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By Michael Goldstein

When you ask CPAs in public practice about their firm culture, the first thing you will hear from many of them is their dedication to client service and how attending to client needs is the focal point of what their firm is all about.

Saying that You Have a Service Culture Doesn't Make It So. One way of understanding what a service culture should be is by looking at what a service culture should not be--a failed attempt. Once upon a time there was a national accounting firm, (the product of an untold number of mergers) where they published their service culture motto for all the world to see. At an earlier meeting of their leaders, there was an agenda item calling for the creation and adoption of a new motto to represent who they were and what they were offering. The deliberations covered numerous suggestions--a number of those present favored something simple and to the point, like "Quality Client Service." The leadership group was planning an internal education program related to improving client service. Following an extended discussion about an appropriate motto, either the firm's managing partner or the chairman of the board, after remarks about the the lack of imagination shown thus far, offered up the suggestion, "Superior Client Service." The other senior member of management immediately fell in love with it. Despite protests from some of the other leaders and questions about the need for time and completion of an internal program to demonstrate that the firm was committed, there it was etched in stone, for all to see on letterheads, publications, T-shirts, baseball caps, and even continuing education manuals.

Calling a Significant Part of the Firm Culture "Superior Client Service" Just Didn't Make It So. For example, bringing in not-so-superior new clients and satisfying the needs of not-so-superior existing clients, remained an undisclosed part of the culture at some of the local offices. Good-old-rules existed and were constantly upgraded, covering items such as, client acceptance, independence, and quality control. But some of the local office foxes, in order to show who was really boss and reap the rewards, stuffed the client henhouse with more chickens than could comfortably fit and maintained tight control over the henhouses, which included deciding which chickens could enter and which chickens could stay. While high grade chicken feed, in the form of the superior client service doctrine, was being shipped to them, appropriate distribution just wasn't being permitted by the local foxes. In fact, some of the client chickens were so sick, they ultimately infected the foxes and their entire family around the country, leading to litigation and ultimately the demise of the firm--bankruptcy.

How could such a thing happen when all the doctrine was in place to deliver superior client service? It's easy; all you have to do is forget what satisfying client needs really means, ignore being a professional, or go for the quick reward, regardless of the consequences. For example, in this make-believe firm, at an annual evaluation of partners, disclosure was made that during a national inspection of a local office, it came to light that the local managing partner had coerced a practice partner into changing a report, certainly contrary to the rules. The gist of the national managing partner's reaction was--"Yes, but look at how profitable his office is." And the local managing partner was rewarded with little regard to his infraction of the rules; not the right attitude for a superior client service culture.

Creating a Service Culture. How? First, there must be a commitment to quality, not just lip service or a belief that quality comes first. Quality should be the prime focus of a professional. You cannot reward skills that are not associated with quality. Poor performance cannot be offset, for example, by bringing in new business. Business getters, like technicians, have to get the job done right the first time.

Partners and Employees Must Be Trained to Deliver Client Satisfaction. Client service comes first--a thought process that should be characteristic of the firm's entire population. It must, however, be based on being able to fulfill legitimate service expectations, not just based on threat-related inspections of performance. It must begin with the leadership and become pervasive throughout the firm, including, knowing where and when to stop--to be able to preserve independence and still serve clients. *

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