Unleash the Power of the Face to Face – It’s All About Value for Clients

While speaking at a recent online practice management conference I asked attendees this question, “How long do you spend with your clients face-to-face over the period of a year?” I waited while attendees responded to their onscreen prompts. The results of the online survey were:

Time spent with clients during a yearResponses %
Less than 30 minutes10
31 to 60 minutes30
61 to 90 minutes30
91 to 120 minutes20
Over 120 minutes10

This just highlights one facet of client service and that is the variation between one accountant and another. Often the reason advanced for not spending time with clients is that the client cannot afford to pay or, on the other, the practitioner’s inability or unwillingness to engage with the client to any great extent beyond delivering the compliance service.

What is the purpose of the business?

I have asked this question in many of my management workshops on ‘Outstanding Client Service’ countries and invariably the first response is, “to make a profit”. As I stand waiting for further suggestions it is usually not long before I hear the right answer which is to ‘meet the needs of our clients.’ 

Jim Collins wrote in Built to Last that, “Profitability is a necessary condition for existence and a means to more important ends, but it is not the end in itself for many of the visionary companies. Profit is like oxygen, food, water and blood for the body; they are not the point of life, but without them there is no life.”

Profit is an [important] outcome of managing a successful business – the extent to which you meet and exceed clients’ needs and your willingness to charge what you are worth will determine the economic return you achieve from the business. So, let us spend some time looking at our client service – how this is evolving and how to adapt to an ever-changing business and regulatory landscape.

The lesson from the iceberg of time

As Captain John Edward Smith discovered as the Titanic struck ice – as much of 90 per cent of the volume of the iceberg is below the surface and not visible. If you look at your calendar and time records across the practice you will probably find that a similar number of your firm’s hours are not visible to your clients. Now, I accept that watching you prepare a tax return or financial statements is never going to make compelling viewing – just as I no longer care how my car is serviced – all I am interested in is my vehicle fit for purpose and capable of safely carrying me to my destination. Likewise, once your clients have provided you with the necessary records they probably think little about the work you are performing until the work is completed and the quantum of the tax and accountancy bill are available for assimilation. After all, clients don’t return for a second audit or another tax return until the regulatory demands arise once more, isn’t that the case?

Key point: The value in your service is in the client’s confidence that you have done a really good job and the tax liability minimised coupled with the time they were with you listening to your wisdom and good counsel. 

Key observation: Probably 90 per cent of the value clients derive from your service is delivered in the time you spend with your clients. Like with the car engine, clients assume your competency, capability and professionalism. But, if 70 per cent of accountants spend less than 90 minutes with clients, there is undoubtedly scope for using your enhanced time capacity and expertise to meet with clients. Improve your service by going beyond compliance related advice

Meeting with clients

This is a subject explored in IGNITE Practice Management and so I will outline here an approach to planning your quantum of client meetings. I recommend you calculate below the [potential] number of client meetings you could aspire to have with your clients in the next 12 months.

Client categoryNumber of clientsNumber of meetingsYour meeting
A clientsI recommend four meetings a year including two non compliance
B clientsI recommend that you allow one to two meetings dependent on your client
C clientsProbably half these clients will require a meeting
New clientsI recommend that you meet with at least half of your new clients three times in the first year
Total Projected Meetings

If you total up your projected meetings for the next twelve months, divide by 12 and then compare the answer with the number of client meetings you have held in the last three months you might find there is good opportunity to increase your number of client meetings.

What is your visible time target?

Consulting with firm owners has enabled me to see how their motivation has increased as they have explored their focus on client meetings. Several of my clients voluntarily send me their spreadsheets at the end of every month so I can see the progress they are making. Some practitioners are holding more than 30 meetings a month with, on average, over 40 hours a month being accounted for in these meetings. The bottom line impact? As definable value increases so too does utilisation, average billing rate and realisation.  

Key point: Looking at your client list calculate the number of meetings you could – and should – hold with your clients.

A word of caution

Seek to limit the extent to which you give non-compliance advice at a compliance meeting. Instead use your time to establish the reasons for a separate meeting to discuss topics such as business planning, margin and/or profit improvement, cash flow management, business growth and development, mergers and acquisitions, wealth management, retirement planning and so on. There is often a tendency to explore these matters at a compliance-based client meeting however, advice and discussions are best held at a separate meeting – that gives you and the client time to prepare – and you will have a clearly defined billable event.

Key action: Review your last year’s fee notes – what is the total fee income for separately identified non-compliance services? Then deduct from this total those fees where the need for the service was initiated by the client – e.g. the sale of a business or other situations where the client was the instigator for the service you have provided. What is that as a percentage of your fee income? If I were to suggest that, for a firm traditionally strong in offering compliance services, this could be as much as 30 per cent – how much would that increase your fee income by? So for now, start tracking the number of meetings you hold each month and do all you can to increase your time in meetings.

A word of understanding

Yes, it is easier to deliver the compliance services, but remember that you are your clients’ number one advisor. You owe it to yourself and your client to not just certify the past but to help your clients to achieve their goals and ambitions. Make yourself integral to that process and in so doing make yourself irreplaceable.

Want to learn more?