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By Emma Crawford-Falekaono, Managing Director, EMEA at Ignition

The accounting sector, like many other service sectors, is built upon a foundation of successful client relationships. After all, without a solid reputation to tap into, accounting businesses would struggle to gain a competitive edge in the professional services marketplace.

And yet accountants and bookkeepers still buy into the notion that products and services are their main selling point, rather than the full benefits which they offer. The reality, of course, is that the path to true competitive advantage and parity in today’s market is through offering a high-quality customer centric engagement – and then using products and services to boost this.

With that in mind, this piece will look at the critical nature of client relationships, how accountants can engage with clients in the right way, and the solutions that can be put in place to streamline processes, save time, and ultimately put firms on a better footing for future success for both them and their customers.


The importance of client relationships

Customer experience sits at the core of all businesses. For that reason, when looking to improve experiences for their clients, accountants need to make sure they’re considering the end user at every point in the journey. They must recognise that deadlines are not just one stakeholder deep – but are likely in place because of that stakeholder’s own customer needs.

To help manage expectations, there are three essential rules of thumb to remember: establish a clear objective from the outset; manage client work against team capacity; and communicate early and honestly.

The first rule involves being clear about the specific goal that the client wants to achieve and how the accountant as an advisor can support them. The advisor-client relationship needs to be built on a strong foundation to succeed, so even before the client signs the engagement, it’s important to decide if the client is the right fit based for the relationship to succeed, and the relationship works both ways. There will be cases where advisors know they cannot support a client for a particular reason and they should be clear with them here, but also offer a helpful suggestion of who else might be able to help – either internally or externally.

Secondly, advisors need to effectively manage client work against team capacity as the Microsoft Work Trend Index reveals that the time spent in meetings has increased by over 252% since February 2020. As a result there is more pressure to get work done in the remaining hours of the day.

Talent shortages in the accountancy sector have made this all the more challenging by adding  more pressure  – 74% of firms said in a survey that they were feeling the strain from a lack of skilled workers. To work towards resolving this, accountancy firms can make sure they’re providing their people with the right applications and software to automate repetitive time-consuming tasks. Giving employees helpful tools to carry out their jobs will make them happier and more optimistic in their roles, creating more time for them to expand on and develop their skillsets.

With accountancy companies facing staff shortages, they need to be extra careful to ensure that they can keep up with client demands and not leave them disappointed – and making sure employees are kept happy and supported is the first step in achieving this. 

Finally, accountants should communicate with clients early and honestly to clarify the scope of work so they can be clear on expectations from the onset. In fact, Ignition’s 2022 State of Client Engagement survey found that 90% of UK accountants and bookkeepers have encountered an awkward client situation, which can be down to chasing late payments or advising clients that the work they have requested is out of the agreed scope.

To avoid this, advisors must be transparent from the beginning of the client engagement process to ensure they are providing an honest and valuable service.


Engaging in the right way

Professional disputes can ruin client relationships, but they can be prevented by communicating with clients in the right way. Part of this involves unpacking the responsibilities of both parties. Accountants should outline their scope of services, project timeframes and commensurate remuneration agreements with clients before starting any work with them. What’s more, they should also be clear on what they expect clients to provide them with so that they can do the best job possible.

Clarity and transparency are building blocks in the trusted advisor relationship. Sometimes clients might be going through a difficult time and will not divulge information. In that situation, the role of the advisor is to open channels of communication with the client. They should ask further questions when things are unclear to ensure that the client’s ultimate objectives are achieved. In many cases, the accountant is the only person who the client is willing to share their most sensitive business information with, and accountants should feel confident taking this role on.

Automating processes can also improve engagement by freeing up advisors time to focus on the things that matter to clients. According to Ignition’s latest research, 31% of accountants address awkward client situations but then absorb the increased time and costs themselves. Tasks such as proposals, engagement letters and payments can and should be automated, ensuring that instead, advisors can use their time to provide counsel to clients on the issues that are important to them. 

Challenges and the solution

Accountants and professional services advisors can sometimes be prevented from being at the coalface of their clients’ businesses due to capacity issues, despite the desire to be integrated into every customers’ business. Therefore they sometimes lack a thorough grasp of their clients’ wants and needs. To combat this, accountants and bookkeepers should create a centralised system of knowledge to provide good customer service, such as examples of best practice and previous interactions with customers.

This knowledge repository of client information is also useful for accountants, such as information on internal briefings, conversations, and internal communications. If information is not centrally located, then errors can be made in client communications and they cannot be serviced in the best way possible.

It is particularly useful to have a client history on file, with information such as the previous services that a client has used, previous complaints and the timeline expectation for services. Investing in a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system is one of the best ways to do this, as they allow better access to data and integrate across key business systems. By fully utilising centrally located client information, accountants can maximise the quality of their service delivery.

Accountants should, first and foremost, remember that their businesses benefit because of the goodwill of clients who trust them to be their advisors. When it comes to engaging with clients in the right way, accountants should remember to follow the above steps to always be on the front foot – rather than risk losing clients because they didn’t provide a best-in-class service.

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