Finding ways to maintain personal connection is key when taking your accounting practice virtual, experts say (Getty Images/AJ_Watt)
The onset of the pandemic has propelled the transition to virtual accountancy.
Though the heart of what CPAs do has not changed, how to connect and communicate with clients has.
Here are four tips for transitioning to a virtual practice without losing sight of your expertise or client needs.
1) STRETCH YOUR SKILLSET
The role of a CPA has shifted beyond tax expert and trusted adviser, says CPA Josh Zweig, CEO of LiveCA, Canada’s first and largest virtual accounting firm.
Compliance, once considered something of value that an accountant offered, is simply required and expected, adds Zwieg. “That’s the whole idea behind a regulated industry. To that end, you have to figure out what is the accountant’s value,” he says.
According to Zweig, this means taking the CPA’s skillset steps further, requiring knowledge and understanding of the latest technology necessary to help clients, such as cloud computing, automated software, data visualization and analysis tools, depending on their lines of business, requirements, limitations and needs.
“It’s very hard to ignore the pace that technology changes today, and it’s been accentuated by COVID,” he says. “If you don’t understand technology, then it’s very hard to make that impact.” [See Prep your business for the next industrial revolution]
As clients and organizations shift how they do business, and subsequently the systems they rely upon, Zweig adds, the CPA needs to be “in the know” of these tools so they are able to advise accordingly.
“As accountants, we need to be familiar with, at the very least, the accounting tools that other businesses are using, because if we don’t, that business is going to have to look elsewhere,” he says.
2) SET REALISTIC GOALS
Like with any transition, setting realistic goals is key, says CPA Melanie Schroeder, founder of Out of The Box CPA.
Ask yourself: what technology or systems are needed in your business model and what is the learning curve for doing so? How will you best service the client base from a communications, service and technology perspective? How do their unique needs align with your own business requirements?
“It’s about problem solving,” she says. “You have to be able to discern which technology is going to serve you and your client, be they internal or external stakeholders.”
This requires a CPA’s critical-thinking skills to look at the big picture and the impact down the line, particularly with so many technological choices and varying sophistication levels, Schroeder says.
“It’s not just solving the problem right in front of you [or] about how are you going to communicate, but how is that going to impact all areas of the relationship?” she says.
Zweig agrees, adding that the focus, which people often lose sight of, should be on how business decisions made now will impact your existing and future customers.
“If you’re going virtual, you need to think first about how that is going to affect the businesses that you work with,” he says. “When you understand that, the rest is a lot easier.”
3) LET CLIENTS LEAD
Though CPAs offer an array of essential technical skills, their clients are the experts in their business and should be treated as such, says Schroeder.
She approaches working with her clients as a partnership, finding solutions through consultation rather than sole direction.
“You’re not telling people what to do, but giving them informed options you see that they may not see,” she says.
Letting your clients lead can also play into how you communicate with them, adds Zweig. Be it a blog post, email blast, meeting invite, or video post, you want to ensure that it’s relevant, timely and meaningful to your client base, rather than just cultivating a social media presence.
“There is so much noise out there ... you can tweet, you can blog ... but if it’s not relevant, it’s just going to get lost,” he says.
4) COMMUNICATE PERSONALLY
At a time when in-person meetings are not possible, making personal connections has never been more important.
In some ways, Zweig notes, a virtual setting can make communication easier by offering several avenues to connect, such as with an email sent to an individual client to touch base, or to the masses with an announcement. The more you know about the customer, the stronger the connection points you have are, he adds.
“It’s a lot easier to send a note to somebody, rather than having them to come into [the office],” he says. “The virtual approach should not be less personal. In fact, you probably have to make it a bit more personal to make up for that fact.”
Using video during meetings whenever possible helps bridge the gap left when meeting face-to-face isn’t possible, he adds. If your client isn’t comfortable doing so, try being on video yourself to build trust.
“I’m a strong believer in video because ... it is more personal. It is more intimate than a phone call,” he says. “If you can’t be in person, at the very least, you can see body language and facial expressions, which are very important for communication.”
Schroeder re-emphasizes understanding your client’s experience and preferences. The easiest way to find this out is to ask directly, she says. Questions (such as ‘How do you prefer being communicated with in a virtual setting?’ or ‘What makes you feel valued as a client?’) are a starting point, and can be part of an intake form or survey.
“The best way to find out how is to ask because we can guess all we want, but people are more than happy to tell you how they feel valued,” she says.
Aligning that with your communication comfort level is also key, she adds.
“For me, it’s being comfortable with putting out there that I’m also a counsellor and that’s what you're going to get when you work with me,” says Schroeder. “We must be comfortable with it [the way we communicate]. A big thing comes down to that.”
MORE ON THE CPA’s EVOLUTION
Stay up-to-date on the reshaping of the accounting profession with CPA Canada’s Foresight: Reimagining the Profession initiative. Learn more about robotic process automation with these CPA Canada resources. Plus, read how COVID-19 has changed the way accountants work and how CFOs are adapting to keep finance on track.