Editor: April Walker, CPA, CGMA
As we look back now at the most recent filing season, which capped off two especially challenging years, a semblance of normal life feels just around the corner.
After the whirlwind of the past two years, we are grateful for the opportunities we have had to deepen our client relationships, to be nimble and agile in a near-daily changing environment, to learn extensively, and, most importantly, to be willing to accept and thrive with the change.
For the most part, our profession, our employees, and our firms have not only survived but have grown during this time. On the flip side, we have seen varied results with our clients — some grew and reaped rewards, and some have suffered significantly, closed, and lost everything.
We recognize and value those experiences and know that we all stand a little taller and share each other's burdens a little more for what we have been through. Now, we move forward.
The first part of this two-part column series provided ideas and guidance on how to perform an introspective review of the entire firm after filing season. We need to focus our efforts on ensuring that our firms, our employees, and our cultures are established and communicated. We want to ensure that our teams know that we care about them personally and professionally. We invest in our teams by creating opportunities where they can grow personally, professionally, technically, and emotionally. We then empower the team to align firm goals and personal goals so that the two will support each other and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
Though it is out of the scope of this column, do not forget how important it is to treat and value employees as well as clients. A firm's best asset is the one that arrives in the morning and logs off at night. Treat that asset with the gratitude it deserves.
Part 2 of this series turns toward the external focus — showing, adding, and bringing value to our clients:
- Show value: Show value to clients by giving them a concrete analysis of continued ongoing success and savings that have resulted from their relationship with the firm;
- Add value: Add value by continuing to evolve and change along with the client; and
- Bring value: By showing up for clients, we will not only be able to support and serve them better, but we can align the value provided with the fees earned. We will share ways to move the relationship from hours to value, from cost to investment.
Here are a few ideas that can be implemented to increase the value proposition that we demonstrate with our clients.Show value
Showing value to our clients requires a planned approach that includes tracking, storing, and reporting on the impact of advice and decisions that have been provided and implemented.
Remember the discussion on converting to an S corporation or restructuring business units to increase tax efficiency while reducing administrative burden? Did we provide a projected annual savings due to that advice at that time or in a follow-up communication?
Here are some ideas to assist in demonstrating the value we bring to the client relationship.
Five-year analysis: Often, we find ourselves in conversations with clients regarding situations that will affect them over the next few years. We typically recommend strategies to minimize the tax bite, processes to improve, or technology to implement in their situations. Most often, we provide the advice and expect the client to go and do. We can make our value more obvious by creating a financial analysis of the situation prior to the advice and then a pro forma financial post-implementation with the expected ongoing savings over the next five years. The client can then see both the immediate and long-term value of that advice. The client will have a measurable return on investment for the advice provided. As an added benefit, we can clearly demonstrate value provided, which will support a value-based billing strategy.
Tax shop strategy: Have you ever looked at the first few pages of a tax return by one of the major tax preparation chains? They include a section of "savings." For example, "Claiming two kids reduced taxes by $6,000," or "Itemizing mortgage interest and charitable contributions decreased taxes by $X," and so on.
We scoff at this because the chain did not create those savings. Our clients come to us because we go beyond inputs on forms. We analyze, calculate, and advise clients on strategies to generate actual savings or increase cash flow and profits. But do we analyze actual savings or increased cash flow post-implementation? Do we track savings/increases based on the advice provided since inception?
Creating a reporting template to track the savings achieved for all advice provided both past and present is a good first step. Next is to summarize the savings attained since the initial implementation of that strategy. Most importantly, show that to the client. Not only does this provide a value for them to anchor on, but it also moves the relationship from transactional to advisory while moving clients away from being fee-focused.
Annual "employee" review: Along with the other strategies, the annual/ongoing review is a great way to keep all parties apprised of the progress made toward previously established goals. Like an employee review process, we, in conjunction with our clients, annually establish goals for the relationship. Goals can include:
- Frequent financial check-ins,
- Estimated tax calculation reviews,
- Process/technology reviews,
- New technology updates, and so on.
