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Beyond Client Service

Reprinted with permission from CPA Practice Management Forum

Listen closely and you’ll hear it ….the sound of pessimism. The pundits are saying the glory days are behind us. They’re predicting that the flood of business we’ve seen in the past five years or so will soon slow to a trickle and manna will no longer fall from the skies.

I strongly disagree. I suggest they continue gazing upward. They may not see anything falling, but, if they look hard enough, they’ll see gold glinting from the hills, waiting to be mined.

But it won’t happen using traditional client service methods, and here’s why: About 90 percent of what passes for “client service” is backward-glancing activity that fails to identify future opportunities. Many firms don’t have a systematic process to discuss maintaining and enhancing client service for their most important clients. And of the firms that do have a process, such as periodically meeting to assess delivery performance, many do not involve other partners in the firm beyond the client team. Even fewer firms have an internal strategic planning process to identify new opportunities to provide additional solutions to clients. It’s time to redefine “service” as “opportunity planning” and use it as an upstream predictor of future success.

Renewable Resource

Existing clients can be viewed as a renewable resource. When I was with the large computer division of IBM, 100% of our revenue came from the current client base. We got very good at identifying additional opportunities from those clients. The opportunity-planning process we used works amazingly well at CPA firms. But it is a process, not a quick fix.

A client opportunity planning process starts with identifying which clients to include in the process based upon current revenue, potential opportunity, strategic significance, and client satisfaction.

Avoid the temptation to boil the ocean

Reduce and refine the number of current clients you’ll be including in the process by first determining how many make up what percentage of your firm’s revenue. For example, in a typical mid-size firm, 39 clients make up 39 percent of revenue. Round that up to 40 and schedule internal opportunity planning sessions of 10 clients per day for 4 days, based on about an hour per review. Space the planning days out over weeks or months so the task isn’t onerous.

Narrow your reach

Starting with your largest clients makes sense because these are often the clients which have more opportunities. However, add to the list any clients which are strategically significant or at-risk.

Although the temptation might be to apply the process to most or all of your clients, limiting the number as you’re refining the process gives you the opportunity to spend time where you’ll get the biggest return on your efforts. Planning takes time, and over time you’ll be able to get better at selecting which clients should be included in the program.

Tailor the client review team

Successful client opportunity planning requires that the right people are in the room. That means not only the individual perceived to have relationship management responsibility for the client, but other partners with whom there is an industry or service-line fit. The overall client opportunity planning process should be led by the individual most willing to own the process – this can be a partner, business director or a marketing director. This person can be responsible for capturing an inventory, on a simple excel template, of all the opportunities uncovered throughout the sessions. These can feed directly into the firm’s pipeline.

Individual client opportunity planning reviews should be led by each partner with the formal or tacit responsibility for client relationship management. Prior to the session, each of these partners should complete and share a simple form designed to capture relevant information that could have a bearing on opportunity planning. The information would include current and potential revenues by service line, client contacts, firm people involved in the relationship, overall strategy, and top three next steps.

When the right people share and exchange, creative synergy reveals new opportunities. For example, the tax service line leader might hear indicators of opportunities for ancillary services such as SALT, R&D tax credits, or tax consulting based upon client size, industry, client strategic direction, exit and succession plans, etc. An industry leader may ask penetrating questions about the client’s involvement in lean/six sigma (manufacturing), bonding requirements (construction), or audit committee fiduciary responsibility (NFP). Especially in a firm where partners have clients in a variety of industries, the industry leader can provide significant input to shepherd the client partner through identification of opportunity indicators. Indicators are those conditions that would lead a knowledgeable expert to suspect that there is opportunity in a given area.

In a recent set of reviews the tax service line leader took me aside and exclaimed, “I had no idea we had so many potential opportunities to provide additional services in our largest clients. We’ve been so overworked with the volume of simple tax returns that we haven’t had a chance to step back and see where our largest potential is.”

In another set of reviews it because obvious to all by the end of the day that no one felt they owned the overall client relationship. Each service area was operating as a silo and barely knew what others were doing. The only one with total visibility to the firm’s myriad relationships was the client! This started the firm down the road of strengthening the job description and formal responsibility for a client relationship partner program.

Signs of Success

Successful opportunity planning is easy. One clear sign is that the process is not the duty of one person, but is a collaborative responsibility that yields unanticipated patterns and opportunities, such as those mentioned above. These patterns, in turn, help determine the direction of the firm’s service offerings and communications. A successful process will also uncover gaps in a firm’s resources and processes; and filling those gaps leads to improvements and positive growth.

Don’t waste your time assessing client service – good service is a given. Instead, look down the road through a strategy based on assessing clients and leveraging their future relationship with your firm. It’s a golden opportunity you can’t afford to miss.