In this summary of the two-part Thomson Reuters podcast, Pulse of the Practice: Client Minimums Parts 1 and 2, the conversation covers why it’s important to define your client minimums to strengthen client relationships, how to use client minimums as a baseline, how not to get stuck in a rut with minimum services, and how you can grow your CPA firm from there.
How to strengthen client relationships with client minimums
It’s important to have your minimum level of service established, but there’s a lot of confusion about what that looks like in the real world. Often the clients that you serve have different needs or are in various stages of business. How do you make your minimum offerings fluid enough to reach a variety of clients and still strengthen client relationships?
More firms are looking to capitalize on advisory services and most CPAs have a genuine desire to help their clients however they can. “How can I help?” is a common question at client meetings. You want to help people. You want to try to solve a client’s pain or problem. If you’re really going to help your client, you need to know your minimums or you aren’t truly helping the client or working to strengthen client relationships.
Without a client minimum in the back of your mind, you may have a hard time saying “no” to clients. Client minimums allow you to operate from an understanding of what your bottom line is with confidence. There’s a difference between providing valuable tax solutions and just “getting their stuff done”.
With clear definitions of what you want to offer clients, the sky is the limit as far as adding on services later. You need to have that baseline understanding of the services you offer and a sense of how to build on the relationship you have with clients.
Do you have a client minimum, and is it clearly defined?
Everyone’s client minimum might be different. We can’t tell you what your minimum should be. It’s important to know where to draw the line of what it is that your firm does. What is your specific skill set that you offer to clients?
To build and strengthen client relationships, you have to define the types of services you offer, or the minimum level of service that you’re going to provide. This will give you a baseline clarity of how you start moving into a better pricing structure as well as strengthen client relationships.
A CPA firm is more than the sum of its offerings
Clients may come in thinking they want you to do their taxes. When you talk to clients, you can diligently explain to people that they aren’t just buying a tax return. They aren’t just buying accounting or payroll services. They aren’t just buying an audit. They are buying access to a knowledge base and a relationship.
For firms moving into this idea of advisory services, you have to think about the big picture. Stop selling the transaction and shift into selling the relationship. From there, you can begin to think about the true value of the services you’re offering and restructure fees and bundles of services.
Your minimum level of service sets the expectations about where that relationship is going to go. It isn’t about what clients think they want. This is about you taking the lead of the relationship and saying, “This is how we will best serve you, this is what you will need, this is how you will benefit, and this is how we’re going to do things.”
True firm growth is about the strength of client relationships
To create truly strong client relationships, you need to think about what you are doing as a whole for clients, instead of looking at services offered piecemeal. When that minimum is established, you can take a holistic approach to the client relationship and advisory services. You need to start moving away from the idea of simply solving that one problem for clients and move towards providing more value and building stronger relationships.
There are always exceptions to the rule
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule of client minimums. You don’t want to pound your fists on the table and say, “This is our minimum!” Clients may not respond favorably to that kind of approach.
You may want to have a limited number of clients that you would allow to remain below your minimum. You know what they say about rules: there’s always an exception. Set the rule – the minimum – and then let your clients know what it is. Explain the process. When a client gets to a certain threshold, there are certain parameters. You might tell them that for phase one, you’ll be working towards a certain goal (meeting your minimum). Then, in phase two, you already have a scope of services established, above your minimum. You’ve pre-established the pricing structure, the service offerings, and what you need to do to help make the client successful.
It’s important to distinguish a client minimum from a line in the sand. You can always scale up from your minimum. You just don’t want to set your minimum so high that you’re offering the moon to every client – it’s not sustainable to do so. Success comes from a balance between meeting client minimums successfully, and also discovering ways to grow your CPA firm.
Stepping up from that that minimum level of service
It’s not about having a singular level of client service. It’s about having a minimum to start with. Does your firm have an understanding of how to step up? There are two ways to go about it.
The first way is the frequency of how often you see clients or check their books. Let’s say that your client minimum includes processing corporate tax returns and individual tax returns as a baseline. Maybe you also cover payroll, and you like to touch your client’s books once a quarter. Those are the minimum things you do for clients. You could step that up in a simple way by offering to review the books every month as an added value service for a higher transactional client. Once you get to know a client, you can begin see where you could extend advisory services. You might discover that the client has in-house bookkeeping needs you could utilize to drive that service level up, and then adjust the pricing structure accordingly.
The other area relates to the breadth of services that a client may need. Let’s say that your firm is one that offers sales and use tax support. It might not be your minimum service, but it’s an offering within your firm’s body of work. That’s something you can offer your client, so it could be easily added to the breadth of service. It’s not an advisory offering, but more of a compliance-related piece that’s part of the service you’re going to provide the client on an ongoing basis.
Frequency and breadth are going to build on your minimum, and you’re going to have a lot of variations of what your client-to-client engagement looks like because of those variables.
Shifting from deadline-driven contact to intentional communication
Many CPA firm models are set up to simply follow compliance and push work out based on a deadline. That’s how many firms make money when a transaction is completed, after the client’s taxes have been filed for that spring deadline. But clients find value in sitting down and talking with their CPA about the future. It’s a great way to strengthen client relationships.
Think about the frequency of your touch points, and how you approach that singular deliverable, the communication around that deliverable, and how it can best be utilized. Let’s say your firm touches a client’s books on a quarterly basis, and they want to meet with you quarterly. The client doesn’t want you to go over a financial statement with them. What they really want is for you to use the historical data to give them knowledge about the future. They want you to predict what’s going to happen to them. They want to know which of those numbers are turned into knobs and levers to change results.
Maybe your current minimum level is two touch points per year for a client, and it’s generally around tax preparation, occurring during the early part of the year, and an annual review towards the end of the year. Let’s say your firm decides to offer four touch points during the year to some of your clients. If your firm moves from two to four touch points (once a quarter), the first quarter meeting might be about taxes and getting taxes finished. The second quarter meeting might be more conceptual, what-if scenarios, and goals for the future. The third quarter meeting could be used as a client check-in about where they thought they were going to be by that point and if they made the mark. The fourth quarter meeting might be a year-end review and planning session. In that way, you lead your client through this thought process to potentially assist them in improving year-to-year, not just touching base for face time purposes.
Think of the client relationship as a dynamic journey
When you start thinking of the right client minimum for your firm, think about the last client that walked in your door or called you. Why are they leaving their prior firm? Why are they looking for someone different? More than likely, they’re not doing it because they need another tax return done. They’re doing it because something wasn’t fitting in that relationship. They wanted something that wasn’t there.
Clients take a journey with you to see where things could improve. Naturally, the goals are going to shift, the obstacles are going to change and move, and you have to remain dynamic.
If you are thinking about client minimums, look at frequency, look at breadth, maybe have some exceptions for some of the clients as they are just starting out. From that starting point, you can be with them to help them grow. This extra effort leads to more loyal clients, possibly leading to more referrals, and then to the firm of the future.