Using digital technology to improve client retention

Most accounting firms are not organised in an inherently customer-focused fashion and are missing out on new business as a result of failing to embrace collaborative technology and adopt the latest digital working practices, says Morten Brøgger, CEO, Huddle

Today, customer experience is king. But technology is lagging behind at accounting firms. A recent Huddle study found that more than half (55%) of accountants were limited by their workplace tools when sharing files with their clients; 51% had wasted time working on a document only to discover it had already been superseded by a newer version; and 39% were routinely delayed on a project while waiting for approvals. None of this speaks to the efficient, client-focused approach that’s required today for success.

The Huddle study of accountancy and professional services organisations found that those that scored highest for client satisfaction, saw a greater revenue growth and higher billable utilsation. But achieving this and creating more engaged client relationships in the process, requires accounting firms to adapt their business strategies. Most firms are not organised in an inherently customer-focused fashion. Improved client services require accountants not only to work faster, but also smarter.

Unfortunately many of the tools that accountancy firms currently rely on to deliver these services are no longer fit for purpose in today’s customer economy. In fact, many enterprise tools act as barriers: processes are riddled with inefficiency, governance is often put at risk and clients become frustrated with delays. 

So how do you create a valued client experience that delivers measurable business value? Here are the four factors that characterise all successful, client-focused organisations:

1.    Agility

Agility has become an important factor for every services business. Unfortunately, as organisations grow in size they often lose the agility that defined their initial success.

From audit management to tax advisory, clients now look to their accountants to address a diverse selection of complex business challenges. Yet this growing need requires today’s dispersed accountancy firms to mobilise knowledge and expertise, often from multiple teams and across geographical locations, instantly. Being able to share industry insight and experience across an entire organisation is extremely valuable when driving a greater client experience. That said, this knowledge can easily become siloed if the organisation is hamstrung by sluggish, insufficient processes, tools and resources.

This was the issue facing Berkeley Research Group (BRG), a global health care advisory organisation with staff located all over the world, each possessing very niche expertise. Collaboration on projects was often painful, manifesting itself in poor document management and swelling email loads.

BRG combatted this by incorporating a cloud collaboration platform into its everyday work processes. This meant easier sharing of materials, more transparent project management, faster turnaround times for proposals and, of course, better customer experience.

2.    Transparency

Accounting is a service that depends heavily on trust: a client absolutely must have confidence that their private business information is safe and well-managed. In the age of the customer, clients not only want confidence in the security of their sensitive data, but also in the robustness of processes and governance standards. Ultimately, a successful client experience boils down to two things – communication and trust.

Clients must be kept engaged and consulted at every step. By giving them insight into the process, it builds confidence in a firm’s service that’s rare in an industry where information is generally kept tightly under-wraps.

Traditionally, extending a shared working environment outside of the corporate firewall has been time-consuming and technically troublesome, often requiring considerable IT effort. However, new cloud-collaboration technologies are making it easier to dissolve the walls between organisations and their clients.

For example, Baker Tilly International offers its clients a tailored portal that allows 24/7 access for all stakeholders, including those who are performing the work. It has government-grade security and can provide a ‘paper trail’ of interactions and updates. The results: the company claims that this has been an influencing factor on several global deals – differentiating it from its competitors.

3.    Mobility

Client-focused organisations understand that we are no longer tethered to physical desks, and embrace this. A recent report on collaboration by Forrester - Vendor landscape: document-centric collaboration, Q4 2015 - showed that 65% of industry professionals use a smartphone for work every week, while almost a quarter (22%) use a tablet.

Despite this, 39% of industry professionals have been delayed on a client project while waiting on an approval from a manager who was working away from the office. Hardly an approach that complements the increasing demands from clients. 

A business’ mobility strategy doesn’t stop at email. Whether in the office, on the road, or at client sites, today’s teams need to be confident in their ability to work seamlessly, manage approvals and follow team communication as they hop between devices and locations.

As a first step it’s critical to understand employee work patterns and identify use cases where mobility is inherent in the role (for example, an associate conducting audit fieldwork who needs to upload assets), or where workflow benefits can be achieved (for example, where a project deadline is otherwise put at risk because an approval chain is broken by a key stakeholder moving between locations and devices).  

4.    Reduce risk

As accountancy firms hope to achieve smarter ways of working, and improve client experience, there’s no room for error. Maintaining governance over internal processes remains critical not only to the quality of client deliverables, but also to a firm’s reputation. Above all, clients need to know that their data is secure.

Today’s customer-centric accountancy firm needs to understand that security must be balanced with the flexibility to allow teams to function efficiently. If not, organisations are exposed to shadow IT (including consumer-grade file sharing apps and USB flash drives) as employees attempt to avoid cumbersome legacy technology to store and share sensitive documents. This results in increased risk: according to Huddle 43% of industry professionals admit to losing a hard copy of a document, and 80% admit to using unsecured USB flash drives to share files.

Cloud servers today are equipped with exceptionally strong firewall protection and encryption, meaning that any data stored there is completely protected; yet easy to share. Investing in cloud technology certainly had its benefits for Baker Tilly International, who won new business in part based on the government-grade security of its cloud-collaboration platform.

Adopting these four characteristics, along with innovative collaboration technologies, can open an opportunity that never existed in accounting before: the opportunity to engage with clients directly, safely and in real-time. This creates an entirely new relationship dynamic that allows accountancy firms to highlight their value while giving them an extra competitive edge.

About the author

Morten Brøgger is CEO of Huddle

Morten Brøgger |CEO, Huddle

Morten Brøgger is CEO of Huddle, based in San Francisco. He has more than 20 years of experien...

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