At Hubdoc, we’re lucky to work with many smart accountants and bookkeepers and have a front row seat to see how modern accounting practices are being built.
Today, we’re going to talk about the best practices for selecting great clients, hopefully screening out the challenging ones, and on-going client relationship management.
(Friendly note: This is a ~15 minute read. Grab a cup of coffee and settle in, because it’s worth every minute!)
Before we jump in, it’s worth examining the differences between client relationships in the modern cloud practice versus the traditional model.
Client Relationships – Past vs Future
Sales and Marketing
In the past, accountants and bookkeepers would drive business by going to networking meetings and via word-of-mouth referrals and so it was a lot easier to get a sense for a potential client and fully qualify the lead.
But now, cloud practices are generating a much higher volume of leads. They are listed on the directories of their software providers, like Xero, and are receiving two to three leads per day. It’s challenging to qualify that volume of leads in parallel with selling their services.
It’s an interesting time because now not only do accountants and bookkeepers want to standardize their technology stack to drive efficiency in their practice, they also want to ensure they select technologies that their clients will enjoy using. Previously, technology was seen as a necessary evil to run the practice.
Now, accounting software platforms are beautifully designed and accessible from anywhere, such as Xero and Quickbooks Online. It’s the same for document management solutions, like Hubdoc. Accounting technology today is built on the foundation of a strong user experience – it’s a pretty phenomenal change.
So it comes down to two questions:
1. How do accountants and bookkeepers standardize with technology to drive efficiency?
2. How do they ensure the selected technology is going to be enjoyed by their clients?
It’s a fascinating challenge because, at the same time, they’re also pre-selecting a certain type of client, perhaps a more modern client, as well.
In the past, there was a lot of face-to-face interaction. Clients would come to their accountant/bookkeeper’s office to meet and discuss their file or vice-versa. Now, this barely happens, if at all, and it’s replaced by frequent digital touch points. The challenge relates to the business model. Frequent touch points used to mean, perhaps, more revenue via increased billable hours for a practice but, today, there’s a fixed compensation model. Charging a fixed monthly amount (e.g. $499/month) is commonplace.
Although accountants must be attentive to clients and drive client retention, they have to be conscious that there’s only so much time they can dedicate to a client at given price points.
The move to the modern cloud practice is exciting and also presents a number of challenges that need to be navigated, especially in relation to client relationships.
In this blog post, we’re going to cover these challenges across the following topics:
- Defining the characteristics of great clients
- Best practice for identifying those characteristics
- Potential warning signs for a challenging client
- Ongoing client relationship management
Defining the Characteristics of Great Clients
Every practice is different and each one needs to consider what their ideal client looks like at business and personal levels.
Starting off at the business level, some of the factors that should be considered include: industry vertical, business size, current process and workflow, and budget.
We’ve heard differing accounts in terms of the importance of this factor.
Some accountants and bookkeepers are industry-agnostic and can design a solution for any business. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, we spoke to an accountant in Oregon who specializes in the tourism industry. He does this because of his lifestyle – in the summer and fall, he goes mountain biking, and in the winter, he goes skiing. He appreciates those activities and he appreciates people that have that lifestyle as well, which is typical of those who operate in the tourism industry in that region.
In other words, the characteristics of a great client not only depend on the needs accountants and bookkeepers are looking to serve, but also on the types of people in a particular industry that might be appealing to work with.
Business Size and Type
This leads to a discussion on budget (we’ll talk about that below). Before getting there, it’s worth talking about the complexity larger businesses can imply for a practice.
If we’re talking about a twenty person accounting shop that can handle complex clientele and who are looking to provide that level of service and expect a budget alongside that, then it’s very important to filter out anybody who might be a freelancer or a two to three person company versus a three hundred person company. And vice versa.
Current Process and Workflow
It’s really important to know how organized and tech-savvy your client is. This impacts the amount of catch-up work, workflow design and education that’ll be necessary. And depending on comfort levels dealing with prospects across those spectrums, this factor can have a significant impact on defining the ideal client.
This is an interesting challenge in the world of the fixed pricing model. Gross margins are everything.
Accountants and bookkeepers can target clients with lower budgets, drive high levels of efficiency and have those clients actually be more profitable than those with larger budgets. On the other hand, sometimes clients with larger budgets may be less sensitive to price and be willing to pay more for efficiencies that reduce the amount of work that they have to do with respect to preparing their financials.
Moving on to the factors to consider at the personal level. This is a little more on the subjective side and taking the time to write down the personality traits that are common amongst clients an accountant has connected with best, helps significantly. Consider factors such as:
- Communication style
- Sense of humour
- Attitude towards accounting and bookkeeping
- Flexibility / willingness to learn and adapt (vital with the pace of technological innovation)
Best Practices for Identifying the Characteristics of Great Clients
Identifying a great client happens during the sales process, during those first few meetings. This process helps determine if a potential client will be good to work with, profitable, and a strong fit for your firm.
To do this, there are three core stages you want to follow:
These questions relate to the business factors discussed above. These are easy checklist items to see if the business fits the profile an accountant or bookkeeper is looking to service:
- Business size (annual revenue, # of employees, type of revenue)
- Industry vertical
- Current workflow (organization level, tech savviness)
Initial Assessment of Needs
The focus here is to understand the prospect’s pain points. These are more tailored and require engaging in a deep conversation about how they operate, including their current methods for invoicing & tracking expenses, their plan for growth, how they would define an ideal accounting or bookkeeping relationship, and the sorts of tools they’d prefer, if any.
