Continuing with our third and final part of The Accounting Client Experience, let’s put ourselves in your clients’ shoes. How are clients treated when they visit your office?
The Front Desk
First, what is the demeanor of the person manning your front desk? Is the person naturally engaging and welcoming or is he/she naturally confrontational and off putting? Putting the right person in this role should be the first part of your policy.
Once you have the right person, what should the welcoming procedure be? This may differ depending on whether you have drop offs or appointments. Perhaps drop offs are warmly greeted, asked if they have any questions, asked if all the paperwork is in order and then they are informed they will be contacted with follow up questions. Finally, they are thanked by name and wished a good day.
An appointment client might be asked to have a seat and asked whether they would like coffee, tea or water. The accountant they are meeting is notified the client has arrived and the client is informed how long the wait will be if any. Upon leaving the office the appointment client is thanked (by name if possible) and wished a good day by the front desk staff.
A pleasant, well structured, and consistent front desk procedure will provide the clients with comfort and familiarity every time they visit the office and will go a long way to creating a great first impression and setting up a productive meeting. The opposite is true as well and I will confess that I no longer am a client of a very nice optometrist, who was highly referred and highly regarded, because I grew tired of how rude her front desk staff was to me and everybody else.
How does your staff greet clients? Is there a smile, a hello and a handshake? Is it a policy in your firm? It should be. Again, consistency assures that the clients expectations are in alignment with the experience. If I work for you and I have a great, warm greeting with the clients for six years and then leave the firm, what happens with those clients when they come in the next time and are given an indifferent greeting? It may not happen right away, but in time the relationship will deteriorate.
On a few occasions, I have been in firms where every person I passed in the hallway would offer me a hello or at least a smile. They didn't know me or why I was even in the office, but that made no difference. Talk about a welcoming environment.
Meeting with Clients
This is a substantial topic and there are many resources in the market for how to have a successful meeting, so I will again keep it very short and simple. I am always surprised when a practitioner complains that their meetings go too long because the client talks too much about personal stuff. This indicates one of two things to me, either the practitioner doesn’t value the relationship with their clients enough or they do not manage the meeting well. So, two fixes:
1) Control the meeting. Have an agenda for your meeting. I use a simple bullet pointed list of five items we are going to go over with the first being “Why am I here?” Your list should start with “Why are you here?” for new clients and “What has happened since our last meeting?” with returning clients. This is where you will catch up on the personal stuff.
2) Remember, the personal stuff is critical and listening to it tells the client you care. First, some of it will direct your work with them and, second, without it you are likely no different to them than any other practitioner they have worked with in the past. The use of an agenda will help you manage the time spent on personal stuff and empower you to move to other items without risking any offense.
Clarifying Next Steps
Every meeting or important conversation should end with discussing next steps. We call this providing a clear future. If it is a tax appointment, is anything else needed and if so when, when will the return be complete and filed, what else is required of the client and when will the next appointment take place. Finally, what will the next communication be (email, phone, appointment) and when will it occur?
Some of these might seem obvious, but policies and procedures for your front desk, for how to greet clients, for how to meet with them, and for how to determine next steps are critical in defining how your firm treats clients. Remember, how much a client likes your firm may have as much influence on them as the level of competence your firm demonstrates. It is often the difference in client retention and client referrals and can turn a short term client (2-3 years) that worked with a single preparer into a client with a 20 year relationship with several different preparers in your firm.