The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty. In addition to our daily routines being thrown into disorder, the accounting profession is uniquely affected in so many ways. Deadlines are shifting. Rules are changing. Even that which seemed straightforward is open to interpretation (like payroll costs!). There is comfort and security in routine, and now that has been disrupted. But, now is a perfect opportunity to strengthen client relationships and secure their loyalty. After taking care of your employees and mobilizing for their safety and well-being, your next focus should be clients. Here are some practical actions to take sooner, rather than later.
A Lifeline in Uncharted Waters
Your clients are your firm’s lifeline and will continue to be through the months ahead. And in many ways you are theirs as well. When there is uncertainty people will turn to people they know for help as opposed to seeking out new relationships. They will count on those they trust most – like you. So if you haven’t already been checking in on your clients’ well-being it’s time to start. Do not put it off until you think the economic picture is clearer or the “unknowns” become certain (which is likely to take a very long time). Instead call, or better yet video-conference, with your clients to see how they are faring. Ask how their families, friends and coworkers are doing. Be prepared for them to vent if needed—and let them.
If you create a stronger dialogue with your clients, you’ll be in a better position to offer relevant help and support as they navigate their way through the uncharted waters ahead. And the more they appreciate your support; the more loyal they’ll be to you. They may even recommend other clients to you who are not having the same experience.
Here are some other ways to support clients in the weeks and months ahead:
- Talk with them – your clients probably won’t know the full impact of the pandemic yet, but they probably will have a sense of the immediate repercussions and/or opportunities. Find out what these are. How can you help? Even if you don’t have the expertise to help, can you connect them with a resource? Can you provide information that will help them access the help they need elsewhere?
- Focus on certainty in the short-term – the world is still turning and people will still need certain products and services. Some of your client may be offering these products and services – so help them understand how the current environment affects their demand. There are also some opportunities to help clients navigate government relief packages in the short term. Finally, help your clients think differently about their business and be a resource to them as they pivot. For example, are there decisions clients can make now to enable them to move forward down a certain path (maybe without all the information, but with enough) vs taking a “wait and see” approach for everything?
- Support their longer-term scenario and contingency planning – your clients will want to reduce risk as much as possible and having a course of action for various scenarios helps. It’s likely there are many ways your firm can help: re-forecasting, cash management, financial statement preparation and other CAS and advisory services will be at the forefront ways you can help. The CARES act also offers opportunities for specialty services such as cost segregation, nexus consulting and planning, SALT and R&D credits which may also be useful to your clients based on their situation. During the last recession there was an increased demand for insolvency and bankruptcy consulting. It will be important to find ways to involve less experienced staff as much as possible so think about what you can delegate to your team members.
- Continue to stay on top of the issues which will affect them – these could be state-based, industry, organizational or even personal issues. Be alert to how the latest developments may impact on them and offer timely, relevant advice or support when it’s needed. The more you understand about your clients, the more relevant issues you’ll spot. Make everyone on your team part of the effort by encouraging knowledge share internally and defining a process for how/when/where it occurs. Better yet, let your younger staff define and communicate the process!
- Be accessible – if it’s difficult to get hold of you and your team, clients may lose some faith in you. Although you may not have all the answers to their questions, being available and listening to them is important. Especially if your people are working in an environment (remote) which is different from the norm, it’s critical to make sure clients know how to reach their primary contact(s). A word of warning, this does not mean you must offer 24/7 access. As your people adjust to working from home it’s tempting to blur the boundary between home time and work time. Allow your people to set their “office hours”— those times in which they commit to taking calls. Establish and communicate (or reiterate) to clients and your employees your firm’s responsiveness policy. Your people are stressed and worried enough so don’t pile on by making them feel like they are constantly on call.
- Do what you say you’ll do, when you said you’d do it – accountability is one of the pillars of trust. Now more than ever clients want to be able to count on something…and that something is you. Minimize client turnover by ensuring you continue delivering a high-quality service they have come to know from you. This is the time to ask your clients what they need from the relationship (not the services they need, but attributes of the service like accessibility, being proactive, candidness, etc.). If your definition of what you think they need and their definition of what they thing they need are not the same they may be disappointed with their experience and seek an alternative.
