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9 Best Practices for Building Client Relationships in an Accounting Firm | Canopy

Every accountant knows the importance of building client relationships, but executing on this can be difficult. Take a look at our 9 best practices here!

12 min read

Micala Ricketts

Micala Ricketts

Building strong client relationships in your accounting firm is one of the most important things you can do to have a successful business. Happy clients who keep coming back for your services are what keeps your firm profitable. There are a lot of other demands on your time—getting work done, managing your team, developing business strategy, and more, but it’s important to fit developing relationships with clients into the rest of your workload.

In this post, we discuss the following elements on how you can build good relationships with clients:

  • Importance of building good client relationships
  • 9 best practices for building client relationships
  • Making clients happy
  • Improving client follow up

Why is it important to build good relationships with clients?

Developing strong relationships with clients is important because it can provide numerous benefits for your accounting firm. Not only is it less expensive to retain existing clients compared to acquiring new ones, a study conducted by Frederick Reichheld of Bain & Company shows that profits can increase up to 25-95% from increasing customer retention by 5% in your company. What’s not to love about that?

It is great to watch your accounting firm grow and to be given the chance for a fresh start even on such a small scale. Obviously you want to put your best foot forward and build good relationships with clients right from the start and the way to do that is to establish trust. Trust is the foundation of every successful, long-term relationship and can establish the opportunity for future growth.

9 best practices for building client relationships in your accounting firm

1. Provide Excellent Communication

As we mentioned above, trust is the foundation of every successful relationship both new and existing, and excellent communication is key to building trust with clients. It’s important to show them that your communication is consistent and reliable.

Demonstrate to them that you’re available to answer their questions when they reach out to you. Clients want to feel like a priority. They won't feel prioritized if it's hard for them to get in touch with you. Ask yourself, what is a reasonable timeframe that you can respond to client emails or calls? In the current digital age, most clients expect a fairly quick response to their questions.

transparency-starts-effective-communication

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As important as it is to respond to your clients promptly, it can also be daunting to manage back-and-forth emails and phone calls. Using an accounting practice management solution can help streamline the process and make it more manageable.

While being available when clients reach out is crucial, so is being proactive. Practice anticipating client questions and concerns, and communicate this with them before they contact you. Share updates, wins, and also areas for improvement, and do not sugar coat a situation.

2. Understand Your Client

You can’t build a strong relationship with your client without understanding who they are as a person and what their needs are as well. First, get a sense of how they act in meetings—are they straight to the point or do they express interest in sharing details of their lives and knowing more about you? Read the room and respond accordingly! You don’t want to probe a client that is more reserved, and you also don’t want to detract from a client that appreciates a few minutes of conversation unrelated to work.

Next, ensure that you have a full understanding of what their needs and goals are, and work towards addressing them. Communicate with your client often about their goals and progress (refer to the first best practice above), and always keep your client’s best interest at the forefront of your relationship.

3. Be genuine, transparent, and own your mistakes

This third best practice goes hand-in-hand with the first one—excellent communication. Genuineness and transparency are conveyed to clients through how we communicate. Transparency is especially important in an accounting firm because accountants deal with personal financial information—something that most people feel extremely protective of. The more open and honest you are with a client, the more they will trust you with their information.

And as we revisit this sentiment again, every strong relationship is based on trust—accountant-client relationships included. Not only is transparency a key factor in building client relationships, it’s a key factor in maintaining a trusting relationship.

An especially important time to be transparent is with your pricing and fees. Clients will not be happy if the cost of your services comes as a surprise to them partway through the process. Discussing pricing prior to any services being performed puts you and your client on the same page from the beginning.

Another important point for building trust with clients is to notify them of any changes happening, both good and bad. For example, let's say after you look into your client's tax situation, you discover they don't actually qualify for the deductions they hoped. Let them know right away. Honesty and owning up to your mistakes are always appreciated in dealing with unexpected outcomes, even if the news is sometimes unpleasant. There may be times where you make a mistake, and if that does happen, own it. It’s helpful to provide an action plan following the update that can offer a solution to the issue at hand.

client-retention

4. Maintain a Positive Attitude

No one wants to work with or seek a service out from someone who is unpleasant or difficult. Whether you work for a firm or own your own accounting business, you are still providing a service to the public. Therefore, you should strive to offer excellent customer service. As part of this, maintaining a positive attitude is essential.

This isn’t to say that you can’t be genuine with your feelings and must always be positive. Avoid downplaying a serious situation or issue, but also be cautious with how you convey information to your client. They are looking to you for guidance and how you choose to present information is critical. If you’re stressed or upset, the client will be stressed and upset.

