The winners of the Client Choice Awards 2021 have been announced, showing the key to business success lies in soft skills.
If you went to business school, you’ve probably heard the following cliché: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”
It’s an elegant way of emphasising that when it comes to clients, it’s better to focus on the benefits you deliver rather than the features you sell.
Data from professional services reviews site FirmChecker, which has more than 11,000 client reviews on its platform, indicates this cliché is as true to accounting firms as it is to hardware stores.
The data contributes to the judging of the annual Client Choice Awards, supported by Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand.
But what benefits are accountants really selling? And what features deliver them?
Across all of the successful firms, whether CA or CPA, large or small, niche or diversified, very few clients mentioned the technical expertise of their accountants.
Instead, clients observed the best performing firms focused on a few simple ‘soft’ skills that delivered a crucial but oft overlooked benefit: peace-of-mind.
Skill 1: Proactively keeping clients informed
Jean Marc Li is the founder and principal of the boutique Gold Coast based accounting firm Lucas & Co Chartered Accountants. Since the Client Choice Awards were opened to boutique firms in 2017, Lucas & Co has consistently been in the top five firms among hundreds of entrants and was a finalist in the Best Firm <$30m once again in 2021. (This year the category was won by AIM S Accounting.)
Li attributes this success to his team’s ethos: “be proactive from start to finish”, which it uses in communication with every client.
The ethos took on a new meaning during the coronavirus pandemic. Lucas & Co’s clients were among the most affected, including major international airlines and hospitality venues. Li believes they were well placed to respond because proactive communication has always underpinned their relationships.
“There was lots of communication as we adapted to policy on the run: memos on a weekly basis to every client, proactive calls and helping clients to brainstorm solutions to fundamental changes in their business,” he says.
“It’s not about wining and dining, but rather communicating regularly and to their level.”
With a return to normality on the cards in the next year, Lucas & Co intends to continue its focus on proactive communication, with on-demand dashboards and automated updates being built to complement their human efforts.
Skill 2: Fast response times
Allworths Chartered Accountants, headquartered in Sydney CBD, won Best Audit Firm in the boutique specialist categories for the second year running in 2021.
It’s clear from their reviews that clients perceive their service to be fast and responsive.
“Our policy is to respond within 24 hours of a client communication, even if it’s just acknowledgement and setting the expectation of when advice will be delivered,” says partner Mark Copsey.
Copsey says a three-year project that made the firm fully cloud-based, completed just weeks prior to the lockdown, was instrumental in Allworths’ sustained reputation for responsiveness throughout the pandemic.
Being cloud-based made it easier for Allworths to make themselves available to clients, however they still went above and beyond.
“The team put in long hours to do what had to be done for clients when the pandemic hit,” says Copsey, adding ensuring clients feel they are top-of-mind is paying dividends.
“The award is a great morale boost and recognition of that huge effort from the team. Seeing our satisfaction ratings improve year-on-year shows our efforts to respond to feedback are working.”
Skill 3: Understanding the client
Elevate Accounting in Perth was a finalist in the Best Firm <$30m category this year and took out Best Business Advice Firm (<$30m revenue), Best Management Consulting Firm (<$30m revenue) and Best Payroll Firm (<$30m revenue).
Many of Elevate’s reviews emphasised the listening skills of staff at Elevate. The result was both a real and perceived understanding of the client’s business, which is another key driver of client satisfaction.
More than just technical expertise, this is intimately understanding the interaction between the regulation and each client’s specific business, circumstances and history.
By listening to clients and demonstrating familiarity, Elevate’s clients feel their businesses are in safe hands – hands that will deftly respond to future challenges.
Benefit: Peace of mind
Hard outcomes such as a big tax return and an optimised business ownership structure are critical, but it’s behaviours that give clients peace-of-mind that keep them coming back and referring others.
Given that more than 80% of accounting business comes from repeat business and word-of-mouth, focusing on these soft features of your service is simply good business.
Elevate, Lucas & Co, Allworths and other Client Choice Awards finalists and winners stand out in this regard. They don’t ‘sell drill bits’, but recognise the true benefit of what they’re selling and prioritise the skills and behaviours that deliver it.
You can browse the full list of winners at clientchoiceawards.net. If client service is a priority for your firm, and you think you can benefit from client feedback and entry into the Client Choice Awards, go to firmchecker.com.au/for-firms and sign up with a free profile.
See the full list of 2021 Client Choice Award winners here.
This article was originally published in Acuity magazine. You can read the original version here.