Do Clients See You as an Expense or as Part of Their Growth?

Ellen and Peter are both partners with large, well-known public accounting firms. They both went to good schools and have years of experience in auditing the financial statements of Fortune-500 companies.

That’s where their similarities end.

Ellen is a trusted advisor to the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of her largest client. In contrast, Peter’s principal client has been trying to cut the fee for his firm’s audit services. Sometimes, he even struggles to get on the CFO’s calendar.

Their differences illustrate one of the most fundamental laws of relationships. Mastering this law has the power to transform your role with clients, customers, and colleagues.

Over lunch Peter told me, “They’re driving me crazy. This client sees the audit as a commodity. They just want the lowest price.”

“What kind of relationship do you have with the CFO or his deputy?” I asked.

“Not much. They have basically delegated the management of the audit to their V.P. of finance, who reports to the CFO. He, in turn, has turned over the day-to-day relationship with us to their Director of Audit. I rarely see the CFO.”

“How would you describe your role with your clients?”

Peter looked at me like I was a bit nuts. “My role? My job is to get the audit completed on time and on schedule, and with an unqualified opinion.”

As our lunch progressed, a portrait of Peter emerged as what I call an “expert for hire.” Peter described a board dinner he was invited to. Peter admitted with candor that because the questions thrown at him were not focused on accounting alone, he had to stumble through his answers.

Peter is a great accountant. He knows his accounting rules and methodologies. The problem is, most top executives don’t want to spend much time on those particular details.

Ellen, on the other hand, is known to have an uncommon knack for building strong relationships with her clients at the most senior levels. I first met her when I interviewed her as part of a panel at a client offsite conference.

That day, I asked her what her secret is: “What makes you successful with clients?”

“It starts,” Ellen told the packed room, “with how you define your role with the client. My first responsibility is to achieve an unqualified audit opinion for my client, and to use all of our latest methodologies to help complete a successful audit. But I feel my mission is also to be a business advisor to my client. I help them manage their financial assets productively and reduce their risks. I’m a sounding board for new policies and strategies. At the very highest level, my job is to help my client achieve their growth and profitability goals with minimum risk.”

Ellen explained that when she takes on a new audit client, she tells the CFO that she wants to have a regularly scheduled lunch every two weeks. She admitted that she initially gets push back, but after insisting that all her significant clients follow this practice and find it valuable, her clients agree.

Ellen continued, “After a couple of these lunches, my clients are totally engaged—they love the interaction. I learn about the CFO’s priorities and goals, share best practices from other clients, discuss strategy, share issues we are seeing in their field operations, and I provide intelligence about their organization that other advisors can’t see because they are not close enough to the business.”

“The lunches are only part of the picture. All of my exchanges with my clients are framed in the context of their big-picture goals—their growth, profitability, and innovation. I don’t want them to see our audit as a necessary evil. Rather, I want them to see me as a strategic advisor who does a terrific job each year getting their audit done smoothly and without complications.”

Ellen and Peter are real people. The dramatically different roles they play with their clients highlight an important Law of Relationships: Become part of your clients’ growth and profits, and they’ll never get enough of you.

If you can show how what you do directly supports your client’s growth, their profitability, and the reduction of their risks, you’ll harness the power of this law.

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