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.
In professional services, it can be difficult to differentiate among firms that offer (from the buyer’s perspective anyway) the same service. After all, you all subscribe to the same credentialing programs. You follow the same set of professional practice standards. You all do quality work. On the surface — your firms all appear the same.
During the course of consulting with a firm it’s common for us to ask professionals at various levels (staff, associates, managers, partners, etc.) as well at those with different aptitudes for business development, “why should companies work with you?” Inevitably, we receive as many different answers from professionals within the same firm as individuals we ask.
Most of your firm’s branding is done through your people. Your professionals interact regularly with clients, prospects, referral sources, and even the media. If each of those individuals is telling a different story about what makes your firm great, how effectively will your firm’s brand be built? Branding is about message consistency. And if you’re inconsistent you are squandering your firm’s branding opportunities.
One of the best branding investments your firm can make is to develop a 30-second speech. A 30-second speech is your firm’s answer to the question “tell me what you do”. It consists of standard talking points that everyone in the firm should know and practice. The purpose is to ensure when employees from your firm interact with someone in the community they all talk about your firm’s brand the same way.
Talking points include:
- Who your firm serves (target market)
- What business issues your firm helps solve
- Benefits of working with your firm
- What makes your firm different
Any facts you introduce about your firm should include a response to “why is that important to a client?”
Once your firm has this useful tool in place, leaders in the firm should present the talking points to everyone, and let everyone practice delivering the points in their own style. Remember, it’s a 30-second speech — so the guideline should be that answers are short and succinct. Practice is important to both keeping it short and making it sound natural. The 30-second speech can also be the basis for all your firm’s other branding materials — brochures, advertisements, website content, etc. This consistency, over time, will help the market understand why you’re the best choice to meet their needs.
And, it all starts with 30 seconds or less.
The Whetstone Group
5250 North Park Place NE, Suite 210
Cedar Rapids, IA 52402