Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Posts Tagged ‘customer loyalty’

The Star You Are (A Salute to Supercat)

Posted by debrahelwig on May 8, 2013

Such excitement at C2013-05-08_17-04-32_357 (1)asa Helwig!! Today is Graduation Day!

Pre-K graduation, that is.

The ceremony this morning was an exercise in bottled cuteness from start to finish – 45 tiny children flying one at a time onto a stage to be handed certificates as “most helpful,” “most musical,” “most curious,” and so on, all giving huge hugs to the teacher and big smiles to mommy and daddy out in the audience. One little boy was wearing a seersucker suit, complete with bow tie. Every little girl was wearing her Sunday best dress and pretty shoes – except, of course, MINE, who had insisted on wearing her pink cat costume (complete with pink-eared hoodie, pastel pink jeans, and tennis shoes). Since she refers to herself most often as “Supercat”, at first blush it had seemed like SUCH a good idea. Watching all the kids on stage, though, I found myself fighting a giant “mommy fail” feeling because she didn’t look like anyone else.

My child was fine. Deliriously ecstatic, in fact. She loved being a cat! She was extremely proud of being named “Most Cheerful” and loved every second of the attention from the teacher and the audience.

So why on earth did *I* have an uncontrollable urge to apologize for not dressing her in Sunday-go-to-meeting gear?  I actually did it, too.  I cornered the teacher before the ceremony, confessing, “I feel rotten for not getting with the program and dressing her up today.”

Fortunately, our teacher is a very smart lady. Her response was dead on: “She will have a lot more fun memories of being a cat today than she would of being trussed up in a dress she doesn’t particularly like.” SO TRUE!

So Supercat received her graduation certificate, and all was well.  Hurrah for Supercat!

But this feeling was still bugging me. Why did I have an urge to apologize? I sifted it down to this:  EXPECTATIONS.

There are certain cultural norms that come with a graduation. A cat suit is NOT among them. So when it was obvious that we were the ONLY ones in the class who did not meet that norm, I became fearful of standing out in a negative way. I got worried, EVEN THOUGH the outfit my child chose totally reflected her interests and her personality. Deep down, I was much more interested in “fitting in” than “letting her be herself”. My reaction was protective. Born of love and parental concern.

And completely unnecessary, unhelpful, and misguided.

Marketing guru Seth Godin wrote a piece this week applying this very idea to business, called “Remind You of Anything? Simple Typography for Non-professionals.” He was talking specifically about typography, but his thoughts apply to companies and entrepreneurs in general:

Norms exist. People have expectations about how people and businesses behave and look. If you divert from those norms and are different, you will stand out. Choose carefully where you amplify those “differences” so that they work for you instead of against you.

What does this have to do with work? A LOT, actually. Every single marketing director and business developer in professional services can learn something from Seth and my little Supercat (and my outsized reaction). The lesson comes when we assess where we fall on the EXPECTATIONS scale – when we know:

  • The general norms in our marketplace about how firms like ours should behave
  • What our firm’s culture really is (how do we interact with each other and our clients? What matters to us as a company? How do we show that to the world?)
  • How the key individuals that represent the firm behave when they’re out in public
  • Where the gaps lie between those cultural norms and how we really operate

If our reaction as marketers is to be protective – to serve as the guardian of a reputation based in cultural norms (where the firm is “a valued partner” and “high quality”, etc. etc.), without pointing out places where we are unique, we are playing it safe. Dangerously safe. If we’re focused on being “the best accounting firm” or “the best law firm” instead of “the best ‘us’, who happens to do great accounting or law”, the truth we tell will be culturally appropriate – AND BORING. If we work hard to make sure our firm fits with the “accepted notion” of the industry by using the same language and concepts to describe ourselves, we will at the very best look like A GOOD VERSION OF EVERYONE ELSE. Not compelling.

Yes, highlighting differences may turn off some potential clients. But telling the truth about the firm and its culture will also attract people who will be much more likely to stay, because they are a good fit.

Expectations are just a starting point, so we can see where we are different than the norm. Everything comes together (in family, in business – heck, in LIFE) when we allow our differences from the expected to shine.  That’s the only way anyone will ever know just how much of a star we are.

