Relationships Matter, Especially in Business
A team member recently told me about their battle with dieting and cookies. Like many of us, the time spent in quarantine this past year was not kind to their waistline, and they resolved to get back into shape by steering clear of snacks. As they struggled to lose their pandemic pounds, it seemed that cookies were being sold outside of every grocery, convenience, and department store they went to. They spoke of how they persistently walked by each time, avoiding purchasing what was one of their favorite treats, thinking it was simply a matter of willpower. This all changed when the child of one of their close neighbors knocked on their door with a boxload of cookies. How could they say no to the child of a dear friend? You see relationships matter. They make a difference, especially in business.
Anyone who ever built a successful accounting firm, or any other service-based organization, did so on a foundation of strong relationships. Even the largest brands in the world started with a single relationship, whether in Steve Jobs’ home garage, Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room, or Sam Walton’s first dime store. Maintaining those strong relationships is a key element in sustaining and growing your business.
As Prager Metis Chief Collaboration Officer Steven Topal likes to say, “Accounting is a commodity. Relationships last forever.” In the accounting business, it’s very easy to forget that there is a unique person behind that Form 1040, especially during tax season. Without conscious effort, it can easily become more about the commodity and not the relationship.
Strengthening and Transitioning Client Relationships
The strength and longevity of a client relationship are directly tied to the client experience. The time we take to know each client, the continued interest we show in their business and personal matters, and our timely responsiveness and communications, help them to know they are listened to, are appreciated, and are valued.
The more trust the client places in his business partners and the greater the value they place on that relationship, the longer the association will be. Ideally, every client relationship will be a long journey. Perhaps you’ll see a client start a business and family, and continue to work with them as they purchase their first home and grow that business. You’ll work with them and advise them on saving for college costs and contributing to 401K plans. When you reach my stage of life, you start to grow old with them and plan for succession and retirement. This is one of the most critical times in a professional relationship – passing it down from one generation to the next. This is because you’re not transitioning a client, you’re transitioning a relationship based on trust. You have to make sure the people on both sides are the right fit so the relationship can thrive and continue. Properly transitioned, a strong business relationship can continue long after the two people who started the relationship are gone.
Technology Is No Substitute for a Human Connection
Technology can help or hinder the human connections that are vital to maintaining client relationships. Over the past year, video calling and conferencing programs have been of great assistance in providing a substitute platform for in-person meetings and face-to-face interactions. Unfortunately, the increased use of pre-recorded telephone prompts on support lines and robotic “How can I help you?” pop-ups on websites are a poor substitute for the human interaction needed to foster strong business relationships. How often have we heard someone say, “You can’t get a live person” when trying to resolve an issue or get more information about a product or service?
Business professionals can very easily become content to sit behind a laptop or smartphone and send messages back and forth with their clients. It’s not enough to simply do the work, fulfill what they perceive to be the client’s needs, and send a bill — that’s a transaction, not a relationship. And when you focus on transactions, you become a commodity that your client can easily find at any number of other related firms, maybe even for a better price. Clients who view themselves as nothing more than an avenue to profits will make tracks as soon as they find a better deal.
As technology continues to advance, we need to be diligent to be sure time and money-saving improvements aren’t taking the place of personal interactions and human exchanges between the client and his/her business partner.
Who You are as a Firm Matters to Your Clients
Almost every accounting firm makes similar claims in their promotional collateral about their level of expertise and the quality of their customer service. Most offer identical services.
When all other things are equal, who you are as a firm and the values you represent are your most important competitive differentiators. Those character traits, not the services sold, make people want to build a relationship with you, your firm, and its members. And those relationships matter, especially for your business.