Summer 2003



As markets mature, firms seem considerably more comfortable staying in their traditional markets than in continuously evolving into new growth markets. Firms have relationships with a broad base of clients. And the firm has name recognition. It’s a lot more comfortable to “stay put and hope things will eventually pick up.” But …

Firm members also consistently complain that clients are increasingly seeing them as “commodities” and not as “professionals” … and they’re shopping price and selecting the firm with the lowest fee. The impact is to hurt the firm’s marketing “hit rate” and erode profits. Therefore one of the biggest concerns we’re hearing is …

“How do we differentiate ourselves,
so we’re not just seen as commodities?”

If you want to hire an accountant, to do your taxes, the best you can tell … all of them know how to do taxes. (They may see differences among themselves to which we simply are not sufficiently sensitive.) What, then, separates one from another?

Here are some guidelines to help you maximize your success in a mature market place.

I. Better Relationships

First, be certain your Mandeville skills stay sharp. You may have many people who have been through the workshop. How well are they applying the methods? It’s easy to lapse into “sort of hearing” what the client is saying. Mandeville, in its pure form – especially staying with the non-physical (i.e. goals and concerns) and summarizing – requires discipline. Set up some form of “Mandeville quality check” to be sure you have as thorough a level of understanding as possible at the outset. Use your Mandeville video (plus practice) for refresher; be sure to train new people.

Second, be sure you’re matching each client (person) with someone from your firm with whom the person is most naturally compatible. Too many firms are still asking the most technically appropriate person – who’s also most available – to lead the marketing effort. And they may assign someone new for each new project of a re-peat client. Which accountant do you hire? Usually the one with whom you’re most comfortable. Use “Hunter-Farmer-Shepherd” or whatever other style matching you prefer to make the best interpersonal link, for initial marketing and long term.

II. Better Client Satisfaction Levels

First, use your “Client Feedback” form all the way through each and every project. Select a third party who’s not working on the project to do it. Schedule-wise, link feedback sessions with project milestones. Let your client know you’re doing this feedback, who’s going to do it, why you’re doing it, and when you’re doing it at the outset of every project. The person doing the feedback needs to ensure that the project manager makes mid-course adjustments, and that client satisfaction levels – from all clients involved in a project – achieve extremely high levels.

Second, begin a “Kick-Off Meeting Punch list.” In “Client Relations” workshops, participants consistently share “biggest problems with clients” concerns, such as …


  • “How do you share bad news?”
  • “What if the schedule is delayed?”

  • “There’s no way to please some clients!”

  • “What if the client is slow in making decisions?”

  • “What if the client wants something that’s out-of-scope?”

Firms close out projects with thorough punch lists. Yet firms have no punch list for opening a project. The same issues occur, over and over. It frustrates staff and clients, and lowers satisfaction scores. When a new issue arises, add it to the master kick-off punch list. To err is human … but not on the same issues. It makes a big difference.

III. New Services

About once a year, with ongoing clients – and in an ongoing way as you network new clients – use your “Market Interview” Mandeville form. Don’t be casual; make it a specific live or phone interview. The first two questions help you monitor shifts in the market. The last three questions can really help you differentiate …

  • Identifying the biggest issues a client anticipates needing to address in the coming year or two helps you focus your marketing energy.
  • Identifying the biggest areas of help the clients feel they’ll need helps you respond – through hiring or alliances, etc. – most uniquely with capabilities or services that your competition simply doesn’t have.
  • Identifying what a “Dream Team” should look like, helps you makes unique, tailored, organizational and service delivery adjustments.

IV. Client Service Management

In many workshops, participants learn the “Client Service Management Guidelines.” You may have a set, from the workshop, or have the video. They’re not “rocket science” … but they do require naming a CSM for each desired new or ongoing client. Half an hour can produce two to three specific, inexpensive, action steps that can be done in a few months. Then, caucus again and develop a couple of additional steps.

To differentiate yourself in a mature market, you’ll need the discipline to list the clients you’d like to serve, and then apply all these Guidelines in a systematic way.

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