Expectations for client service are accelerating fast enough to give anyone whiplash.
Toister Performance Solutions, a company that helps organizations with customer service, performs an annual survey on how fast customers expect businesses to respond to email. In 2013, 90% of people expected a response within 24 hours. By 2015, more than 85% of people expect a response within one hour. In fact, 14.5% expect a response within 15 minutes!
Companies like Amazon, Apple, and Zappos have set new standards for customer service, and these expectations aren’t limited to shopping. As a result, your clients expect your services to be delivered quickly, with a seamless user experience, real-time information, all from their mobile device.
At the same time, there is more competition than for your clients. Accounting firms used to compete only locally. In some areas, there was hardly any competition at all. Now, however, cloud accounting, online collaboration tools, and video conferences mean clients can work with firms all over the world. And with Millennials stepping into management roles, clients are more willing than ever to work remotely with their accountant.
How can accounting firms deliver such service and remain profitable in the face of such competition? By using a workflow that takes advantage of available technologies and also makes processes efficient.
Deliver on high expectations by eliminating waste
Few firms today are able to deliver on those high client expectations. Their processes have too many manual steps and steps that don’t add value, too many documents, as well as too many exceptions to “standardized” processes.
Reinventing these processes is not an easy task, but the benefits are enormous. So how do you get started? We recommend a Lean Six Sigma process improvement project for all priority processes. A Lean Six Sigma project focuses on eliminating waste within a process using the DMAIC tool:
D – Define. What problem do you want to fix? Create the vision, define the objectives, identify the scope, and create timelines for completion.
M – Measure. Measurement is critical for thoroughly understanding the baseline and current state of your process. Not what “should be” happening, but what is actually happening today – and all of the variation between offices and individuals.
A – Analyze. Tear the process down. What does the data tell you? Identify the inefficiencies and waste. Identify loops and quality issues. Ultimately, identify areas of opportunity.
I – Improve. How will you fix the problem? Develop ideas and solutions in the areas of opportunity identified during the Analyze phase. Don’t just apply best practices to part of the process that isn’t a root cause of weakness. This leads to ineffective change and convoluted processes.
C – Control. How will you sustain the improvements? Take time to train, roll out and implement the new process.
Workflow Technology is step 2
Many firms who recognize the need to improve their efficiency and turn-around times simply look for a tool (software), and try to implement technology using old processes. However, implementing new technology without taking a deep look at workflow and processes won’t get you where you need to be. Use DMAIC first. Then implement workflow technology solutions.
Finally, keep in mind that changes to processes are only improvements if they improve the client experience. Future-ready firms are committed to offering clients a digital experience that makes it easier to work together: truly electronic organizers (not just a PDF version of your old organizer uploaded to a portal), electronic signing of engagement letters and e-file forms, automated PBC request programs, and digital copies of returns.
Clients Already Embrace Technology
Again, the days of claiming that your clients won’t work with technology are over. They are likely already managing their banking, investments, shopping, and numerous other aspects of their business and personal lives on mobile devices. Why would they be unwilling to work with their CPA as easily? And if your clients really refuse to embrace technology, is that the client base that will help you grow over the next ten to 20 years?
Firms that use technology to automate compliance work and increase their capacity for higher-value performance and strategic services will get the largest returns in the shortest amount of time.
Also remember, process is not only for lower-level and administrative staff. It should be a core pillar of the firm’s strategic plan. In fact, this requires partner-level leadership and buy-in. Don’t let a few adherents to the “old school” way of doing business hold your firm back. Leading firms will turn advances in technology into their greatest opportunity yet – to go beyond transactional and compliance work and offer more strategic services to clients. It will improve the bottom line and delight your clients.