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Best Practices to Retain Best Clients

Reprinted with permission from Inside Public Accounting

In the past, the notion of retaining top clients was one of those motherhood/apple pie kinds of things. Nobody could argue with it, but nobody was doing much about it either. Today we know a lot about the art and science of client retention. The good news is you don’t have to be an artist or a scientist to achieve success.

I recommend a strategy that requires targeting your best (and highest potential) clients and bolstering your value to them through a focused and purposeful program.

Because All Clients Are Not Created Equal

The most important clients are those who are paying you the most today, those with the potential to hire and pay you the most tomorrow, and those who are strategically significant – for example influential in their industry or buyer group. Also in the “important” category are at-risk clients – those you might be at-risk of losing.

The first step is to sort your clients, high to low on revenue invoiced. Determine how many clients comprise the most significant percentage of revenue, and add strategically significant and at-risk clients to the list.

The second step is to ensure that these clients have someone assigned who is responsible for overall client relationship management.

Then implement a process I call client opportunity planning. The goal of such an initiative is to be able to answer yes to the question: “Are we doing everything possible for this client?” In an internal review partners and managers come to a client opportunity planning session (about an hour per client) prepared to answer a specific set of questions about the client. What’s been done for them? What changes have occurred in the industry or business? Answer these and others and brainstorm widely about solutions. The client opportunity session should include other partners in the firm – industry and service line leaders, who will be able to add ideas to strengthen the client relationship and identify additional opportunities. Stack up several reviews in a day, and set aside a day each quarter to rotate reviews.

Digging Deeper

Then perform an external review, which involves meeting with the client to discuss the strategic direction of the business and how you can help achieve it. An external review can be enhanced by a tactic I learned while at IBM. It’s known as CAPS for Client Annual Progress Summary.

This is a formal, annual process in which you set down in writing, then review with the client everything you’ve done during the year. This helps solidify your perceived value and can then lead to a discussion of future opportunities.

CAPS is a proactive process. As such, it is foreign to some CPAs who tend to react to situations rather than anticipate needs. In challenging economic times, CAPS can be a significant opportunity builder – a chance to let your client know that you are leaving no stone unturned in your effort to serve. This not only strengthens the client bond, but often results in discovering additional opportunities to assist them.

Finally, I recommend each partner rank all their clients from high to low on a spreadsheet based upon the strength of their relationship with them, as follows:

• 5 – We contribute to their strategic issues
• 4 – We contribute to their operational issues
• 3 – We provide good service and go the extra mile
• 2 – We deliver a good service
• 1 – We deliver a commodity that meets specifications

From here the objective is to focus on activities over the year which will move clients to a higher number. At the end of each year compare where each client is versus the year prior. Constantly look at the list and aspire to move each client up to the next level. At a “5” you truly have become a trusted advisor.

The key to client retention and growth is to move beyond an ad hoc approach which relies on the best efforts of individual partners, to developing a firm-wide process which features a systematic, team-based approach to strengthening your relationships with your best clients.