How do you REALLY know if your clients are happy?

How many of us really know what our clients think about us? We might assume that clients like us although often when we say that we’re probably focussing more on our favourite clients and assuming that an absence of complaints evidences that clients like us and value the work we are doing. But is that enough? Indeed is it even a reasonable assumption?

In most professional firms success is based to one degree or another on the level of fees that you can generate. This is one of the reasons why a key part of my mentoring programme focuses on the skills required to be an effective ‘finder’ of work. But finding new clients is not the only way to generate more profits. It is also important to look after the relationship with existing clients – to be an effective ‘minder’. In the context of this article I would just highlight two of the four key elements of ‘minding’ clients:

  • Becoming a trusted adviser – understanding how to manage clients so as to encourage the right sort of referrals; and
  • Developing clients – identifying opportunities to encourage clients to instruct the firm re additional profitable services.

Here are some of the tell-tale signs you might be looking for.   What proportion of your clients:

  • Know that they benefit from regular tax saving advice from you?
  • Receive any form of newsletter or emails from you or your firm that evidences your desire to help them pay less tax or to otherwise simplify their tax affairs?
  • Pay their fees promptly and without complaint about the quality of the service?
  • Accept that the level of your fees is fair – or even great value given the advice and service you provide?
  • Ask you for timely advice on related matters (beyond the recurring compliance work)?
  • Willingly pay a fair fee for that additional advice?
  • Praise you in their emails and letters?
  • Genuinely thank you when you speak to them?
  • Say positive things about you, your service and your fees when talking to their friends and associates?
  • Regularly refer you to their friends and associates?

I created this list quickly for an article I have just written. Can you think of anything else that should be there? Please add a comment to this blog or email me your thoughts: Mark*BookMarkLee.co.uk [replace * with @ – it’s my attempt to prevent automated spam]

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Do you suffer from premature evaluation?

I’ve mentioned my friend Richard White before. I’ve just read a piece on his blog that reinforces the advice I give in my talk on How to make more profits from your smaller clients. It also relates very closely to this previous posting of mine along similar lines last August. Below I’ve taken Richard’s analogy and adapted it slightly for ambitious professionals.

Imagine being in pain and going to your doctor for some help. Within moments of your arrival the doctor starts telling you, very enthusiastically, how similar your pain is to the previous patient, what is wrong with you and what medicine you need to take.

How would you feel if that happened? Would you trust the doctor? The doctor could be right but you will be more likely to trust their advice if they spent a little time finding out more about your specific pain rather than just making assumptions and talking, talking, talking!

The same is true for ambitious professionals. You need to give your prospects some credit for intelligence. You need to assume that they can tell if you are listening to them or are just interested in flogging them your services.

People do not like being sold to, but they do like to buy. Successful ambitious professionals look to build trust and a long-term relationship by working with human nature rather than against it.

If a prospect feels that you are more interested in selling your services than solving their problems then you are unlikely to gain their confidence or to encourage them to engage you to do more than the bare minimum (if that). Your relationship with the new client will always be vulnerable no matter how likeable you are.

When you meet with a prospective new client they need to feel that your focus is 100% on them and that you are going to give them the right advice for their issues. They like the fact that you have experience but they want you to apply that experience to their specific issues rather than just making assumptions.

In my posting last August I took this idea a stage further and recommended that ambitious professionals could get more favourable feedback from their clients by taking a two-step approach rather than getting straight to the answer right away. This is very similar in concept to the idea of avoiding instant diagnosis. We wouldn’t trust a doctor who operated like that so why should we expect clients to appreciate such an approach?

There is a term for the condition where professionals (or indeed anyone trying to sell their services or products) get very excited and enthusiastically sell all over the place without bothering to take an interest in their prospect’s problems – It’s called ‘Premature Evaluation’ and there is a lot of it about!!!

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You can charge more if you have SEX with your clients

I was speaking at the LSCA Small Practitioners’ 36th annual conference in Cambridge yesterday. The subject matter of my talk was ‘How to make more profits from your smaller clients’. I included in the talk a number of items that have appeared in this blog. Others will follow.

Also on the programme was the founder of PracticeTrack and PracticeWEB, Mark Lloydbottom. I was delighted to meet Mark and to hear him speak for the first time. He particularly caught my attention when he announced from the platform “You can charge more if you have SEX with your clients or if you give your clients SEX”.

I’m sure this idea will resonate with all ambitious professionals so, with Mark’s permission I can explain, as he did, that S.E.X is an acronymn for:

Superior skills;

Experience

eXperitse

In essence what Mark was saying, and as I have also been advocating for some time, is that our fees should not be set merely by reference to how much time we have spent dealing with the client’s affairs.

In my talks on related topics I have long stressed that clients are buying our solutions to their problems. We provide our knowledge, skills, experience and service so as to gain our clients’ trust and confidence. If we can do this and help clients to like us too, we stand a good chance of charging more than we would otherwise be able to so do.

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What do your clients want?

Further to yesterday’s blog about Professor Richard Susskind I am keen to highlight another observation he made during his talk. It’s actually a point I have been making for at least five years myself when advising accountants and lawyers on business development related issues.

There is an apocryphal story about a group of newly recruited executives at Black & Decker in the days when they only sold one basic product. They were asked what it was that their customers wanted from them.The standard answer was ‘drills’. “No” they were told. “Our customers want HOLES.”

