Managing client support is vital to your profitability on fixed fee engagements.
What is client support?
Client support refers to the work performed by your firm when communicating and interacting with your client. It may also extend to communication with your client’s business associates – their customers, vendors, employees, partners. Regular, dependable communication with your client is important to the success of the engagement. Be sure to schedule sufficient time for client support, in addition to the other regularly scheduled tasks you perform for them.
Design your support structure
The first step in designing your support structure is to decide what mode(s) of communication will be available to your clients.
- If you offer email support, you could create a dedicated email address for each client (firstname.lastname@example.org) that is checked on a pre-determined basis. This allows all your staff that work on this client to have one email account to access in order to read and reply to client messages.
- If you offer phone support, define whether clients call staff directly or leave a message and have their call returned in 24 hours.
- If you use a messaging app, like Slack, dedicate a channel to each client that is monitored on a regular, pre-defined basis.
Then define how that mode of communication will work so the client knows what to expect. Determine whether the client’s staff, customer and vendors can contact your firm or do you require a single point of contact per client. Specify who the client has access to at the firm. Decide how often support services will be scheduled for the client — such as whether phone calls are returned the same day or by the end of the week, what the response time on emails will be.
You can offer different levels of support to your clients based on mode of communication, point of contact at client and at firm, and frequency of communication. This empowers the client to choose which is the proper level of support for them.
Consider making client support a required service when engaging with your firm. Clients often contact you initially asking for other services, and it can be easy to forget to build in the additional resources needed to communicate. You don’t want to be insufficiently staffed to interact with your clients. And the work required by this interaction can be costly to the firm if you don’t factor it into your pricing. How often do you read client emails and not charge the client for that work? It adds up. Client support is a proactive approach, allowing you to schedule adequate resources to perform support tasks in line with the client’s expectations.
You can also offer services that have a similar effect to client support such as controller calls, regular management reports and quarterly business reviews that put you in regular contact with your client and can be scheduled and sold as a service.
Set client expectations
When you enter into a fixed fee agreement with a client, you need to be very clear in your engagement letter that communication with your team is a paid service and there is a process for it. Emphasize the importance of this service. At Redmond Accounting, we require it on all engagements. Clients have options on details of communication, such as mode and frequency, but they must pick a support package.
Your engagement letter should very clearly outline the details of the support package and to what degree the firm will communicate with the client’s customers and vendors. Clarify whether tasks such as customer collections efforts and vendor W9 management are offered as separate services, or rolled into other AR and AP services you provide the client, or included in support. Setting the client’s expectation on what level of support they can expect will improve customer satisfaction and help prevent scope creep.
Train clients on proper way of communicating
Usually you present a proposal, set expectations, and sign a service agreement with one individual…only to end up working with another (or several others) NOT on the same page with the way things work with your firm. Redmond Accounting’s standard fixed fee service agreements ask for a single point of contact from the client who we can train how our services work and how to use any client-facing tools we deploy. We show them how to contact us and how often, how to access their online financial reports, supporting documentation, how to approve bill payments, etc. That single client point of contact in turn communicates with the rest of the business’ staff, customers and vendors, as needed.
Not all clients want to or are able to work with a single point of contact structure. So consider offering more expensive support packages that allow for any manager to contact you or anyone at the client’s business. The point is to be clear with the client that it costs you more to support them this way, so it’s going to be more expensive.
Be prepared for clients who are on a weekly support package to say things like, “I sent this email yesterday and haven’t heard a reply yet.” This is your chance to remind them which support plan they selected and offer them a support package upgrade!
Educate your staff
Scope creep can occur very easily when communicating with the client. Clearly describe the details of the services you are engaged to perform and have procedures in place that prevent staff from performing any additional work outside of the scope of the engagement. A workflow system like Aero allows you to schedule and assign the exact client work detailed in the service agreement. Empower your staff with the ability to distinguish what is included in the service package (assigned tasks) and what is not (email requests from the client).
Make sure you have procedures in place for how to deal with additional requests from clients. Your team should know who and how these are quoted and then scheduled. If your workflow system integrates with your email, have a system in place for how and when emails are dealt with. As emails arrive, make sure your team knows to defer them to the proper agreed-upon time. Be careful not to allow client emails to pull your firm into triage mode!