Client Culture client and “Client Choice Awards winner of Best Accountant and Best Professional 2020”, Litsa Christodulou , shares her advice on client service delivery in a discussion with Sue-Ella Prodonovich.

SUE-ELLA:

Litsa, let’s start with the relevance of some of the truisms around client service delivery. I’m finding that many of the old school rules are coming back into focus. Everyone is focused on ‘all-things-digital’ but maybe we need to return back to analogue and see people face-to-face?

LITSA:

I agree with you there because I think we’ve lost that face-to-face type of conversation, especially with the younger generation. There’s a reluctance to talk to someone, as opposed to sending an email. Rather than taking 10 minutes to write an email, some matters can be discussed and solved in 2 minutes over the phone. A chat is so much easier: the response is quicker and you’re continually building the relationship with the client. You can also pick up so much more about what a client is thinking or feeling through a conversation.

SUE-ELLA:

I think one of the keys to good client service is being alert to those nuances. The service might be a business-as-usual process, repeated every year with the advisers going through the same “motions” but, in my view, good client service is when you’re listening for the changes that you’re sensing with clients while conversing. Not just the explicit ones they’re mentioning, you can intuitively tell that there might be other things going on.

LITSA:

Yes, and that is the key – it’s having that trust with the client for them to be able to speak to you about anything that’s concerning them. For example, I had a client recently who was considering the purchase of a large investment and consulted me to check if they could afford it. The wife was very comfortable and relaxed about it, and was sure the money was available. But I could tell from the husband’s tone that he was thinking “but can we really afford this?” They needed a prompt answer, as it was a quick turnaround. The strength of our long-term relationship meant that I was able to say to them: “I’m glad you told me about this because, what you’re proposing to do, you can’t do.”

SUE-ELLA:

And, Litsa, do you find that with some younger practitioners that there’s a keenness to show how much they know as practitioners, that they don’t hold back or wait to listen for those cues from the client?

LITSA:

Yes, definitely. And we try to counteract that by running communications courses with all of our staff members covering such topics as how to enquire more deeply with a client. We have a system called “The 5 Why’s” which helps staff get to the root of a client’s problem. It’s what I refer to as “getting below the iceberg.” Some staff can’t relate to these types of issues because they’ve never had to talk to their friends or colleagues at this level.

SUE-ELLA:

That’s a good point – they’re not really having these deeper conversations between themselves. They can see the theory of it and they’re fast learners but, in fact, they’re not practicing it day-to-day.

LITSA:

That’s right, and to get them to practice it day-to-day comes back to that natural reluctance to do it. It’s a fear, perhaps a lack of confidence, or the fear of saying something wrong. I’ve grown up with the view that if I can’t answer the question, the client is not going to say: “Why don’t you know?” My response is: “I think it’s ‘this’, but I’m not 100% sure, I’ll get back to you.” With younger staff, there’s a reluctance to do that. In the day of Google now, they can go and Google the answer.

SUE-ELLA:

I’m interested in what you mentioned about fear. What are some of the things you do to reduce this fear in your younger team members?

LITSA:

I’ll usually have the staff member working with me on the project join in while I discuss the issue with the client. When they attend these meetings, they see that it’s not as onerous or difficult for them to talk to the client as they may have initially believed. They can see that we’re dealing with clients on a personal level as opposed to just a business level, and this allays some of those initial fears. Mentoring is a good thing too because I actually say to some of my staff members: “Don’t email, ring the client. You’ve only got this one question. Ask the client if they have time to speak with you and, if they haven’t, then ask: when is a convenient time for me to call you back?”

SUE-ELLA:

I find it’s also good to have these conversations when the heat isn’t on. If it’s something urgent then ask the client: “Is it ok if I call you? How would you prefer we communicate?” Rather than putting pressure on people when they really need to speak with clients, have the chat maybe at the start of the year or when you’re reviewing the engagement about how they’d like those conversations. I’m finding also is that younger clients are used to texting. And, in fact, the only people who ever call them on the phone are their parents. So they are surprised to receive an actual phone call from someone.

LITSA:

That’s interesting because if I’m dealing with a younger person, I do email, rather than telephone.

