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Accountant smiling at client

4 ways for accountants to improve client relationships (and grow referrals)

This article has been reviewed by Catalina Bermudez

Relationships, relationships, relationships. Much like how location influences property value in real estate, solid relationships impact business success. Yes, you need solid marketing and effective sales. Sure, systems and processes matter. Certainly, you must deliver excellent services or products.

But, while each of these aspects of your firm matters, one of the greatest drivers of business success is the connection to other people.

Relationships within a business can be defined in three core spheres:

  1. Network relationships: Colleagues and business connections that open opportunities and help get things done.
  2. Internal relationships: Employees and contractors who help the business run
  3. External relationships: Clients who benefit from your services or products.

Each sphere matters greatly. In this article, we’ll focus on external relationships with clients who put their trust in you to deliver quality service. Improving your clients’ financial literacy creates solid relationships that can lead to inbound leads via referrals, happy clients who evangelize your awesomeness, a long list of testimonials and online reviews that make it easier to win new clients, and a sense of satisfaction as you delight your clients over and over again.

This article provides scalable tips, depending on your business stage, though it is particularly targeted to solopreneurs, small business owners, and leaders.

1. Systematize all things

This point can’t be emphasized enough. No matter the size of your firm, systems matter because they enrich relationships. Whether your systems are visible to them, they’ll feel it. You’ll also feel less overwhelmed, and be better able to meet or exceed expectations.

Picture for example looking for a subcontractor to work on a project. You find a website and submit a form and hear back immediately with a link to book a call. After the call, you get a proposal sent through an automated system which makes signing and paying the deposit easy. The process feels organized and boosts your trust in the company’s ability to deliver the quality needed on the project.

What do we mean by systems in relation to client experience? Put simply, a system is a standard process for workflow, usually accompanied by checklists and documentation. It might sound like a big undertaking to create templates and track every detail of a project, but it doesn’t have to be. Start where you are by creating responsive systems. Create a new template as you deliver on a project, and then continue to tweak the template with future clients.

Examples of processes that can be systematized include discovery calls, proposals, deposits, invoicing, payment, client onboarding, client projects, client communication, updates and reporting, project delivery, testimonials, client celebration (sharing client successes with their permission), and more. 

Each business has particular needs and therefore systems vary widely. However, the basics of accounting and bookkeeping apply to all industries. Therefore, if you have identified a process or methodology that works, be sure to replicate and use it as a model for scaling. Your clients will see the impact, and so will you and your team.

2. Be proactive and clear with your communication

One of the most important currencies in relationships with clients is trust. If you are in a field that requires longer work periods for deliverables, clients need to hear from you often. You should never get an email from a client that says something like, “Just wondering how the project is coming along.”

It may be tempting to buckle down and focus on the work, emerging when everything is ready to be sent to the client. However, even if you communicated with your clients, gave them a clear delivery date, and updated them every couple of weeks to assure them everything was going well, there’s a missed opportunity to build trust and a relationship during the working process. Depending on the client's style, aim to update clients weekly, set monthly calls to stay in touch, answer questions about the work or process, and build a solid foundation for the rest of your work together. 

Here are some tips for developing solid communication:

  • Be proactive. Set a regular interval for updating clients, and let them know when they can expect to hear from you. Depending on the rhythm of your work, the right frequency might be daily, twice a week, or weekly.
  • Respond to emails in a timely manner. Now, we didn't say “immediately.” Being married to your email inbox prevents you from focusing on the work you need to do to delight clients. Strive for a 12- to 24-hour response time during business days, and let your clients know when they can expect to hear back from you.
  • Provide emergency contact information. If you don’t check emails outside of work hours, provide clients with a phone number just in case they need to get in touch with you. If a phone number doesn’t work for you, perhaps set up a specialized email address and turn on notifications during off hours. However, we do not recommend keeping your email notifications on all the time. Instead, try time blocking your calendar, creating dedicated periods for discretionary time, emailing, calls, and other important areas of focus each day.
  • If you can’t make a deadline, communicate with your client. Do so as early as possible; don’t wait until 11:56 PM on the day of. Nothing feels worse to a client than silence, especially if they send emails asking for updates or expect a deliverable that never shows up. While they may be disappointed to know you didn’t deliver on a promise, you’ll build trust through owning the situation and providing the clear next steps.
  • Own your mistakes. Mistakes happen. Often it’s how you deal with the mistake that makes more of an impact than the initial blunder. Owning your mistakes and quickly working to make things right can boost your clients confidence and trust. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it, without excuses, with an apology and a clear plan to fix things.
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3. Harness the power of email

Messaging applications, video, phone calls, and even texts can be an important part of establishing a connection with clients, but love it or loathe it, email is still the primary method of communication in most business settings. The quality of your emails can improve client trust and connection. Along with timeliness, a well-written email should be:

  • Complete, by having fully responded to the client’s questions or needs from the previous email.
  • Clear, without additional fluff or wordiness that wastes a client’s time. As a general rule, write the email quickly, then edit it down as much as possible before hitting send. Also, use a clear subject line.
  • Correct, without typos or formatting errors. Use a read-aloud macro or an email plug-in such as Grammarly.
  • Personable, with the correct level of formality for the situation, married with a human touch. For example, open the email by asking about an important project they’re working on or end by wishing them a great weekend.

4. Surprise and delight your clients

Seek moments of pleasure and happiness, and create unexpected moments of pleasure and happiness for others. This includes clients. Many companies in a wide range of businesses, whether solopreneur-led or run by a growth-focused founding team, focus on delight, or a similar concept, as one of their values. Focusing on delight can result in rock-solid client and customer relationships.

How could you create unexpected moments of pleasure or happiness for your clients? Here are four ideas:

  1. Send a welcome gift. Add gift giving to your process for onboarding new clients, whether you’re sending a simple card or a box of curated items. This can be automated by working with a local company to create themed welcome baskets or selecting a go-to client gift online.
  2. Package deliverables in an exciting way. Look at your deliverables with fresh eyes and ask “How could I make this delightful?” For example, if you run a program that uses a workbook, rather than sending the workbook in a standard mailing envelope, package it in a beautiful box with a few other small gifts. Delightful!
  3. Deliver early and beyond expectations. Simply getting work done early and with excellence can strengthen relationships with clients. You can, for example, play with setting certain deadlines with the client but setting a shorter one with your team, so you can surprise your client.
  4. Send videos. When delivering a project, use software such as Loom to record a walk-through of important points for client projects. Create a screen recording with audio only, so you can focus on the content rather than your camera presence. For example, if you are sending a quarterly accounting report, include a short video discussing the P&L you’ve attached.
  5. Guide clients in selecting apps for QuickBooks. Become a value-added app advisor and help your clients customize their QuickBooks with app integrations that will save them time, increase productivity, and automate their daily accounting and business tasks. 

Relationships are about connections. Find ways to connect with your clients. You’ll have happier clients, an enriching work environment, and hopefully, a steady stream of inbound referrals.

Sign up to use QuickBooks Online Accountant for free for your accounting firm. Take the stress out of managing your clients, and your accounting business with accounting software features designed for accountants.

This article originally appeared on the Firm of the Future site by Stacy Ennis.