We finished our third article on transitioning to a digital firm by focusing on the importance of client experience in meeting the shifting expectations our clients have on the kind of service they receive, and the interaction they have with suppliers including their accountants.

We as accountants are not Amazon and we don’t need to be. But businesses like Amazon are setting the benchmark for the experience they deliver to customers. In the last article we talked about Net Promoter Score as a way to measure client experience. Starbucks has an NPS score of 77. This is ‘world class’ and sets the bar for what we should be striving for. To achieve scores at this level you need to be delivering consistently excellent levels of client experience, so the vast majority of your clients are rating you 9 or 10 on the NPS scale. But how do we ensure we develop consistently excellent experiences?

The answer of course is consistent processes. If you have been into a Starbucks there is a process, it works 99% of the time meaning you get what you ordered quickly, efficiently and they know your name! It doesn’t matter who the server is or whether it is your local Starbucks or one in a city you are visiting, the experience is the same, and consistent. How then do we apply this in our firms?

The role for process in our accounting firms

There will be arguments that it’s not that simple for accounting firms, we have different clients with different requirements and different systems, complex pricing and so on. Of course, there are arguments for everything in life but we can choose to simplify what we do and how we do it.

We hear a lot about disruption, Uber, AirBNB and so on. Xero disrupted bookkeeping with the introduction of direct bank feed technology. Disruption occurs when businesses remove the friction in a process. It is that simple, anything that causes friction will impact on a customer’s experience so our processes should be designed to remove friction.

I enjoy talking about ‘process’, it is my second favourite segment of my Digital Firm wheel behind ‘pricing’ which we talked about in the second article. It is my second favourite topic as it is so critical in delivering that great client experience we want. Every firm I talk to wants to delight their clients, after all.

When I talk about process at events and conferences, I make a statement and I encourage people to write it down as I believe it is the most critical thing for firms to take away and consider. Here it is:

  • You as the accountants have to own the process

Let’s stop and think about that. Do you own the process in your firm? In the early days of my firm process wasn’t at the top of my thoughts, but back in 2009 we made the decision that all our clients would use KashFlow. In 2015 we made the decision they would all use Xero. This was the right approach for my firm, but I accept it's not necessarily the right one for everyone. It is, however, a significant example of owning the process.

As more and more firms move to subscription-based models or at the very least fixed fee pricing this next statement becomes more and more critical.

  • If you don’t control the process you can’t control the profitability

Assuming you are offering clients a fixed fee, if we don’t have some element of control over what the client does it becomes very difficult for us to standardise our work to deliver on the fixed fee. Let’s take an example.

I know that many firms will work with what the client gives them. They ask the client ‘how do you keep your books?’ to which the client replies with one of:

  • in a spreadsheet
  • on Sage
  • on Xero
  • on QBO
  • in a carrier bag
  • in a simplexD book.

You get the picture. Traditionally the accountant’s response to any of those would be ‘that’s fine, we can work with that’. This works if you are hourly billing the client as they pay for the time it takes. We have already talked about the fact that this does not facilitate great client experience in the earlier pricing article. Clients care about outputs not inputs.

In this example we are working on a fixed price fee. If we are not controlling the process here, we cannot control the profitability of the job. It becomes very hard for us to offer the fixed price fee model and get it right in this situation. If this is your objective for your firm, you have to take control of this process and dictate to the client what their options are.

I have on a number of occasions been challenged on this. It is not for everyone but if you are looking to build a future proof firm with client experience at the heart, for me it is something you have to embrace.

Let's think about what we are doing here. If we dictate a process to a client, we are the expert and the client is paying us for advice. The process we are suggesting for a client should have the aim of delivering top quality services effectively and efficiently to the client and giving them the output they need. What is so wrong therefore in setting out the best way for that to be achieved for you and the client? It is after all what our clients want from us - to give them the right solution.

Educating clients on our process

My definition of a digital firm is ‘a firm that utilises a mix of digital technology and digitally aware staff to deliver first class services, effectively and efficiently, through maximum levels of automation’.

If this is what you are striving for, then I would hope that you see the logic in the need for you to have a degree of control over the process, to deliver that consistent service quality for your clients. So how do we ensure the clients are prepared to follow the process?

The key of course is education, and good process starts with good client onboarding. We can learn huge amounts from software vendors in how they support clients as they come on board. We have one opportunity to make a great first impression. As I grew my firm we had periods where we were taking on one new client a day. With this rate of new business, it is easy to drop a few balls. We certainly did. We had no process and we were making errors at the very point we shouldn’t be!

To fix the problem we set up a dedicated Welcome Team. It was one person initially! This approach has developed over time but today the team works with our new clients to get them up and running with the Farnell Clarke way. They get new clients signed up, they set up the software and provide training as necessary. They touch base with the client once a week at least and most importantly ensure they are doing the things we need them to do to enable us to deliver the level of service they expect within the fixed fee we have set.

It is really important that once we have our process set out we communicate why it is important for the client to follow it. Ultimately this is likely to be focused around fee levels. If the client does x, y and z then you as the firm can guarantee the fee, if they don’t do x,y, and z there may be additional fees. Of course, this is the stick approach, the carrot is that if the client does what they need to do they will have good quality to run better businesses.

Next steps

Process is a huge area and the next article will continue this theme as we look to explore the way process can be used to deliver more efficient compliance work, which in turn opens up opportunities to deliver added value services due to increased capacity and good quality data.

Ahead of the next article, take some time to think about your own processes:

  1. Do you own the process?
  2. How do you feel about dictating more of a process to clients?
  3. How do you ensure new clients understand what you need from them at the point you onboard them?

Finally, remember ‘you as the accountant have to own the process’. You have to choose how you run your firm and not let clients run your firm for you.

Will Farnell - Founder, Farnell Clarke