Switch to virtual client meetings amid coronavirus fears

By Anita Dennis

Right in the middle of busy season, many CPAs found themselves forced to change the way they work with clients because of concerns about the coronavirus. How can CPAs maintain great client service and relationships in a new environment? Here is advice on how to successfully shift your client interactions from in-person to online from CPAs whose practices are already largely virtual.

Choose video over audio-only when you can. Video meetings, because they are more personal and offer face-to-face interaction (albeit virtually), are better for building and maintaining relationships than audio-only meetings, said David Oransky, CPA/PFS, owner of a two-person firm in Chesterfield, Mo. Video also allows for screen sharing, which can be helpful for presentations or discussing documents. Those who aren’t comfortable with video can dial in to some online meeting apps without using the video option.

Help clients learn the platform. When you email clients to set up a meeting, “you can clarify that it’s possible to join either by phone or using the app and give explicit directions on how to do it,” said Chris Hervochon, CPA, a sole practitioner in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Zoom, Google Meet, and Skype have tutorials that CPAs can share with clients, Oransky said.

If clients prefer talking on their phones rather than on their laptops, those with Apple products can use FaceTime, he recommended. “Many older people use it to talk to their grandkids and are pretty savvy with it,” he said. (See this Tech Q&A column for more advice on effective remote meetings.)

Do a test-drive. Before your first remote meetings with clients, try out the process with a co-worker to see how it works and to understand the user experience, Oransky advised. “You want to minimize the things that can go wrong,” he said.

If you’re working in a home office, check that there’s sufficient bandwidth for video meetings, he recommended. Make sure the background clients will see is appropriate and professional and that there is minimal noise if other family members are home. When working with a client who is not tech-proficient, you may want to have a phone call before the initial video meeting to walk through the process.

Do a video introduction. One great way to acclimate clients to video meetings is by using the same medium for your invitation. Instead of putting details in writing, Hervochon embeds a one-minute video describing what the meeting will cover in his email invite.

Stay on topic. Hervochon recommended treating remote meetings like business as usual. “Don’t let the virtual aspect become the topic of conversation,” he said, but focus instead on questions about clients’ lives and financial situation.

It’s also possible that, while clients who come to an office understand that their appointment is for a set time, those who meet online from their homes may feel it is more open-ended. To prevent that problem, the invite should include clear beginning and ending times, and CPAs should use an agenda that is visible on the screen, Hervochon said.

Don’t overlook security. Hervochon recommended using virtual private networks for all team members. In addition, he asks his staff to regularly send him screenshots showing that their computer protection is on, that scheduled scans for viruses have been done, and that they are using biometrics to sign on. As firms move to a new way of working, “be sure to do it the right way,” he said. (See this article for advice on moving staff to remote work.)

Health concerns have forced many firms to adopt or expand remote practices overnight, but they should find that most clients are happy to go along, Hervochon said. The few of his clients who previously avoided virtual meetings have taken an interest in recent weeks because of the virus. “They are seeing the benefits because everyone wants to remain safe,” he said.

For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how CPAs can handle challenges related to the outbreak, visit the JofA’s coronavirus resources page.

Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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