- Think about alternative payment terms – If your firm has practiced some kind of prepayment strategy for services your firm is likely in a better cash situation than firms that have not. However, before clients start asking for fee reductions, identify the “A” clients you want to invest in so you know which clients you should be willing to make fee concessions for if the issue comes up. Be ready with a plan to talk with these clients so you are not taken by surprise if they ask. You don’t want to discount the fees of a “D” client in bad times and perpetuate the pain going forward. So as difficult as it may seem when you are managing cash flow, be willing to let some of those clients go.
We recommend when a client asks about reduced fees, first explore changes in scope that can impact the total fee. For example:
- Will a review be okay for a year or two vs. an audit?
- Can we do a collateral only audit vs. a full scope engagement?
- Can we arrange a term payment plan for the fees to make it easier?
Most importantly, be willing to talk with clients about fees. Don’t hesitate, or act angry that they asked or assume the client wants a reduction. Empathize. Strategize. If you have to invest in a client, make sure they know it is a temporary situation and you are willing to do it because they are an important client of the firm and you want to help.
Doubling down on client loyalty will help steady your firm during this time of transition and enable you to deliver the kind of value that ensures clients for life.
At the risk of sounding harsh I’m going to lay an honest truth out for you: your clients and prospects, don’t want your services. As matter of fact, they couldn’t care less about your services. While that may be disheartening to professionals who are not only passionate about what they do but also eager to create opportunities to grow, it is in fact the truth. An audit isn’t and never will be at the top of any executive’s wish list. They aren’t seeking new methods of accounting because they find it interesting.
Clients and prospects are, however, desperate for solutions to their pressing business challenges. They stay awake at night thinking about them—contemplating their next move, lamenting over opportunities they’re not sure how to seize, fretting over their changing competitive landscapes, wondering how they will finance their expansion.
These are your clients’ and your prospects’ needs. And therein lies a disconnect for many firms looking to increase client loyalty and attract new clients.
Professionals think about what they do for clients in terms of services. They bring ideas to clients in the form of services they can provide to help clients. In fact, many professionals talk about “being proactive” as a differentiator in the way they serve clients, and they define proactively serving clients as bringing them new service ideas. Even if these services are based on the client’s situation, or what in your professional opinion you know the client should be focused on, until you are able to connect that service to a business need with which the decision maker identifies it’s a service, but not a solution to anything.
Rather than cross-selling, maybe we should think of this as cross-serving. Here’s what cross serving looks like:
- Understanding what your client cares about
In order to understand what clients care about we need to ask questions. Cultivate a curiosity to learn whatever you can about your clients. Think about, and even write down, the questions you would like to ask. Construct those questions as open-ended – meaning questions that require more than a one-word response. Don’t limit your questions to the engagement, or area you care about. Instead ask question that encourage them to share what’s on their mind: “What accomplishments made you most proud this year?” “How did you feel about your year?” “What are your goals for this coming year?” These don’t need to be limited to financial or even professional areas. Let you clients just talk. And do not jump into trying to solve the first thing you hear. The first priority is just to understand what’s important to your clients.
- Articulating how what you do connects to those things your clients care about
This opens professionals to a whole world of creative possibilities for helping clients. Conversations with clients about how you apply your experience and expertise to help them address their business challenges, perhaps in ways they haven’t considered, helps deepen the relationship, builds trust and supports the firm’s topline growth.
If I’m your client, and you come to me with a service – that’s your agenda. When you come to me with a solution – that’s my agenda. Truly client-driven firms build processes and tools to interact with clients, and to bring up ideas based on their professional experience and expertise. What does cross solving look like?
