Guest post by Peter Reilly, Chairman of Bethesda, Md.-based IPA 300 firm Councilor Buchanan & Mitchell
As the events of 2020 unfolded – from the pandemic to constant protests – concerns for the safety of our staff and the ability to stay connected consumed our partner group. While this was natural, it was also challenging given the amount of sympathy we also began to experience for the lives lost, which continues to haunt our clients and employees to this day. But we had to ask: Could the important bonds we developed with clients suffer from our turning inward?
Finishing 2020 in one piece seemed to be cause for celebration for many accounting firms. There may be a mindset that having grown 5% or 6% through a year fraught with such challenges is attributable to outstanding client service. Having grown the top line 10% to 12% surely allows management to trace success to directives and initiatives around client service that leadership remained committed to throughout 2020. How much of your company’s 2020 growth is attributable to tweaks made to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, auditing standards changes, billing rate adjustments and, of course, the CARES Act, which includes PPP loans?
By St. Patrick’s Day of 2020, our firm’s focus, in no small way, was the safety of our employees. Our workforce is diverse and representative of our city’s demographics. While employee safety came first, their accessibility to software and connectivity through Microsoft Teams also became an obsession. Training was always taking place and still is. Safety for our clients was also important, so much so that we stopped clients from visiting our offices and encouraged alternative ways of contact. Employees and clients alike learned about the virtual workplace, and those who “will never use a portal” learned to use our portal. Our offices look today more like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Very little of 2020 resembled the “client experience” we had grown accustomed to. I might add, through no fault of our own, our Washington, D.C., office was more often boarded up than open due to protests and riots for most of the year. Calling staff one particular night to check on their wellbeing as protesters were disassembled by National Guardsman on the streets below their apartments was jarring. Client and accountant in-person interaction wasn’t taking place. That personal touch is and always has been part of our mission statement.
I wonder if our emphasis on staff safety and connectivity could have nudged client satisfaction out of riding shotgun and into the back seat. Yes, we are still riding together, heading to the same place, but is the back seat as cool as shotgun? Everyone has certainly adapted to the virtual workplace. Our staff members weren’t given an option and were trained on how to remain productive virtually. We haven’t provided training to our staff on how to make the client experience exceptional in this virtual world. We did, however, provide webinars to our clients on how to set up a remote office and countless webinars on the Paycheck Protection Program.
While our clients were spending much time on how to continue to work with us, there is a possibility they were not as focused on how good our service was. 2020 did not lend itself to easy portability. I mean, where could our clients go amid catastrophe? Who knew back when we complained about children staring at their cell phones or light from computer screens was interrupting their sleep rhythms, that this actually foreshadowed the new normal? Teams and Zoom certainly give our staff and clients an opportunity to see one another and stay connected. I’ve read where you can now have a hologram of yourself delivering tax and financial planning advice to your clients. As far as I’m concerned, it’s about time someone found a purpose for holograms other than delivering messages to help save the Federation from the Evil Empire.
I believe tomorrow will be a hybrid of yesterday and today. What the new normal will look like will include protocols for ensuring customer satisfaction – whether in person and/or on Zoom. Most CPA firms are known for their outstanding client service. In fact, we are known as our clients’ “most trusted advisor.” So let’s be grateful for having made it through 2020 and refocus on becoming important client advisors. I know that’s what we’re working on. There is no better way to grow your firm than through outstanding client service, which brings about the best compliment – customer referrals.