Go Supercat go!


Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Marketing, Professional Services, Relationship Building, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Be Who You Are – Out Loud: Why Authenticity + Consistency Are Critical to Wooing and Keeping Clients

Posted by debrahelwig on February 25, 2010

I have a new crush.

A few weeks back, a friend of mine turned me on to a great company called Better World Books. This bunch sings to me on a lot of levels – I’m an avid reader, a bargain junkie, a believer in literacy programs, and “green” enough to be a good recycler. Win + win + win.

But the other thing I love about Better World Books is their style. Check out this follow up email:

If your order hasn’t blessed your mailbox just yet, heads are gonna roll in the Better World Books warehouse! Seriously though, if you haven’t received your order or are less than 108.8% satisfied, please reply to this message. Let us know what we can do to flabbergast you with service.

Fun, simple and service oriented, just like their site and blog. These guys will get my money, because from site to blog to email, they present a consistent voice that I relate to.

But there’s another part to this story.

You might not like Better World Books’ message, and that’s cool too. If you’d rather have a cup of Starbucks at Barnes & Noble and finger the pages of every book before you buy, go with their blessing. There are plenty of other people in the world, like me, who belong with them. It’s a matchmaker’s tale. Find a person / client / business that resonates with your needs and values, you’ll wind up together.

With all that in mind, here’s the lesson for our industry – and the $64K question for you:

Are you gutsy enough to take the Better World Books approach? To unapologetically be who you are, with an eye toward working only with clients who are a great fit for your firm?

In a down economy, it’s such a temptation to say that any work is good work. Believe me, it’s not.

Doing work you don’t like for clients whose worldview is a bad match to yours sucks the energy out of your culture. Over time, your office will become a giant revolving door – for work, for clients, for staff. Because the synergy, the passion, the “why we belong together” isn’t there.

Do you know your firm’s culture inside and out? If not, then get to know it now. This minute. Be able to put images and words around it. Show other people what you’re good at, what you like to do, and how you get it done. Then be authentic and consistent in sharing that special culture of yours everywhere you do business, online and off.

Because if your communications don’t reflect the culture of your firm, the disconnect is costing you business – both by saddling you with clients who are a bad fit based on misperception, and by missing clients who would be perfect but who don’t understand why you’re great for them.

It’s not about fitting into what “society” says is hip and cool, either. It’s 100% OK to be a buttoned-up, marble-column, three-piece-suit firm in today’s world. But clients who want a firm like that won’t find you if your Web site is full of edgy Madison Avenue imagery and your firm partners network at trendy cocktail parties.

On the other hand, if your firm is hip, fun, and youth-oriented, having a Web site with a five-year-out-of-date board room photo of the partners on the main page, a blue and grey color scheme, and a nonexistent social media presence won’t do a thing to win the clients you want.

The path to success lies in fluently expressing your firm’s culture in communications designed to reach your “right people” (as Havi Brooks would say), and not being concerned about clients who aren’t a good fit. If you stay consistent, the right people will find you. And because they are your right people, the likelihood that they’ll stick around for the long haul is a lot higher.

Be who you are – out loud. Because authenticity + consistency = clients that stay. Clients you like, because at least to some degree they think like you.

Getting there is worth the effort.

Photo by Roland (license).

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Marketing, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Your New Busy Season Mantra: Just Take the Darn Call

Posted by debrahelwig on February 2, 2010

Have you met Sparky Firepants?

If not, you should.

Mr. Pants (aka David Billings) is a darn brilliant graphic designer and an equally brilliant wordsmith.  On his blog, he’s got a lot to say about the business of making art.  Which, by chance, happens to say a lot about the business of doing good business. Which, in turn, directly applies to all of us folks toiling away in the accounting and legal sphere.

This week, he’s penned two thoughtful (and very helpful) posts – Why I’ll Never Say I’m Booked, and Why I Said Not to Say “Booked”.  The gist – it’s never a great idea to just hang a sign on your (locked) door that says “Sorry, Can’t Help You Now,” no matter how busy you are.  No matter if tax returns are stacked in mountains threatening to collapse on your head. No matter if your email box passed overflowing two hours ago and your iPhone is starting to smoke.