Another point to add to this is that you do not have to put up with toxic clients. If you have a client that is causing you unnecessary stress, problems, and refuses to improve themselves, it may be time to part ways with that client. If you find yourself in this situation, learn how to fire a client the right way.

5. Demonstrate your expertise

Your client is relying on you to help them navigate through the world of accounting and IRS policies. Being open about your professional opinion regarding projects will help instill transparency with the client, as well as reassuring them that you are acting in their best interest.

While this may not always be the most comfortable conversation to have, it’s okay to disagree with a client! It won’t help you or your client in the long-run if you only tell them what they want to hear versus your professional advice on the matter. Demonstrate your expertise in an honest and genuine way, and you’ll see that this will help you with developing relationships with clients for long-term growth.

6. Share your expertise and knowledge

Along the lines of demonstrating your expertise, share it as well. It helps to build trust with clients by sharing your knowledge and being a resource for them to turn to for help on matters they’re unfamiliar with. Letting clients learn from your experience can also help them feel more connected to the projects and better understand the progress you are making. In turn, this can help improve engagement and trust in a professional relationship.

7. Set realistic expectations and deliver

It’s easy to go above and beyond for every client request, especially so early on in a working relationship. We get it, you want to make a promising first impression and prove your ability to do quality work! However, it’s important to set expectations that are realistic to avoid over-promising and under-delivering or creating burn-out.

If the client has unreasonable expectations, you may need to have a conversation to reset those expectations or part ways if you can’t provide them with that service.

8. Hold your clients accountable

This may not be talked about often, but it’s especially important to hold your clients accountable as much as they (and you) hold you accountable. Accountants will need to engage and request information from their clients, it’s inevitable. There may be a document you’ve requested several times which they haven’t sent you or a signature you need to be able to file documents. At the end of the day, their engagement is necessary for the success of the project.

Tools such as Canopy's client portal function especially well for this kind of client management. You decide which sections your client can and cannot see in their portal, allowing you to be in control of transparency. You and your client can also upload and exchange documents. Your client can check on the status of their case, making it so they're more aware of what tasks you are completing. This will help them to see what services they're paying for.

Additionally, clients can pay invoices and fill out surveys. Utilizing the many capabilities of client portals will help you hold your client accountable and also make this a less stressful ordeal. In turn, this communication and transparency can help build a good relationship with your client.

9. Ask your clients for feedback

Asking for and receiving feedback from your clients is a necessary stepping stone for future growth and success. Consider scheduling a recurring meeting with your client where you ask them to provide you with feedback on the quality of work, progress, and other areas of the professional relationship. There is always room for improvement and you won’t know what those areas are until you ask for it.

On the other hand, you can use this as an opportunity to identify what is going well and ensure that you do more of that! Don’t be afraid to receive constructive criticism because it provides you with the opportunity to respond to a client’s needs and maintain the relationship for the long-term.

What else can you do to build and maintain good relationships with clients?

Conduct an intake interview

There is a temptation, especially when a deadline is looming, to simply accept a new client sight unseen. Someone calls your office and says, “Hey, I need someone to help me set up an LLC..” You say, “I can do that. Bring all the necessary documents in anytime this week and we’ll get started.” You hang up the phone and get right back to what you were doing. You’re busy, right? You don’t have the time for a proper intake interview.

Of course, the problem is that without an intake interview, there’s no way to know if this new client is a good match for you and your firm. Instead, take the time—even if it’s just 15 or 20 minutes—to have a conversation with a potential client.

conduct-intake-interviewAt a minimum, you should get a feel for their financial situation and what they expect from you. In addition, you should give them an idea of what you expect from them—how you want documents and information delivered, the kind of response time you expect, and anything else you need to help your firm run like you want it to.

Don’t be afraid of losing potential clients at this stage. Though you may be tempted to take any business that comes your way, it’s actually good for your business to weed out a few people during the intake interview. Besides, you’ll find that most people are happy to help make your job a little easier if you just take the time to give them a few instructions.

  1. Send an engagement letter

You should really be using engagement letters with all your clients, but it’s especially important with new clients. With existing clients you usually develop familiarity and a good working relationship over time. That familiarity can sometimes let you get away with not formalizing an engagement with an engagement letter. With new clients, you have none of that.

Some accountants worry that using an engagement letter for every engagement is cumbersome or too formal (or both). However, if you have a good engagement letter boilerplate and a fast way to get the letter sent and signed, it doesn’t have to be a long, painful process. And, by “keeping it informal,” you’re really just keeping both you and your client guessing.

Get expectations aligned from the outset, and you’ll enjoy smoother working relationships going forward. 

