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By Liza Robbins.
“Liza, who do we have in the Ukraine?”
Kreston Ioannou & Theodoulou, a firm in Cyprus, had just joined the network.
Co-founder Michael Ioannou was eager to start making connections with other Kreston firms, which was music to my ears.
But even I was taken back when I told him about our Ukrainian firms, and he replied: “Great, I’ll go visit them!”
And he did. He jumped on a plane to meet his new contacts in person.
The result? Just a few months later, Kreston Ioannou & Theodoulou already has three tenders with one of our Ukrainian firms, and they’ve even won one together.
And when I called Michael last week, they were busy preparing for another overseas trip.
“We’re about to go to Dubai, to meet the Kreston firms there,” Michael Ioannou told me.
They have also been to visit two firms in the UK recently, and have other trips already in the diary, as well, including to Kreston firms in Moscow and Italy.
Clearly, the Ukraine visit was not a one-off!
Rather, these face-to-face talks are part of an exceptional way of doing business, from which every Kreston firm can learn.
“We have a rule that we have to develop personal relationships with every client and associate, including our Kreston associates– not just know them on paper,” Gabriel Ioannou, one of the directors and Michael’s son, says. “It is embedded within the culture of our company.”
That’s why the partners meet with local clients in person two or three times a year, and clients overseas once or twice a year. This is an enormous commitment considering that they serve clients all over Europe and the Middle East!
This practice started when several local companies with the Big 4 complained to them that they felt they weren’t being paid enough attention because they weren’t large enough.
“In Cyprus, the personal touch is key to doing business,” Gabriel says. “We thought that we could do business differently to the Big 4”.
“If you talk to people only rarely, you can easily lose their business because you have no real relationship. But when it’s personal, they’ll tell you when something is wrong so you can rectify it. And it makes it a lot less likely that they will want to switch to another firm.”
Now, of course many accountancy firms – if not most – claim to develop close relationships with their clients, and boast of “exceptional customer service”.
But this is not really attractive to prospects – and not a real differentiator – since almost everyone makes the same claims.
Kreston Ioannou & Theodoulou have done the virtually impossible, and managed to turn customer service into a true competitive advantage.
One of the keys to making the face-to-face meetings work, they say, is to talk about more than just business.
“We might ask about your wife or husband, your kids, sports,” says Gabriel. “This could be a substantial part of the conversation, because the better someone knows you as a person, the easier it is for them to refer work to you.”
(Clearly, Kreston’s belief in know, like and trust resonates deeply with this firm!)
A visit to a client or associate is also an opportunity to get new referrals. Before the visit, they ask clients or associates to invite some of their own associates and clients to meet them.
They research the potential client beforehand, and provide as much value as possible in advance – all without charge.
“We help the potential client understand what they need and whether and how Cyprus will be beneficial to their business. We give them potential solutions in a friendly discussion,” says Michael.
“Of course they can try and implement them with someone else, which might or might not work, but eight times out of 10 they come to us. Only then do we start charging for our work.”
To make client service even more personal, they employ staff who speak some of the most common languages spoken by their clients, such as Italian and Russian.
The Italian-speaking staff member will accompany the partners on their upcoming visit to Milan and the Russian-speaking staff member to Moscow.
“Clients feel more comfortable when you speak their language,” says Michael.
And they call clients a couple of times a year simply to keep up the relationship, for example on their birthday.
All this has paid off handsomely.
The firm, which has been around since the early 1990s, has grown from 10 people in 2003 to nearly 70 today, almost all organically.
“We regard our flights and hotel stays as our main marketing cost,” Michael told me. “We generate a lot of referrals both locally and everywhere we work, because the people we know all think of us when they think of Cyprus.”
And they apply this powerful personal touch not just to clients, but to local banks and other associates with whom they deal with regularly – and now, to Kreston firms.
When they joined the network late last year they discussed with me which firms might be potential business partners for them, and now they are systematically visiting them. They will also be sending a team of delegates to the Madrid conference, so they can meet as many Kreston colleagues as possible.
It’s a wonderfully effective approach which has already generated several business opportunities and at least one new client!
And I know from my own experience, criss-crossing the globe over the past 18 months or so to meet my Kreston colleagues in person, just how important the personal touch is in building long-term, valuable relationships.
So could you prioritise holding more face-to-face meetings with prospects and clients?
Or could you meet people over video conference rather than sending an email or making a phone call?
The personal touch will always pay off.
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