Just. Take. The. Darn. Call.

I can’t think of a more important message for accounting folks to hear at the beginning of Busy Season. (And all you lawyers out there, you listen up too – sometime your case load will reach tilt-tilt-tilt overload and all of this will apply to you too.)

Here’s a short excerpt:

There’s a big difference between announcing to the world, “I’m booked” and turning down a project after you’ve heard the deadline. Saying, “I’m booked” is locking your door until August. Then what? You open the door, peer out and wonder aloud, “Where did everybody go? I’m ready now. Heeeeyyyyyyyyy!”

What does it cost to listen? How much time does it take to let someone in your shop (figuratively speaking) and ask you for help?

Yep, Mr. Pants nails it, 100%. You should read both posts this minute and take them to heart. Because here’s the bottom line: the thing that kills relationships – especially professional services relationships – is insufficient communication.

When I tweeted Mr. Pants’ post earlier today, I got a great response from Dennis Howlett (@dahowlett), a guy who knows whereof he speaks, with 10 years under his belt as an accounting firm partner and a long IT consulting career after that:

“The biggest source of ‘pissed offness’ is NOT to speak with clients, however busy you are. A 2-5 minute call does wonders.”

Hallelujah! You bet it does. Because it’s about respect. And decency. And the kindness to say, “I hear you, and what you need matters to me.”  Nothing elaborate. Not an hour long “how’s your great-grandmother’s butler-in-law these days?” coffee clatch. Just acknowledgement, and a promise to follow up or a helpful referral. Even if you say, “Sorry, my schedule is full, but here are some other options for you,” you will have acknowledged that client’s need. You’ll have shown that you care.

And “I care” does a heck of a lot more to build and cement relationships than (indifferent) silence.

So take your calls. Return your calls, every day. Especially when you’re busy.  Do it quickly and with all the empathy you can muster.

It’s the best way I can think of to ensure that your post-Busy Season will be, well….busy.

Photo by Mr. ATM (license).

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Busy Season, Law, Leadership, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lingo Bingo: Why Being a Good Interpreter Matters More than Your Technical Skills

Posted by debrahelwig on September 17, 2009

Lingo Want a wake-up-call about how to attract great clients? Have I got a story for you.

Last year, when my husband’s birthday rolled around, I casually asked about what he needed for his beloved woodworking hobby. “A stacked dado, probably,” he replied.

Oh, boy. Stacked day-dough. What the heck is that? Since I was being sneaky, I couldn’t ask. No problem. I’d go to a woodworking place and they’d know.

I started at the most exclusive woodworking specialty store in our area – upscale, smelling of lemon oil and cedar, full of expensive toys. Conversations about things I didn’t understand buzzed around me. Intimidated, I sidled up to the counter between two customers debating arcane aspects of rotary sanders and asked, “I need to buy a … stacked day-dough?” The clerk waved me over to a wall of – stuff. To an experienced eye, it was probably a cinch to see what I needed. But to me, it was a giant wall of metal pointy things. The clerk didn’t notice. The air in the room was definitely, “If you have to ask, you don’t belong here.” I left.

My next stop was a big box store. The orange one. The huge racks and displays were even more intimidating. But this time, the clerk made all the difference. My questioning, “Day-dough?” was met by a smile. “Ma’am, you have absolutely no understanding of what you’re asking for, do you?” he said. “NO,” I replied in relief.

So, for the next 10 or 15 minutes, this kind man asked questions. LOTS of questions that I did understand. What kind of work my husband did. How often he did it. Who he did it for. And at the same time, I got a kick-in-the-pants introduction to table saws and saw blades (including stacked dadoes). I bought what I needed. But – the much more important thing is – I felt great about it. I felt like this man cared about what my husband needed. He cared about making me look good. He cared about helping me learn something.

And, on B-Day, not only was my husband delighted with the gift, he was thrilled that I could talk to him about it. Hooray, me. Double hooray, big orange sales clerk! Big Box Orange immediately became my home improvement store.

