The answer to this question might not be as obvious as it first seems. It is helpful to distinguish between the product and the service you provide a client. When a client engages you he or she takes the product – the audit, the management accounts, or the payroll work – for granted. That is what he is paying for, and that is what he expects. What makes the difference is the service you provide on top – the personal attention, the timeliness, the extra advice, etc.
Clients pay for compliance work because they have to, not because they value it. What they value is time spent with you – where you provide ‘visible’ services such as an annual consultation, or a business health check. They also value meeting with you personally rather than with one of your staff. This is what makes them happy to pay your fees, and to keep coming back for more.
It is important to take a sincere interest in your clients, beyond their ability to pay your fees. The best way to do this is to put yourself in their shoes and try to understand their way of thinking. Listen to your clients; don’t argue with them and don’t force your opinion on them.
Reply promptly to your clients’ enquiries. Try to take every phone call, especially the negative ones. Indeed, make a special point of taking the difficult calls, and deal with any complaints personally. One sure way to lose a client is to be unavailable when he or she has a grievance to express. On the other hand, a sympathetic response from you will often be sufficient to smooth any ruffled feathers.
Personal touches are important. Find out about your client’s interests, family, etc, and show a genuine interest. Get to know any family members working in the client’s business. Also get to know other accountancy staff who work there. Some of these will have interests outside that business. They might own their own business or have valuable connections elsewhere.
Above all, be consistent. Don’t show a personal interest in the client in one meeting and then revert to cold formality or impersonal functionality in the next. It is also important to maintain this consistency as your firm grows. There is no point in growing your business if the price is increased dissatisfaction among your existing client base. Service is what drives your business. It is what keeps your existing clients happy and coming back for more, and it is what brings in referrals. In the accounting industry it is difficult to differentiate your firm by the products you provide.
What distinguishes you from your competitors is your client service. When an accountant is just starting out in practice, he or she is acutely aware of the importance of providing quality service to the client, but as the years go by this awareness gradually fades, complacency takes over, and it starts to feel as if the client is there for your sake rather than the other way round. Avoid this creeping complacency at all costs!