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Don’t let the firm’s relationships fall apart

IN A FAST CHANGING accountancy marketplace, new business generation has become essential. The traditional client/accountant relationship has changed. Driven by a combination of financial pressure and the trend towards larger, multi-location accountancy firms, client loyalty is diminishing. Accountancy firms need to take a proactive approach to not only drive new business but also improve the management and retention of existing valuable clients.

This is not a job that can be simply handed over to a dedicated department: every accountant needs to take responsibility for retaining existing clients, cross-selling services and attaining new business. The only way to do that is to embed IT systems and processes in day to day activity.

Business generation

Accountants, in common with their professional services counterparts in legal and property markets, have never been proactive in generating new business. And, to be fair, there has been no need. Existing clients have typically remained loyal for many, many years; while new business has been achieved through word of mouth and referral. But attitudes towards professional services are changing fast. From price pressure to demands for more added value services, companies have a far tougher attitude and are increasingly willing to place new business with specialist firms, or even move accountancy firms if required.

However, the vast majority of fee earning accountants remain unwilling or uncomfortable to undertake any overt new business generation. Whilst excellent at persuading potential new clients of the value of the expertise the practice can offer, few have either the skill or appetite for lead generation or cold calling.

Yet the lack of robust attitudes towards managing client relationships – new and old – is not only undermining a firm’s ability to generate new business, it is potentially undermining existing client relationships and reducing clear cross-sell (and up) opportunities. From monitoring client interactions with different departments or across different offices, to tracking referrals from local bank or law firms to ensure the relationship truly works in both directions, failure to proactively manage business retention and new business generation risks significant client atrophy.

Cultural change

There is no doubt that growing numbers of firms are setting objectives for creating new leads and following up potential new business. But how many fee earners are meeting targets? How effective are firms at capturing in bound referrals or measuring the business generated? How many measure the success of direct mailing campaigns or use that information to support new campaign activity? And while the tax partner would, as a routine, encourage a customer to use the company’s audit services, how many actively discuss management consultancy services or fund raising?

Companies know the business generation model has to change. The problem is that few organisations have yet worked out how best to leverage the skills of experienced staff in selling the business and overcome understandable reluctance to embark upon lead generation. At the heart of the shift must be a fundamental change in attitude to embed a sales and marketing process within the practice’s core operations.

In support of this top down change in culture and attitude, professional services firms need to make two essential changes. Firstly, elevate the marketing department from its existing low status as the creator of brochures to a proactive, lead generating business unit that is perceived to be integral to the organisation. The marketing department needs to be empowered not only to generate leads but also proactively measure and monitor the performance of fee earners in following up and converting those leads.

Secondly, entrench routine client and new business contact within the day to day activity of every fee earner. The intermittent, transaction led contact that typifies the accountant/client relationship based on the annual audit or monthly review offers limited chances to add value. Instead, prompting individuals to discuss client business more regularly reinforces the relationship whilst also raising opportunities to introduce new services to the client.

Measure and reward

To meet both these needs, organisations need a way to track client and prospect contact, as well as measure the performance of different marketing campaigns. The blunt contact management tools often attached to Practice Management systems do not offer either the simplicity of use, marketing functionality or depth of reporting required. Organisations need a web based system that can be used by fee earners who will perhaps update information just once a week, whilst also delivering the complex, detailed analysis and reporting required by marketing, without the need for training.

A single, trusted source of client and prospect information will provide fee earners with an in depth picture of the history of client interactions. From the literature sent out during marketing campaigns to the contacts with other departments, organisations can improve the management of complex, multi-office relationships, ensuring consistency of service, minimising risk of client loss and avoiding embarrassing duplication of contacts.

Combining this insight with clear targets will encourage fee earners to confidently follow up on the lead generation activity undertaken by a marketing team that can use these tools to drive the delivery of targeted campaigns, such as tax planning in response to legislative changes. Combining measurement of campaign performance with fee earners’ follow up of lead generation, the marketing team can assess performance and continually fine tune new business strategy.

For any professional services organisation, new business generation is fast becoming as important as improving billable hours and reviewing performance. Fee earners need to be motivated to not only generate business for their own departments but also cross-sell the rest of the business. But it is also critical for organisations to respond to customer demands for more than the generic year audit service.

Encouraging fee earners to embark upon proactive client contact to build a stronger, more regular relationship is a great starting point. It provides a platform for improved client understanding that can support cross- and up-selling of services. Furthermore, it fosters a new attitude amongst fee earners and an ability to follow up new leads and build on a strong client and prospect database to confidently begin to generate new business.

But, this can only be achieved if the attitudes to client relationships, new and old, change and the entire process of business retention and generation, become an integral part to day to day operations. Firms need to identify and to respond to their customers’ needs before the customer thinks of looking elsewhere.

John Paterson (FCA) is CEO of Really Simple Systems

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