We’ve Been Doing Client Relations All Wrong

Specialty service firms often offer a product that is unique, difficult to understand, has long-term implementation and is very heavy on client participation. When the stakes are high, complicated and take a long-term commitment from everyone, it is critical that your client interactions are treated with as much interest as the technical components.

Even though we may be great at this specialty service, we can still go wrong on a job well-done.

These are the mistakes that we have been making:

1. No one here actually likes people

Let me clarify – no one here likes interacting with people while in the middle of a project. The firm is full of technically proficient accountants and they all have similar strengths and personality traits. They are task and deadline driven. They do well under pressure. They are highly analytical. They like to work undisturbed and prefer to work alone rather than in social settings. These technical people drive great results, but they aren’t proficient in people pleasing. These personalities don’t place a high value on soft skills. They prefer not to be interrupted and certainly not for a discussion about the weather or your kid’s last soccer game. These employees are fantastic for the services we offer, but they don’t do anything to draw in new customers or keep clients coming back for more. So, who is going to talk to the people?

2. Client Relations is an Add-On Job

Most firms don’t want to sacrifice billable hours for an expense line item. As a result, we pile the role of client relations onto someone who is also expected to bill and produce. As a result, client relations duties are almost a punishment. If I do this, then I won’t make my production goals. I will get bad reviews. I will qualify for less profit sharing. So…I’m not really going to do this.

3. Too Many Cooks in the Clients’ Kitchen

We’ve tried letting all of our staff communicate with clients. The idea is that the direct line meant we can take care of issues faster and develop more personal connections to the client. The problem is that none of those communicators were told they were also in client relations and they certainly weren’t trained for it. As a result, clients got too many calls and emails and never got that personal touch from the firm. They were inundated with questions, requests and tasks. It had turned the tables so that clients felt like they were serving us! Not to mention the personality clashes! Some clients asked to never have to speak with certain auditors again!

4. I Believe My Work Speaks for Itself

We assumed our superior service spoke for itself. We turn great results which in turn gave the clients spectacular revenue boosts to their budgets. We thought this alone would make for happy clients. As it turns out, the contacts responsible for giving us business were not personally affected by our positive results. The individuals approving projects only received more work as a result of assigning a project. While it’s nice to say that the project you approved created money for the organization, our clients more often cared about how much effort the project took from them and how much credit they got for a job well done. The quality of our work and our results didn’t actually matter to the people giving us the work! They needed validation and to be included in the process so that it was their success as well.

5. Undervalued the Local Culture

I believed my experience and previous successes spoke for themselves. It’s a professional world and I have the resume to back it up. I soon learned that in the South it mattered more who had heard of me and where I was from. It was about addressing clients as Miss or Mister and then their first name. It was about being able to talk fishing, LSU football and all things Southern foods. It was about knowing each area’s claim to fame and making a personal tie to the people in an area. I had to know and have experienced getting stuck on a bridge backup in traffic. My clients needed to know that I knew about their lifestyle before handing me more work.

6. We Learned the Lesson and Then we Lost It

Our haphazard approach to client relations meant we learned things on trial and error. We learned tidbits about our clients and how to please them over the years; but as staff and positions changed, we lost that valuable information. No one recorded that Joe only responded to one person within our firm. Betty doesn’t assign audits on local companies because she has to see them in church. Client A can only handle X number of audits. Client B expects perfection every single time. Each time a client had to remind us of their preferences, we lost a little bit of their trust.

Now we know what we’ve been doing wrong. What are we doing to fix it? Eh…still figuring that one out.

For starters the role of client relations is now directed and planned by the top manager. This is someone who is least impacted by other mechanical and technical projects and the most connected with strategic plans. Systems and tools are going in place to capture and keep those lessons. Our culture is starting the slow shift to also value soft skills, friendly phone calls and idle chit-chat. We are producing content that is less about what we need and more about what clients would enjoy seeing. The changes are helping, but we are learning that client relations require creativity and constant adaptation.

Carrie Stephenson
Carrie Stephenson is an indirect tax specialist and audit firm manager. She combines her experience in the field of auditing with her interest in personal growth in order to serve as an “audit mom” for her team. Carrie is passionate about bringing fresh perspective and creativity to problem solving both at home and in the office.

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