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Opinion: Adding value to clients requires wholesale change

MY HEAD is still reeling from a fascinating roundtable Accountancy Age ran earlier this week with ten senior practitioners.

The event, in association with Twinfield, looked to glean insight from the advisers about how they look to provide the best value to clients.

Over the course of an hour the advisers, representing firms large and small, provided a tantalising glimpse of how this has become a core issue for them – and how it affects practically every aspect of their firm.

Pre-event research by Accountancy Age and Twinfield of 35 advisers found that referrals, prior relationships, sector experience and a breadth of services helped firms win new business. Their experience and breadth are key in driving value for clients.

The roundtable participants wholeheartedly agreed with the findings – but it opened a can of worms in terms of how you attain these attributes in the context of ‘headwinds’.

The key issue was the commercial-mindedness of client-facing staff: Some voiced concern that too much sales ‘pushiness’ has contributed to the profession’s tarnished image during the crisis. Conversely, many flagged up that practices are working more closely than ever with clients to steer them through tough times – which has been actively encouraged by the client. Those haven’t been able to provide a broader range of advisory services to clients will lose them, they added.

“In the current climate the world expects more of us…it’s easy to see that [the problems associated with advisers] was driven by a sales culture, but economies desperately need advisory services – we have something really precious to give,” said one roundtable participant.

All agreed that commerciality must be implemented within the firm…but it seemed a case of ‘horses for courses’. Some spoke of non-accountants taking charge of business development, while others are trying to ingrain a culture of advisory provision among partners and managers. “You can’t have the soft skills without the technical knowhow,” warned one senior practitioner.

Those representing the larger firms were worried that their trainees were not interested in the slippery and uncertain slope towards partnership – wanting more experience in business. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the firms can entice them back after gaining business experience, but as one adviser said: “our organisations aren’t brave enough to say ‘you’ll leave but you can come back’.”

It almost goes without saying that the sophistication of firms’ systems and processes to manage clients (also known as CRM) have changed dramatically in recent years, and that will continue – mainly through online service provision and collaboration. This was another of the many issues discussed in what, I’m sure you can gauge, was an intense 60 minutes.

When it comes to the crunch, adding value to clients relationships is key to firms’ growth and prosperity. To achieve it requires a complete valuation of how your practice is structured, the type of people you recruit and the systems you have in place.

It can be done – and practices are doing it. Just don’t expect it to be easy – there isn’t a template to draw from. For me it’s a fascinating time to write about practice management…for practitioners, it’s a bit more scary. I wish you all the best.

Kevin Reed is editor of Accountancy Age and Financial Director

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