Are your clients indifferent or do you get all the referrals you want?

Some professional advisers, such as accountants, claim that they secure much of their new work through word of mouth referrals. This suggests that clients are making positive comments about them. They may do that if they’re particularly happy but in the same way any unhappy clients will be quick to share their negative views even if they don’t express their disappointment to your face.

I’ve heard a large number of people talking about their accountants in recent years and it’s fair to categorise those views as good, bad, or most often – indifferent. Well at least it’s not ugly!

Let’s explore these different views and the wider lessons we can learn.

Good

Expressing a positive feeling that the accountant is doing a good job should mean that everything is good enough (or great!). Clients imply that their accountant does what they want, when they want it and for a fee that they consider to be good value for money. A good feeling is even more likely if the client indicates that they get pro-active advice and are very happy to recommend their accountant to friends and family.

Bad

Negative perceptions are sadly all to common. These clients feel that they’re putting up with bad service, high fees and/or get little of value. They certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone they know to use the accountant.

Indifferent

This is how I describe those clients who think their adviser is ‘okay’ or ‘good enough’. This might be because the accountant doesn’t wow the clients with great service nor do they feel that the accountant is charging excessive fees.

Sadly it seems to me that a high proportion of people think their accountant is just ‘okay’. The fact that they haven’t complained doesn’t mean we can assume that they think their accountant is ‘good’. It also means that the client is more at risk of moving to a new pro-active client than their current accountant might assume.

‘My accountant is great’

I saw this comment on a business forum a while back. I asked the person concerned what made them say that? Here’s the reply:

“He keeps things very straightforward in his explanations not that I have any particularly complex matters to deal with but he acts quickly, keeps costs to a reasonable amount (not cheap but sufficient value), makes himself available as and when needed and I get comfort from the fact that he has a successful practice, nice small modern offices and polite and helpful staff. When I have required explanations re: overseas investments, capital gains tax, what I can put against tax to minimise it legally, he delivers his knowledge in an easy to assimilate manner”.

I think that’s about it in a nutshell. Of course different clients want different things from their accountants. And different elements of your service and style will appeal to different clients.

Conclusion

If your clients are getting the service and attention  they want from you at a price they’re happy to pay then they MIGHT be expressing a positive view about you to other people. They’ll only do so when asked though. Are you consciously doing anything to ensure that your clients see you as good, rather than bad, or do you risk them being indifferent?

It’s only if your clients think you’re really good that they’ll be saying positive things about you. And if you rely on word of mouth referrals for new clients, you may find that we are moving into an age when you need to adopt a more active approach to encouraging these.

What do you do to actively encourage positive word of mouth referrals?

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Why I sacked a large firm of accountants

The purpose of sharing what follows is the lessons that I hope become apparent. I have no desire to embarrass anyone so I am not identifying the client, the firm or the partner concerned. That’s not the point.

Background

Last year I took over responsibility, on a voluntary basis, for the finances of a members’ club that had long been audited by a top 20 firm. I called the audit partner for a chat and to mention that we would no longer require an audit. Turnover was less than £250k and the bulk of income and expenditure arose from mutual trading. I explained that I had engaged a bookkeeper – my predecessors having done the bookkeeping themselves. All the bookkeeping is maintained on Xero.

We agreed that an independent examination of the accounts, to be drafted by the bookkeeper, would suffice.  That was February. Our accounting date was 31 March.  The partner said that a manager would liaise with me over the timing of the work.

The service

An audit manager got in touch, but not until June, and agreed to send a fee quote, which he did. It was lower than previous audit fees and I assumed it covered all of the services to be provided for the year.

To give the firm credit, everyone who communicated with me and the bookkeeper was efficient, polite and professional. However I never once received a phone call from anyone. Not once. I simply cannot accept that this is best practice.

I find it bizarre that an accountancy practice (whatever the size) can service a client paying the firm many thousands of pounds each year without someone actually talking to their key contact at least once during the annual process. Even more so given that I was new in role.

My conclusion was, as I had anticipated at the outset, that the job was too small for the firm and that perhaps they had been waiting for us to sack them. I have no idea what paperwork is on their files re the accounts review etc but it felt as though they simply went through the process without considering the impact on us as their client. They had a few queries but proposed no changes to the draft accounts prepared by the bookkeeper.

In the event the work involved in preparing our accounts will have taken much less time than in previous years as our new bookkeeper did much of the accounts prep work.

The tax

Someone from the tax department emailed me in November to remind me of filing deadlines and to ask if I wanted them to do their work as usual. I agreed and realised only then that that the fee quotes, supplied in the summer, excluded any ref to the tax work (suggesting the traditional lack of communication between departments that I recall from my own days in practice). No one confirmed what they would do on the tax side. I was pleased however that the tax team seemed on the ball and took responsibility for getting things done.

