The art of the client email

Refine your personal style to communicate more effectively.
By Maria L. Murphy, CPA

CPAs have long relied on emails to communicate through all stages of a client relationship. And with CPAs and clients unable to meet in person during the COVID-19 pandemic, emails are more important than ever.

Here are nine tips from CPAs on how to get their emails noticed in clients’ inboxes and how to communicate more effectively and efficiently.

Tailor emails to your audience. Sandy Cockrell, CPA, global leader of Deloitte’s CFO Program, recommends accountants adjust their style and frequency of emails based on each individual client and their relationship with them. “It’s really important to create an individual strategic communication plan to develop your own style and cadence, considering who you are communicating with,” he said.

The level of formality can also change with the type of client and stage of the relationship. In attest services, for example, being overly friendly can appear to impair independence. The tone of email communications is likely different for prospects, where the CPA is offering something to meet the prospect’s needs, than for existing clients, where the CPA is asking for information needed to meet his or her needs in servicing the client, said Kristen Rampe, CPA, principal at Rampe Consulting in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“All communications need to be professional, but professional can include being warm, friendly, inviting, and even lighthearted,” Rampe said. She recommends CPAs, when communicating with new clients, start by making comments about things held in common that are not sensitive, like the weather or sports. From there, they can test the waters and share a little more over time about who they are.

Be aware that when it comes to 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 understandings. In addition to personalized emails, standard emails and templates can be appropriate for sharing instructions and information with existing clients and checking in with them on a periodic basis.

Although emails are recognized as the mainstay of communication in a professional services environment, everyone has certain clients who prefer phone calls over emails. Also, there may be times when email is not the best way to communicate.

“It is important to learn when to email, when to call, and when to meet,” Rampe said. “If you find yourself rewriting and editing an email too many times, the subject may be too nuanced for an email or it may take too long to get it just right. When you talk, people are more forgiving, and you can correct yourself, if it’s not perfect, as you go along.”

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. While it may not always be possible to respond to all emails instantaneously, it is a good practice to set individual standards for timely responses to emails and stick to them.

Keep it short. It is important to be concise. Using shorter paragraphs and bullets can help with that. “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?” Rampe said. “If the reader needs to read a long email to figure out whether it is informative or they need to take action, it’s likely too much to ask of the recipient.”

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. If you are trying to convey more information than can fit, you also might want to consider whether to email at all and call instead.

Use attachments wisely. It is better to use attachments than to send lengthy emails, in general. When Cockrell sends a client a technical memo on a complex subject they may want to share with others in their organization, for example, he puts it in an attachment that can be shared separately. “Putting it in an attachment gives them what they need and makes it easier for them to share the document with their own content,” he said.

Pay attention to subject lines. Make your client want to open your email. “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. Making a subject line relevant to the reader rather than the sender will incentivize the reader to read the email, she said.

For example, there is no need to make “XYZ Company financial statements” the subject line of an email to the owner of XYZ Company. Instead, use a subject line describing why the email is being sent and what action is needed, such as, “Review and approve XYZ Company financial statements.”

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, such as stating the documents are needed to complete the client’s tax filings. “Start with the ask and then explain why,” she said. “You will get a better response rate and a better level of engagement.”

Be aware of email security issues. There are restrictions and protocols over when emails can be used and what can be included in emails, and IT guidelines for email security should be followed. Personal and health information and government contract data should never be sent via email. Rampe recommends using secure portals for sharing sensitive information such as banking information.

Keep your cool. Cockrell advises it is a good protocol to review all emails and attachments before they are sent to avoid potential embarrassment or privacy issues. It is also important to make sure you don’t fire off an email immediately if you are feeling heated about the topic, but to come back to it after you’ve taken a breath.

Rampe said, “You should never send an email that you will regret a week from now. It’s better to park it in your drafts folder for a while and go back and read it before you send it.”

By thinking through how to best communicate with clients using email and making a few changes, CPAs can work more efficiently and potentially improve their relationships with clients.

Maria L. Murphy, CPA, is 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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