At your service

One of the great ironies of the financial services sector is that often the companies that provide great advice to others about business development and adding value do not do it very well themselves, according to Peter Bowman, a specialist in client relationships for professional service firms.

Bowman, a former management lecturer and financial services marketer, has written a book, Service 7, setting out guidelines for better marketing for service businesses.

“The reality for many small and mid-sized accounting and financial services businesses,” he told Public Accountant, “is that there is not much of a business development plan. Their growth strategy is to simply work more billable hours, which isn’t so much a strategy as a recipe for an early heart attack.”

The key is to know how to add value for each client, which means understanding what each client needs. This requires moving beyond the traditional compliance and record-keeping functions and instead providing customised services and a sense of ongoing connection with the client.

This can involve research, although it need not take the form of a detailed survey. Regular discussions can be very useful, giving insight into where the client is going and how assistance and advice can be provided.

“If you want to know something, the best way to find it out is to ask,” says Bowman. “At the same time, you need to know how much each of your clients is contributing to your bottom line. A good place to start is to draw up a list of what your hypothetical ideal client might be and use that as a starting point for client assessment.

[breakoutbox][breakoutbox_title]Bowman’s seven service principles[/breakoutbox_title][breakoutbox_excerpt][/breakoutbox_excerpt][breakoutbox_content]

  • You need to add value
  • You need to understand what drives the client
  • Don’t be afraid to tell clients what you can do for them
  • Diversify your sources of new new business
  • Look after every client like you’d want your mother looked after
  • Pay attention to service design
  • If it works today, start to build tomorrow

[/breakoutbox_content][/breakoutbox]

“From a marketing perspective, the key is to know how to communicate your point of difference. Now, some finance professionals might say that they are not in the marketing business. But we live in an environment of ever-increasing competition, and that is not going to change. Like it or not, we are all in the marketing profession now, to some degree.”

For many finance professionals, moving outside the box of traditional functions can be a daunting prospect. Bowman believes that too much emphasis is placed on technical expertise at the education stage.

“It is the case with many professions but is a critical problem that people in a specialised field like finance, in particular, need to overcome,” he says. “University can be a good opportunity to explore some other areas. Human resources management is a good field to look at, but anything that broadens the mind and helps with the understanding of people is a good investment. And that’s how you should see it – as an investment.”

While ongoing informal contact with clients is important, research of a more formal nature, perhaps using an external provider, can also yield good results. One of the best times to gather information from a client is, in fact, when they are leaving. An exit interview can be revealing as to where there were weaknesses and how they might be addressed for the future. It can be a painful process, hearing what you might have done badly, but the outcome can be beneficial.

“However you choose to undertake research, the crucial point is to link it to a plan of action,” Bowman emphasises. “You need to look at it in the same way you would look at a set of financial accounts, with objective analysis and an eye for performance indicators. A research report that sits on a shelf is nothing more than a waste of everyone’s time. Taken seriously, it can be a platform for solid growth.”

Bowman recommends the appointment of a customer service champion, if the company principal cannot take the role themselves. The role of this person might be to focus on customer relationships, development and follow-up, and to create a client service charter for the company.

A charter, which should be an integral part of staff training, stresses the importance of client relationships and encourages consistency of approach across the company. Eventually, it can create a positive culture of ‘the way things are done around here’.

Bowman says he has seen only a very small number of companies in the financial services sector that have undertaken good research into client relationships and then translated the findings into action. Nevertheless, he sees some grounds for optimism.

“There is now a greater awareness of the importance of client relationships than there was when I started my business,” he notes. “Some financial services companies have taken to social media for this, and that can be good if used properly. Other companies have expanded the services they offer, which is often a response to client needs. So, there are positive trends. What we need to see is a broad re-thinking, so good customer relationships become the rule rather than the exception.”

Service 7: Transform the way you think about marketing your service business by Peter Bowman, Short Stop Press (shortstoppress.com), $24.99rrp, ISBN 9780987355911

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