And from that experience, I learned something that applies TIMES TEN in the professional services world: It’s not your skills that set you apart. It’s your ability – and desire – to listen and interpret.

Every industry is full of acronyms and insider-speak that are gibberish to folks on the outside — and accounting and law are worse than most. To a non-accountant, hearing phrases peppered with IRS, A&A, SALT, PCAOB, AICPA, IFRS, and the like sounds like little more than Jabberwocky.

And if they don’t understand in their own context what you’re doing, or why it’s valuable, they’ll go somewhere else.

It’s the same story as my quest for a stacked dado. Most of your potential clients aren’t sure what they need, and they definitely don’t know the ins and outs of how to get it done. Your value as a trusted advisor is greatest when you clearly explain what they need and why, in a language they can understand. A few folks will be impressed if you throw around acronym-laden insider speak, but most will just quietly take their business elsewhere.

At the end of the day, trust is worth more than talent. When you can meet a potential client where they are, understanding their needs and using their lingo to explain what you can do for them, you’re well on the way to a perfect meeting of the minds. And a highly fruitful client experience.

** For a fun (and scary long) list of accounting acronyms, visit For law, see
Photo by zinjixmaggir (license).

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

A Rock Star Ain’t a Rock Star if the Backup Band Stinks

Posted by debrahelwig on August 20, 2009

rockstarLately, I’ve been having some medical issues. Never fun. Ick, in fact.

So you can imagine how tickled I was when I got a referral to one of the top doctors in the US in my needed specialty. Less than an hour’s drive from home, no less! I thought all my problems were solved. Great care from a brilliant physician, conveniently located. All would be well.

Unfortunately, no.

It’s true, Doctor X is fabulous. She’s brilliant. Top of her game. Amazing diagnostic skills, and even more, a compassionate beside manner. I love her, absolutely I do.

When I can get to her, that is. And there’s the problem.

Surrounding Doctor X is a vortex of apathy and bureaucratic red tape masquerading as an office staff.

It’s simple stuff, too. Things that just don’t happen in a well managed office. Things like:

When I go for an appointment, I sit in an exam room for three to four hours after my scheduled time, waiting to be seen. Inquiries are met with the response, “She’s worth the wait.”

An urgent call to request records is met with a flippant, “We don’t fax records. You have to wait until next Friday and we’ll mail them.” When I ask for other options, the clerk tells me, “I’m sorry, there are no other options.”

Emails sent to the doctor’s listed email address are not acknowledged nor is any response given.

Calls to speak with the nurse often result in a hold time of 30 to 45 minutes – before being put into voice mail. With no apology from the receptionist.

So far, I’ve put up with this insanity because the doctor IS a rock star. Genius in heels and a lab coat, with answers to a lot of my issues. But after my most recent (frustrating) visit, I’ve had just about enough and am starting to look for a new provider.

Because a rock star ain’t a rock star if the backup band stinks.

And there’s the lesson for all of us in professional services. Just like my medical practice has its rock star doctor, you’ve got rock stars in your firm. Truly brilliant minds with real answers for client questions and a passion for helping people.

But if your gatekeepers aren’t doing their jobs, you’re headed for trouble. Not as quickly as you would if your brilliant partners and staff weren’t so incredibly good at what they do. But eventually there will be a breaking point, where the pain of getting to the great provider is greater than the benefit derived from their counsel.

The brilliance of a few great minds simply isn’t enough to keep clients for the long haul.

The true differentiator of a great firm – the thing that keeps clients coming back again and again and referring over and over – is the honest care and sweat equity of a brilliant support staff for your geniuses. A great backup band for your rock stars, helping your clients get the information they need day after day.

With that in mind, how long has it been since you did a top-to-bottom diagnostic on your firm’s client support?

If it’s been a while, I strongly recommend you make a thorough evaluation of all the entry points into your firm. See how easy it is (or isn’t) for your clients to access the people they want to reach. Learn firsthand how happy, genuine, and willing your gatekeepers are to open the way for clients to get what they need.

If everyone in the firm performs brilliantly, from top to bottom, the firm can’t help but succeed.

But it’s up to you to make sure. BEFORE you lose clients who love your work, but hate getting the runaround.