- Remembering to help capitalize on opportunities – not just identify problems
CPAs are really good at identifying problems – material weaknesses, errors, etc. – and get pretty excited about helping clients solve them. And in your profession this is critical and something your clients count on. However, I encourage you to actively pursue the idea of opportunistic thinking. Most entrepreneurs, owners and business leaders are motivated by opportunities vs threats. Solving “problems” tends to appeal to folks who are motivated by threats. And yes, some of your clients fall into that category. But to be a true advisor for clients you need to pay attention to finding creative opportunities to strive for in addition to issues to solve.
Cross-serving clients not only fosters greater loyalty and topline growth, it’s a more full-filling and rewarding way to practice your profession. Win-win, don’t you think? To learn skills, tools and processes to tap into this opportunity, take a look at our professional development courses, or contact us today at email@example.com to find out about our coaching services and how we can help you.
We are taking a closer look at a process firms can use to evaluate and develop new services to meet clients’ needs and create new sources of revenue by building a more consulting-based practice. On Sept. 21st we introduced steps 1 and 2 – Research Market Needs and Evaluate and Prioritize. Oct. 3rd we examined steps 3 and 4 – Define the Scope and Go to Market with Your Service. This week we conclude with step 5 – Tracking Results and Measuring Success (including a downloadable guide for the whole process).
Step 5: Measure your results
What gets measured (and reported)…gets done. When you analyzed the costs of building this service capability in step 2, you likely got a feel for the level of revenue you need to reach profitability. Set a specific sales goal for the new service, allowing for ramp-up time to go to market appropriately. Services with high levels of opportunity within your existing client base will become profitable more quickly than those for which you must go outside of the existing client base to find opportunities. Develop a pipeline report to track opportunities associated with the new service – including the stage of the sales cycle, value of the opportunity and probability of closing.
It’s helpful to assign responsibility to an individual or team to be held accountable for reaching the goal, and measure their results regularly throughout the year. Hold regular meetings to evaluate results and discuss what, if anything, is getting in the way of success. As these success barriers are identified, discuss how to resolve or work around the issue and provide support to the service champion/team.
Establish accountability for sales results for your new service by incorporating the goal and results into the individual/team’s annual goal setting, evaluation and compensation discussions.
This series has discussed a 5-step process for successfully introducing new services:
- Research market needs
- Evaluate and prioritize new service ideas
- Define scope and communicate
- Go to market
- Measure results
Addressing each of these steps with the discussed approach will improve your ability to continue meeting your clients’ evolving needs, attract new clients, and sustain profitable growth for your firm.
We’ve summarized the approach described the past few weeks in our New Service Evaluation Checklist. To download the checklist click here.
If you are interested in learning more about how to implement these steps, or how new services fit into your firm’s overall approach to topline growth contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319.447.6400 for a no-cost, no-obligation meeting.
We’re continuing our look at a process firms can use to evaluate and develop new services to meet clients’ needs and create new sources of revenue by building a more consulting-based practice. September 21st we introduced steps 1 and 2 – Research Market Needs and Evaluate and Prioritize. In this post we introduce steps 3 and 4 – Define the Scope and Go to Market with Your Service. Check back October 19th as we conclude with step 5 – Tracking Results and Measuring Success (including a downloadable guide for the whole process).
Step 3: Define the scope and “package” your service
Now that you’ve selected the service(s) you want to launch, help ensure your success by defining the scope of the service very specifically and communicating it to the appropriate people in your firm. “Scope” includes the step-by-step process and tools your service providers will use to deliver the service, what participation is required from the client, the time it will require from both your service providers and the client, and the frequency of delivery of the service.
This step is important for a couple of reasons. First, it ensures consistency in the quality of your service delivery, which protects your client relationships and helps maintain your brand. Secondly, this specific scope definition goes a long way to familiarizing your staff with the service so they are comfortable having conversations about it with their clients.
Once that scope is defined, your last step before taking the service to the marketplace is packaging. Packaging includes:
- The name of the service: Ideally, it’s a good idea to identify a name for the service that will communicate benefit(s) and at the same time be attention-getting and memorable. This isn’t always easy – or even possible – but is worth putting in the time brainstorming and even testing with a client or two. Many times your opportunity to catch someone’s attention and hold it is fleeting – a good name could really help when you’re trying to generate interest in your new service.
