The BDLN says:
The claim “we offer exceptional client service”, or one like it, is on the lips of just about every firm’s marketing team. It’s become a well-worn cliché – a tired combination of words rolling across hundreds of professional services’ websites from Berwick to Bude. And it is being so used often that the concept of ‘incredible service’ is slowly being stripped of its meaning.
We thought that it was time to recalibrate. What does ‘exceptional client service’ actually look like? Can anyone deliver it? So we spoke to Richard Kleiner, CEO of Gerald Edelman, to rediscover the true meaning of this phrase. Here are his five steps to delivering client service unlike any other…
By Richard Kleiner…
1) Elevate the relationship
People buy people. They don’t buy services. We know that relationships can’t be constructed purely on product or price. Building and developing a productive rapport takes time, effort and a huge amount of interpersonal skill and know-how.
What does all that mean? Well, people want to deal with people they like. So the question is: how can you elevate your relationship with a client to a level where they enjoy your company, relish being challenged by you, and love the interaction? The answer is certainly not centred on compliance-based services. The elevation of the relationship comes from memorable conversations, an exchange of mutually beneficial ideas and sociable activities. Clients often forget accounting details so you must focus on being remarkable.
2) Build open communication
This is the key to everything in professional services. By ensuring open communication, both internally and externally, you are able to uncover the client’s expectations, objectives and concerns. And then you can manage them.
When there’s no continuous dialogue between a client and a firm you’re in dangerous waters because silence can fester misunderstanding and resentment. That’s when a client tends to meet with your competitors and replace you with a new, more proactive adviser.
In addition to regular open dialogue, the client must see your firm as a ‘joined-up’ organisation. So when they receive emails, all relevant parties should be copied in. As partner, I would expect to receive all emails relating to the project, however ‘small’ and insignificant they seem to be. This exchange gives the client the correct impression that I am leading the service and it allows me to comment and emphasise as and when necessary.
Open internal communication is equally important. If you are leading the service team, you must encourage your people to notify you immediately if a problem – or a potential problem – unfolds. Few things are more damaging than hearing about an issue for the first time from your client – rather than from your own team. You are immediately disadvantaged as you have no time to consider how to communicate, when to communicate, or to work out what the repercussions might be.
But you can only give your people the confidence to share problems with you by building a supportive and positive network within your culture. Your actions and not just your words should prove that there will not be huge repercussions for every mistake made. I try to build a spirit of collective responsibility where mistakes are almost embraced as opportunities for learning, rather than as something to be reprimanded.
3) Focus on providing unexpected value rather than expected value
Partners should see themselves as account managers, managing the client’s expectations and ensuring that compliance-based services meet or preferably exceed those expectations. I would advise partners not to get involved in compliance-based services themselves wherever possible. It takes away too much executive thinking and acting time – time that you could be spending focusing on strategy and finding ways to elevate the relationship (see point 1).
If, as a partner, I don’t have to spend three hours working on a client’s tax return, I can use that time to boost the relationship and to wow my client instead. I could research the client’s market sector, look at their competitors and come up with value-added ideas. I could strategise with the client, preferably in face-to-face meetings. And by doing those things I can provide unexpected value, which is a big step on the journey towards gaining the status of ‘trusted adviser’.
4) Don’t shy away from offering business advice
Accountants tend to avoid giving puristic business advice just because they see it as outside their skill set. I would suggest that those who do shy away from it are not challenging themselves enough: giving business advice should never be outside anyone’s skill set. What’s more, financially oriented people find it easier to understand and to develop the vital protocols that all businesses need to function effectively. Accountants are as good as anyone at orchestrating the range of processes required. The only issue is that they’re so used to doing compliance work that they don’t think beyond it.
You must challenge yourself to have conversations with clients about their business and have the confidence to hold your own. The truth is that you won’t have to talk much because the client will love discussing their business. By doing this, you will be getting the client to look at their business from an objective angle and you will be challenging them to think in a fresh way. Don’t worry too much. Be relaxed. The key thing is to get the client to talk – so you’ve got to be a good listener too.
Recognise when you can help them, but also when you need to signpost them to someone else for specialist assistance. Try to demonstrate to the client that you have a stake in their business. Treat it as something you part own – because that’s what the client wants – someone to share the burden of being a business owner.
5) Embrace and enjoy the relationship
Finally, we return to the spirit of point 1: getting to know a client is essential, but actually enjoying the relationship is so much better. Invest in it; get it to semi-social level. Talk about things other than the business. But when you do come to focus on the business, be ‘on it’ – buzzing, passionate. When I’m in a board meeting, I’m engrossed, on the button, rooted in the all-important psyche and dynamic of the business and its management team.
The BDLN says:
Richard Kleiner provides a fantastic definition of genuinely ‘exceptional’ client service. And we particularly draw your attention to the concept of providing “unexpected value” – something you can only supply by going beyond the normal, whether by making your client see a fresh business angle, by giving them a particularly memorable meeting, or by demonstrating your absolute commitment to their cause. Richard also highlights the mindset required for superb client service – a mindset that stems from “having a stake in your client’s business” and “treating it as something you part own”. By taking that approach, you put yourself in the right place to come up with original ideas and to go above and beyond the levels of everyday, vanilla service.
However, when you provide that “unexpected value,” it’s clear that you must deliver it in spades in order to truthfully say: “We offer exceptional client service”. Otherwise this oft-made claim is just hot air.
Over to you…
Richard Kleiner was talking to BDLN founder John Maffioli