In a similar vein the great Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to tell his students, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Ambitious professionals need to ensure they focus on the hole in the wall that their clients want. Professor Susskind noted that KPMG’s global mission statement identifies its aim “is to turn knowledge into value for the benefit of its clients, its people and the community”.

The key point for all of us here is that what our clients want are results.They are often indifferent as to how we get them. They will rarely care much about our internal processes and systems.

The next time you meet with a prospective client take a moment to find out what result they are seeking and focus your comments more on how this can be achieved than on how you and your firm operate. You may be surprised at the positive impact this can have.

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How evolved are your professional services?

Listening to Professor Richard Susskind speaking after dinner at the APP AGM last week I was struck by the logic of his predictions for the future of professional services.  There are lessons here for all ambitious professionals.

The Professor, who has long been a highly respected guru as regards the future of the legal profession, outlined the five stages of evolution that professional services are moving through.

First stage: The original bespoke or tailored service that seeks to directly match a client’s circumstances.  The professional works like an artist starting with a blank canvas;

Second stage: This involves the standardisation of the substance and process of the services such that advisers can avoid reinventing the wheel;

Third stage: Involves systemisation through the application of technology which allows advisers to automate some processes;

Fourth stage: Packaging. This will allow clients to drive and access information directly and will reduce the costs of delivery;

Fifth stage: Commoditisation. This will allow clients to access commonplace information and services directly online.

Many older professional advisers attempt to provide all clients with a bespoke service. This is fine if it’s what the client wants but it is inevitably more expensive than any of the evolved approaches to the provision of professional services.

Ambitious professionals would be well advised to ensure that they do not automatically provide a bespoke service to all clients.  Unless you only act for wealthy clients you will find that many of them would be happier paying the lower fees they would associate with an off-the-peg approach.  Beware too of charging bespoke level fees when you provide a standardised, systemised, packaged or commoditised service.  Once the client perceives this is what you are doing you will lose credibility and the justification for your fee levels.

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Good, bad or indifferent?

How do you think the majority of your clients would describe you AND how confident are you of that?

When I ask people to describe their relationship with their accountant I generally receive variations on only 3 basic answers. That is that the relationship is judged to be Good, bad or indifferent.  I would anticipate that the same is true across all professions.

What might we decide the different descriptions generally mean to ambitious professionals?

Good?
This implies that things couldn’t be better. Your clients believe that you do what they want, when they want it and for a fee that they consider to be excellent value for money. They are aware that they get pro-active advice and are very happy to recommend you to friends and family.

Bad?
Your 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 you. [How often do your clients give you valuable referrals?]

Indifferent?
This is how I would describe those clients who think their adviser is ‘okay’. This might be because you don’t wow the clients with great service nor do you charge high fees or upset the clients.

In my experience a very high proportion of people think their accountant is just ‘okay’. I think that’s sad and it’s one of the reasons that I look to help accountants provide better value to their clients.

How confident are you that your clients think that you are anything other than just ‘okay’?  The fact that they haven’t complained probably indicates that they they don’t think you’;re ‘bad’.  But equally you can’t assume that they think you’re good. Going back to the question I asked at the top of this item,  How do you think the majority of your clients would describe you AND how confident are you of that?

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Getting straight to the answer may not be best

Imagine your client collects all their receipts and asks you as their accountant to produce accounts (if required), a tax return and then to advise how much tax is payable. Alternatively the client may collate the information onto a spreadsheet or into a simple accounts package and then ask you the same question.

What approach do you take to get to the answer?

Automatic
Most accountants’ go through everything and then come up with the answers. In most cases the accountant will have had to make a choice as to whether various expenses can be offset against the client’s income for tax purposes. Again, in most cases the answers will be obvious, especially after years of experience. Where there is room for doubt the accountant may make an informed guess or may just ask the client to clarify the nature of the expense and the reason they spent spent the money.

To some people that approach sounds fine. It’s certainly all too common. The accountant has used his experience, knowledge and skills to best effect and has avoided taking up much of the client’s time.
There are three problems with this approach though and they contribute to the widespread view that some accountants don’t help their clients save tax:

  1. the accountant’s informed guesses will occasionally be wrong; and
  2. the client has no way of knowing how much the tax bill has been reduced by virtue of the decisions made by the accountant.
  3. The client will assume that the accountant hasn’t tried to reduce the tax bill. If the accountant had tried then surely he/she would have told the client how much he/she had saved them.

Two step
An alternative approach would be for the accountant to reach an initial conclusion re the profits and tax and to communicate this to the client AND to make it clear that “we may be able to reduce the tax bill depending on how we treat a number of items.”

Accountants who follow this second approach can be sure their clients will see them as helping to save tax. Now the odd thing is that the final tax bill may not be any different to the tax calculated by an accountant following the first approach.

Many accountants go the automatic route because it’s faster and because their experience is such that they feel confident that they can make the right informed guesses. As this route is faster they can charge their clients less than if they ‘budget’ for a two-step approach. So at first glance this would seem to be the best approach all round.

But put yourself in the shoes of the client who wants to be confident that their accountant has saved them tax. If you go the automatic route HOW WILL THE CLIENT KNOW WHAT YOU’VE DONE FOR THEM? You must tell clients what you’ve done and how much tax you’ve saved them. It’s too easy to forget and, as a consequence, to lose (or never get) the confidence of a client that you do help them to pay less tax.

It may take a little more time in the first year to dance the two-step but the client will be happier and will be more confident you’ve done your best for them.

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