For those tax & accounting firms that can read the writing on the wall, any transformation of their business model needs to consider how to improve the client experience
The business model for public tax & accounting firms is evolving and, in some cases, transforming — however, it still a relationship and service-based profession. Innovative firms are redefining what the client experience looks like and how it is delivered.
The ability to create or plan for capacity is a challenge in virtually every industry, and one that impacts the quality of service and overall client experience. When your firm’s primary value comes from the experience provided to clients, then action needs to be taken to live up to, and exceed, their expectations. Today, tax & accounting professionals see the opportunities to offer their clients more, but they are struggling with their ability to deliver.
This is where we can look at other industries for ideas. How are other professions creating quality client experiences? What can be gleaned from these approaches?
The concept of incorporating customer service related roles within tax & accounting firms has been emerging. Every day, clients may have many questions that do not require the skilled expertise of accountants, tax preparers, or CPAs to answer. Yet, the model for most firms is to have these individuals be the first point of contact for clients. And as firms get deeper into their busy seasons, the level of engagement and client service they have time to provide can often decline.
Sometime this decline takes the form of prolonged response times to client questions; lack of detail in responses because of time constraints; and communications that are interpreted as abrupt or harsh due to the brevity of the message. In addition, client requests for additional services may be postponed to a less busy time for the firm, which can frustrate the client.
This is where customer services professionals can relieve some of this pressure, so the tax & accounting specialists’ time spent with the client is purposeful, impactful, and adds value.
Finding client success advocates
Dixie McCurley, partner of Digital Advisory and Client Accounting Services at Cherry Bekaert, calls this position a client success advocate role. McCurley says their responsibilities are expected to include proactive outreach to clients — while not performing day-to-day accounting services — in order to ask clients how their business is going; any upcoming business changes for which the firm should be preparing; if there is anything else they need; and, specifically, how the firm is doing in delivering services to clients.
These client success advocates will handle change orders, scheduling meetings, and more, McCurley explains, adding that this role is similar to positions in managed service providers or software companies.
Practitioners considering adding client success advocates as a way of enhancing your client experience offering, might be wise to ask:
- Where do you find this talent?
- What qualifications should they have?
- What does the job description look like?
The firm Rehmann, a top 100, regional accounting and consulting firm, piloted a concierge role within their Finance and Accounting Outsource and Manage Service group in 2022. This year, they are rolling out this position across their service lines. While the details of the role’s responsibilities were built organically, the concept of this role developed over time, says Sandy Shecter, principal at Rehmann.
The concierge role at Rehmann focuses on the client on-boarding, and it puts someone in place that hand-holds clients through the process, while providing proactive communication and answering questions. The client concierge will also introduce clients to the firm’s processes and systems, and connect clients with the appropriate Rehmann team members at the right times. The full job responsibilities evolved around the talents of the right candidate. “Be open to a great talent and make a role that employs their strengths,” Shecter suggests.
To narrow the search for these client experience specialists, there are characteristics and skills that are beneficial for someone stepping into this type of position. Shecter identified the following attributes that Rehmann looks for in a concierge candidate:
- showing a strong interest in technology so the candidate can look into opportunities to automate and leverage technology more effectively;
- being able to multi-task and work in a fast-paced environment (for example, like in the hospitality or restaurant industry);
- remaining client-focused;
- displaying an ability to think outside the box; and
- willing to ask questions, propose solutions with confidence, and be a problem solver.
It’s important to note that technical accounting experience is not necessary to succeed in this role. A candidate does need to be a team player and willing to listen and learn.
Committing to success
Partners in some tax & accounting firms may be uncomfortable allowing someone else to have such an influential role in the clients’ experience with the firm. However, by allowing someone else to take over tasks and functions that don’t leverage their expertise, they ultimately are enhancing the clients’ experience to the benefit of the firm. This teaming concept supports the philosophy of a one-firm approach to client service, rather than individual partners managing individual books of business.
The success of Rehmann’s concierge initiative came down to the culture within the firm and the commitment from leaders and partners to cross-service clients, Shecter says.
For firms that feel this may be out of their reach at the current time, they should start small. Identify someone on the team, possibly an administrative team member, that has untapped talents. These team members could start performing these functions part-time, or seasonally, to test the model. As the role develops, the firm can bring in some success measurements to determine the impact on client satisfaction ratings and team productivity increases that are attributable to the new role. Then over time, other key performance indicators can be incorporated to further measure the success of the role.
Formalizing a firm’s focus on client experience through development of these roles is one clear way that tax & accounting firms can transform their business model to better meet the needs of their time-strapped talent and exceed their clients’ expectations.