The art of the client email

By Maria L. Murphy, CPA

CPAs have long relied on email to communicate through all stages of a client relationship. These tips from CPAs describe how to get emails noticed in clients’ inboxes and how to communicate more effectively.

Tailor emails to your audience. Sandy Cockrell, CPA, global leader of Deloitte's CFO Program, recommends accountants adjust the style and frequency of emails based on each individual client and their relationship with them. The level of formality can change with the type of client and stage of the relationship. In attest services, for example, being overly friendly can appear to impair independence.

Know when to email. Emails are a good way to recap phone conversations or meetings and confirm understanding. In addition to personalized emails, standard emails and templates can be used to share instructions and information with clients and check in with them periodically.

Be responsive. Cockrell said he always tries to acknowledge receipt of an email within minutes. If he can't fully address it or answer a question being asked right away, he lets the sender know he received it and when he will respond.

Keep it short. Using shorter paragraphs and bullets can help with conciseness. "For emails to be read, they need to clear these hurdles: Who is it from? Is it important? And what do I need to do?" said Kristen Rampe, CPA, principal at Rampe Consulting in Grand Rapids, Mich. Be aware that many clients are reading emails on their cellphones. "If the email can't fit on a smartphone screen, it's probably too long," Cockrell said.

Use attachments wisely. Attachments generally are preferable to lengthy emails. When Cockrell sends a client a complex technical memo to share with colleagues, for example, he puts it in an attachment that can be shared separately.

Pay attention to subject lines. "Use the subject line to tell people why they should open the email, not what is in the email," said Jina Etienne, CPA, CGMA, principal consultant at Etienne Consulting in Silver Spring, Md. The subject line should be relevant to the reader rather than the sender, she said. Use a subject line describing why the email is being sent and what action is needed.

Restructure the content. Etienne recommends that the message start with the ask or the invite, then tell the recipient why the request is being made. Begin the email with a direct request, such as asking a client to upload specific documents to the client portal. Then move on to explain the importance of this request and why it matters.

Be aware of email security issues. IT guidelines for email security and content should be followed. Personal and health information and government contract data should never be sent via email.

Keep your cool. Cockrell recommends reviewing all emails and attachments before they are sent to avoid embarrassment or privacy issues. Don't fire off an email immediately if you are feeling heated about the topic.

Editor's note: A version of this article originally appeared on journalofaccountancy.com on July 2, 2020.

— By Maria L. Murphy, CPA, a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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