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Accounting

How the pandemic has changed client communications for good

Over the past year, virtual communication practices have accelerated and changed our normal pattern of behavior with our clients. Are we going to text, email, call, or even comb our hair and do a Zoom meeting?

In this episode of Pulse of the Practice “Communication Standards”, Paul Miller, Owner of Business by Design, and I discuss the pandemic’s impact on our client communication practices, what we’ve learned, and what we can apply as standards going forward.

Finding a new rhythm

With the pandemic forcing firms to engage with clients in new ways, an opportunity arises to set expectations around what methods will stay with us long-term. As Paul and I discuss, it might be time to find a new pattern of client communication as we work to strengthen relationships and set consistent behavior.

“So, one of the things I find interesting about this topic is that there is this normal rhythm to how we communicate with clients,” says Paul. “And now, there’s this acceleration that changes how we navigate that relationship. Some of these things have been there for a while, obviously with text, email, that kind of thing. Now we need some of the softer skills related to choosing the right method or approaching a client we’ve known for 20 years in this new way.”

Choosing the right method

With so many options available, Paul says it’s important to define the parameters for client outreach based on what you are asking of them.

“If I need the client’s attention right away, I text,” says Paul. “And if you don’t have a texting mechanism in place at your office right now, there’s many different options out there. You don’t have to give out your cell phone number.”

“Email response time might be what? A day, two, maybe three? Depends on the volume of emails the client gets. So, I think there’s a place to know, when do I need a quick answer on something? Can I do that via text? And then procedurally, how do we do that? How do we capture that data in our firm? How do we make that part of our paper trail.”

It’s also important to take into consideration how your clients are receiving the message. If it’s on a mobile device, consider quick-hitting bullet points. If you have newer staff, make sure you’re looking at what they’re sending to clients to ensure a consistent tone of voice and formatting.

Knowing when to show and tell

In situations where you need to show your clients material or encourage learning, technology like screen-sharing and video conferencing can you improve your virtual presence.

“When it comes to numbers, profit or taxable income, these are opportunities where you’ve got to make sure that you can show your client what you’re talking about,” notes Paul. “I’ll never go over a tax return without the client seeing it. There’s a different feel when they see the number you’re talking about versus you telling them.”

Even if you haven’t employed this type of technology with clients before, now’s the time.

“Obviously now with COVID, it’s become a lot more commonplace where people are used to that kind of thing. But our clients have been trained and I think it’s a great asset for us because it gives us the opportunity to be able to show them what we’re talking about and add color to it.”

Paul says interacting with clients in this way is a bit of an art form in terms of keeping information engaging. When he does client reviews, he show the client the tax return as he walks though it as opposed to just reading through the document.

“We’re actually teaching them a little bit,” he says. “We’re showing them some things about what is actually happening and what’s important.”

“When it comes to the teaching aspect, there is also an opportunity to introduce new concepts, something new, something to inspire them, something about change. And I think we’ve got to have the wherewithal within our firms to be able to do that. Now, what that really is, might be things like getting familiar with doing webinars, instructional videos, etc.”

Understanding the trends

Interestingly, Paul says his office phone calls are down 50-60% this year, even while overall level of communication with clients is way up.

“It’s a weird phenomenon right now that I see happening. Our phone at our office doesn’t ring nearly the amount of times it did a year ago, two years ago, not even close.”

For now, he is assuming this trend is here to stay.

“When people have a question or they have an issue, they’re just going to send us an email, send us a text. This isn’t something that’s just an anomaly. This is really a trend and it’s important to make sure staff is clear on how to handle that.”

Adapting for the future

Beyond incorporating technology, it’s important to think about the evolution of your relationship with your clients. It’s more than just offering a Zoom call. Encouraging deeper interactions and problem-solving can all be part of the move to becoming a more strategic partner.

“When you start thinking about how to solve something for a client, it becomes an advisory service,” says Paul. “It’s about being predictive. It’s about telling them what they’re going to run across and providing options, solutions, ideas. It’s like this sandbox that clients can kind of play in to understand what’s possible. That’s really where firms can drive a lot of value.”

Listen to the full “Communication Standards” episode of the Pulse of the Practice podcast on your preferred platform (Apple, Spotify, Stitcher) or here.

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