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Soft skills count: 7 ideas for keeping in touch with clients during COVID-19

In a crisis, it’s more important than ever to communicate—and to listen

Side view of businesswoman video calling female colleague on laptop in home officeApart from email, you can also keep in touch with clients by phone, video conference, text or other formats (Getty Images/Maskot)

With COVID-19 spreading so much panic and uncertainty around the world, it stands to reason that many will be looking to their accountant and other trusted advisers for guidance and reassurance. As Jennifer Adams, a consultant and business author, explains, “In any crisis, clients are looking for a guide. They want to know that there is someone there who cares about their business.” 

But, while accountants can provide much-needed advice, it’s important to remember that the methods you use to communicate that advice sometimes are just as important as the “what.”

Here are some of the ways practitioners are keeping in touch.

1) SHARE INFO INTERNALLY

It’s important to meet with your own staff frequently to ensure you are all up to date on the latest announcements. For example, the entire staff of Olafson & Jones Chartered Professional Accountants Inc. in Winnipeg communicate daily via email, calls or virtual meetings. “We talk about what government programs are available, what each of us is doing—it’s all about sharing information,” says partner and FCPA Mark Jones.

2) COMMUNICATE OFTEN—BY VARIOUS MEANS

Once everyone in the firm is up-to-date, it’s time to share that info with clients. As one article puts it,“Even a daily email to your database of clients won’t be frowned upon if it contains useful information for business owners who are desperate for knowledge.”

While not all clients require a daily email, you should at least let them know you will keep in touch and stress that they can do the same. “The sooner you are made aware of any problem, the easier it might be to solve,” says Adams. 

Apart from email, you can also be keeping in touch by phone, Zoom, Skype, text or other formats. As Jones explains, “It’s all situational. But if we’ve got a client who is closing and laying off staff, we might be talking to them 10 times a day as they go through that process—and before they make any moves,” he says. “That way, they know their options and when it comes time to talk to their customers, suppliers and staff, they have the answers.” 

3) INCLUDE A BANNER ON YOUR WEBSITE

It’s worth taking a page from various banks, investment firms and retailers such as Hudson’s Bay, which are using their websites to let customers know they are there to help. For example, Scotiabank has a bright red banner on its home page, directing customers to the latest information on its relief measures, banking hours, digital banking options and answers to commonly asked questions.

4) PROVIDE RESOURCES 

In addition to practical info on your services, you can also use your website to direct clients to other information sources for background. For example, Toronto firm Zeifmans LLP has created an online resource centre that contains info on everything from business continuity to tax. As explained in an email, the resources are meant to help clients and their businesses “to successfully pivot current strategies and effectively plan for the future.” 

CPA Canada also has a dedicated resource centre offering information on topics such as the financial reporting and auditing implications of COVID-19, cybersecurity tips, how small businesses can survive the crisis and more. 

5) MEET—AND EXCHANGE DOCUMENTS—VIRTUALLY

Like Zeifmans and other firms, Olafson & Jones has cancelled all face-to-face meetings on- or off-site. “We’re meeting virtually and have created new ways to deliver and receive information electronically,” says Jones. “As the old saying goes, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ ”

Many firms now use portals for digital information exchange, and Olafson & Jones is no exception. As Jones explains, personal tax clients can use the portal to securely upload all their slips and information and the firm can then deliver their return back to them with instructions on where to sign and how to send it back. “So, our clients can do their taxes without ever leaving the house,” he says. (He adds that electronic signatures are allowed for the first time by CRA, although this is currently a temporary measure.)

6) PROVIDE PRINT OPTIONS

For offices that are physically closed, it’s important to provide options to clients who aren’t able to send documents electronically. 

For example, Zeifmans has provided a secure document drop off mail slot at one end of its building for small envelopes. As the firm explains in an email, it will retrieve the documents once a day after hours and distribute them. “Please expect delays,” it says.

7) LISTEN AND TRY TO CALM FEARS

As Jones explains, clients sometimes just need to talk. “So listening is a big part of what we do,” he says. “We commiserate with our clients a little bit. After all, we’re all in the same boat.”

Although Jones stresses that the firm does not provide investment advice, they do still have general conversations with clients about the current stock market turmoil. “As we know, even after massive downturns, the markets have always rallied in the past. We’re saying, ‘Don’t panic. We’ve got to let things come back, but you should talk with your investment adviser.’ And I’m sure investment advisers are having the same conversations with their clients.”

MORE COVID-19 UPDATES

Learn what small businesses can do to survive the impact of the global pandemic. Also, read about what employers and employees need to do to keep everyone at work safe, and how to stay clear of scams related to COVID-19. For those working from home, these tips will ensure you stay productive.

In addition, stay up-to-date with the latest news related to the accounting profession, including a compilation of external resources and online news articles.