Date posted: 22/08/2017 7 min read

How customer power can help to grow a business

Happy customers who trust and refer their accountant can be key to growing a practice.

In Brief

  • The personal touch helps build strong trust with clients, so return calls and emails fast.
  • Show customers what will be possible in the future.
  • Build common ground to show clients that accountants are business owners too.

If there’s any single challenge which can keep business owners awake at night, wondering how to attract new customers is one that’s one of the most common.

Knowing who to turn to for help can be the tricky part. Accountants can help with advice on this problem, but many small business owners don’t know this, according to a recent survey. In fact, fewer than 10% of SMEs surveyed see their accountant as their most trusted adviser. It’s business colleagues and friends who are the most popular advisers for SMEs, according to the March 2017 Scottish Pacific SME Growth Index. More than 80% of 1,253 owners surveyed do say their relationship with their accountant is positive for their operations though, so this is a good start from which to grow adviser trust.

When it comes to the most trusted professions, accountants rank 11th out of 30 for trust, scoring 51%. Nurses are at the top at 92%, and federal MPs way down at 17%, according to the Roy Morgan Image of Professions Survey 2016.

With these perceptions out in the market, it’s important for accountants to keep building the faith. This occurs already to some extent through diversity, generational change and digitisation driving new business models, and as chartered accountants address people challenges through investing in coaching and soft skills. 

However, more can be done, especially in terms of acquiring customers, marketing and branding.

Happy customers are the key to growth

Marketing wisdom tells us that happy customers and the referrals they generate are the cheapest and best form of new revenue. 

Tech power can be harnessed as one easy step towards keeping new and existing customers satisfied. “Personal, live interaction by the business, with every customer, on a frequent basis, is ideal, but is simply not practical,” says Mark Cutfield, Head of Marketing for OpenCorp, and a leading digitisation expert. 

Research shows that an engaged customer provides more than four times the referrals of a client who is simply “satisfied”.

It may sound obvious, but email is still a useful and cost-effective way to acquire and retain customers, he says. “Despite the range of other options available, research and practice show that email facilitated by programmed marketing automation is often still the most efficient retention and acquisition tool.”

However, it’s the personal touch which really counts. Bendigo-based accounting practice AFS and Associates has grown strongly in the past 15 years, well beyond its local area or state. “At AFS, we talk about the lonely business owner,” says senior partner David Hutchings FCA. “We say we’re here to partner the business owner.”

What’s important is to get clients to look forward to the future. “The challenge is to show business owners that such a relationship is valuable and forward looking, not just retrospectively analysing what happened, but what is possible in the present and the future.”

Demonstrate also that accountants are business owners too, who face the same issues. “This bridges the gap from accountant to trusted advisor and confidant,” says Hutchings.

A lot of AFS clients feel the love, in personal ways. Recently, AFS chief executive, Kate Mannix CA says she needed to visit a client in Tasmania for one-and-a-half days. Instead of just flying in and out, she hired a car and spent a week visiting multiple other clients in the state. “I made an effort, and they liked it. This type of attention brings clients back to AFS for multiple services, and engenders them to refer us to others.”

AFS staff also make sure to return client phone calls and emails within 20 minutes when in the office. The result? Because they are personally happy with the relationship, clients often refer AFS to other business people by word of mouth, says Hutchings.

Other good ways that accountants can build client relationships and trust include regular contact, networking at local social events, taking younger team members to client meetings, understanding the business or industry and empathising with the business owner.

Research shows that an engaged customer provides more than four times the referrals of a client who is simply “satisfied”. Julie Littlechild, founder of consulting firm Absolute Engagement, carried out the research in 2014.

Finding perfect customers

“Most professional advisers are qualified and trained in a discipline such as legal, accounting, engineering, or medicine,” says Brisbane-based Paul Kennedy CA, Principal of PGV Consulting. However, that doesn’t mean they are qualified and trained in business development or that they enjoy it, he warns. So it’s wise to consult an outside expert. 

“Build a profile of your ‘ideal clients’ – the industries they are they in, their demographics, their characteristics and traits, why they are your ideal clients, and what makes them your ideal clients,” Kennedy says. Then set about getting your story in front of them.

“In communicating with prospective clients, focus on the benefits to them of dealing with you.”

Also focus on areas of unmet need, where value can be added. Common factors in insolvencies are poor cash flow, strategic planning, or financial controls, according to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). These are fertile areas for advice from chartered accountants, and good areas where trust can develop.