Most of us, if asked, would say that we are committed to delivering exceptional client service. However, when asked what exceptional client service looks like, we hear things like “delivering the engagement on time (or early) and within (or under) budget” and “being available and responsive to client requests and questions.” I assert those represent the traditional transactional approach to client service. But is transactional service enough to differentiate you and your firm? Is it enough to command premium provider rates? Is it enough to garner long-term loyalty from the best clients?
We don’t think so. Instead, we encourage our clients to strive to deliver transformational client service. What does this mean? And how do we move from transactional client service to being a transformational provider? In this blog, we’ll explore a possible definition for transformational client service and some simple actions you can take to move your client relationships in that direction.
Transformational client service goes beyond exceeding the agreed upon expectations for an engagement. Citing Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, to be transformational is to “change in composition or structure; change the outward form or appearance of; or change in character or condition.” Therefore, transformational client service leaves our clients forever changed – and for the better. Providing transformational client service requires:
- Building a relationship with your clients where they share their hopes, dreams, and fears with you
- Researching and learning about their entities, organizational make up, seasonality and industry trends
- Looking beyond what your clients tell you and anticipating the change, opportunities or threats they should be addressing (or at least aware of)
- Bringing observations, ideas, and feedback to clients that will make a positive impact on them and their business but are not necessarily tied to your engagement
True transformation will occur in the areas yet to be discovered and therefore requires a deep level of rapport and trust in your relationship. Your client has to trust you as you explore the unknown and challenge them to be uncomfortable. This may require throwing out the checklist (or at least setting it aside for a moment!). Sometimes, being comfortable with the unknown and unchartered water is what prohibits our CPA friends from making the leap from a compliance to consultative service provider. But transformational client service requires the confidence to ask questions that you don’t know the answer to and the willingness to take your client on a discovery journey to uncover what they really need.
Thinking outside the box and being able to start with a blank slate will help you step back and assess your client’s situation, both individually and where they are personally as well as in their organization, industry and marketplace. Ask LOTS of questions such as, “What is your end game?” and “What is the mandate from your CEO/Board/Executive Committee?” and “What’s YOUR ideal scenario if you could make it go the direction you would like it to?” And, be willing to ask the intimate and uncomfortable questions like, “How do you feel about that change, approach, request or X?” or “What are you afraid of?” or “What are the political considerations you need to navigate?” Keep in mind that your client is trying to discern what they need, too, and together with your guidance and a flexible, almost “off-road” mindset you’ll innovate and generate new solutions to your clients’ complex problems.
If we were to create a checklist to build this kind of confidence and comfort delving into the unknown, you would start being transformational by:
- Being interested and proactive
- Taking the time to ask transformational questions, listen and learn
- Giving up the notion you have a formulaic solution and looking beyond what you already know or have done in the past
- Generating possible ideas and new solutions
- Following up and sharing those ideas and solutions with your client.
Firms committed to transformational client service have had great success by starting with a few key clients and scheduling an internal brainstorming meeting to generate possible opportunities to share with the client. Include the current client service team in that initial meeting and one or two others from your firm that have not been involved with the client to benefit from their outside perspective – and potentially introduce new services or other ways your firm could provide value to the client. But the focus isn’t intended to be only about cross-selling or how your firm can help the client; in these discussions, you’ll identify ways the client can help themselves, introductions you can make between the client from within your network and technology solutions or other solutions your client could research that might change them for the better.
Then, schedule a check-in meeting with the client with at least two team members from your firm to learn about your client’s goals, challenges and priorities for the coming year. From there, share a few of the top ideas that you generated that can help them achieve those goals – and even some that aren’t on your client’s radar!
During peak periods, when you’re interacting with virtually every client, you can offer to schedule check-in meetings with your key clients for later in the year. Let them know that you want to spend some time understanding more about their business (or personal goals) and their focal areas as well as potentially share some thoughts with them, too. Accountability is key for any proactive commitment that isn’t necessarily driven by a deadline or current engagement. Scheduling a meeting will provide a self-imposed deadline that you’ll then need to plan for!
Consider creating a consistent format, too, to capture the ideas and discussion from your internal brainstorming meeting, such as our Client Account Planning Tool. Be sure to write a recap of your meeting with your client covering the key concepts that you discussed and any actions or commitments made by you or your client. And, maybe most importantly, meet internally to share the outcome of these client meetings, next steps and opportunities to leverage what you learned with other clients.
How are you moving from transactional to transformational client service? How do you anticipate opportunities for your clients even before they do? What steps could you take TODAY? Please comment with ideas or success stories so we can all benefit as we continue our transformational journey!