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What does a business look for in an accounting firm? 0

What does a business look for in an accounting firm?

Clients buy products and services because they meet their needs – not because the product is good or because the firm providing the service has a good reputation. The key to marketing, therefore, is understanding the needs of the clients and providing products and services that meet them.

Accountants can differentiate clients according to the levels of product or service they require. In each case the product or service meets one or more of the client’s needs:

The minimum product:
Here, the client receives and is generally satisfied with:

  • Availability for questions
  • Compliance services
  • Convenient location
  • Limited quality
  • Low fees

The quality product
Here, the client receives and is generally happy with:

  • Acceptable quality and attention
  • Communication and confidence
  • Financial problem solving ability
  • Follow-up and personal contact
  • Positive firm reputation
  • Recommendations
  • Value for fees and a wide range of services

The value added product
Here the client receives and is generally delighted with:

  • Contribution to profit
  • Future orientation
  • Innovation
  • Planning
  • New ideas and concepts to stimulate the client’s success
  • Problem-solving ability – both operational and managerial
  • Superior quality
  • Unique range of services
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What kind of value does your firm demonstrate to clients?

The services that accountants provide can be divided according to the level of value the client receives. The three levels of value are the minimum service, the quality service and the value added service.

The minimum service is poor or mediocre compliance service that fulfils the client’s minimum needs, but does not address the client’s expectations. Most dissatisfied clients and a number of satisfied clients receive this level of service. The minimum service is any compliance work such as financial accounts and tax returns. Clients who are satisfied with this generally tend to go for the lowest quote and are happy for a bookkeeping firm or sole practitioner to do the work for them.

The quality service is again, basic compliance work that is carried out in a way that adequately meets the client’s expectations. The difference between this and the previous level is in the quality of the service. This level produces satisfied clients and is what most accountants provide. Their clients typically prefer value for fees and seek a high quality accountancy service. While this level of service meets the client’s basic expectations, it does not usually add value to their business.

The value added service is any work of high quality that is augmented by superb service and supporting services. The main difference between this and the previous level is that it adds real value to the client’s business. This level produces happy clients who actively assist you by referring your firm. The value added services are what distinguish leading edge accountants from the rest. These services are augmented by value-added services as:

  • Returning phone calls promptly
  • Not charging for phone calls
  • Providing personal financial planning advice for business owners
  • Providing business planning, tax minimisation planning, and estate and pension planning services
  • Monitoring internally prepared monthly accounts for annual clients

Although time is usually in short supply, it is important to create the time to provide value added services to clients. Even though it might be difficult to maintain, it is essential to include a value added service level in your marketing program. Once you commit to marketing you have to maintain a high level of service; otherwise your program will backfire. It will not simply stagnate, it will become counterproductive, and your hard-earned reputation will be the first casualty.

If a firm that has no marketing program begins to perform poorly its accumulated store of goodwill built up during better times will tend to protect it from any immediate damage, and it will take some time for disenchantment to set in among the clients. In fact they will need to consistently perform poorly over a fairly long period before they actually start to lose clients. Moreover, their lack of marketing will ensure that their reputation will not suffer outside of existing circles.

By contrast, a firm that is actively marketing its services raises its profile both with existing clients and with prospective clients. Any decline in the quality of service will be judged more harshly by existing clients, and will also adversely affect the firm’s wider reputation. On average, a happy client will inform five potential clients about the quality of a firm’s work, but an unhappy client will tell twenty people about the state of your service.

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Getting the most out of your surveys

Conducting a survey is one of the best ways a firm can collect meaningful data from clients. When carried out properly, surveys can provide firms with the kind of information needed to improve a firm’s services, products and interaction with clients.

But when they are poorly organised, firm surveys can be a frustrating experience for clients to finish, and often result in the creation of useless data. These surveys primarily focus on the need for answers, not on the kind of experience created for clients.

Below are four simple tips firms can use when creating their surveys to create a positive experience for clients as well as collect the information they specifically want.

  • Give a reason for the client to participate

When a firm requests that their clients complete a survey, they are ultimately asking clients to dedicate a segment of their time to help out. Firms should include a strong reason why clients should do this. If the survey is to improve a firm’s client service, make sure to include that in the introduction. Showing people how completing the survey will improve their interaction with a firm may make them feel more inclined to participate.

  • Set strong expectations

Tell clients exactly how long the survey will take them. This can help clients avoid rushing through or abandoning the survey because of time constraints.

  • Talk specifically to your clients

Do not include any accounting or financial jargon in the survey. This will only confuse clients. Use language that clients can easily understand and use in everyday conversation. The survey language should be engaging and prompt participants all the way to the end of the survey.

