In a world where a firm’s success hinges on its ability to distinguish itself from the competition, the term ‘added value’ has become popular, to the point of meaningless. Many accountant firms will promise in their promotional material to ‘add value’ in some way. But does anyone know what the term really means and do clients believe they’re truly getting it, or has added value merely become a form of spin that is, in practice, hard to deliver?
Delivering value is not just about doing a good job or about excellence. Nor is it necessarily about doing something for free. Instead, added value is about doing something over and above the client’s expectations, in a way that makes a real difference to their business.
A recent study into client perception by Nisus Consulting looked at what FTSE100 clients wanted from their legal advisers. What clients wanted, in order of priority, was: understanding of their technical requirements in a commercial context; the ability to innovate and add value; responsiveness; value for money; an in-depth understanding of their needs; willingness to invest in long-term relationships; the ability to always meet deadlines; knowledge and understanding of their culture; knowledge of their industry sector; and actively delivering to budget. Some of these factors appear lower down the list than expected because it goes without saying that clients expect their advisers to meet deadlines, understand their business and deliver to budget. These are basic service components and aren’t factors clients using to distinguish one adviser from another. The ability to innovate and add value, however, is a differentiating factor.
Nisus also found that, above all, client value staff secondments, seminars at the clients, regular review meetings and research into key issues. In contrast, most saw little value in their adviser’s websites, corporate hospitality or sponsorship.
What is clear is that added value means different things to different people. For one client, it may be help with a basic compliance issue, whereas another may want their firm to act closely with them as a strategic business partner. It is only by gaining an in-depth understanding of each client that you can work out what you need to deliver and, just as importantly, what you don’t.
This is the starting point for adding real value to that relationship. And there are a number of ways to gauge what clients want – from client research, review meetings and post-project feedback to just plain talking. You shouldn’t assume that clients will automatically recognise the added value they receive from the service you deliver to them. Regular client review meetings offer an opportunity to communicate that message. The more successful firms have processes in place to remind the client of the value they’ve generated.
One thing’s for sure – added value is more that just marketing rhetoric. Newsletters, brochures and email updates serve a purpose, but clients do not necessarily see (even) more information as added value. They expect their advisers to understand them well enough to ensure that all information sent to them is relevant.
Understand your clients, and deliver value to their expectations and added value can become a reality, rather than a hollow promise.
Firms need o review their clients’ perceptions of the added value they receive at regular intervals. One firm illustrated the extra services it provided in an ‘extra mile’ file, in which they recoded all the extras they’d done for the client above and beyond the basic service components. From time to time, they reported back to the client on the content of this log. Doing this pre-empted questions about the value in the relationship and the evidence of that value.
Clients can help their accountants by openly discussing their expectations. This discussion should go beyond just the clients’ technical requirements and include details of what they see as added value, how they expect the two sides to work together, how they prefer to communicate with advisers and how often they expect contact with the firm. You should also decide how meetings should be run and what issues should not be discussed in open forum, how information should be presented and outline what current challenges they are facing, which the firm may be able to help with.
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