If tax and accounting professionals have learned anything from the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that our new ways of communicating are not going away anytime soon. What can your firm do to ensure that its virtual presence is keeping up with the new normal?
In this episode of Pulse of Practice, “Virtual Presence”, Paul Miller, CPA from Business by Design, and I discuss the best practices for improving your firm’s virtual presence, so you can guarantee professionalism even while working remote.
The margin for error is narrowing
When we transitioned to fully virtual in 2020 as our only possible form of communication, there was a lot of grace and tolerance given for chaos in the background of video calls. Now, a year after the beginning of the US COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that this kind of communication is here to stay. It’s probably time to sharpen some of your virtual communication skills, as your clients are starting to pay more attention to the presentation you’re bringing to these environments.
“It’s funny because when you’re on a bad webinar, you notice it right away,” notes Paul. “If the presenter has audio issues, you think – what is this junk? We realize these issues now. We have to accept the fact that there is no more normal, and we’ve fast-forwarded about 5 years in technology.”
Because of the pandemic, new technology has been imposed on our everyday lives.
“My wife and I were at a local restaurant, and they don’t have menus anymore,” says Paul. “They have QR codes, and she says, ‘Well, where has this been the last 10 years?’ It’s been there, but now it’s forced upon us. I feel like in our business, we’re going to be forced to make some decisions in an industry that is notorious for not being trailblazers when it comes to making these changes.”
We’re in the relationship business. In your past “normal” client relationships, you may have done some work remotely before, such as talking to a client on the phone, texting or emailing, or performing a screen share. When we think of what’s coming for the rest of 2021, we can safely assume that mostly everything is now going to be performed on a remote basis.
“The margin of error, which is the margin to be very disheveled and all over the map with technology, is narrowing,” says Paul. “You’re going to have to start coming up with a policy, just like we do with everything else. This is your firm’s brand and image. If we don’t set a standard for how we want to present ourselves in a video or remote sense, I think we’re missing the boat when it comes to the opportunity to enhance or sharpen our brand.”
A lot of that margin of error can be contributed to consumer behavior. Consumer behavior drives business expectations, and consumer experience drives the expectation of a business experience. So, as everything has gone remote, your clients are going to have an expectation shift towards you as well.
What’s the virtual standard for your firm?
As your virtual presence grows and your client expectations shift, how do you retrain your clients with the new standards of your firm?
“You need to decide how you’re going to operate, how your tax drop process is going to work, and what clients can expect,” says Paul. “You need to set expectations and be very clear with your communication.”
For example, when setting a meeting with a client, I’m going to tell them what the plan is and what I need from them. Do I need them to have a large enough screen to present the information, or can they be on their cell phone?
You can’t just say, “Let’s meet” or “Let’s have a call” in a remote setting, because it is not clear enough. If it is going to be a lengthy coaching conversation, set that up with good communication. Without trying to say, “It’s going to be a video call”, I think we can use other words to describe what is going to happen and support the “why”. And having the proper technology set up to help avoid the mishaps will also be critical for improving your brand and presence.
“Another point that comes to mind, which is now one of my pet peeves, is the background stuff,” adds Paul. “Now our policy going forward is to always offer video whether the client accepts it or not, then I want to think about the backdrop that client is going to see. We put together some banners, and we are setting up what we call broadcast rooms. We’ve all been on webinars where you can see everything on the shelf behind them, or they’re struggling with audio. We have to start thinking about those issues and ask ourselves what our standard is for our firms?”
Beat the virtual fatigue
Without the possibility of face-to-face meeting, we must be even more purposeful with our virtual interactions and relationships. Whether it’s your mannerisms or expectations, we indirectly treat a face-to-face meeting very differently. Traditional client cadence may be interrupted, and you might need to rethink how to build those relationships in a profound way.
Working at a corporate setting, meetings can be back-to back with little breaks. One thing I’ve noticed with my kids’ schoolwork is that posture equals focus, which equals quality. We can be the same way in these meetings with clients.
When my webcam is off, I’m probably slouched in my chair, but that’s not good. We get tired, and when our posture starts to go down, we think slower. When we think slower, we lose opportunity to get through those meetings. Schedule some time to get re-energized, pick yourself back up, and enter that next meeting focused.
“When you meet with clients back-to-back in person, you maybe get some time in between,” notes Paul. “Online meetings typically take less time, so don’t schedule that full hour if you don’t need it.
“Look at what you do and how you present yourself. You must pay attention to these things as that grace for error is getting more and more narrow. I think it’s going to be reflected on the professionalism that you’re bringing to the table.”