Client Culture Managing Director, Greg Tilse, sits down with the National Chairman of leading accounting firm, HLB Mann Judd Australasian Association, Tony Fittler, to discuss their recent award for Network of the Year at the Accountants Daily 2021 Australian Accounting Awards.

The Awards recognise excellence across the entire accounting industry and showcase the firms which are leading the way. The Network of the Year award recognises the accounting network that works to give growth opportunities to its associated firms and is focused on enabling quality client services. According to Tony, "the award win is acknowledgment of its enduring commitment to the client experience and administration of a net promoter system (NPS) program" – a program run by Client Culture.

Greg:

So firstly Tony, congratulations on the award. How important is it to be recognized as an industry leader, as a network that gives growth opportunities to its firms and is focused on enabling quality client services?

Tony:

We're very pleased to be named ‘Network of the Year’ in the Accountants Daily 2021 Australian Accounting Awards. It’s great to be recognized for our strong focus on client service. It is also really important for our people, because it gives recognition to something that they take very seriously and that we as an organisation strive to improve.

Greg:

How critical is client service and client experience in general to the HLB Mann Judd brand culture and the people?

Tony:

Certainly very important. Ensuring service delivery is managed well, with good communication. We should focus on the issues that are priority for the client. It's not just about delivery of what we've been asked to do, but to understand what issues are critical to the client’s success.

Greg:

Although, you've already touched on it, what is key to delivering good client service?

Tony:

A lot of our work is a mixture of compliance and advisory. I think each of those have to be delivered in a timely manner, in a way that the client can understand and that looks after the client's needs. That's essential, but I think the other aspect is focusing on any business or financial issues are important to the client. They sometimes don’t directly relate to the service we provide, but that doesn't mean that we can't help out.

Greg:

And what about peace of mind for the client? How important is that sensation for the client?

Tony:

Well, trust is such a key part of this, isn't it? They need to trust that you're doing the right thing by them. I think an important part of trust is, if you say you're going to do something, you do it. When clients have got trust, then they have peace of mind.

Greg:

And so the client experience program enables you to check in with clients to make sure of the experience, and there's a third-party platform involved. So, what's your sense of how the clients feel about this check-in and also the independence aspect of it?

Tony:

I think our clients like it. We haven’t received any negative feedback on the program. I think the reality is that they appreciate that we're interested in their views and that we ask for it. I think having a third-party provider ensures that its more professional. Hopefully the clients feel encouraged to be a bit more honest. Whereas if a partner just rings the client directly, there may be some reluctance to be truly honest.

Greg:

And that might depend on their personality too. I mean, some people are often brutally honest, but some people just don't like delivering criticism, do they?

Tony:

They don't, no. Particularly if you are generally happy with the service. Or if the client might like you as a person, but they're not happy with your service.

Greg:

Now the firm started four years ago with the NPS Program and right from the start, you had very good scores. But since then, the scores have improved even on that high level steadily each year. So how do you think the program helps this continuous improvement? And I’m mindful of the old adage from Peter Drucker that ‘what gets measured gets managed.’ Do you think that's a component of that?

Tony:

There's certainly an element of truth in that. It does signify that it's important. But I think you do have to be careful what is measured because people have got a way of distorting it, so that you might only get feedback from their good clients. But the reality is, the method of delivery of NPS is relatively harmless. It's a rating. Then the client has the ability to make some additional comments. Sometimes you may disagree with it, but the reality is, that’s what the clients thinks and it’s important to them.

The program gives you that opportunity to sort it out. We now know what to do when there's a negative response. The first time you get an issue, a negative one, it's an opportunity to have a chat with the client and talk to them. Some of the clients that we spoke to and addressed the issue with, they’ve become our biggest fans.

Greg:

So its all about actioning the feedback?

Tony:

Yes. I think the beauty is that by listening and actioning feedback one year may mean the feedback is more positive after taking action the next year.... It’s excellent really. In one case, I had a client raise an issue, but it wasn't actually related to my work. The issue was that the client was looking for something that we hadn’t agreed to deliver. There were differing expectations. We had a discussion and we were able to resolve it.

Greg:

And do you think it's better to know if someone's not happy?

Tony:

I think it's always better to know. Sometimes the danger is that people aren't happy and that you don't know. Perhaps you meet with the client a couple of times, even socially, and they're very friendly. But underlying they may be thinking that your service or communication may be slipping.

Greg:

The thing that's always interested me about professional services is that depending on the sophistication of your client, there's an information asymmetry often there, isn't there? I mean, they're using you because you are the expert and so their ability to judge you is restricted. So, they're kind of going to judge you on the things they can judge you on, which may have nothing to do with the quality of your advice.

Tony:

Yes. Our staff may have worked really hard to come up with a solution for a client. But the client may not necessarily see or fully appreciate just how much work was in it or how clever it was. Sometimes we spend ages on a solution, so we're late. A good solution, but it's late. Whereas if we'd kept the client briefed along the way, they may have a better understanding of the picture.