4 ways to make clients happy

While maintaining transparency is an important step to building strong client relationships, there are other things you can do to make clients happy. Happy clients are clients who keep coming back to work with you and pay you for your services.

Consider this: customer-centric companies are 60% more profitable than companies that don’t focus on customers. 

customer-centric-companies

Here are four ways to delight and developing relationships with clients that are strong and long lasting:

  1. 1. VALUE YOUR CLIENT'S INPUT 

One of the most effective and simple things you can do to make your clients happy is listen to them. Clients want to know their input matters. Take the time to ask clients for feedback and then apply that feedback to the way you do business. 

  1. 2. DELIVER TIMELY RESULTS 

Finish work before a deadline whenever possible. A client will not feel prioritized if you leave their case until the last minute. Plus, waiting on results is likely to cause your client stress. 

  1. 3. MAKE GOOD ON PROMISES

Going back to our previous point on setting realistic expectations, deliver on the promises you make to a client. Don’t promise the things you can’t deliver. Of course, if you do promise a client something that you find yourself unable to complete, be upfront about it and let your client know as soon as possible.

  1. 4. ADD A PERSONAL TOUCH

Set yourself apart as an accountant who truly cares about your clients by adding a personal touch to your business. The more genuine you are about interacting with and helping clients, the happier they will be. For example, you could send clients a handwritten thank you card after you finish doing work for them. Whatever you choose to do should feel authentic to your business.

When it comes to building good relationships with clients and making them happier, it’s the small actions that will set you apart from other accounting firms.

Improve client follow-up 

The last piece to developing relationships with clients that will last is following up effectively. There are different kinds of client follow-up for the different stages your clients are at. When conducting any follow-up, your focus should be on helping a client. It’s important for your client to feel like you are serving their needs rather than just pushing your own. Not every follow-up should be focused on your services or business. However, every follow-up should be valuable for your client.

Here are three keys to employing smarter client follow-up at all stages.

POTENTIAL CLIENTS

  1. potential-clients

Make follow-up part of your routine rather than something you only do when trying to close a client.

Send a thank you email the same day you meet with a potential client. Determine other times at which you will send a follow-up. For example, maybe you'll always contact a potential client one week after meeting with them. This can be automated using a client relationship management (CRM) software like Canopy. For prospective clients who seem more interested in your services, you could contact them more frequently than you contact someone who is less interested. 

Additionally, branch out and employ different methods of follow-up. Phone calls, direct mail, emails, social media posts, clients will respond differently to each approach. Assuming one method is best for catching all potential clients could leave a lot of business on the table.

  1. CURRENT CLIENTS

  2. current-clients

At your initial meeting with a client, be sure to ask what mode of communication works best for them and the best time to contact them. Your client will appreciate it if you show concern for their time and will be less likely to ignore you or feel inconvenienced.

However, even after determining best contact time for a client, following up to get documents and information for their case can be difficult. Some clients need several reminders to send the requested information. Placing a focus on how the follow-up will help move their case along should help client response time. For clients who still need extra reminders, you'll need to establish a schedule of how many times you contact them per week asking for information so that you can stay on schedule and complete cases efficiently.

You can follow up this way manually and work it into your daily routine, or to save time and maximize efficiency, you can use software that automates client requests. Canopy has a  feature that allows you to place a request for a client's documents or information, of which they'll be notified through their client portal. You can also set the request notifications to automatically remind your client at whatever frequency you choose until the request is fulfilled. For example, if you normally have to remind your client about sending documents every other day, you could set the request to send at that frequency and Canopy would automate the reminder for you!

  1. FORMER CLIENTS

  2. former-clients

Don't forget that follow-up is also important after you've completed services for a client. Contacting a client only while you're trying to get their business may make them feel like you cared more about closing the sale than helping them. Conducting a brief, personal follow-up after finishing services on a case is a way to nurture and develop a lasting  relationship with clients.

Whether you're contacting a potential, current, or former client, include information that would be useful to them. You could include a helpful article or blog post in an email. You could suggest relevant resources. Be personal. Show clients that you really care about helping them and their unique situation.

Remember that each time you conduct follow-up, no matter what mode of communication is used, is an opportunity to show off your unique brand and set yourself apart from other accounting firms. It's in your best interest to make each point of contact as positive and personal as possible.

Canopy makes building client relationships easy

From handling important financial statements and ensuring that the necessary administrative obligations are taken care of, to learning how to build good relationships with clients, there are a lot of moving parts to running an accounting firm. It can be difficult keeping track of everything that needs to be done but having a quality accounting practice management software can help make it easier.

Interested in seeing how Canopy can help take your client management to the next level? Sign up for a personalized demo

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