- The deliverables and benefits: Make sure all your people know what the key deliverables of the service are – what tangible take-aways the client receives. Clients will want to know this; but even more importantly, define the key benefits of the service – the tangible and intangible improvements for the client. Communicate these benefits internally so your people can effectively promote the service, and make sure they are incorporated into your web site and marketing materials for the service. Clients and prospective clients will not take action until they understand “what’s in it for them” – the potential benefits of engaging you for this service.
- Pricing: Hopefully you have a feel for what clients will be willing to pay for the service from your earlier research. People prefer to pay a flat fee for a service rather than being quoted an hourly rate and paying for time, so be sure to estimate the time investment and identify a recommended flat fee that pays you profitably but reasonably given the benefits and value proposition to the client. It’s not necessary or even recommended that everyone in the firm understand the fee for the service; it’s always a better idea to quote each client individually based on the scope of their needs; the service experts will have the best understanding to do that.
Step 4: Go to market
Patience will be important for your go-to-market strategy as there are important steps to follow to ensure success:
- Beta test
- Define target market
- Develop messages
- Communicate messages to target market
- Proactively follow up to generate new business leads
If possible, beta test the service with one or two clients to work out delivery issues, identify and resolve problems, make sure the deliverables are on point, and discover if the service works in reality the way it works in theory. Be candid with your client(s) up front and explain they will be doing you a favor but also receiving service benefits for no or greatly reduced fees. During the project, check in with the client(s) to find out what questions and concerns they have and incorporate these into the way you deliver the service going forward. Make sure your clients understand the benefit they received and when it’s over, ask them if they are willing to go on record with a testimonial you can use in future marketing and/or serve as a reference for future clients.
Based on what you learned in your initial research and your beta test(s), think about who the best targets are for the service. It’s actually better to focus on a narrow, very specific target market:
- you can tailor your messages more directly to them;
- it’s easier to determine the right channels through which to communicate with them;
- you can communicate to a smaller number of targets more frequently with a given budget.
Think about what type of companies have most need for the service based on industry and even sub-group within industry (e.g. sub-contractors within the construction industry), size (annual revenue, number of employees), ownership (private vs. public, closely-held/family-owned, etc), geographic location (where you can profitably serve them and they will recognize you as a viable provider), situation/circumstances (own vs. lease building, profitability, stage in growth cycle, etc).
For almost every target market, there are sources available to acquire a list of companies that matches your criteria. If there are variables for which you can’t filter when you purchase it, consider having someone call the companies to ask the appropriate questions to further segment your list. This can be a good task for an intern or new staff who aren’t yet busy, or you may choose to outsource to companies who provide this service.
Messages and communication
Now that you have a clear picture of who you’re talking to, develop the messages that will get their attention about your new service. Focus on the benefits of the service as it relates directly to their business, and the potential value proposition of engaging you to provide it. Make sure you address what differentiates your from competitors providing the same or a similar solution. Answer the question: why are you the best alternative to resolve this issue and/or deliver these benefits?
Below is a list of ways you can get your message to your targets, in the recommended chronological order of implementation:
- Have face-to-face conversations, starting with your current clients in the target market
- Incorporate on your web site, in blogs, social media profiles/groups
- Send direct mail/email
- Hold seminars and/or webinars
- Promote the topic to industry groups via speaking engagements and articles
This will require you to develop a variety of materials. Whenever possible, incorporate the testimonial from your beta test client(s) and continue to add testimonials as you grow the practice and have more satisfied clients. It is always more powerful to have your clients state the benefits and value proposition. Tie the materials together with similar content and graphic elements so you build a “brand” for the service that fits with the overall brand for your firm.
