How to Go from Seasonal Vendor to Trusted Partner
As CPAs and accounting firms emerge from another tax-filing season, you can almost hear the collective sighs of relief. Another year over…time to catch up!
With workloads abating and the slower summer season on the horizon, now is the perfect time to, not only return to normalcy, but to strategically focus on building the business for the long term. This year, I would invite owners of CPA firms to take the coming respite as an opportunity to reconsider the model of seasonal ups and downs that firms built largely around tax return service experience cyclically each year.
The episodic and acute nature of a business that only truly experiences client interaction in a single compressed timeframe is potentially detrimental to the long-term growth and viability of the modern CPA firm—especially as digital alternatives continue to mature, further commoditizing the tax-filing fee paradigm. With all client interaction confined to a month or two, and during a time of urgency and overwhelming workloads, there are limitations to how well an accountant can build genuine relationships with clients.
But what if there were more you could do? More you could offer? More opportunities to grow existing relationships and fortify virtually unbreakable bonds with you and your clients? How might that change the prospects for your personal future and that of your growing business?
8 Ways to Take this Off-Season to Go Full-Season, Full-Service
The guidance we provide for our trusted alliance business partners in the accounting profession is that the goal is to “touch” the client a minimum of six times per year. We’ll often map out a specific and intentional cadence to these touches as well, so as to smooth out the intensity of the existing client service cadence most CPA firms engage in, which is heightened in Q1, but sometimes non-existent the rest of the year.
We call this making the firm “fee-worthy” and “eminently referable.” It is a client service model that is more proactive, and not only reactive. When implemented successfully, the process elevants the CPA firm from the status of vendor to that of trusted business partner.
Here is a set of eight suggestions we bring to the table when partnering with owners of accounting firms to help them reformulate the nature of their existing client relationships. While certainly not an exhaustive list, these are eight considerations you can quickly evaluate and likely implement relatively easily this coming “off-season.”
1 - Two Additional “Off-Season” Consultation Meetings
The key here is to get on a predictable and repetitive cadence with the client, so that you’re not simply reacting to the “fire drill” of tax filing season once per year. You need to train the client to think of you as an extension of their organization, introducing accountability and communication into the relationship. These additional touch points, beyond building crucial rapport, will generate conversations that allow you to identify additional opportunities to provide service or support to the client, as well as to ask for referrals and introductions, now that you have time and space to field and entertain them.
Schedule a mid-season check-up in July and a year-end tax preparation meeting in October with every client (when things are slower for you).
2 - Seasons Greetings, Beyond the Predictable Seasons
One simple way to alter the nature of the client-vendor relationship is to inject some personal humanity into the client interaction cadence. We recommend systematizing a calendar of “friendly check-ins,” such as personally signed birthday cards, personal phone calls to extend birthday or anniversary wishes, or hand-written notes to celebrate the anniversary of your working relationship with the client, for example. The scheduling and systematization should be managed by your administrative support, so all you need to do is place the call, sign the card, or write the note. Everything else works like a well-oiled machine without your personal management and oversight necessary.
Once or twice per year, personally reach out to each client with nothing more than a personal hello or well wishes. No shop talk.
3 - Two Additional “Random” Phone Calls
While this should feel “random” and unexpected, this is another annual cadence that can and should be purposefully implemented and systematized, with prompts and time blocks on your calendar accounted for. Simply place a phone call to the client two additional times (beyond the birthday or anniversary touch point, if that is also a phone call for you) with no agenda, script or preconceived intention. That genuine spontaneity will be sensed and appreciated by the client, further altering the nature of the relationship in a good way—away from vendor status and closer to personal relationship. How many phone calls do you get like that from vendors per year? People take notice when they do.
Create a system for two additional phone calls per year, but leave enough spontaneity in the system to make the outreach feel random and genuine.
4 - Provide Tax Update Webinars When Laws or Regulations Change
Not only do you want to be considered something of a “friend” to your client constituents, you also need to be regarded as a trusted advisor. This means that when there are updates to laws and regulations that affect the clients you serve, you should be proactive about informing them—before a competitor does! Be the authority and counselor that you are, so clients never go looking elsewhere for answers and guidance.
Schedule at least one Webinar or “Lunch and Learn” per year, and be ready to host additional educational events as legislation dictates.
5 - Publish a Monthly Newsletter
Another great way to demonstrate domain expertise and industry knowledge is to regularly publish content that serves the client’s interests and education, but also your own interests in consistently reminding the client of your value and expertise. People have more access to news and information than ever before, and it’s highly likely that your competitors are publishing news, analysis and information on their websites and in their publications. You want to leave your clients confident that nothing is going unattended to or unaddressed, and a monthly newsletter will serve as that consistent reinforcement of expertise and information.
Publish one newsletter per month, informing clients of opportunities, best practices, changes in tax law, new services you offer, and anything else that will continue to strengthen your bond with the client.
6 - Take Your Top-20 Clients Out to Lunch Over the Next Year
Now that you will have a little more time in your day, create a plan that will enable you to treat 20 clients per year to lunch. First, identify who your best and most profitable clients are, and prioritize those as you plan. A casual lunch doesn’t need to be a business meeting—in fact, it shouldn’t be. There is no better way to build rapport than face-to-face, away from the demands and distractions of the office, and without technology or devices standing between you and the real person across the table.
Build your “Top-20 Clients” list and schedule one lunch meeting per year with each. That’s about one lunch meeting every two to three weeks.
7 - Have a Plan and Budget for Client Appreciation
Also specifically applicable to that Top-20 list you’ve built, you should establish a budget and a calendar for what we call “client appreciation events.” We’re not talking about parties that you invite a guest list to, but rather personal, one-on-one recreational excursions completely out of the work setting and mindset. Take a client to a ball game, or golfing, or to a comedy club with spouses. Inject more humanity into the client relationship, and change the way the client thinks of you…and when.
Take each client on your Top-20 list to one non-work-related event or excursion per year.
8 - Offer a Bookkeeping Service to Clients
We continue to hear how much need there is for reliable bookkeeping services these days. Too few accounting firms offer the service, and so many businesses have the need but lack the budget or workload to justify a full-time bookkeeper. If you want to make the client relationship “sticky” and continuous, start by offering bookkeeping services to your top clients and see how it goes. Our trusted alliance partners find it to be highly successful, in not only establishing additional (and more consistent) revenue streams, but also allowing the accountants to keep closer tabs on what’s happening in the business, so as to identify potential opportunities to expand the relationship, even beyond tax preparation and bookkeeping services!
Take this off-season to experiment with implementing bookkeeping services to a few clients, and expand the offering as results justify.
Be a Friender, Not a Vendor
It’s not all that difficult nor emotional to change vendors. It’s quite another thing to end a personal relationship that resembles something of a friendship.
If you’re only touching your clients once per year, at a time when you have the most amount of stressors in your life and the least amount of time, energy and rapport to give, it’s likely that your client thinks of you as a vendor.
But if you’re touching your clients at least six times per year, in a variety of ways that are sometimes professional and other times personal, you will change the nature of your relationship and start to forge authentic, lasting relationships with your clients. They will stay longer, run deeper, beget more opportunities for greater service, and naturally foster enthusiastic and confident referrals to their friends, family and colleagues.
You can either be a vendor or a “friender.” We recommend both.