  • Take the survey yourself

When you have finished writing your survey, have a break, then come back and have a go at completing it yourself. This allows firms to check whether they have provided a good enough reason for why someone should take the survey, whether it is realistically able to be completed from start to finish, and if all questions are absolutely relevant to survey objectives.

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Segment your way to success

Firms looking to improve their email marketing response rate should consider segmenting their audience list.

Segmenting is the process of dividing an audience list into subgroups. It allows firms to send specific or targeted emails to a specific group or targeted individuals who may be more responsive to firm messages.

Even firms with only a small list of email subscribers should start segmenting. Creating categories and sending subscribers targeted information can come in handy as a firm’s contact list grows.

Segmentation is useful for a number of reasons. It allows firms to hone in on their most active email readers. Segmenting lists for those who regularly open and click emails gives firms valuable information that can be used to improve email campaigns. It also allows firms to target potential clients for a specific product or service sale, and avoid annoying those who may have already purchased the special.

If readers are more interested in just one area of what a firm sells, segmenting them into a list means that they no longer have to unsubscribe due to off-topic emails.

Firms can begin capturing information that is needed for segmentation as soon as subscribers opt-in to their email subscriber list. Simply asking one or two specific questions when clients sign-up can help a firm establish what kind of information the subscribers are interested in.

Firms can also create a segment of their email list for clients who regularly engage with their emails by opening or clicking on an email and its links. Subscribers who are not as responsive could be put on a less frequent list, or one that firms can try out different subject lines with.

Firms who offer a number of different services may find it useful to segment their clients based on the type of content they interact with. An example of this would be an accounting firm sending out different emails to their business clients, and entirely different content to individual taxpaying clients.

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To network or not to network?

Networking can be an effective marketing strategy for many accountants. It is the process of establishing personal relationships with individuals who could become clients or who are in a position to refer potential clients.

But despite its proven advantages, networking doesn’t always guarantee success for a firm. Although it can be an effective strategy, accountants should first determine whether it is the right strategy for their firm.

While good networking can build efficient relationships quite quickly, building personal relationships can sometimes be a difficult and time-consuming process. Occasionally, an accountant will ‘click’ almost immediately with someone due to common interests or similar personalities, backgrounds or education. In other networking relationships, it may take awhile for the firm to establish the right comfort level with a contact, and for them to view the firm as a “potential service provider”.

Just as a personal relationship needs constant care and attention to remain healthy, client relationships also need regular care and attention. Consistent follow-ups are required to help a firm’s network flourish. Accountants can do this by calling prospective clients and referral sources regularly, sending them articles of interest with personal notes or meeting with existing clients to review their level of satisfaction with your work. Not following-up can ultimately ruin all the work a firm has done to create that network in the first place.

Although networking can help accountants meet and establish connections with like-minded people, this marketing strategy requires time and high levels of dedication from a firm. It is not an ‘instant gratification’ style of marketing, and firms should carefully weigh up its benefits to determine what they will achieve from it.

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Selling accounting services

Most accountants already have a certain level of sales ability. Their client portfolio is a testimony to that. Accountants will acquire different clients based on their sales ability, and they will lose others if their communication skills need improvement.

Accountants do not sell services; they provide solutions that clients want and need. However, without some level of selling ability, accountants may find themselves limited to the same type and number of clients in the future as they have today.

Selling accounting services may be easier than first assumed as accounting services are rarely purchased on impulse. Rather, the purchase is usually carefully considered over a few months.

The decision to buy and the decision what to buy are made separately, often with a long gap between them. This means an accountant has more time and more opportunities to influence the decision with marketing and sales strategies.

Some accountants may be more confident selling services than others. However, if those accountants with less confidence can identify and improve their weaknesses, they can become just as good at sales as others.

Having some form of sales ability is important for accountants so it can support their professional skills. If accountants believe they offer the best services in their area, then selling those services may just be in the best interest of the others.

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Prospecting: Getting started

The first step for a firm that is targeting prospects is to identify the different groups of prospects, and decide how they are going to be targeted.

Directly targeted prospects
These are the small groups of companies that firms should personally target for approaching during the year. Firms need to select businesses they are familiar with and feel most comfortable approaching.

Passively targeted prospects
These are the indirectly targeted prospects that are referred to a firm by a firm’s network of clients and referral sources. Although a firm doesn’t target these prospects directly, a firm indirectly targets them when making clear to referral sources and clients, exactly what type of client they are seeking.

Non-targeted prospects
Since no firm has the resources to prospect every company in its potential database, the vast majority of prospects are non-targeted. Nevertheless, they remain prospects, and provide a pool from which future targeted prospects might be drawn.

