CPA INSIDER

Professional networking during COVID-19

Social distancing doesn’t have to end your professional development.
By Joshua Wiesenfeld, CPA

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. Recent economic reports place the national unemployment above 10%. During times of economic uncertainty, CPAs may need to redouble their networking efforts and strengthen connections within the industry to generate new business.

"In times of such economic uncertainty right now, business owners are turning to CPAs for answers more than ever," says Rob Premselaar, CPA, a tax and audit senior manager at Mach & Associates in Elmwood Park, N.J.

Unfortunately, the unique nature of COVID-19 is such that networking in the traditional sense is rendered nearly impossible. In the wake of strict social-distancing measures, conferences have evaporated, luncheons have been canceled, and coffee houses have been shuttered.

Nevertheless, for the savvy and determined CPA, plenty of networking opportunities remain. In these anxious times, clients and industry professionals alike are eager to connect and benefit from accounting expertise.

"The point of a network is to support one another in a time of crisis. As a CPA, I have a responsibility to use my expertise to assist struggling businesses," Premselaar says. "If that translates to a referral, then great, but that is not my primary goal."

However, it can be challenging to engage with your network in a time of lockdowns, social distancing, and uncertainty. Like never before, digital technology affords CPAs the ability to connect with their network from the safety of their home or office. Bear the following best practices in mind to execute an effective COVID-19 networking strategy.

Hone your expertise

Organizations and individuals are looking for expert help and reassurance in these trying times. For CPAs, this can be an opportunity to fill that need.

"You can't add value to your network or your clients unless they can trust that you are an expert in your niche," says Matt Barbieri, CPA, partner at New Jersey-based Wiss & Company. "Make sure you are up-to-date on all the latest developments in your industry." Barbieri recommends reading articles, attending webinars, and keeping abreast of emerging regulations.

In particular, Barbieri recommends that CPAs stay well versed in federal COVID-19 relief programs such as the SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Barbieri reports that his reputation as a COVID-19 relief expert earned him opportunities to present at webinars and virtual conferences and led to additional business opportunities.

Use technology to your advantage

Turn technology to your advantage by delivering a more authentic connection to your clients and your network.

For Barbieri, virtual networking actually presents an advantage over networking in person. The goal of networking, done properly, is not only to drum up business. It is also adds value by nurturing connections with a wide range of professionals who can offer help and resources while also relying on you.

"The way to develop a true relationship is to build trust and mutual understanding," Barbieri says. "When I use programs like Zoom or Microsoft Teams I bring people into my home. Sometimes one of my dogs will interrupt or my daughter will walk into the room. That would never happen at the office, which makes it a more authentic experience." Authenticity accelerates the trust-building process, which, in turn, fosters openness and communication.

Cast a wide net

Premselaar advises CPAs to join local networking groups comprising professionals from a diverse array of industries. Premselaar belongs to two northern New Jersey networking groups that include blue-collar tradesmen, financial professionals, real estate agents, attorneys, and medical professionals, among others. That enables him to bring additional value to his clients.

"Networking allows me to have eyes and ears to other industries. Clients appreciate the value that brings.  It's a win-win scenario for all involved, including my clients," he says.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the groups would meet weekly at a local diner. Nowadays, Premselaar meets with these groups via Zoom at least twice per week. "We haven't skipped a beat with sharing industry information. It is times like this that networking is more important than before."

Premselaar reports that the other attendees always have plenty of questions. "They want to know about filing for unemployment, qualifying for payroll tax credits, and plenty of other topics," he says. "My network takes comfort in knowing that I will always be on the call and happy to field their questions to the best of my ability."

Premselaar has discovered that, by availing himself to his network, he has derived as much benefit as he has provided. "The more you talk to people, the more they talk to you," he says. "I hear all about the unique struggles facing various industries. I can now ask my clients more intelligent questions and better tailor my services to their specific needs."

Social media is your friend

Take advantage of social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn to share helpful articles and videos. Better yet, create your own content to demonstrate your proficiency and share it with your network. If your firm has a social media presence, leverage it to maximize your content's exposure. Well-written or well-presented content is a powerful and cost-effective way to keep your network informed and position yourself as a resource.

"Whenever I come across a pandemic-related accounting article I share it across all of my social media accounts," Premselaar says. "Social media enables me to remind my clients that I am thinking about how COVID affects their industries. It has the added benefit of helping me market myself as a subject-matter expert."

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a special set of challenges and opportunities for CPAs hoping to strengthen and expand their professional network. Combine your singular expertise with modern communications technology to create valuable networking opportunities and be of service to businesses in trying times.

Joshua Wiesenfeld, CPA, is a forensic accounting supervisor at Wiss & Company in Florham Park, N.J. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.

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