Accountants have a distinct advantage over most other service professionals. Your clients need your help on an ongoing basis, at least once a year and often more frequently than this.
This leads some accountants to be a little complacent about client retention – certainly as compared with most solicitors and financial advisers. When I have asked about client retention rates it seems many established accountants continue working for the clients they want to keep for upwards of ten years.
All too often however there is a tendency to assume that clients are happy as long as they aren’t complaining. But this is to mistake laziness with loyalty, confusion with confidence and adequacy with admiration.
Think about the last time you took on a new client from another accountant. Sure the client wasn’t happy with them but had they made this clear to your predecessor before announcing they were appointing you to take over? In the vast majority of cases I hear about clients don’t bother to complain, they simply decide to move on. I wonder how many of your clients might be at risk of being poached by other accountants who are taking an active approach to seeking out new clients? Can you be confident that your client base is safe from attack?
What then has the biggest influence on your ability to retain clients? Some accountants think it’s their willingness to keep their fees low. That may be the case occasionally. But clients don’t always move to get a cheaper service. And when they do there is normally another catalyst.
Another view is that it’s all down your accounting skills and the quality of your service. To you doing a good job. I don’t think that’s the full story either. And I think it’s too easy to kid yourself if you focus here in isolation. I have seen plenty of accountants hang on to clients even after there have been mistakes, errors or oversights.
This gives us a clue as to the what is the biggest influence on your ability to retain clients.
I firmly believe that the biggest influence of your ability to retain clients is whether they appreciate that you care about them.
This ability requires you to demonstrate a number of key business skills.
Reliability – You do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it. Clients can rely on you to anticipate their needs, their fears and their concerns. They know you won’t leave things to the last minute and that you are consistent in your approach. You’re reliable.
Credibility – Your style and advice make sense and are believable. You don’t make promises that you can’t keep. You don’t simply assert or claim to have relevant experience and knowledge. You evidence your experience, expertise and knowledge without boasting or name dropping. You and your advice are credible.
Appearance – You look the part. Your office inspires confidence. Your emails, letters, marketing materials and printed work are free of mistakes, typos and poor English. You and your work come across well.
Responsiveness – You are client focused. You return all phone calls and reply to all emails, letters and text messages promptly. You are contactable and able to prioritise so as to avoid ever being too busy to help a client on a timely basis. You respond appropriately to your clients’ needs, fears and requests.
And, perhaps, most importantly of all, Empathy
It’s not enough that you think you care about your clients. The question is whether they appreciate this. How well do you evidence that you care like you say you do?
There are a number of ways in which you can evidence that you really care and empathise with your clients.
Clients can sense whether you really care about them from the way that you speak to and deal with them. They can hear it in your voice and this is confirmed by your written communications.
Your letters, emails and text messages must all be written with the client in mind. Clients should not need to struggle to understand your jargon, technical guidance and where you are coming from. If you really empathise with your clients you will make clear any assumptions on which your advice is based.
A key part of the empathy you need to be able to evidence here is that you recognise that each client may want and need a different approach. They have different preferences and priorities. It also requires you to ask appropriate open questions, listen to the answers and to adapt your style, service and approach accordingly.
When something goes wrong, then, if you really care about your client, you will need to demonstrate your emotional intelligence. In this context this means being honest and open and asking the client how they would want you to make amends so that you can show you care enough to get things sorted to their satisfaction.
Let’s go back for a moment and consider why clients choose to change accountants. In every survey and straw poll I have ever seen, and those I have run myself, the overriding reason for dissatisfaction is the client’s perception that their old accountant didn’t care about them.
An analogy might be helpful here.
Do you give every client who comes to a meeting with you a black coffee, no sugar and no milk? NO. You ask them what they would like to drink. You give them a choice. If enough people start asking for herbal tea, or oat milk you get some in so that you don’t disappoint anyone else.
I’ve heard some firms who even have a client’s favourite drink ready when they arrive. Brilliant. It shows you care about what they like to drink.
In the same way accountants who want to reduce churn need to ask clients more about their preferences, priorities and previous experiences. Then you can show you care when serving them and advising them.
You need to show you care enough by everyone on the team knowing what is required in this regard by each client. Not just what they like to drink!
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