In the world of accounting, there are multiple ways to set yourself apart -- consistently accurate work and strong adherence to ethical standards are two great places to start. But when these only put you on par with your competition rather than make you stand out, it's time to go back to basics and focus on the one factor that can make any company shine -- client service.
Which is exactly what the partners at accounting firm BKD LLP did. Ted Dickman, managing partner of the Central Indiana region of BKD, was one of several partners concerned about the company's future. Although it's one of the 10 largest CPA and advisory firms in the United States, Dickman and the rest of BKD's management team worried that it didn't have any real advantage over the competition.
So they decided that it was time to kick their customer service up a notch or two.
"If we can win the battleground on service, we'll have a competitive edge," Dickman says.
Smart Business spoke with Dickman about his firm has developed a stand-out customer service program.
How did your firm's emphasis on customer service come about?
That is a recent initiative. About a year-and-a-half ago, the firm's management committee authorized a task force focused on ratcheting up service. We felt that service would be a key differentiator for us in the next decade. Over a year ago, we pulled a lot of information for the firm during a three-day course at the Disney Institute.
We learned the Disney process and applied it to the firm. It then went out to all 27 offices. At each office, employees listened to a three-hour presentation, and at the end, every employee received an 80-page, leather-bound book that defines the unmatched client service and those 'wow' moments that occur as part of that service.
But we want the unmatched service to occur day in and day out. We defined five key standards, and there was a hierarchy built in to facilitate making decisions. The five standards are integrity, true expertise, professional demeanor, responsiveness and reliability, and principled innovation.
What is an example of a 'wow' moment?
An example of a wow moment is a client that came to us from a different provider. The client found a harmonious environment, and felt the respect he received and the way the company handled the relationship was a wow experience.
We have lots of niche services. [Our program] is a hands-on program, defining cutting-edge strategies, such as tax strategies. We found $2 million we were able to recover in taxes that were overpaid by a hospital. There were several reimbursements through Medicare that our experts, digging through the details, helped them find. A special team is improving processes, as well.
How do niche services help you provide wow experiences for each client?
We are a firm built around industry lines and niche specialists that we match with our clients. One client may require multiple people to be involved, such as a tax specialist, a technical person, etc. It depends on the client.
Our team of experts brings specific experience to the table to serve the clients and meet their unique needs. We expect a high level of partner and manager involvement, working face-to-face with clients. Through this, we identify ways to help make those wow moments.
Most competitors do not offer that partner and management expertise. Their partners are not out in the field, they're not accessible.
In what ways does that end goal work into the company's business plan and marketing strategies?
From a business plan standpoint, it is built on industry lines. There are four industries that we have a lot of depth in -- financial services, manufacturing and distribution, health care, and nonprofit and government. Each industry has a firmwide partner that leads the practice unit.
In Central Indiana, we have a leader that leads from a communication standpoint. Then organizationally, associates spend a higher percentage of time working within one of those niches. Our marketing strategies relate to those niches. Marketing teams are organized by industry and niches.
Are there any drawbacks to this strategy?
This strategy certainly limits us in some niches, but we are not comfortable pursuing business in industries in which we aren't experts, such as public utilities. In the larger offices, we have migrated toward subindustries.
Obviously we have to build our talent in these areas. We can't just change directions on a dime. But we reflect on and consider others. We are looking at emerging technology, like life sciences. So we are looking at how to migrate into those new areas and find the right opportunities.
Indiana's Biocrossroads initiative [a partnership between public, private and university institutions designed to promote biotechnology industries in Indiana] has attracted those kinds of companies to the area, and we are finding ways to better market to them.
Who do you include in the strategic planning process?
Typically we would start with a process similar to what we used to ramp up client experiences. We discuss and define our ideas, and they bubble up to the management committee for consideration. Then a small group of people take the lead, and reach out into the firm to extract as many ideas and as much information as they can.
We ask associates to share specific examples. It's certainly management- and partner-led, but (also) a collaborative approach with people throughout the firm. We also reach out to clients and conduct some market research to uncover what their expectations are. We conduct a formal client survey on a regular basis to get a 360-degree view of how we're performing and how we're received.
How do you communicate your vision of wow experiences to employees?
We've executed a whole variety of tactics to keep the unmatched client experience top-of-mind with people. Some of these are in the details -- subtle reminders, like the standards are printed on paychecks now. They are also printed on Post-it notes, and we have a section of our intranet site devoted to it. It is a repository of information. We also have new screensavers that scroll through the ideas of unmatched service.
We are also pushing out training programs, and we also build this philosophy into our quality control process. We have checklists that remind us to give unmatched service. It contains additional questions or hooks like, have we done this? Have we shared ideas? Have we met quality criteria? Have we met deadlines?
What do you do to get employee buy-in for this strategy?
Our read, and mine as co-author and presenter of it, is biased, but we've had a very positive reaction to the initiative. What we've heard is that employees can relate it to what they've lived at the firm. They are hearing actual stories and understand what's trying to be shared.
We didn't bring in anyone from the outside to facilitate or develop the initiative because we didn't feel that person could capture the spirit of what we expect in the way of serving clients. So the employees feel the reality, and what we've developed well represents what we're trying to do with clients on a daily basis.
Are there other advantages to implementing this initiative?
Clearly when we rallied everyone, the first thing everyone wants to know is, why do this? Why is it important?
We shared how much business could go away, potentially, if we are not doing well. We shared how much of our new business -- our greatest growth area, it comes through referrals -- could decline. We emphasized the execution, because this is the way we will grow the business.
Since we will have niche experts involved, we will absolutely be able to provide more services to existing clients. As important, though, is to create happier, better-served clients.
What do you do to foster creativity and an atmosphere that breeds new ideas?
We don't have any fancy, whiz-bang programs that we implemented. What we've done is focus on creating an atmosphere or culture of openness and sharing ideas, and then bubbling those ideas to the appropriate people throughout the firm. We work hard to create a culture in which we share ideas.
We can't act on every idea -- we don't have enough resources for that -- so we have to filter them according to the value they bring. If a consensus of people seems willing to implement them within the firm, then we move forward.
Our fifth standard encourages innovation. It's like belonging to a trade association; we share ideas and speakers, and in the process, are pushing the ideas to be deposited and encouraged across the firm. We encourage the employees to be bold and try something new or dramatic, which can actually change their career paths, especially if someone demonstrates leadership in a new area.
We have 200 partners within the firm, and they are equity partners. There are embedded opportunities for anyone in the firm who is talented to become an equity owner themselves. All of these factors converge to create a creative atmosphere.
How to reach: BKD LLP, (317) 383-4000 or www.bkd.com