Crafting a Solution and Presenting it to the Client
At this last stage, the client has been assessed to be good at the business level and the accountant or bookkeeper can solve their needs. When they are presenting the solution to the client, it starts to become clear how the client perceives their business advisor and whether they have the personal characteristics of a potentially great client.
Throughout these stages, there are key characteristics worth keeping an eye out for.
At Hubdoc, we’ve talked to hundreds of accountants and bookkeepers about this and everyone has a different answer. Some say right brain creatives are the ideal clients because they’re happy to offload the numbers and calculations to someone who enjoys it. Others say, it doesn’t matter – clients can be data-driven, and as long as they know the difference between good books and sloppily completed books, they will be great.
The good news is there are common threads throughout this advice. The commonalities are clients who are:
Responsive, Respectful and Trusting
Any strong working relationship is based on trust and respect.
When talking through challenges faced by a client, see how they respond to opinions. If they’re asking questions in a respectful manner and want to better understand, that could be a sign of a great client. As part of this, identifying if they are responsive, engaged in the process and truly care about solving this need is a good leading indicator of their engagement levels later when you need them to send over bank statements, receipts, invoices or bills.
Values Expertise and Benefits-focused
In the past, the hourly pricing model focused clients on cost, perhaps more than necessary. Now, value-based pricing removes a lot of that concern and enables accountants and bookkeepers to play more of the business advisor role. This is where they can drive the most value and clients who put stock in that expertise lay a strong foundation for a good working relationship.
Technology evolves quickly and the best clients are going to be ones who are comfortable with it. It means less client education and handholding. Many accountants and bookkeepers check for this by looking at the type of phone a potential client uses or the type of laptop. For example, if a prospect is using the latest iPhone, that might be a signal that they’re tech-savvy. A client being tech-friendly makes it a little easier; especially since creating a technology solution is part of the process of getting them setup.
Warnings Signs for Potentially Challenging Clients
Let’s talk about the other side of the coin. Here are potential warning signs of a challenging client to watch out for:
Poor Communication Style
Prospects that struggle to get their point across can cause communication breakdowns further down the road, leading to frustration on both ends. Other habits to look out for are whether they’re rude or don’t engage respectfully. A good time to check that is during a discussion on price and service. If a client is being a bully to get more for less, this can be a red flag.
Low Business and/or Accounting Experience
Prospects without years of business experience can tend to be a little more sensitive and controlling, because the business is their baby. On top of that, it’s also likely that they have minimal experience dealing with accountants or bookkeepers and might not know how things are typically handled.
Unwilling to Learn and/or Change
When setting up a client or going through the qualification process, there’s a good chance one of the tools or solutions being suggested are new to the client. The test is whether they are willing to adapt and learn the solution.
At Hubdoc, we help accountants and bookkeepers shift clients from the practice of sending them a box full of financial documents to getting those clients to send in pictures of their receipts, bills and invoices via Hubdoc’s mobile app, email-in functionality or directly uploading them to our web app. Through this process, Hubdoc Partners ask themselves if their clientele are going to move with them into the future. If they’re not willing to and are a little more stuck in their ways, it might be a warning sign of a challenging client.
Ongoing Client Relationship Management
The common thread that we’ve heard consistently from accountants and bookkeepers is that the more interaction they have, the higher client retention is. That seems pretty obvious on the surface but it’s also at odds with the business model of the modern accounting and bookkeeping world.
At $500 per month, it can be challenging to maintain a significant amount of face-to-face interaction. There’s a balancing act between connecting with clients on a regular basis to show value and, at the same time, watching margins and making sure time efficiency is high.
There are a couple approaches that we think are pretty awesome:
Skype, Google Hangouts, Join.me
A lot of accountants and bookkeepers do monthly financial walkthroughs with their clients using these tools. For the majority of clients, it works pretty well. It’s time efficient, showcases their value and provides an opportunity to suggest ways the business could improve. It allows accountants and bookkeepers to continue to be the business advisor, the extension of the client’s team and continue to drive client retention.
Recorded Video Walkthroughs
For clients that prefer to trust their books in a professional’s hands and do not want to hear about their financials unless something is going drastically wrong, recorded video walkthroughs are a powerful approach.
Many cloud accounting and bookkeeping firms use a cloud storage solution with their clients. They then take a quick screencast (5 to 10 minutes) of their clients’ Xero or QBO account, explaining what’s happening, what’s working, what are some areas for improvement; and share it with those clients via their cloud storage solution. It’s a great way to drive client engagement and retention and continuing to show value in an unobtrusive way with clients who might not want as much of a touch point.
In other words, it’s a video walkthrough of their financials, that the client can review on their own time.
We hope this shed some light on how to define the characteristics of a great client, best practices for identifying those characteristics in prospects, the potential warning signs for a challenging client and how to drive client retention through ongoing client relationship management.
And last and certainly not least, thanks so much to our friends at LiveCA, Keep., Bookkeeping Express, ConnectCPA and The Accounting Department for their insights. They contributed greatly to the content in this post.
Here’s a recording of the webinar where we originally shared this content:
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