Photo by Dude Crush (license).

Posted in Attitudes, Leadership, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ford vs. Hyundai: A Cautionary Tale for Professional Services Firms

Posted by debrahelwig on April 1, 2009

Are you sick of hearing about the upheaval in the auto industry yet?

I thought I was. In my house, we’d gotten to the point of throwing (soft) objects at the TV anytime someone said “auto bailout.” Enough is enough, right?

But then, I ran across a few stories that really made me think. About the ONE, MOST BASIC thing we all could be doing better – in this economy or otherwise – to generate and keep loyal clients and customers.

The A-Ha Moment

My “a-ha” started with a post by Marelisa Fábrega that had this amazing nugget (edited here for length):

At one time, Ford asked Edward de Bono for advice on clearly differentiating themselves from their many competitors. Ford asked, “How can we make our cars more attractive to consumers?”

Dr. de Bono approached the problem from a completely different angle: “How can we make the whole driving experience better for Ford customers?” Using this perspective, Dr. de Bono came up with an idea: Ford should buy up parking lots in all the major city centers and make them available for Ford cars only. Unfortunately, Dr. de Bono’s innovation was too radical for Ford; they saw themselves as an automobile manufacturer with no interest in the parking lot business.

Lots of irony here.

If Ford HAD done this and other similar loyalty-building exercises, would they have created enough raving fans to avoid the brunt of the current auto meltdown? Hmmmm.

Heading in the Right Direction

Now, let’s look at a competitor of Ford’s called Hyundai.

In my circle, Hyundai hasn’t had the greatest rep – mostly because my good friend drove a serious lemon with their nameplate attached. BUT… then Hyundai released this ad.

WHOA. Take the car back (or, in later iterations, make my payments) if I lose my job? Shocking.

In the space of one commercial, my attitude about Hyundai completely changed. Not because they built a better car. But because their actions shouted – “We hear what our customers need and we’ll break new ground making it happen.”

Were other people as impressed as I was? Well, according to a study by CNW Research:

Surveying consumers shopping for a vehicle…as well as eventual buyers, about the carmaker’s vehicle-return program, CNW found that more than half of “intenders” hadn’t considered Hyundai before hearing about its program, and 53 percent said the program was the key reason for considering the brand.

Reports show Hyundai’s year over year sales were down only 1.5 percent in February, and up 25 percent over January 2009; Ford’s were down 48.4 percent year over year. Coincidence? I think not.

And, additional irony, yesterday Ford launched its own assurance program, with many similar features to Hyundai’s.

Coming Late to the Party

Will Ford’s attempt at an assurance program make a difference? IMHO, not much.

The Hyundai Assurance Plan is working not just because of the plan itself, but because it made Hyundai the first automaker to visibly demonstrate a new way of approaching customer relationships in the current economy. The plan is “proof” that Hyundai is not only interested in building customer relationships, but is dedicated to making the experience of buying a Hyundai better, just like Dr. de Bono suggested to Ford with his parking lot idea years ago.

I’m certain Ford’s also-ran entry into the “assurance plan” business will help them some, at least in selling cars to people inclined to buy Fords anyway. But will it change hearts and minds and create new raving fans for Ford? Likely not.

Hyundai got there first.

Now, About Professional Services

If you work for a professional services firm, it’s quite easy to fall into the mindset Ford had when it approached Dr. de Bono. Think about how often you ask, “How do we make our firm more attractive than our competitors’ firms?”

Ultimately, that line of reasoning will put you in the same position as Ford.

I urge you to flip your thinking. Ask instead, “How can we make the entire experience of consuming our services better for our customers?”

Remember, it’s the HOW, not the WHAT. Creating fans is not just about refining your end product, it’s about surprising and delighting and showing that you listen and you care. It’s about responding in radical ways to your clients’ needs. And being the first in your market space to do it.

For Hyundai, it’s not all about the car. For your firm, it can’t all be about the audit or the tax return or the legal brief or the contract. Change your thinking and you can reach unimaginable heights – and maybe change an entire industry as well.

What are you waiting for?

Posted in Attitudes, Business Development, Marketing, Professional Services, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: