The final push to the top

 

In the second part of his analysis, John Monks continues his exploration of what makes a great firm truly great.

In part one of this series, we identified the six attributes that take a reasonably successful firm to being one that is really great. These are:

  • Design the future
  • Leadership
  • People
  • Your offer
  • Business development
  • Managing client experience

Having analysed the first two, it’s time to look at the remaining four.

Great people, great firm
The really great firms attract great people.  Employees, like clients, do consider the best firms to work for and studies, such as the Times ‘100 Best Companies To Work For’, are becoming very popular.

Attracting and retaining great people works best when the accountancy firm is clear about its values and attitudes to business and actively seeks people who are happy to share and embrace these.  Values are sometimes difficult to define, but these firms have invested time doing this.  They develop their own philosophy about how they want to interact with clients, how they want to treat their people, how they want their people to work together etc.  This philosophy is very unique to them and not cribbed from elsewhere.  It is broken down into qualities, skills and behaviours, which the firms base their recruitment, selection, induction and training on.

Success here comes from a realisation that greatness can take many forms.  That to be a great firm you need to have great people in what they do.  This means playing to strengths and not asking everyone to have the same responsibilities.  These firms take a long hard look at the different roles within the business and match-make them to the best people for the job.  Brilliant technical experts, fantastic business developers and rainmakers, outstanding client relationship partners, managers, leaders are able to be so because they are allowed to concentrate on what they are good at and only that.

Your market offering
Let’s now consider how the greatest firms define their offer to market.  We have rarely seen success where the ‘all things to all men’ approach produces the best results. The greatest success appears to happen when accountancy firms make intelligent clear-cut decisions as to which services they wish to offer to a clearly defined client base and then set out to make them ‘easy for clients to buy’.

‘Ease of buying’, is something often overlooked by less successful firms.  However, there appears to be three factors present in the most profitable firms:

  1. They focus on offering service lines and solutions where the market place perceives them as strong.
  2. They avoid offering any service lines or solutions where the market place perceives them as being weak.
  3. Before offering new service lines or solutions, sufficient investment is made in both people and reputation-building to ensure a strong reputation is quickly earned.

Critical to this is thinking like a client and how they view particular services and would like to buy them.  The greatest firms recognise that different clients want different service lines and offerings from them.  Some may want a basic compliance issue solved.  Others want more hand-holding; they seek a more in-depth relationship and direct involvement in their business.

We know of one firm that recognised a particular service line was viewed as a commodity purchase.  Rather than attempting to oversell with a high touch consultative approach, they simply worked on becoming the slickest, quickest and most cost effective supplier for the client to buy!  Make no mistake; they also made a significant return from the service. Thinking like clients caused them to change their delivery model.  It also freed up more resources for clients wanting more complex relationships.

Business development
Great firms sell themselves, and sell themselves better than the competition.  Or put another way, the greatest accountancy firms make it ‘easy for clients to buy’ from them, rather than from the competition.

How? They have a business development culture.  A culture where the process for managing and developing existing clients together with winning new clients is fully understood.  The process is robust and becomes ‘the way we do business around here’.

The greatest firms also appear to have more professional business development people than their peers.  These professionals are not treated as ‘less worthy’ support people: they are considered to be equals and an integral part of the firm’s success.  The greatest firms will typically have business development representation on their senior management boards.

Great firms do not view business development as occasional initiatives to boost fee income when the pot is running dry.  They see business development as something that happens every week, every month, ever quarter, forever! This type of approach provides the greatest firms with a sustainable flow of opportunities.  The opportunities are more likely to turn into fee income reality if the selling is handled by fee-earners who understand the skills and behaviours of consultative selling.   And to achieve this fee-earners are given training, mentoring, time and support on the areas they most need it.

Fee-earners are also encouraged to communicate and not be possessive about their clients with their colleagues.  Great firms have very open internal communication, which cultivates greater opportunities being developed for clients and the firm as a whole.

Client experience

At the heart of delivering a great client experience is the understanding that each client’s expectations of the firm are different and to be great or outstanding, the firm has to surpass these expectations in some way.

Some of the less successful firms, feel this is difficult to manage across their client portfolio and expensive and yet it isn’t.  By taking the time to understand client expectations great firms are able to identify similarities.  They make a number of steps, which satisfy a large number of clients, they then enable the creativity and ingenuity of the client service teams to solve specific issues.  Often this results in greater innovation across the firm, which in time benefits other clients. Delighted clients generate a greater take up of services and more client referrals.

But delivering a great client experience isn’t the remit of the client service team alone.  As a client, we experience many ‘touch points’ with different parts of a firm, there will be reception staff, the people in accounts, marketing teams and efforts, to name but a few.  Each of these touch points can sweeten or sour a client relationship and so the greatest firms put much energy into communicating, training and managing their people to deliver a great client experience.  They structure their reward and recognition programmes to demonstrate their commitment to delighting clients.

 

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