Post busy season seems to be the most practical time to process what is being discussed and not discussed. Here are several areas where you need to be listening, in order to drive the communication process:
1. Reception and Rapport – First impressions are often lasting ones. The dialogue that your receptionist and support staff creates with outside callers/inquirers will set the stage for the caliber of communication that will be reflected in your practice. The nature and quality of dialogue and level of satisfaction needs to be assessed, front and center. Too many accounting firms presume that their communication is solid because complaints are few. The fact of the matter is that you learn a great deal from complaints.
We live in a society where many client service functions have been outsourced and dehumanized, but when it comes to professional services, people want relationships and respect. Clients typically want to feel that the right arm and left arm are linked, and that they are in a stage of mutual awareness and concern. Listening and coaching the members of your organization will allow you to improve your service model, and establish a firm personality that will be endearing and effective.
2. Client Chatter – Clients who pay their bills in a timely manner are always welcome in CPA firms. Paying on time, referring other clients, and reaching out for additional help or advice are qualities that place these particular clients in the "Hall of Fame." Inspiring a client to turn to your firm for additional work requires a comfort level, on their behalf, to engage you in conversation, and an awareness and perception that some good can come from turning to your firm.
Helping clients facilitate positive conversation about your firm is easiest when they perceive you as good listeners, and feel there is a mutual bond. Your "A" and "B" clients must be approached with consistency and holistic dialogue. Develop a regimen for client conversation and create an impact by delving into what keeps them up at night and how they measure success.
The more you probe, the more you should be listening. The more you listen, the more your clients will feel comfortable and, as a result, the constructive chatter will begin to flow.
3. Leadership Language – Owners and leaders should certainly be united around quality and client advocacy, but they also need to be in agreement on the value that each client brings to the table. Leaders should express support for each other and reserve criticism for private venues. A successful firm will foster formal dialogue, group meetings and forums, informal conversations, and mentoring and buddy programs. Listening to what is being said in your firm is just as valuable as what is being discussed outside your firm.
However, facilitating remarks that usually are not forthcoming is even more valuable, and can help create the kind of comfort necessary for people to express what is on their minds. Internal arguments can be very healthy, if conducted with tact and respect.
The language of the firm's leadership should support a collaborative effort to meet priorities and nurture future leaders. Transparency, pertaining to achievements and goals, will generate a dialogue that can be easily monitored, and used for motivation and success. Compensation systems and goals programs typically establish the message and results that can produce a hearty conversation, among the leadership, and can provide a great deal of benefit to the firm.
4. Referral Rhythm – The perpetuity of an accounting firm, in large part, is driven by expanding and recurring client services. The rhythm of referrals needs to be bold, and in tune with your skills. The more passionate that a referral source is about your firm, the greater the likelihood of quality leads closing in your favor. Establishing an expectation for your referral sources, individually, and priming them with adequate information to feed you the right opportunities is key in establishing the right rhythm.
Compile a list of the 10 reasons to work with your firm by listening to your referral sources, and your clients. Focus groups and surveys will generate valuable market intelligence for you to capitalize on, and use in the future.
5. Employee Expressions - Loyal and committed employees are common in successful CPA firms, but turnover and underachieving employees are often issues. Understanding the learning preferences and communication process, of your employees, will allow you to optimize the potential for strong production and satisfaction. Engaging your employees in structured conversations, pertaining to their hot buttons and the challenges they confront, will channel important and much need information. Encouraging your staff to maintain logs with questions, thoughts, and reactions will store valuable knowledge that you can draw upon later to advance the progress of your personnel.
Human Resource consultants should be supporting your firm, as well, with effective evaluation forms and techniques, interview training and feedback programs. The better you understand your staff, the greater your ability to retain the best and brightest talent, which will enable you to provide stronger client service.
Numbers are the mainstay of an accounting firm, and the metrics are important management tools. The communication and "buzz" concerning your practice are leading indicators, and need to be mined just as diligently as the metrics. Your best clients, staff, and referral sources expect you to speak up if there is an issue. You must communicate that you expect the same from them, and that you are ready to hear them, loud and clear.