Monday, August 31, 2009

Keys To Retaining Clients

Just spent a little over a week at Arch Cape on the Oregon coast. Had a rental house almost on the beach. Perfect weather. Hiking, bicycles on the beach, firepit going at sunset. The whole program. It was great. When we got back home we discovered the cat had “eliminated” several times on our bed. That had never happened before. I think we can infer she was annoyed by our absence! Welcome home, dad. Sheesh! OK, back to work.

Keys To Retaining Clients

Retaining a good client is much, much easier than finding a new one. In fact, the better the client the harder they are to replace. Accountants are busy – often VERY busy at various times of the year – and it is daunting to find the time to give even your best clients the attention they should receive.

Surveys of clients who leave accountants and lawyers are pretty consistent in their findings that the number one reason unrelated to excessive cost or poor work quality is lack of communication. Lack of response is right up there too, which is a pretty close cousin if not in the immediate communication family.

With time so scarce, whom do you stay in touch with? If the client is a $400 1040-only client you probably shouldn’t worry much, if at all, whether you talk with them during the year. If they are a $20,000 business and personal returns client you most assuredly will communicate with them. More than once, in fact.

Somewhere in-between is a demarcation below which you won’t have the time to talk with them with any consistency. And that’s OK. You do what you can do. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Just make sure you never let an “A” level client – one in the top 20 – 25% in terms of revenue – come to the conclusion you aren’t interested in them and their business.

Let’s assume your fees are consistent with your market and that the quality of your work is similarly in tune. So, the number one retention requirement is to maintain a sufficient level of communication with at least your better clients. Over the years this issue has been a fairly constant problem in my consulting engagements and I’ve kept a file of how various clients have dealt successfully with this challenge.

Here are some of the communication tactics extracted from those notes:

— Planning. You always want to do more business with your clients and a planning session accomplishes a number of things simultaneously. The planning session will cement the relationship for the coming year, perhaps identify some additive work you can do and occasion a heart-to-heart, bonding discussion with the client about all manner of topics that are important to them (e.g. retirement, sending kids to college, buying the vacation house, expanding the business, etc.). If you have the planning meeting somewhere near year-end or January, and then have another meeting around tax time, those are excellent first steps. Plus, you get to bill them for the time for both.

— Projects. Often a planning meeting results in project work, but you can also create project work by leveraging your knowledge of the client’s financial circumstances into a project. For example, it probably makes a lot more sense to engage you for a few hours to run some projections to determine how much revenue the client’s new sales office needs to break even before they invest the $100,000+ it takes to get the office open, staffed and subsidized until it is paying for itself. Like planning, projects are the perfect opportunity to have a meaningful discussion with the client. One or more hours of quality communication that once again you get to charge for!

— Advice/consulting. Pretty much the same as the prior two bullets. Your time with the client serves multiple purposes of bonding with the client, enhancing your probabilities of working with them well into the future, having a quality communication and getting paid for your efforts.

— Birthdays or other major anniversaries. Suspend appropriate date(s) in your or a staff person’s computer and a week before the event send them a hand-written note or card containing appropriate congratulations and/or best wishes. Surveys have consistently shown that hand written notes are greatly valued by recipients. Combine the note/card with some flowers, candy, or something more individualized and you have just created an impactful communication that may have required only the time to scribble your signature.

This is going to be too long, so I’ll save the rest for the next post.

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