So, I think this highlights the importance of communicating, and so the client understands what we're doing and when we expect to come up with the answer. If time is a priority for the client, then during the process, they will have the opportunity to let us know. We can then change our approach or re-set expectations.

Greg:

Yes. That's right. It can be hard to deliver simple advice.

Tony:

Often the client wants information delivered in a simple and straightforward manner. You don't want to burden them with all the detail or over complicate the process for them. Was it Mark Twain that said, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one”? Say in tax, you're taking sections of the law, they're quite complicated and trying to simplify them and not lose context.

Greg:

Yes. Yes. I think to communicate complex things simply you really have to know your stuff, don't you? I think that's the hardest thing to do.

Greg:

So, what do you think some of the ways that the program has maybe helped contribute to growth for the firm or the network? Do you see things in terms of client retention or referrals or getting more work from clients or is it a more holistic thing?

Tony:

I think Greg that good client service brings client loyalty. It builds better relationships and leads to retention and referrals.

Greg:

Yes. And in terms of partners and staff, how does the feedback make them feel?

Tony:

Well, I can see if you're someone who was getting very low scores, it might be pretty tough. But I think the reality is our partners and staff love getting their feedback. Obviously no one likes getting negative feedback, but I think all complaints generally have been about a genuine client service issues; rather than about a personality differences. The feedback is usually very practical and sometimes it has already been identified by the firm, So its not just Tony Fittler saying it, it's also the feedback we're getting back from the clients.

Before the program started, I would have thought there generally would have been a concern about what feedback people were going to get. However, I think they saw useful feedback, even in the negative ones. Generally, its positive, but I think you even want to get that mixture of feedback.

Greg:

Yes - and so just in terms of COVID, there were challenges last year and Sydney has got some challenges again today. But we saw with the results last year that during that COVID period, accountants I think, were some of the hardest working professionals going around, with JobKeeper and everything. And we saw the NPS results really increase with some really heartfelt feedback from clients around that extra support. How significant was that to your people to get that strong feedback after working so hard?

Tony:

I think it was great. It was obviously an opportunity for accountants to step up and it was great that our clients expressed their appreciation. That feedback was important for the partners, but it was also important to the staff. Our managers, our seniors, they were calling clients directly because there were so many to speak to and so much to speak about. So, they loved receiving that feedback as well.

Greg:

Tony many firms I speak to, I ask the managing partner, why do clients choose you? And I always get a good answer. It's often very precise. And then I say, well, do you have any evidence to support that belief? And often the answer is, well, probably not really. And I know it's part of this program that you do gather evidence. We do get a picture about why clients choose you and what it is that they value. So, let me ask you, why do clients choose HLB Mann Judd and how helpful is it to have some evidence to support that?

Tony:

We offer good client service, which many other firms would also say and do. However, I think being able to support that with evidence is very important. I think it also helps the partner or staff member delivering the message. It’s an honest belief and its backed up by third party evidence.

Greg:

And I guess if a partner's having a conversation with a potential client, then they can say, we think you'd be happy here if these three things are really key to you, then we're pretty confident we can deliver it.

Tony:

Yes, exactly that sort of thing. Look, the reality is that probably when people come to us, they've done a bit of research and seen what evidence we've got out there as far as the importance we place upon client service and the feedback we're getting.

Greg:

Yes. Now I know that among the things that clients really like about HLB Mann Judd is the responsiveness and the client care they get, along with expertise, but that expertise is not necessarily the number one thing people say is the reason they would recommend you to others. Does that surprise you?

Tony:

Well, I think ultimately it's a people business. The technical expertise you provide I guess, is nearly taken for granted unless you don't deliver. So, I would say it's those other service factors, that makes the difference. It gives you confidence in the firm. As a client, if you recommend a firm, you're basically saying, ‘trust me’. It’s something no-one takes lightly.

Greg:

There's a lot of evidence to suggest that staff experience and client experience are linked, particularly in services businesses, do you see that connection?

Tony:

Yes it's important to provide value to clients, but I think it’s important to be supportive to clients and to support each other. Client feedback is evidence of people being supportive. Ultimately, the staff like the aspect of supporting clients and helping them through their journey.

Greg:

Yes. Because you do see clients naming particular people in the team, don't you sometimes?

Tony:

Yes, And the staff love that what they did was appreciated by the client.

The staff member most likely would have known it was a good relationship, but they now know the firm has seen it and the partner's seen it.

Greg:

Finally if you think about the future of client experience. How do you see the importance of client experience changing in the future for the accounting industry?

Tony:

Well, it's only going to increase in importance. It's always been a critical part of the business, but you can just see that the traditional ways of interacting with a client are continuing to evolve. The profession keeps setting the bar higher which is fantastic.

Greg:

Thank you Tony.

Accountants Daily 2021 Australian Accounting Awards.