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Keys to effective client communication when you go remote

Updated: June 30, 2022

By: Mollie Macklin

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There are many strategies and services to help manage the daily functions of your firm, but what are you doing to promote regular client communication? In OnPay’s Small Business Finance Survey, 39% of business owners said they talk to their accountants at least once a month, sometimes more. While many bookkeepers did receive high marks for being reliable and communicative, many clients said they could be more proactive.

 

As more organizations continue moving to hybrid — or fully remote environments — managing client communication can seem like a game of constant catch-up. So, how do you handle it effectively and not answer 5,000 ‘quick questions’ a week? Or proactively anticipate questions before they’re even asked?

There are four avenues to consider when creating your client communication approach:

  1. Your regular, scheduled communication
  2. The most efficient way to communicate
  3. Your emergency communications
  4. Where clients can go to get information on their own
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Scheduled client communication

It’s important to set boundaries for your clients, so they know when and how to contact you. A clear communication schedule can cut down on email back and forth, giving you more control over your time.

 

It can be helpful to set regular meetings — once a month, per quarter — or any mutually agreed upon time for your client to meet with you or your team. It should reduce the flow of non-emergency “quick questions” because time is on the book, dedicated to them and their business.

Pro tip: A proactive approach can also help you create additional business, identifying issues and opportunities rather than reacting to things once they become a problem. It also keeps you up to speed on customer concerns, so many of those quick questions don’t pop up in the first place. It can even be a selling point when bringing in new clients!

The most efficient way to communicate

It’s worth giving some thought to your current communication structure and how to improve it. For example, if a quick question turns into an endless email thread, a phone call may have been the better approach.

 

So, even though physical distance between you and clients might be on the rise, it’s worth giving some thought to your current communication structure and how to improve it. Just because face-to-face meetings may not happen as often, there are many ways to stay connected.

 

Don’t forget the phone

If your instinct is to respond to a question by email, try getting in the habit of making a call — either by phone or video conference such as Zoom. If a client emails you with anything other than a legitimately quick question and you call right back, they’re probably going to be extremely pleased with your level of service. You’ll understand their issue better, discuss follow-up questions in real-time and quickly get a handle on their needs.

 

If you’re worried impromptu phone calls might disrupt your day, apps like Calendly, which you can try for free, make it easy for clients to view your schedule and book a time on their own. Just create an account, sync up your calendar and add the link to your email signature. Below is what a client can see when they go to book a time.

 

 

Add more technology to help

If you’re serious about this approach, you may want to choose a platform to help manage and conduct your client communications. Here are a few things to consider:

 

For virtual conference platforms The Journal of Accountancy recommends:


(1) ease of access (readily available with no cost to the client);

(2) the ability to share screens (to be able to walk through materials, etc.);

(3) the ability to record the call (if you will want to maintain a record of the conversation for later reference, but be sure you consider whether you need to obtain the participants’ permission);

(4) time limits; and

(5) security.”

 

For scheduling, using a platform like Calendly makes it easy for clients to request one-off meetings, but you might also want to give some thought to which calendar you use. Most modern calendaring apps offer a range of functionality, but the ability to set up a recurring meeting (on a monthly, quarterly or other basis), and to integrate with your conference platform will make it easy to stay in touch without thinking too much about scheduling.

 

And remember that making this whole process smoother for clients — and yourself — also builds your credibility and demonstrates your dedication to your client and their business. Of the small business owners we surveyed who are planning to change accountants in the next year, most spoke to their accountants less frequently and described their accountants as “non-communicative” or “non-responsive.”

Opportunity Knocks

Only 30% of small businesses use an external accountant

Source: OnPay 2020 Small Business Finance and HR Report

Emergency client communications

Sometimes the road can be rocky for small businesses, and you can help your clients by having a plan in place for emergency situations. It should create ways for your client to solve the problem on their own while giving them a clear way to contact you if a resolution on their end is just not possible.

 

Here’s a general framework to follow:

  • Publish an FAQ page with answers to anything from the most common tax questions to how to reach you on the weekend. See more below on what to include specifically, but an FAQ page can also help with your SEO, web presence, and overall user experience, so it’s worth putting time into. (We’ll cover more on how to create a great FAQ page below.)
  • Use a central location for all employee, HR and tax information. Setting your client up on an HR or payroll software can help keep all of their employee information in one place, easily accessible at any time — and it also puts that info at your fingertips when you need it. We found 96% of small business owners who use HR software see their accountant as a trusted advisor.
  • Set up an emergency operator, intake or message system. This step can look different depending on how much in-house support you have. You can purchase a separate business emergency line through your phone or internet provider (one that clients can leave a voice message on or text). Another option is a question intake form through your website that notifies you or a member of your team of the situation.
  • Make sure clients know about your process or the existence of emergency resources. Call it out during the onboarding process, for example, or bring it up in one of your regular meetings.

 

Having an emergency communication plan – and the access to you that comes with it — is something worth paying more for. That’s how you become that trusted advisor.

Did you know?
Only 61% of business owners are completely satisfied with the breadth of services their accountant offers, and they usually don’t consider their accountant to be proactive.

Source: OnPay 2019 Small Business Report

FAQs and other available information

It’s important to train your clients to know where to look for general information about their business and accounting or software-related questions. Not only as part of an emergency communication plan, but as a general best practice in your communication strategy.

 

On top of having a central location for all employee and HR information that your client can access anytime, an FAQ (frequently asked questions) page is your first line of defense.

 

When creating your FAQ page, keep the following in mind:

  • Start with your easier, common questions ⁠— the ‘yes or no’ questions that typically don’t need a lot of explanation.
  • Organize it with headings and subtopics. For example, if you have clients using QuickBooks and Xero, you could do “QuickBooks app questions” and “Xero app questions” to have different resources available to different clients, while minimizing access to information that is not relevant to all
  • Use common language and a conversational tone. Having answers that continually need further explaining, defeats the purpose of a FAQ page. Keep it simple and remember that you are not speaking to a colleague, but a client with minimal accounting knowledge.
  • Make your FAQ page easy to find and make sure all of your clients know about it. A good practice is when a question is brought to your attention, respond with the answer and a link to the question on your FAQ, to further demonstrate that you have provided them with the tools they need; they just need to use them.
  • Remember that your FAQs are a living document. If you write a response to one client that may be useful to others (like explaining the difference between a contractor and an employee) look for opportunities to reuse the same work product in your FAQs.

 

In OnPay’s survey of small business advisors, the top four positive traits they gave their accountant were being reliable, friendly, responsive and communicative. All four of these can be demonstrated effectively with a thorough communication strategy. Build one that works for you and your clients, stick to it, and see how much it helps you build stronger and more profitable client relationships.

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Mollie Macklin is a communications professional in the accounting and bookkeeping technology space; specializing in content production, marketing and brand development.