Frequency of communication is vital. We’ve all heard the concept that people need to hear a message multiple times before it resonates. The number required keeps going up because of the increasing number of competing messages to which people are exposed, through traditional media, social media, email, etc. Don’t be afraid to make at least quarterly “touches” with your target market regarding your service and the benefits it delivers. If you’re varying the method of communication (direct mail, invitation to seminar, promotion at industry conference, newsletter article, etc.) it won’t feel like too much to your clients and prospects.
It isn’t enough to simply put your messages out there; we’d all love to believe if we build it they will come, but that’s movie fantasy. Proactive follow-up is a necessary component of any successful go-to-market effort. The goal with your follow-up is to get face-to-face with each client or prospect so you can have a needs-based conversation, present the benefits of your service, and move the sales cycle forward. The table below gives you some tips on how to follow-up to each of your communication tactics:
For so long, firms have searched far and wide for solutions to their business development challenges. Young, and not-so-young professionals have participated in what I would, by no scientific means, guess is millions of hours of business development training programs. These programs are touted as creating superstar rainmakers in order to solve the firm’s new business needs and fill the sales pipeline with opportunities. Participants learn tools and techniques to generate leads and close the big sale.
The challenge most professionals have implementing the skills from business development training is twofold: First there is a natural aversion to “sales” the way many professionals think about it—which is going out into the market, telling everyone you meet about all your firm’s services and asking them to hire you. Second, in this context business development becomes an “add-on” skill set, or worse, an added set of responsibilities and tasks on top of what professionals see as their primary job.
When professionals view growth as a secondary responsibility and they have a natural aversion to what they think is required of course the result will be less than ideal. Current partners may perceive this as apathy or a sense of entitlement among the next generation. Young professionals may perceive this as an unrealistic expectation and outdated way of doing business.
The result is often a lack of engagement in activities that lead to organic growth as well as a lack of success in attracting high quality clients. It may cause young professionals to leave the firm, or the profession altogether. It puts pressure on the firm’s ability to fund partner retirements. It may cause a firm’s culture to become production oriented vs value driven.
So rather than as something “extra” let’s look at business development training curriculums for professionals in a new way. Train young professionals to practice their profession in a way that leads to new opportunities—namely the behaviors of becoming a trusted advisor with clients. Start early when young professionals (millennials) are energized, ready to make a contribution and eager to take on responsibility for adding value to clients. Give partners a system for looking at client relationships, expanding opportunities and getting younger folks involved in conversations about clients to share a new perspective based on what they’ve learned in working with the client.
Think about some of the skills that are important to being good at developing new business: relationship development, understanding needs, communication, questioning, problem solving, and trust building. All of these skills apply directly to the process of client service. Teaching these soft skills in the context of working with clients enables young professionals to practice and gain confidence with the skills that will make them great at cultivating new business. At the same time, they are deepening client relationships and creating a more satisfying practice for themselves.
If the firm’s goal is to increase young professional engagement and grow the firm, developing the behaviors of client service that lead to opportunities should be a central component of the firm’s training curriculum.
Firms wrestling with the issue of employee engagement will find that teaching young professionals skills which can be integrated into their core function will reinforce the behaviors sooner—becoming a natural part of the way they practice. The result is professionals who have deeper, more trusted relationships with their clients, create more fulfilling relationships, add more value and derive more satisfaction from their careers. Often this leads to improved retention of rising stars.
Let’s face it – you most likely didn’t work hard to develop your professional service skills and expertise because you wanted to be a sales person. That said, you probably also realize the importance of developing new business so that you can continue to practice your professional skills — it’s a conundrum.
What if I told you the most effective business development tactic you can employ is also the easiest AND least expensive? I’m guessing you’d want to hear more — so here goes. I’m talking about mining your existing client data to identify business development opportunities.
The Tried (and True!) 80/20 Rule
Start by listing your clients in order of the fees they pay you annually — highest to lowest. Then look at the top 20% on the list and calculate what percentage of your total revenue they represent. I’m pretty sure you’ll find that top 20% of your clients represent close to 80% of your revenue. It never seems to fail!
