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Client relationships

4 1/2 tips to get more timely documents from clients

In the past 15 years, I’ve had the honor of talking to more than a thousand accountants and bookkeepers, and I love it because I learn something new every time. I also see a lot of common themes, which helps me understand the industry more deeply. The most common challenge that accountants and bookkeepers probably face is that “it’s difficult to get clients to send their documents on time!”

Your clients are busy and you understand that. But, in order to work your magic for them, you need to get their documents on a timely basis. You don’t like having to chase them for the documents, and chances are, they don’t like that either. Additionally, remote working has exacerbated this dramatically. Your local clients can’t just drop documents off at your office anymore, and mailing is impractical with all your staff working in different places. Managing storage solutions is another headache altogether.

What can you do to tip the odds in your favor?

Here are some tried and true tips to help you increase the chances that your clients will comply quickly with necessary document and signature requests. 

Tip #1: Have clear expectations in place. Your clients need to understand that you can’t advise them properly, or help them meet critical deadlines, unless they give you the necessary documents and data on time. For this reason, it’s essential that you document your policy, share it with your clients, and make sure they understand the various deadlines, and methods they can employ, to send you their data.

The “KISS” principle applies here. Clearly state your policy in plain English, and include the deadlines and preferred delivery methods. Less is more. Be sure to run it by a few outsiders before you send it to clients, asking them to tell you what the policy is in their own words, what documents it applies to, and how to send them to the firm. If their interpretation differs from the policy intent, then rework it until it’s clear, straightforward, and helpful.

Power tip: Consider an incentive for getting documents turned in early. As an example, a tax-centric firm I spoke with in the UK had a sliding discount for tax return costs. The discount was enormous if the client sent in all their documentation four months ahead of the tax deadline. As the tax deadline approached, the discount was not only reduced until it hit zero, but the price also actually increased in the three weeks leading up to the tax deadline. Clients loved it because they could save money and get their returns done early, and the firm’s staff loved being able to spread the work out more evenly.

Tip #2: For day-to-day documents, automate as much as possible. Technology has advanced so much since I started at Intuit® in late 2004. Back then, the buzzword was NED2 (Never Enter Data Twice). Now, it is NED.

Modern software solutions, such as QuickBooks® Online, are built from the ground up in order to take advantage of using technology to get data in quickly, without having to type it in. Speaking of which, if you are using QuickBooks Online, but aren’t yet using Bank Feeds for all your clients, you are literally missing out on one of the most important technological advances in the 21st century. It saves so much time, and your clients don’t have to send you any day-to-day transactional documents.

In addition to bank feeds, there are numerous other ways to get day-to-day transactions into your accounting software. You can integrate with web shopping carts, eliminating the need to enter the daily sales and inventory entries. You can tap into apps to track employee time and enter it right into your payroll solutions, automate bill payment with approvals built in, and much more. The key here is to look at what you are currently having to chase your clients for, or type in manually, and then see if “there is an app for that.”

Power tip: Ask your peers what tech stack they use for their clients, and then invest the time to learn those apps. It will pay off handsomely in terms of added productivity for you and your staff, and drastically reduce time spent chasing documents from your clients.

Tip #3: Connect the dots … and thank them. Everyone wants to be acknowledged for their part in producing results. If you can show your clients that sending their documents in on time provides more complete advice – doing so in a way that delights them and helps their business move forward – they will see how their efforts have contributed to a great result.

One way to do this is to create some really amazing reports that show trend analysis and forecasting. Make an appointment with your clients, and thank them for sending in the documents that allowed you to do the analysis you are about to show them. Connect the dots for them – you can only provide really sound advisory services if they consistently send you key documents and data on a timely basis.

To get your creative juices flowing, clients love cash flow and sales model forecasts, including “what if” scenarios, such as “What if you increase your prices by ___%?,” “What if we can increase your margins by ___%,?” and “What if we opened up a new selling channel?”

Power tip: Ask each of your clients what keeps them up at night, regarding their business. Then, create an advisory package to help them address those concerns. Of course, this is only possible if you get their data on a timely basis, so let them know that when you ask them what their primary concern is with their business.

Tip #4: Consider cloud-based document exchange solutions. For sensitive documents that are not available via integration with apps, security must be your first concern. It’s simply not safe to exchange sensitive documents as attachments to email. Luckily, there are lots of technology solutions, and as long as they leverage the same level of security that your bank does, they are secure.

For example, many tax providers have secure portals to exchange documents at tax time with their clients. However, practitioners often report low levels of clients using them because portals can be clunky, and usually require the client to be at their desk when sending the documents. When securely sending files, there are single function solutions that have much better interfaces, some of which work well on a mobile device. You’ll also benefit from an e-signature solution, where downloading, printing, scanning, and uploading files in order to sign them is no longer required.

Ideally, your solution does all of the things mentioned above (document storage, document exchange, client communication, and e-signature), but the biggest thing to consider is the customer experience. There is no point in choosing a solution that clients won’t use. Look for a solution that features an easy interface that is mobile friendly, affordable for your firm, and one that you and your clients will both love to use.

Power tip: One test I like to use when rolling out a new solution is to have my mother try it out. We set up a free trial, and then see how easy it is for each of us to use it. She is 80 and pretty savvy technologically, so she doesn’t represent the more “technologically challenged” clients you might have, but if she can do it without instructions, it’s a fair bet that your clients can use it as well.   

Tip 4 1/2: Share client-specific strategies amongst the team. This tip is something that most firms are already doing, so it’s just half a tip. But, in case you’re not already doing this, it’s a good idea to identify the type of communcation that each client prefers. Then, document it and share this information with each team member. For example, if your client is in the field all day, email is likely not the best method. They may prefer a text instead.

Power tip: Keep learning. We’ve assembled a list of proven ways to provide outstanding client service, without breaking the bank.

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