Remember the client here is a mutual trading body with many annual recurring sources of income. I was surprised therefore to receive a number of queries from the tax team as to the taxability or otherwise of income sources. I suggested that their files or colleagues should be able to confirm which sources were taxable etc. I had my own views too of course.

The club had been client of the firm for many, many years, so it struck me as odd that the tax team were asking basic questions as if new to the affairs of the client. They were otherwise efficient and helpful so I paid the tax fees without query. However no one spoke with me or quoted for the tax fees which were simply charged without any explanation at all.

The upshot

It transpires that the 2014 accounts contained an under accrual for the audit firm’s fees for the year. Whilst they were not auditing the figures I would have hoped that they would have ensured we were adequately accruing for their full charges. Our draft figures for the year to 31 March 2015 therefore have to reflect last year’s under-accrual. Had this been correctly accrued our results would not be swinging from a surplus last year to a deficit this year.

As a side issue I also noted that postal communications from the firm’s accounts and marketing department, more than a year after I took over, continue to be addressed to my predecessor.

All in all the firm did little to cover itself in glory.

The switch

I made the decision to recommend that we replace the firm earlier this year, but thought I would wait to see when they would get in touch to plan the work for our accounts to 31 March 2015. They didn’t.

A few weeks ago I briefed 3 possible replacement firms, all of whom have since submitted fee quotes in the region of half what we paid last year. Two of the firms are in the top 20. One is in the top 30.

I sent an email last week to the old audit partner explaining much of the above. The response I received simply said:

Thank you for your email.
I am sorry to hear that you were not happy with the service you received.
We await your further information regarding our selected replacement.

The questions

Does any of what I experienced surprise you? Do you think I am being too harsh or had unreasonable expectations? I’d love to know.

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Being memorable isn’t the same as being referrable

Not everyone wants to STAND OUT in the traditional sense. Often we assume that you need to be an extrovert to STAND OUT, and that it’s necessary to dress in a distinctive way and to be supported by bright and loud branding.

I accept that all of those qualities can make you STAND OUT and may consequently ensure that you are memorable. But. there is little point in being remembered without also benefitting from recommendations and referrals. What you’re really after is securing a competitive advantage.

In the late 1970s a famous drinks company produced a wonderful series of comedic TV advertisements for a fortified alcoholic drink. The popular adverts all starred Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins. Legend has it that the series ended when it became apparent that it was boosting sales of a rival brand of similar drink. The adverts stood out and were memorable but, it would seem, for the wrong reasons, as not enough people remembered the specific drink they were promoting.

In many ways I stood out from my colleagues early in my career. But only because I was different. Not always because I was better at my job. Looking back, I like to think that I did learn, quite early on, the benefits of adopting a range of techniques to stand out from the crowd and from my peers. And it is those same techniques that now form part of my 7 point framework of ways anyone can STAND OUT from the crowd.

It’s not a question of simply ensuring you are remembered. The impressions you have on the people you meet and their consequential memories of you need to be positive. And linked in some way to the services you provide. You don’t simply want to be remembered. You also want to secure more recommendations and referrals. You want to maximise your competitive advantage.

 

 

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Can you choose your clients?

An accountant I know inherited his practice from his father and still acts for many of the same clients. He feels he owes them some loyalty and support even though they do not fit the profile of the practice he has been building.

He described his ideal clients – of which he seems to have a quite a few. Those old legacy clients do not fit but he doesn’t want to let them go. I understand the dilemma.

Then he told me that those legacy clients tend to be the ones who quibble about fees, sometimes even after they’ve been agreed. The accountant feels conflicted. On the one hand he understands the theory behind pricing by value. On the other hand he would rather get paid promptly even if that means accepting he has to agree a discount.

I said I would understand this attitude better if the fees in question were thousands of pounds.Then there would be understandable fear of having to replace the fees if the client goes elsewhere.  But the example this accountant gave me was of a fee for just a few hundred pounds. I suggested that he decide upfront what is his BATNA in such cases.

BATNA means: Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.  If a client won’t play ball and you don’t want to reduce your fee, what’s your best alternative? Are you going to sue? To let them go? To introduce them to another cheaper accountant? To refuse to act for them any more? There are numerous options.  We generally find negotiations easier if we are clear on our stance at the outset.

Another option might be to seek something else from the client in consideration of you agreeing the lower fee.

I mentioned that one accountant I mentor started to call me to give him a boost before he starts or concludes tough fee negotiations. When we started working together he generally backed down and gave in to all clients who queried fees or fee quotes. Now he has the confidence to quote higher than before, secures agreement and gets paid with less hassle – in most cases.  He says I give him the courage to be firmer than before. All that matters to me is that it works and he feels more successful.

Going back to the question in the title to this piece: Can you choose your clients? Yes and it’s probably a good idea to choose only those who will pay you a fair fee for the work you do. Otherwise, what’s the point?

 

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