Back in 2019, Forbes did a piece on the decline of customer service across all industries and all companies in the United States. That was pre-pandemic. Now, staffing shortages, supply chain issues, and the weight of shutdowns and changing regulations have left businesses struggling more than ever with trying to provide great customer service while still hitting the profit margins they need to survive.
In an interesting piece by The New York Times in January 2022, the current struggles were highlighted in interviews done across the service industry. Customers expressed mounting frustrations with long wait times, increased prices and increased interaction with technology in place of people.
Meanwhile, service providers expressed mounting frustration with unruly customers, being put in difficult positions to enforce mandates with no training, and being stressed from long hours covering for sick coworkers and less than empathetic customers.
So, how can we, as service providers in our industry, help to combat the dwindling level of customer care even when faced with staffing shortages and challenging business decisions ourselves? Here are three tips for improving your team’s client service skills.
No. 1 — Training your team
The best skills to master to provide excellent customer service include active listening skills, expressing empathy, and the use of positive language. All these are critical to making sure your clients feel heard, important, and understood. Allow your clients to finish speaking before you interrupt. Ask clarifying questions to make sure you accurately understand your client’s needs.
Read back a summary of your notes at the end of the meeting to ensure you did not miss anything and everyone is on the same page for details like deliverables and timing. Take the time to imagine how the client feels, especially for those of us in tax services. Taxes can be extremely stressful for a lot of business owners and individuals, while for us we may feel desensitized to the numbers and treat returns like projects instead of the people behind them.
The best leaders know that they do not know everything, and they know when to rely on other resources to meet the needs of their clients.
No. 2 — Admit mistakes
This is a big one. Why? Because people can tell when you are being disingenuous. Even worse than not admitting a mistake is trying to blame it on someone else, like your team members, subcontractors, or otherwise. Our clients hire us and as far as they’re concerned, the buck stops with us.
If a mistake happens, the best thing you can do is let the client know right away, take ownership of it and have a plan to address it. Everyone makes mistakes, but in an industry that relies on ethics and trustworthiness, failure to own up to them can cause bigger problems than the mistakes themselves. If a mistake is made by the client, take a cue from our last point, and use positive language to address the situation.
It does not mean you need to do work for free but be clear when you communicate the plan to correct the problem, let them know exactly what you need to correct the error and if additional fees will be incurred it’s best to explain upfront.
No. 3 — Be relationship-focused
At the end of the day, clients hire us and rely on us as human beings because there’s a certain level of trust, there’s a human aspect that can’t be replaced by software, technology, or an online chat. Failure to recognize how critical that is won’t set you apart from any other CPA firm.
The industry has seen massive technological advances, and with talk of artificial intelligence replacing accounting jobs in the future, the most critical way we can keep ourselves relevant is being the human experience that our clients need from us. Be honest about what you can and cannot do for your clients, be progressively thinking about the big picture of their needs, be proactive in your suggestions, and be willing to learn.
The best leaders know that they do not know everything, and they know when to rely on other resources to meet the needs of their clients. That focus on putting your people first will be what makes you different from the next provider who makes clients feel like they’re just a number.
In a world that’s hurtling faster and faster toward ATM-style service, the way you can get a leg up on your competition is through the human experience you and your team provide. That means having a well-trained team, a clear culture focused on a client-centric mission, and tools that aid efficiency without compromising relationships.