THE FUNDAMENTAL tenet of good marketing and business development is understanding what customers or, in the case of professional services firms, clients think of your services. Yet in the accountancy sector, few firms have bothered to put in place systems that provide regular, reliable and comprehensive feedback on the quality of the service provided to clients.
To date, the biggest barriers to accountancy firms engaging in client feedback have been ignorance about the process and defensiveness by partners not wanting to open up their client relationships to scrutiny.
Gaining a competitive advantage through client feedback can be achieved in a number of ways including:
* Using feedback on the quality of the firm’s service to identify and rectify failings, thereby increasing client loyalty and reducing the opportunities for competitor firms to be instructed.
* By understanding the client’s future plans – a key component of any client feedback process – the firm can position itself to advise on these, thereby picking up additional work that might have gone to competitors.
* By identifying poorly performing competitors – clients rarely instruct just one set of business advisers – strategies can be developed for displacing these.
* By incorporating client feedback on the performance of individual staff members into the firm’s appraisal process, firms can ensure that they are promoting and rewarding their most effective client-facing partners and staff, whilst identifying and dealing with the underperformers.
The first issue to be resolved is who is going to be responsible for obtaining the client feedback. Our experience shows that in the first instance, the majority of clients want the partners to take responsibility for this activity.
This should not be an informal approach, say, a chat over a pint in the pub at the end of the working day, but should be a formal approach with an agenda/list of questions and a documented output comprising a list of actions to address any issues raised by the client. These actions should be agreed with the client.
For a large client with complex needs, the relationship partner should typically be meeting with key decision-makers every quarter to formally review the relationship and to discuss the assignments being handled by the firm.
Frequency & Focus
Of course, the frequency of such meetings should be agreed in conjunction with the client, and in very rare cases the client may not see the need for any such meetings.
The main areas which should be covered by any review with a client of the firm’s performance are:
* Satisfaction with the quality of the work
* Satisfaction with the firm’s responsiveness
* Satisfaction with the commerciality of the firm’s advice
* Satisfaction with the performance of the individual staff on the firm’s team
* Satisfaction with fees and billing procedures
* Satisfaction with the provision of added value services like training and technical updates
* The client’s future plans and associated advisory requirements
* The firm’s share of the client’s advisory work and how this might be increased
* The performance of the firm relative to other advisers instructed by the client
Generally, clients are prepared to answer most, if not all, of these questions. They do so in the knowledge that having their various business advisers fully informed creates a competitive environment, with the best firms raising their game in order to secure as much of the client’s work as possible.
In addition to reviews carried out by the partners, firms should also consider commissioning external third parties to carry out independent client relationship audits for their most important clients.
Carried out every 18-24 months, these relationship audits allow the firm to ensure that the client feedback process is truly objective and that the client and/or the relationship partner are not holding anything back about the state of the relationship. Many clients are often more candid in their observations when talking to third parties than they ever would be talking directly to the relationship partner or another representative of the firm.
For a firm’s most important clients, feedback should be sought face-to-face as this best demonstrates to the client the value of the relationship to the firm. It is also the method which provides the most useful and comprehensive feedback.
On the line
Interviews conducted over the phone or through online questionnaires are not able to produce the same richness of feedback.
However, that is not to say that these two methods do not have a place.
Telephone interviews, either by an external research agency or the firm’s own staff, will usually be used with the tranche of clients that sit below the firm’s key clients. For these, it would be uneconomic to devote time and/or budget to carrying out face-to-face interviews.
While online questionnaires are currently favoured by many accountancy firms, usually because they are cheap to administer, response rates are poor (even among loyal clients) and the self-completion nature of these means that respondents at best will only be prepared to complete tick-box, multiple-choice type questions and will not type lengthy answers to open-ended questions.
As a result, online questionnaires are best used to seek feedback from the long tail of smaller clients that most firms have.
In addition to regular client service reviews, firms should consider incorporating post-assignment reviews into their client feedback programmes. The old adage: “You’re only as good as your last deal,” has never been truer than in today’s fiercely competitive business advisory markets.
If your firm is only reviewing its key client relationships every six months (or often more infrequently), you may not pick up on a client’s dissatisfaction with the way your firm has handled a particular assignment until it is too late.
Post-assignment reviews take place after every major piece of work carried out for a key client, or at important stages during an assignment with a long duration. The aim is to touch base with the client to check that the matter ran as smoothly as was hoped and that the client’s needs were met.
Typically these interviews are carried out over the phone and are relatively short – say, 10 minutes – so as not to inconvenience the client. They can be carried out by the firm’s own staff or an external consultancy. Again, certain advantages accrue when using an external third party, the main one being greater openness by the client and hence greater objectivity of the feedback process.
Those firms that adopt the approaches to gathering and acting on client feedback set out in this article will find that they are able to gain a considerable competitive edge over those firms that do not. In a market where few accountants bother to ask clients what they think about their service, firms that do will stand out and will get credit from clients for doing so.
So, if you want to steal a lead on other firms, start listening to and acting on what your clients have to say.
Kevin Wheeler has been advising accountancy firms on all aspects of marketing and business development for 24 years, both in-house and now as a consultant. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org