Rebuilding client contact with virtual in mind
With business owners under intense ﬁnancial pressure because of the pandemic, there has been a reliance on accountants to provide advice for their clients like never before.
"For the ﬁrst time ever, every member of my team from juniors who are doing bookkeeping to the most senior, will have had at least one client ask them about something that isn’t related to traditional accounts, whether that might be about furloughing staﬀ , raising money or accessing bounce back loans,” says Will Farnell, founder and director of accountancy practice Farnell Clarke.
“The whole context has changed because they’re asking things that have never been asked before, and it demonstrates to ﬁrm owners that we’re advisers,” he adds.
While ﬁrms and clients may well be acknowledging that accountants play a broader advisory role, over the last few years those practices that have focused on advising clients have usually been done so face-to-face. The pandemic has forced them to adapt to using video conferencing tools like Zoom and MS Teams to ensure their clients are getting the advice they need, in a format most similar to face-to-face.
Now that lockdown restrictions are easing, practice owners may be opening back oﬃces, and clients may be more comfortable with face-to-face meetings, but will virtual meetings and other technologies remain part of the way practices work?
According to David Rudd, who is senior client care manager at Wood & Disney, Zoom has been in place for advisory communication as and when required, and will continue to be as lockdown eases. That doesn’t mean a return to the status quo. “Prior to coronavirus, there was a generational gap between people who would use Zoom and people who wouldn’t, but that has now eroded because there hasn’t been a choice, meaning nearly everyone is happy to use it,” he says.
Of Wood & Disney’s 150 clients, only three did not want to use Zoom throughout lockdown, and so Rudd and his team used phone calls instead. These clients will likely be the ﬁrst to visit the practice as soon as it opens again. But such face-to-face meetings won’t be rarities – they’ll still be an integral part of an accountant’s oﬀering.
Rudd explains that despite Zoom being a good way to virtually advise clients, the lack of an in-person meeting can aﬀect rapport. “This is especially the case for new clients – meetings tend to be better face-to-face initially and thereafter it is ﬁne on Zoom,” he explains, adding that it’s actually more important for accountants to gauge the client’s body language rather than the other way around.
Although clients are essentially in control of whether they would like the meeting to be virtual or physical, it’s important for ﬁrms to be mindful of how they engage using these video conferencing tools too. “I’ve learned that I need to limit the number of Zoom calls I do as it can leave me quite fatigued.
It’s diﬃcult to write out the notes and think about what you’re presenting if you’re on a lot of Zoom calls, and then switch over to the next client,” says Ria-Jaine Lincoln, director at Ria-Jaine & Co.
It’s crucial then to make sure that practices are mindful of avoiding ‘maxing out’ the amount of calls they make – particularly traditional ﬁrms that may be charging clients on a per-hour basis – as the quality of the advice may be affected.
The lockdown has essentially been an experiment, and Rudd explains that because of its success, his practice is likely to rely more on remote working on a permanent basis. But ultimately, as Farnell explains, it will be up to clients to decide how much of the work environment will be hybrid going forward.
“What tends to drive change in accounting is clients having diﬀ erent requirements. Accountants always want to please the client – it’s why so many ﬁrms adopted cloud technology, and we may well see more of that in terms of clients who would rather use Zoom than drive to the oﬃce and ﬁnd a parking space in the city centre… but it’s based on the awareness of what technology can do,” he says.
Sooraj Shah is a freelance journalist