Then, at least annually with the client, review and line out the completion of the previously established goals. Ideally, this takes place while establishing the new goals for the next engagement period and during the fee adjustment process. When clients are presented with the list of accomplished goals, fee increases do not feel insurmountable. Additionally, the discussion moves away from the added cost factors behind the increase (i.e., firm wages increased 8%) and to the value that has been and will continue to be provided to the client.
For any of these strategies, track communications with clients and create goals for the number of reach-outs. This can be easily tracked in customer relationship management (CRM) software but could also just be a simple document that all staff have access to. Reaching out to clients proactively for reasons other than asking them for data or follow-up questions shows them that you appreciate and care about them.Add value
The first step in adding value to any client relationship is to change our mindset from "one on one" to "one to many." We feel like we must handle each client request individually. When we change our mindset to establishing processes within our firm to deliver information to many clients at once, the one client requiring higher-value service will rise to the top. Here are two easy ways to start adding value to many current client relationships:
Knowledge base creation: Remove the fear of video. Think about how often we encounter problems or questions that are repetitive and similar, but we answer each question individually. For example, how does a client make an estimated tax payment correctly on the IRS direct pay website? This is a good example of a video that can be quickly sent to clients. Another example is a step-by-step guide to uploading documents to the client portal.
Consider other conversations you have over and over that are not client-specific. Using platforms like Loom, we can create easy, simple videos that can be uploaded to the firm's knowledge library and, when that question arises, the team can refer to the "video library." Also, including relevant specific video links in client communications can create standardization in our processes (for example, a client organizer with portal upload, completion process, and/or estimated tax payment video reference links). Other ideas include posting firm articles about relevant trending topics that impact your clients, highlighting team members to show their personal side, and considering client spotlights.
Live/recorded webinars: During the past two years, firms and their clients have struggled to stay up to date with the sheer overload of information related to new tax legislation. Firms that thrived used every tool at their disposal to disseminate updates to the public as quickly as possible. Newsletters are good, but video is great. One firm in Minnesota held nearly weekly webinars on tax law changes and updated guidance for the Paycheck Protection Program and employee retention credit. Each webinar was recorded and uploaded to the firm's website for viewing any time. Clients and prospects could gain education on their schedule, and the firm was always top of mind because the clients were top of mind.Bring value
Bringing value to clients is about taking that next step and being more to them than just a transaction. This requires an investment of time and money, but this investment will pay big dividends. Here are two ways to bring value to your clients:
Show up: Do we support those who are important in our client's lives? As we are present with our clients, we will identify the people that are most important to them. As we pay attention to their issues beyond our engagement, we are in an optimal position to support them. Could we introduce them to a fantastic insurance agent or trust attorney? Can we send a graduation card to a child finishing school?
Being present in different aspects of our clients' lives builds a trust that shows we care about them. As we value those around our client, they will continue to value us. These are the types of things you can do that the client will remember years from now and that will make you and your firm stand out.
Be an accountability partner: Do we know our clients' passions or interests? Have we asked our clients what their goals and aspirations are? What keeps them up at night? Do we follow up on those aspirations later? For example, is the client eyeing a family trip to Disneyland? Before the annual client review, revisit that conversation and update what has been accomplished. During the annual client relationship review, revisit those aspirations and accomplishments and point out how our advice helped them take that trip. Do not be afraid to identify the nonfinancial areas where we have been able to impact our clients that may not be readily noticeable.
As we focus our midyear efforts on increasing the value that we show our team and in turn how we demonstrate that tangible value to clients, we will see that return to us exponentially. Find creative ways to show that you value your clients, find creative ways that you can add value to their lives, and lastly bring that value to the firm by giving clients continued strong firm support in all their endeavors.
Now we have a highly effective team and client relationships that are rooted in value received and not on rate or realization.
We wish you continued success, not just in completing work, but on your journey to providing value.
|Brent Forbush, CPA, CGMA, is the managing partner of Forbush and Associates in Reno, Nev. Jeffrey Solomon, CPA, CVA, is the managing shareholder of Katz Nannis + Solomon in Waltham, Mass. April Walker, CPA, CGMA, is lead manager—Tax Practice & Ethics, Public Accounting for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA. Ms. Walker is the staff liaison of the AICPA Tax Practice Management Committee (TPMC). Mr. Forbush and Mr. Solomon are members of the TPMC. For more information about this column, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.