Article by Jason Croston, SRJ Walker Wayland
A number of years ago in my early days as an Audit Partner, I learned a valuable lesson in relation to engagement and managing relationships with my clients. Client relationship management refers to the way a company interacts with their clients and the ways they go about building a positive working relationship. I learnt how important this process is for building customer loyalty and retaining clients in the long run.
As we powered our way through one particular audit engagement, we came across something significant that we were both previously unaware of. It required us to complete a lot of extra work to come to an appropriate audit opinion.
At that stage, our engagement letter and process had no indication of an expected fee. It only advised that our audit fee would be based upon the time to complete the audit as well as our hourly charge rates. Our client, of course, already had an expectation of the fees we would charge as they were similar to last year and the years prior. So, despite the client being completely aware of the issue and agreeing with the extra work involved, there was disappointment when an increased fee was charged. This led to a drawn out argument, a reduction in the fee charged, delays in the collection of the fee and ultimately a gradual degradation in our relationship with the client.
We can all get things wrong in our work and personal lives. Don’t get me wrong, I had got it wrong many times before this, but I always recall this particular incident because it was a turning point for me. There are points in your life where you swear to yourself that it’s a must to change and this was one of those for me.
It was very clear to me what needed to change to improve the process and since then, I have consistently approached the process around these four fundamental principles.
I decided it was critical to commence every engagement up-front with an in-depth conversation with each client. The goal of this conversation is to gain an understanding of what was happening in their business and their needs for the year ahead, in relation to the services we are offering. Based on that conversation and our existing knowledge, we get a great understanding of the needs of each client. Using this information, we can estimate a suitable fee, the timing of the key, milestones to complete the engagement, and the timing of the invoices to be issued to the client.
We agree to these mutual goals with each client prior to commencing any engagement. This provides our client with a high degree of certainty about what we are planning to do, when we are planning to do it, what it is going to cost, and when they will receive the invoices (which they can forward plan in their cash flow projections). Because the client has this certainty, we also have certainty in relation to what we need to do and when we will be paid.
Despite our best efforts, there is inevitably going to be a situation where something comes up during an engagement that either didn’t exist during the initial scoping discussions or was not clearly communicated. When something of this nature does come up, our approach is critical to ensure that our client is not surprised with an unexpected cost at the completion of the engagement.
When an issue like this does arise, we must either absorb the extra costs, or discuss the issue with the client and agree on a new reasonable fee as soon possible after becoming aware of the issue. There can be no surprises! Being transparent and open with clients as soon as possible helps to build valuable credibility.
It seems like an obvious step, but if you are going to go to the extent of clearly setting the expectations for the engagement in relation to the deadlines, costs and invoicing, then you must do everything in your power to meet these expectations.
Whilst setting the expectations and providing a level of certainty is a great achievement, nothing can create dissatisfaction quicker than failure to deliver as promised. I have always held the mindset that if the expectations are not met, it’s not going to be a result of anything that we can control.
In my mind, I think I have failed if I am working on a project and the person who I am working for has to take some time out of their busy schedule to check with me on how that project is coming along. If you have set mutual goals and expectations really well, there are no surprises and you are delivering as expected, then this should not be an issue. Inevitably though, things come up in work and life. Things that are out of your control. Be on the front foot and quickly communicate any changes to the plan as they arise.
These fundamentals around the way that we deliver our audit services has been a path of dramatic improvement over the years, since that “fork in the road” moment with the client all those years ago.
This fundamental process has remained core to us over time, and we’ve also taken an approach to improve our method of delivery. Our delivery method has been improved with the use of technology including the likes of Practice Ignition to help deliver our engagement agreements and invoices, and Caseware Cloud for working together with our clients.
Although this concept applies to audit services, the fundamental concepts of client relationship management can be applied to any business.
SRJ Walker Wayland offers complete business improvement and advisory services, which is why we believe it’s fair to share our own business improvement journey. If you’d like more business advice, please feel free to get in touch.