Platt’s Perspective: Classifying Clients – It’s Good For The Top And Bottom Line (And Everything In Between)

By: Michael Platt

Have you ever noticed that after you a buy a new car – let’s say it’s a 2017 silver Mercedes-Benz – you start seeing the same make, model and color every time you look around?

In similar fashion, firm professionals can begin to home in on their ideal clients and recognize them instantly. To help accomplish this, they need to go through two exercises that the majority of firms neglect: Define the firm’s best to worst clients, ranking them A through C or D, then outline a plan to improve their grades so they become better clients.

IPA’s most recent survey data, from more than 540 firms, show that only 30% are formally classifying their clients in this way. The other 70% are missing an opportunity to sharpen their focus, make more money and limit unnecessary headaches.

Mike Platt

Mike Platt

Many firm partners have their own ideas on who their A, B, C and D clients are, but it’s rarely agreed upon firmwide, and lower-level professionals may hold vastly different views on the attributes of a “perfect” client. The more clearly this is defined up front, the easier it is to target that group.

Every firm over the years has collected all kinds of clients – some are ideal fits for the services the firm provides; some were ideal at one time and are now legacy clients; and some are no longer appropriate.

So, how would a firm decide which clients are As and which are Cs or Ds? That’s up to every firm to define, but typically A clients are ones with growth potential, who are cooperative, pay premium fees for premium services, come to you before making major decisions, rely on your advice and refer other clients to the firm.

B clients, for example, may not access a full range of services or actively refer your firm, but they are owners of up-and-coming companies who could likely become A clients someday. C clients may be your 1040 tax return customers, and D clients could be those who are late providing information, argumentative with staff, late paying bills and constantly complaining about fees. Some D clients are unavoidable (think your brother-in-law, or the grandson of your best A client), but all should be reviewed and culled on a regular basis.

I believe so strongly in classifying clients that I suggest identifying them by letter grade in a firmwide database that is accessible to all professionals and reviewed every few years. Obviously, keep this information confidential – no client wants to hear that they’re a C client.

Once clients are classified, the firm should define a plan to move clients up. Can your firm guide tax return clients on ways to streamline operations of their businesses, grow and become more profitable? If so, those B clients may become more reliant on the firm’s expertise and opt to take advantage of more firm services, becoming A clients in short order.

Classifying clients moves the right metrics. When a firm focuses its energy on providing great service to A and B clients, realization goes up, fees go up and profitability goes up. At the same time, clients are fulfilling their dreams for their businesses, and they’re more successful and happier as well.

Classifying clients helps with business development. When you’re out looking for new clients, you don’t want to just grab whatever’s out there. Zero in on the kind of client the firm wants to pursue. That’s because not all revenue dollars are the same. Generating a dollar’s worth of revenue from an A client often costs far less than generating a dollar’s worth of revenue from a C or D client.

Don’t limit your thinking to believe that classifying clients is just a marketing activity. It is, but it’s much more than that. This exercise can focus the firm in a clear, targeted way on key metrics related to profitability, realization, revenue per charge hour and contribute to business development opportunities, growing the top line as well.

One other benefit to consider – once A clients are defined, future A clients are much easier to find, just like those 2017 silver Mercedes-Benzes you’re seeing everywhere.