So take a look at those top clients – what makes them your “A” clients — what industry are they in, what size companies are they, is there anything different about the way you serve them? Have you asked these “A” clients for a referral and/or testimonial? They obviously trust you and depend on you for a significant level of service — they will be your best introduction to meet prospective clients.
Based on the profile of your best clients, what types of business development activities should you be doing to bring more of those into the firm? What professional organizations, publications, web sites, etc will put you in front of companies who match the profile of your “A” clients?
Now take a look at the next tier of clients — many times they represent significant growth opportunity. What can you do to move them up to the “A” list? The first step is easy – call them to schedule a lunch or meeting and catch up on their business.
Now take a look at that bottom 80% or so that are only accounting for 20% of your revenues. How many of them are there? What is the average annual fee/client? How profitable is it for you to continue to serve all of these clients? Is it worth referring some of these clients to smaller firms to free up your time to develop and serve more profitable clients?
Develop an Opportunity Matrix
Once you’ve identified your “A” clients and the next tier below the “A”s we’ll call them the “B”s — develop a simple matrix to identify where you have cross-sell opportunities. List these clients down the side of the matrix and list all of your firm’s services across the top. Fill in the cells with one of four statuses:
- Providing/provided — you are already doing this service for the client (or have already done it if it’s a one-time project)
- Proposing — you are already in discussions with the client about providing them with the service
- Not applicable — you can’t provide the service for the client because you are conflicted out our because there is no need for the service based on the nature of their business
- Opportunity — everything else!
Don’t make decisions for your clients, assuming they don’t want a particular service. Anything that isn’t in the first three categories — the Not applicable should only be used for truly non applicable services — should be considered an opportunity.
The opportunity matrix will help you prioritize which clients to meet with (those with the most opportunities) and what to prepare to discuss with them (the services you haven’t yet provided them).
Remember, cross-selling to clients is the quickest, easiest, least expensive way to develop new business. Use your client data to identify the right clients and right services to target for growth.Â And even though you can’t rely solely on client cross-selling for growth, the data you have about your existing clients can help you identify the right prospects to target and help you meet them through referrals and testimonials.
See? It doesn’t have to be hard — you have what you need right at your fingertips. Good luck!
New Year. New Goals. How will you find growth this year? There are lots of new tools out there to help you market your firm and grow your top line, but sometimes the best new tools are the old tools implemented in a different or better way.
Grow Your Client Relationships
With year end work approaching and tax season on its heels, you may find yourself in a conundrum: Good clients who really like working with your firm, love your service and think your fees are fair that just won’t be able to pay your standard fees this year. What should you do when clients ask for a fee reduction?
Start by identifying the A clients you want to invest in. When you know the clients for which, should the issue arise, you are willing to make fee concessions you’re more prepared when approached. Be ready with a plan to talk with clients so you are not taken by surprise if they ask.
Don’t discount the fees of a D client in bad times. You’ll only perpetuate the pain going forward. Be willing to let some clients go.
When a client asks about reduced fees, first explore changes in scope that can impact the total fee. Will a review be ok for a year or two vs. an audit? Can you do a collateral only audit vs. a full scope engagement? Can you get clients to do more of the work so you invest less time–like assigning a client’s employee to the audit team full-time for the duration of the fieldwork to be the “go-fer” in finding information or people, and to get questions answered without the CPAs doing the running around? Can you arrange a term payment plan for the fees to make it easier?
Most importantly, be willing to talk with clients about the subject. Don’t hesitate or act angry they asked or buckle at the first sign the client wants a reduction. Empathize with them, but remember what you are charging for the service you provide is fair. If you choose to invest in a client, make sure they know it is a temporary situation. Let them know you are willing to do it because they are an important client of the firm and you want to help.
Finally, consider proactively approaching clients you know are suffering and invest a little in fee reductions or a temporary change in scope. Your small investment will generate exponential returns by strengthening your client relationship.
The Whetstone Group
5250 North Park Place NE, Suite 210
Cedar Rapids, IA 52402