Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A “Conversation” With Your Clients – Part 2

Congratulations! For so many of you whose professional life is driven by the Form 1040, I applaud your survival of the annual scramble to put four pounds of work into a two pound bag.

To continue the theme from the last post, I am writing from the perspective of a consultant who is suggesting some options you might consider to maintain a close relationship with your practice’s most valuable clients. This is important because- assuming other factors are essentially similar – client retention rates are greatly influenced by how the professional relationship is viewed from the client’s perspective. More contact is better and less is, well, worse.

Of course, you can overdo it, but we’re talking about 3 – 5 “quality” contacts a year as a nice base. This is enough contact to develop a real relationship – which will include some personal elements – as opposed to a professional, working only relationship. If your client is someone you meet with monthly or quarterly on a steady basis to, for example, review financials, you still need to ensure there is some personal time thrown into the equation. This can be a relaxed lunch, golf, attending a baseball game or the like.

The best way to do achieve and maintain connection with a client is to have an ongoing “conversation” with them. By “conversation,” I mean you find the means to engage them several times throughout the year. Some of these “touches” can be remote (e.g. send them an article relevant to their situation along with an accompanying note) or personal (e.g. have lunch together). The most important thing is that the touches not be “canned.” In other words, sending out the same Christmas card you send all your clients and contacts is not a touch as we’re using the word. It has no personal quality about it. However, if you sent the client a personalized card; addressed to them individually with a hand written note enclosed, that would pass the test.

What action steps might make up a well-crafted plan designed to accomplish this goal, and how do you know which clients you should select for this effort?

First of all, we know that not all of your clients are really important to the success of your practice. However, there is a minority that you consider to be really important. They may be valuable for several reasons, e.g. their annual billings are among the highest from your client base, they send you great referrals, they are expanding rapidly, they are a center of influence, etc.

My recommendation is that you select these special clients and develop a communication plan for each one. This doesn’t need to be as formal as it sounds, but it should include a number of touches spaced relatively evenly throughout the year. Suspend the plan in your (or a staff member’s) calendar so you will be reminded on a timely basis to, for example, invite Ted to a Charger’s game or Gail to lunch.

Maybe send a personal note of congratulations when Marsha’s son graduates from West Point or the local college. Or, make a habit of getting together with each of them right after tax season and have a “so-what’s-the-upcoming-tax-year-look-like” meeting. It’s a good time to talk about long term plans, goals and strategy. Generally these discussions get into personal aspects of the client’s life. It affords you an opportunity to weave the financial picture and personal elements together and make sure what you are doing for them really is helping the client get where they want to go monetarily and personally.

You are only limited by your imagination in terms of what are the most effective or desirable touches for each special client on your list. You’ll come up with good ideas so long as you make sure they aren’t cookie-cutter, formularistic or otherwise impersonal.

By becoming closer with these premium clients, you are creating the foundation for very long lasting and rewarding relationships characterized by excellent revenue, interesting work and long-term tenure.

A “Conversation” With Your Clients – Part 1

I realize all of you are doing double duty as April 15th approaches, but here’s a bit of light reading for a respite from the weightier tax matters you are dealing with…

One thing corporate marketers are paid to do is maintain a link between their company and its customers. The marketers often refer to this effort as first establishing and then maintaining a “conversation” with their customer base.

Why do they do this? Their goals are multiple – placing their company in a positive light, creating loyalty, reinforcing the “brand,” generating future sales and promoting positive word of mouth by the customer.

Accountants have the same need for their business. The reality is that most readers of this blog don’t talk with their clients – even their good clients – often enough. The reason is that they don’t literally need to. To explain: If the client has their data and documents in decent order that’s pretty much all that is needed to prepare the necessary filings. Oh, there might be a quick phone call or two to clarify some point, but nothing like a real conversation.

But, so what? Do you HAVE to talk with clients more than is necessary to do their work? I believe the answer is ‘yes’ if they are an “A” level client (businesses or non-profits, high worth individuals, big trusts, etc. that populate the list of your high revenue clients). Here’s why: I advise accountants all the time about how they can convert desirable prospects into clients. Invariably, these prospects already have an accountant. In effect, I am coaching them to succeed in their campaign to lure that client away from you. I proceed with the assumption that these clients aren’t receiving sufficient attention, and only rarely am I wrong. It may take six months or even more, but we are successful often enough for you to be concerned. Don’t make it easy for a competitor to seduce one of your good clients away from you and over to their practice.

Therefore, my advice is that you maintain an ongoing conversation with your best clients. If you stay in touch with them and build a real relationship, do their work competently and charge prevailing rates in the community, you will be in pretty good shape if someone else comes along with the objective of stealing them.

How do you maintain a conversation? I’ll write a more detailed post after tax season, but here’s one suggestion that is perfect for tax season: First, complete the return and prepare it for mailing. When everything is ready to seal in its envelope, grab a colorful 3M “stickie” and handwrite a message with a similar effect to the following: “(name) take a look at line (X) on form (X). We should talk about this as you go forward. Rgds, (your first name).”

You can find some issue in ANY return that merits discussion. If they are making a killing, then the focus can be upon ameliorating future state and/or fed tax burdens. If there is some sort of decline of revenue, margins, pretax, bank line, borrowing ability, etc. then the issue can be to talk about strategies to reverse the trend(s).

Why a handwritten stickie? It shows that you took a special interest in the client’s personal situation. You have demonstrated a concern for their individual welfare/success. You are reaching out and honoring them as a person. The handwritten stickie reflects a bit of you. You are giving them attention. It is not the action of a cold, withdrawn “professional” maintaining a formal and distant connection via form letters signed by staff but instead a humanistic action undertaken by you personally. The act isn’t one by someone who is treating the client as merely one account among hundreds who are processed and spit out by a high volume, impersonal production line. And so forth…

Yes, you are correct… it is all about feelings. The client will feel a connection. In all likelihood that little stickie will lead to a later conversation – a real one – where you will have the opportunity to talk about issues that can lead to project work, consulting, planning, etc. Even if it doesn’t, you have touched your client in a humanistic, individual manner and that always positively affects retention and referrals.

Powerful stuff. Give it a try.