A New CX Focus Boosts CRM in Professional Services
Back in 2016 I wrote a column about CRM in accounting and wondered if that was the year that CRM would become pervasive in the accounting profession. It turns out I was a bit premature, as the heavier CRM adoption and transformation started to happen a couple of years later. I decided to revisit the topic and find out when the tipping point occurred (I actually quoted a passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book back in that 2016 column).
Part of the pushback a few years ago was cultural, in that many people in the professional services world perceived CRM as additional administrative overhead. That the user population is composed of highly paid professionals with multiple responsibilities adds to that challenge. To get a better understanding of what has changed, I had a conversation with Mitch Reno, director of client experience at Rehmann, one of the largest CPA firms in the country, and a noted leader in this area.
According to Reno, one of the most significant changes is that firms in professional services have recently embraced customer experience (CX) as a new strategy to help build their brands and position them for future success. That trend converged with a dramatic expansion in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). Those factors resulted in professional services firms increasingly using CRM and its operational capabilities to manage their businesses.
Reno has been an early adopter of CX and has a unique perspective, having worked across all professional services disciplines and with information technology think tanks to develop his approach to how CRM platforms will be used going forward. He notes that it is becoming harder for firms to differentiate themselves with prospective clients, and I wanted to dig deeper on where he sees this going.
When I ask why CX is coming to the forefront as an opportunity for this sector, Reno says, “Professional service firms are looking to distinguish themselves from competing firms in the marketplace. In the past couple of decades, they have moved from being internally focused to industry specialization and client-centric service line diversification. CX is simply another strategy to brand and differentiate in order to grow.”
Since customer or client experience has many facets to it, I wanted to understand how he sees the link between CX and CRM, given that many firms haven’t emphasized that link as much in the past. He says, “Before we make that link, I think it’s important to understand the emergence of how ML and AI and the opportunity to leverage data to make predictive recommendations to their clients. Part of that equation is CRM, because it improves the data and provides the ability to organize and capture the content and sentiments of the clients.”
In professional services, is CRM connecting properly to other data sources? Reno says, “The data from all systems is a critical foundation. However, the information within our partner’s minds is also critical and needs to find its way to CRM. When this happens and we can aggregate and analyze sentiment, we can begin to predict what clients will need next. This will be the key to expanding CRM adoption.”
I ask Reno if he sees any other aspect of CRM as critical to adoption. He says, “Sure, the predictive side is a motivator, but you still need the operational side. CRM provides a workflow engine that enables cross-functional teams to provide a better experience for clients. Elimination of the silos and leveraging collaboration platforms like Slack and Teams will make CRM the natural aggregation tool in the future.”
Reno and I agree that the combination of CRM platforms, data, and AI will be the future for Rehmann and other professional services firms. It’s not just about doing the engagements or projects anymore; it is about leveraging the tools available in the marketplace that makes it all come to life and creates that “tipping point” on the client journey, one that enables a robust and meaningful client experience.
Danny Estrada is vice president of consulting at Rare Karma. Throughout his career Estrada has been a CRM evangelist and expert at leveraging technology platforms to create business value. He has been a senior director at KPMG, thought leader for Salesforce and Microsoft, and published in an industry whitepaper by the Harvard Business Review. He also holds an executive MBA from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.