SUE-ELLA:

The appropriate text to a client is something like “Can I call you?” or “When is it appropriate to call?” One should never give a client advice over a text. I’m working with a number of firms at the moment around client service delivery – the minute we think of a rule for a client, then we think of a number of clients who wouldn’t like that rule. So, what’s happening is now you’re looking at a market of one, and I suspect that you tailor your message to the client knowing “this is how they like to communicate” – Client A, Client B: this is how they work.

LITSA:

Yes, that’s exactly what I do. The older clients usually like to have a chat, invite me to their house, have a cup of tea. And it’s not always older – I have clients in their 40s who prefer the face-to-face conversation as they’ve grown up with me and the face-to-face contact. But I have a number of younger clients who like to be text messaged. I also believe their parents have an influence: if the parents prefer the face-to-face contact, then that is passed down to the children.

SUE-ELLA:

For sure, and that’s where some firms fall into a trap. If we try and categorise the type of contact by age, then that’s a mistake because, as we’re saying right now, we realise we have younger clients who prefer to catch up face-to-face. If we categorise by industry sector or role type and apply the traditional ways that you would segment or put these clients into “boxes”, we find the walls on those are breaking down. Now we’re saying; “Here’s this client who is 35 and they prefer a sit down, and my other client is 60 and might prefer Messenger.” We’re finding that the stereotypes don’t apply.

LITSA:

I agree, it’s about reading or knowing the client.

SUE-ELLA:

It’s an important thing you mentioned about the family influence – I certainly notice those clients from different cultural or educational backgrounds – all of these variables contribute to the values of the client and what they have to relationships and where they see you, the adviser, in it.

LITSA:

One time, I had a client who sent an email querying our service and a particular staff member. My response to him was: “I hear your concerns, I’d really like to discuss them over the phone or face-to-face, can we set a time to talk?” I didn’t hear back and followed up a couple more times, with no response. I decided that if it wasn’t important enough to discuss face-to-face or over the phone, then it couldn’t have been a really big issue, however I do feel that some topics, such as this one, certainly do need to be discussed in person or over the phone, rather than online.

SUE-ELLA:

We’ve been discussing “fear” but I also think an important question is: “What is the flexibility?” Letting people know that it’s ok that there’s a flexibility around “how do I approach this client or this situation?” I think that’s what confuses young people. There are many courses which dictate: here’s the way that we ask questions, and here’s how we go through spin-selling, or we go through The 5 Why’s. Sometimes smart analytical people believe that’s the script that must be followed, but it’s really just an idea – and you need to know when to start thinking for yourself. The rule should be: “Give me some tools and tell me how flexible I can be?” Staff can become frozen – it’s like elevator pitches, they can freeze some people, and then they’re reduced to trying to remember a robotic statement. Rather than feeling confident about tailoring the message to the situation at hand. Litsa, just on that comment about the client, is knowing when to say “No,” knowing the clients that don’t fit. And sharing that strategy with your team. What makes a right fit client for you Litsa, the clients you enjoy working with?

LITSA:

It’s those who create a trusting relationship with me, and they do that by being open and honest as to what they’re trying to achieve. I’ve had clients in the past with whom I don’t have the same values and that causes some heartache for me. I’m not a gray area person – things are either black or white with me. If you come to me for advice I’ll tell you whether you can or can’t do something, but if you want to go to a gray area, I don’t like that because, at the end of the day, I’m not into putting my clients at risk. The ideal client is someone that listens to me about their issue, takes the feedback on board and does what they need to do to move forward. Some clients are more risk averse than others and I see it as my job to weigh up those risks and present them clearly to the client.

SUE-ELLA:

And I think that is the key. When we’re talking about good client service and the fact that you have been nominated and won these Client Choice Awards multiple times over the years, it’s because you share the same values and, for firms that are simply taking any business they can get, can you imagine the energy that it takes to work with clients where you actually don’t have that basic connection? One of the things that I’m seeing is a change in services. Some firms operate like a Master-Servant – where the client is the Master and the provider is the Servant. Some firms, by the way, operate the other way. You were saying earlier about being the trusted adviser and that having values in common and, when you look at it, you can confidently say that all your clients have the same values. The ones that don’t fit might have been riskier, they might have been less confident, they might have done something you weren’t comfortable with.

