the accountants and administrators in your firm know how to communicate clearly with clients in an engaging manner? If you’ve not invested in any training in this area, it’s likely that there is significant room for improvement. Strong communication is not just about writing letters and talking clearly, it’s also about presenting information in a way that makes sense to the client. An engaged client is far more likely to do the things you recommend to them.
To implement training and coaching to develop the communication skills of your staff:
1. Develop a clear and confident manner and smile when you’re talking;
2. Use the phone as well as emails to speak with clients;
3. Provide guidelines and scripts to staff on ‘this is how we communicate with clients’;
4. Contact clients proactively from time to time – don’t wait for them to call you;
5. Invite accountants to client meetings – give them a chance to learn by observation.
Step 3: Practise active listening skills with clients
We think we know our clients, but do we really? Do our clients really know what they want? Often the answer to both questions is “yes, but it could be better”. The core relationship we have with our clients is based on providing a strong accounting service, but there’s so much more opportunity to add value to clients. By asking our clients rich questions about what they want and what’s in the way, new opportunities to add real value can appear.
Some key actions that will open up rich conversations with clients:
1. Tell your clients that you want to get to know them better;
2. Ask open-ended questions to understand client values and needs;
3. Don’t offer immediate solutions, just listen and acknowledge;
4. Ask probing questions to clarify issues and challenges; and
5. Ensure that you speak for less than one-third of the time.
Step 4: Persuade the client rather than simply tell them
Often, you’ll know clearly what course of action would be best for the client, but it can be difficult to persuade them of the importance and urgency of that action. Appealing to logic is an important part of the process, but it’s important to also tap into the emotional side. Ultimately, we all make decisions for emotional reasons. Do you have a clear understanding, at an emotional level, of the triggers that you can use to persuade a client to move forward? These may include to be in control, freedom, predictability, safety, to be valued, new challenges or simply to be understood.
Steps that you can take to develop your persuasive skills:
1. Show you’re interested in what your clients have to say;
2. Take time to better understand your clients’ emotional triggers ;
3. Develop skills to engage clients in discussions about the future;
4. Ensure that clients clearly understand your recommendations; and
5. Provide supporting evidence that outcomes will be achieved.
Step 5: Coach clients to achieve great results
No doubt you’ve heard the saying ‘teach a man to fish and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.’ What does this mean for the relationship you have with your clients? It’s important to understand that as an accountant you add value not only through your technical knowledge and capability, but also through your ability to help clients come up with the right solutions. Clients will value coaching highly, in fact sometimes more than technical advice. A good coach guides the conversation, gives feedback, challenges attitudes and provides external accountability.
Some of the key principles of effective coaching are:
1. Don’t judge. Provide feedback and alternatives as required;
2. Challenge the client to see things from another perspective;
3. Assist the client in coming up with solutions to overcome roadblocks;
4. Help the client to identify specific actions to achieve results; and
5. Provide external accountability in the implementation of agreed actions.
How to have stronger conversations with clients
A great deal of the process of actively engaging clients is having conversations that give both you and the client the opportunity to learn more about their values, needs, objectives and concerns. As a client manager or adviser, you should have your own set of rich questions that you can ask to help with the flow of conversation.
Consider the type of questions you want to ask, and then put together your personal ‘checklist’ of questions. These questions begin with who, what, where, why, how and encourage the client to think about their situation. You should also use probing questions to explore client responses in more detail. Don’t necessarily accept the first response; ask for more information. It’s by ‘digging deeper’ that you can better understand your clients’ needs and engage them effectively.
Use the questions below as a starting point:
Business discovery questions
- How’s business going for you? Are you doing better than last year? What could be improved?
- What drives your business profits? What’s important about that for you?
- What are some of the things that have worked well for you in business this year?
- How do you think business will go over the next year? What concerns do you have at this time?
Personal discovery questions
- Are you achieving your personal goals? If not, what’s stopping you?
- Are you happy living your current lifestyle? What lifestyle would you like?
- What do you want for your family? Do you think you are on track to achieve this?
- What can you do differently to achieve your personal goals?
- When you say that, what do you mean?
- What will it mean to you when you achieve your goals?
- What have you done to address this in the past?
- What do you think will change this year?
Your next steps
By now, you’ll have a better understanding of the things you need to do to more effectively engage your clients. Of course, the ultimate objective of this process is to identify opportunities to add real value to all of your clients through specialist and general advice.
Where should you start?
1. Regularly, pick up the phone to talk with clients (you’ll both get used to it!);
2. Meet your clients for coffee to discuss issues relevant to them (preferably at a neutral venue); and
3. Ask your clients for feedback on what you can do to provide a stronger service (don’t be afraid of the response).
Often the first step is the most difficult – making time to actually sit and talk with clients. However, if you’re motivated enough, you will find the time to do this.
To receive your complimentary workbook ‘How to really engage your business clients’’ visit www.trainingtbeyondaccounting.com.au and click ‘Free white papers’
About the author
Dale Crosby is Director of Business Aptitude Consulting and Training Beyond Accounting. He is passionate about helping employees of accounting firms really engage with their work, their clients and with the people around them. He provides strategic and operational advice to accounting firms that want to take control of their client relationships.
1300 883 789