To run a successful prospecting program, a firm needs knowledge of their prospects, information on other firms competing for these prospects and methods for reaching these prospects. To gain prospect knowledge, a firm should answer the following questions:

  • What does a prospect look for in an accounting firm?
  • Why does a prospect consider changing accounting firms?
  • When does a prosect consider changing accounting firms?
  • How does a prospect choose an accounting firm?
  • Where are the prospects?
  • Who should I speak with?

This “what, why, when, how, where, and who” is the key to successful prospecting.

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How happy are your clients?

It is quite common for clients to leave a firm for service delivery or work quality reasons. However, many clients will not openly complain about the service they are receiving. Instead, they will start asking how much you charge for services or simply take their work elsewhere when they believe they can obtain better value for their money.

A systematic client feedback program can provide early warning signals of unhappiness among clients. Many professional services firms use client feedback surveys to obtain information from a client on the quality of services they have received. Client satisfaction surveys are a useful marketing tool when a firm is involved in a competitive proposal situation or in a presentation to a prospective client.

A well-constructed client feedback system allows a firm to obtain meaningful feedback on the quality of service provided to its clients. Properly conducted, these programs can help highlight service or work problems. If a firm acts upon the information received from the program, the result can be a win-win situation for both sides — improved service for the clients and enhanced client retention for the firm. And even when a firm does lose a client, the feedback from the former client can help uncover areas in the service approach that need to be improved.

However, even though client satisfaction surveys and programs can be useful for firms, it is far more effective to have early detection systems in place to pick up on client dissatisfaction. Accountants should not overlook client warning signals, such as asking for fee quotes, petty complaints, late bill payments, or even providing an excuse as to why they had one task carried out by another accountant.

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Don’t depersonalise your client meetings

The interactions between clients and industry professionals have expanded over time to include emailing, phone calls and even instant messaging. But while these channels are efficient and easy to use, it’s important for firms not to overlook the advantages of scheduling regular face-to-face meetings with their clients.

Considered by some as the most crucial element of any successful client relationship, face-to-face meetings have unfortunately become something of a rarity in the industry today. This means that many firms are missing out on the benefits necessary to building and maintaining strong relationships with their clients.

Below are several key benefits of face-to-face meetings:

Knowing your client on a personal level

Whether or not you connect with your clients on a personal level could mean the difference between a long-term relationship and a one-time project. Although you may be in regular contact with your client every day digitally, this does not give you a proper understanding of who they are as a person. In an age ruled by digital enhancements, many people crave the simplicity of talking to and being understood by another human being.

Spending time with your client

When you spend time with someone, you develop an understanding of who they are, what they want and how they operate. Setting aside time for a face-to-face meeting with your client can help build trust and a mutual understanding between the two of you.

Avoiding misinterpretation

When communicating digitally, it can be very difficult to determine if someone is being humorous, informal or even sarcastic. This is where face-to-face meetings take the guesswork out of your client’s responses. When conversing with someone face-to-face, you’re able to observe their reactions through body language and verbal cues. These body signals can be great insights into whether or not an idea or proposal is received positively or negatively by your client (something which would be virtually impossible to pick up on via digital communication).

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Communicating with clients

Communicating well with clients doesn’t always from naturally to accountants. But sadly, accounting is largely a people based industry, and more often than not, accountants will often rely on their technical skills, rather than their personal skills when engaging in communication.

Here are some tips for maintaining and improving communication:

Communicate regularly
Develop a unique service plan for each client to ensure you communicate with him or her on a regular basis. Make sure you address the client’s concerns every time you communicate with them.

Be responsive
Understand and respond to your clients’ priorities and deadlines. Return their calls, and solicit and action their feedback. Respond sympathetically to negative calls.

Make sure your staff are sensitive to clients’ needs
Where any junior staff members have to spend time in front of clients, make sure they are regularly briefed on any issues concerning them.

Send management letters/emails to clients
These should include statements, forecasts of any problems, and jargon-free answers to questions.

Wherever possible, review work with clients
This achieves two things. First it increases the comfort level in the mind of the client, and second it gives you an opportunity to understand better the client’s needs and expectations.

Be your clients’ eyes and ears
Monitor rulings, articles, circulars, press releases, or anything else that might concern particular clients, and send them copies of anything to which you want to draw their attention. Develop systems internally that will allow you to send articles to clients without overwhelming partners and other employees. The Internet is a wonderful tool for this. There are many websites where you can set up your own personal news alerts, check industry news or otherwise find these sources of information for your clients.

Use every client contact to develop new business
Try to conduct each tax return interview personally. This gives you an opportunity to discuss other services from which the client might benefit. If possible, try to secure his or her agreement during the meeting, otherwise arrange a follow-up meeting to discuss the matter further. The main point is to make the client aware that you are aware of his or her needs and concerns.