LITSA:

I’ve had clients that I’ve inherited from other partners – sometimes it’s a bumpy transition but we usually end up with an excellent working relationship.

SUE-ELLA:

This is where I think some service providers have to, in the nicest possible way, be clear about what they’ll say “No” to and not commoditise their talent and advice so much that they are reduced to box-tickers or people-pleasers. That’s the difference between the advisers and the compliance piece isn’t it?

LITSA:

I’ve always believed that actions speak louder than words Sue-Ella, and that’s often a good indicator of the type of relationship you’ll have with a client in the long term.

SUE-ELLA:

What do you consider as the innovative aspects to client service? My view is that I’m seeing old fashioned things come back into vogue. For example, some firms I work with are giving their staff the Dale Carnegie book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. It was written in 1936! It is full of strong principles such as: listen to people and compliment them. Even in the very modern tech environment we’re actually teaching staff many of these old skills. Are there anything that you’re seeing as innovative?

LITSA:

I believe we’ve got to go back to many of these principles as they’re proven and timeless. To me, good client service is all about good communication. Not just talking, but also listening. And I think that’s fairly old fashioned, isn’t it?

SUE-ELLA:

Yes, there are some factors that drive what we might call “intuition,” and having a genuine interest in the client. Not going through a checklist but really having a curiosity and wanting to understand them, and also the context around how they’re making decisions. It’s also about being confident in your own advice. You’ve got those two bookends to client service: one is, I know the client well, and I’ve been listening, curious and engaged for a while. The other is that you continue to hone your own skills, you’re confident in your own advice that you can talk straight. You do become a bit of a counsellor. Do you find that your networks with other service providers really tops up or adds to that client service? For example, are you ever called on for recommendations like “Do you know a good insurance broker or a real estate person or a HR adviser, etc.”

LITSA:

Yes, I have. We’ve got a network of lawyers that we trust, and whom we obviously refer work to, we’ve got property people so, for example, if anyone needed any help in terms of commercial rentals to bounce ideas off. We’re well connected with bankers, I’ve got brokers. We’ve got our own financial planning division if I needed to draw on them for a client. In fact I won a new client recently who said they were impressed that we offered a “whole of service”.

SUE-ELLA:

It’s those connections within the firm that’s also the connections that professionals build their trusted networks. I often find with partners that what makes a practice is probably only about three connections outside – it might not be the same three all the time but often – a client, another adviser, it might be someone from school or Uni that has gone into commerce, but it’s about three rather than 300 people.

LITSA:

For example, I saw a client yesterday who was purchasing a house and asked me to recommend a reputable settlement agent, which I was able to do because of my wider network of contacts. When the client sees you doing that on their behalf that to me is building a greater connection. You’re always going to be the first port of call.

SUE-ELLA:

And this goes back to being the trusted adviser. It’s actually thinking about my wider network for the client’s benefit. Some firms push ‘cross selling’, which one of my clients refers to as ‘crass selling’. I’d prefer to re-frame it as cross-serving for the client’s benefit. For example I might have a client that needs an additional service so I’ll refer them to someone I trust to do the job well, whether or not that person is within the firm. It’s finding the best fit for the client and the issue.

LITSA:

I look at the people I’m referring to, and they need to be a match.

SUE-ELLA:

The first obligation is in the client’s best interests. And it goes back to the chat we had about shared values, it’s when people start pushing cross selling as a process – rather than a service – that it undermines all of those values and the good networks that people have.

LITSA:

Some clients want independence with certain services and I will look outside the firm for that, and I’ll connect them with a contact I know externally, with someone who shares my values.

SUE-ELLA:

Sounds to me like we probably share the same view on this, in that client service isn’t just about the service you’re delivering in this one transaction or one moment, but how reliable you are and how much you think of your clients as an ongoing relationship, and being an important person in their life…

Litsa was the winner of the “most client-focused accountant” at the Client Choice Awards in 2018 and is a finalist this year.