Reaching for Authenticity in Client Service
By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC
Do you ever wonder if events you attend have an air of authenticity around them or are they simply staged? What about the options offered on new cars or the latest and greatest upgrades to a tech gadget? Is the hype greater than the actual product? Is what is considered innovation really just an incremental change that competitors can imitate? As for CPA firms, are they providing a unique service in a unique fashion? Today, clients are looking at the cost of traditional audit and tax work. Because they are commoditized services, the decision is price-driven, so lowballing becomes routine for firms.
However, what clients want is real value, not perceived value.
Take for instance what is referred to as the Gig Economy. It is a fast-moving, ever-changing onslaught of products and services that have a “first to market” mindset. Transportation, lodging, online shopping and a multitude of other transactional options have jumped into the fray. Because they reflect new business models and appear to appeal to a new generation of consumers, they have enjoyed various levels of success.
How do the new models (and those yet to be created) relate to service firms and businesses? Both groups must make prospective clients or customers believe their urgent needs are being satisfied. If we talk about a CPA firm, people must believe there is a positive reflection on them in being associated with your firm. It’s hard to generate enthusiasm for a commoditized service. With an audit, clients expect a straightforward, vanilla and generic experience. Nothing noteworthy. But it’s not the service; in reality it’s the results that count. This means pushing aside the numbers and getting to the more critical areas of a business’s operational, financial and market position.
After all, over the next five to ten years, technology may disintermediate the CPA from the client unless there is an effort to provide honest-to-goodness service benefits; not some knock-off, wannabee innovative service whose value’s shelf life is uncertain. Technology is only the tool; the big picture perspective is the authentic value.
Can Client Service Provide Authentic Value?
When I refer to authenticity, I mean a product or a service that creates a sense of curiosity and wonder — and is thought provoking. Consider a reduction of time spent at the client’s facility (resulting in reduced fees). But is that all there is? If the answer is yes, then you are not providing authentic value.
Take cloud computing, which has been covered ad nauseam. There are so many competing products in the marketplace, that the basic allure of this process has lost its luster. It has helped reduce IT costs for CPA firms and capital costs for business. Okay, that’s fine. But what happens now? The same holds true for Intuit’s Quickbooks, Norton, or any other bookkeeping-like software. The time and tedium associated with data entry has dropped significantly. Again, less billable time.
The real question, however, is what will fill the time saved by technology in general or a software package in particular? Will your firm be entering a new arena where innovation or creativity is required? If yes, then make sure what you offer is truly new and not the usual fare wearing a disguise. Be ahead of the curve and create a standard and expectation for the service. Build something that allows for flexibility and avoids the trap of being given the nebulous term “best practices.” After all, who has a monopoly on best practices?
With technology replacing much of the human intervention in many industries, public accounting requires that there still be adherence to real service: not robotic, menu-driven interaction. Clients and customers still want the personal touch and a feeling their needs are being met. This means being able to anticipate problems and create solutions, customizing specific approaches, and even changing attitudes and beliefs.
This is authenticity in client service, not a see-you-the-same-time-next-year mindset.
Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at www.solutions2results.com.