The word “succession” is used daily in our industry. Whether discussing it strategically at an executive level and what it means for partners, reading it in an industry publication, or talking to rising leaders – the issues and conversations around succession are front and center in many firms. And we need to have serious dialogue around the succession issue.
In this article I’m going to dive a little deeper into a short-term and practical application of succession planning that I encounter often in firms I am working with on process improvement initiatives. I view it as a fundamental and foundational element of succession planning – the ability to have multiple points of contact from your firm into your clients.
You may be wondering why and how these discussions of client contact come up during Lean process improvement projects. And the answer is simple: hoarding client contact ultimately leads to delays, loops, extra touches and overall diminished client value and service. Therefore, I see the ability of a firm and its partners/managers to delegate and leverage client contact to increasingly more individuals as a win on many fronts. Boiling it down, I perceive five reasons why your firm should be deliberately expanding relationships with clients:
- Improved efficiency
- Enhanced development of team members
- Improved retention (both internally and with clients)
- Higher levels of client service
- Building a foundation for succession
Let’s take a look at each of these reasons individually.
Be honest – how many times have you had an email from a client in your inbox that you just haven’t been able to get to for several days? You’re a busy person, you know it’s not immediately urgent, and so it sits and waits until you can get to it and find the right person to later delegate the work to. What happens next? A team member starts to work on that task/project and ends up having questions – for you and the client. So now a loop comes back to you with questions to go back to the client with. Several days later you reach back out to the client. Then, the client later responds back to you. It sits with you for a few more days before you forward the answers to your team member working on the task/project. What a waste of time – multiple touches, weeks have gone by, and not much value has been added.
It’s pretty simple, really. Making an introduction to your client (better yet, it should be viewed as the firm’s client) for your team member can make a lot of sense from an efficiency standpoint. It frees up your time and mental energy and eliminates the “middleman”, which reduces the touches and cycle time. For many firms, this is a no-brainer to do. We call it a JDI – just do it! It can be as simple as cc’ing an associate on an email and letting the client know that associate is working closely with you on the engagement.
Enhanced development of team members
How do we expect our seniors and in-charges to be effective engagement and client managers if they don’t have a lot of experience with client contact? If your firm has partners and managers that like to hoard client relationships you are probably noticing a big skill gap between the managers and partners and levels below them. The best way to shrink that skills gap is to intentionally give your staff more opportunities to talk and interact with clients. Now, do you start on your most complex and hardest clients to work with? Maybe not. But I imagine there are plenty of moderate and basic clients that would serve as tremendous learning opportunities if you just made an introduction.
Once the introductions are made, you’ll see staff performance begin to soar. They will feel more invested in the work and feel like more than just a back office robot. They’ll develop and acquire client service skills much quicker than their peers stuck at firms who don’t offer the same opportunity.
I see it weekly in this industry when I’m consulting inside a firm. When young people talk about the opportunity to be more involved in client relationships and client contact, their eyes light up. They’re frustrated at the inefficiency of working with a partner who hoards client contact. They feel undervalued and underutilized when they just have to be back office robots. They relish the opportunity of being more involved with your clients.
When you begin to make more introductions and loosen the grip, they become more engaged. I had a senior associate tell a project team I was facilitating back in December that he was less likely to leave the firm because he would have to leave behind awesome relationships with clients. It’s easy for your talent to leave your firm when they’re not engaged. It’s easy to leave when they feel like a number. By getting them more involved in your clients, you are helping to retain your talent as well.
Also, multiple points of contact in your firm to your clients also helps retain your clients. Which is a nice segue into the fourth reason you should leverage more client contact…
Higher levels of client service
There may not be anything more frustrating from a client point of view than delays in response and ultimately work product. At the very least frustration at a lack of communication to set an expectation. When one person is the sole contact for a client, and that person is frequently busy, client service is suffering. I encounter many cases of partners and managers who let their egos get in the way of delivering exceptional service. They wrongly believe if the touch point and service doesn’t come from them, there is less value. In many cases, this is just made up in their heads.
Clients don’t like to wait. In more cases than not, a timely response by someone other than the relationship manager with the correct answer or deliverable is preferable over a delayed response by the relationship manager. Your service and turnaround will be much better with greater leverage of client contact. And thinking longer-term, your future leaders are becoming engaged with their future leaders. It’s a win-win.
Building a foundation for succession
Last but not least, a desirable reason to delegate and leverage more of your client contact to staff and rising leaders is that it builds a foundational element of succession into your process and your firm. To piggyback from the last part of the client service angle, if you introduce your rising leaders to your client’s rising leaders, the foundation has been built for the long-term retention of that client. When you think of succession from a retiring partner standpoint, it shouldn’t be a fire drill at 2-3 years out (or worst case one year out) to transition clients. The most successful and future-ready partners and firms I encounter have this relationship transfer built into their processes. It is who they are and what they do. Dysfunctional firms and partners that hoard client contact are struggling with fire drills pre-retirement.
Give your firm and your talented team members the opportunities they desire. Get them more involved in your clients. It’s a win-win-win… a win for you, a win for them, and a win for your clients.
About the Author:
Dustin Hostetler, Shareholder and Director of Lean Six Sigma Consulting at Boomer Consulting, Inc., is a pioneer in applying the Lean and Six Sigma concepts to public accounting firms. As a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with extensive experience working inside a large regional CPA firm, he has taken proven Lean techniques and tailored them to bring ground-breaking value to public accounting firms. His innovation and passion has brought true efficiency to accounting — helping accounting firms improve client service, improve client retention, set the foundation for growth and build the bottom line.
Dustin holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from The Ohio State University, graduating magna cum laude, and earned both his Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and Master Black Belt certifications from Kent State University. Dustin is also a member of the CPA Consultants’ Alliance, a working group of thought leaders united in their efforts to further leadership within the CPA profession.