The value of clear, concise written communication

Hosted by Neil Amato

Robin Thieme, CPA/CITP, CGMA, the CEO and founder of KBS CFO, was consulting remotely well before she was forced to do so by the COVID-19 pandemic, so communicating with clients who were not in the same room was familiar. Still, the changes society and business experienced in early 2020 forced her to learn new skills and alter her communication style and strategy.

In this episode, she shares advice on the value of written communication, why it's important to continue developing virtual presentation skills, and more.

Also, hear short summaries of recent JofA news related to the IRS:

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • How remote work has presented obstacles in hiring and consulting.
  • The honest feedback Thieme got about an email message that was too long.
  • Why written communication has become more important in the past two years.
  • Some of the ways Thieme makes sure information has been received and understood.
  • Why the email reply "No problem" is a pet peeve of Thieme's.

Play the episode below:

— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. I'm your host, Neil Amato. Coming up on this episode, we will share news on the IRS facial recognition story Paul Bonner has been covering in the JofA, along with an IRS proposed update related to required minimum distributions.

First is a conversation with a CPA who shares advice on consulting in a virtual setting and how communication needs to be tailored to fit that environment. Here's the interview.

Now, joining me on the Journal of Accountancy podcast is Robin Thieme. Robin is a CPA and the CEO and CAO — which I'll explain later, it's not maybe what you think it is — the CEO and CAO of KBS CFO, which offers client advisory services and has been an early adopter of those services. Robin, thank you for being on the podcast.

Robin Thieme: Hey, Neil, it's great to be here.

Amato: I mentioned CAO. I'm not going to make people wait too long on that. Chief Anticipation Officer is what that acronym is for Robin. I don't know if anticipation plays into this at all, but I think maybe it does, just knowing what's coming around the corner. When you're trying to consult virtually these days, what are the staffing challenges that organizations trying to offer those services face?

Thieme: Well, the biggest staffing challenge that I think we encounter is once the people are hired — so we're not talking about hiring right now, we're just talking about once they're on board — is engagement and making sure that everyone's on the same page when they're distributed throughout the country. That's really tough, and we're going to talk more about it, and it's a lot to unpack, but I'll just start with you really almost need to be an over-communicator as a leader in addressing those challenges.

Amato: Some of those staffing obstacles, you talked about them in the first question, but besides over-communicating or to expand on over-communicating, how do you get around those obstacles?

Thieme: Let me just explain an example of that challenge and where over-communicating can come in, or maybe there's a better term we could be using. Let's say you're going over something with a new person or a new assignment for anybody that's been working there. Normally, you can see their face, you can see facial expressions, you can see nods, when you're explaining something to somebody to make sure that they understand and that you've conveyed the information and the instructions effectively. That in and of itself is really challenging, and somebody can just say something simple like, "Yeah, I understand. I got it." That's actually not sufficient.

This is a conversation we have as a team where literally I'll talk with one of my colleagues or one of my team members, and I'll say, "Hey, Amy, did you make sure that Neil understood the instructions of what we're going to do with this next client?" Amy will say, "Absolutely, I explained everything to them." I'll say, "Yeah, but did you confirm that they heard you and understood it?"

That type of two-way communication, making sure that what's being conveyed is understood at the same level by the remote employee, I think is more challenging than when you're sitting at a desk in an office together.

Amato: How do you actually do that? Do you say, "OK, tell me what you learned today"? Or what are the ways to make sure that the conveyed message has been fully understood?

Thieme: That to me is developing skill because we all can tend towards explaining things or over-explaining, and I can be really held for that one, for sure, but we have some tools that we use. One is just a simple — it's being quite explicit: "Let me confirm my understanding of what you just said." The good old reflective listening.

I try to train everybody to do that, and I try my best, whether it be with a client or talking with you today or anybody not to overplay it, but just because it's such an important part of our relationship with one another is to confirm the understanding. That's just one simple tool, just literally I'll say, "Did we confirm understanding?"

Another tool that works really well and can be challenging for the teacher is to let the person who you're teaching or explaining something to, let them take the reins and you sit back and let them show you that they understood by virtue of either pulling up some information or some type of active way of participating in the process instead of making it a more passive approach to explaining something. Those are just a couple tools that we embark on to make sure we're all on the same page.

Amato: We're recording this conversation in late 2021, December, at the Digital CPA Conference, so for these episodes that I've recorded here, just trying to look ahead to 2022, but first I'm going to ask you to look back a little bit. In the past nearly two years, what percentage of work that normally might have been in person has instead been remote for your firm?

Thieme: The percent that was in person — let's just say, we've been virtual or remote since 2004, but I really love to go visit clients wherever they are, and I'll travel to see them as the owner of the company and also to conduct advisory services, I really find being face-to-face is preferable, honestly. That went from, let's just say, 30% of the time I would try to get in front of a client face-to-face in some capacity. Maybe it's lunch, maybe it's flying out to their facility and walking around, but I would try to do that, and that of course went to zero.

Amato: How did you adjust to that as someone who liked to be in person to pass on those messages and give your expertise, your advice?

Thieme: We struggled, honestly, because I think that, again, when you're in front of somebody, you just gain a lot from that interaction. But we went the way that many of us all went and embraced our Zoom and a different manner of keeping cameras on whenever we could, and that helps, of course. Then, attempting to communicate a little more frequently. We couldn't be there in person, but just to make sure we were top of mind or that they knew that they were top of mind required maybe some more written communication and verbal.

When the pandemic hit, I actually did really start communicating a lot more with the clients because I was on the front lines with the SBA and the PPP programs, and so it turned out that although I wasn't able to be with all these different clients, the written communication and focusing on that and being really mindful

about what was needed then was not a substitute, but it helped with deepening our relationships with our clients.

Amato: Do you think there are certain traits or skills that make some people better suited for remote consulting?

Thieme: I've been giving this a lot of thought, actually. One attribute that I really am finding is critical is really effective written communication, and not just when you're writing a note to a client that's conveying something technical. I'm not talking about that type of thing where you write about accrual versus cash conversion. I'm talking about the manner in which you understand your customer, know when to do a brief, written communication of the work that you've been doing in a manner that works for your client.

For example, I was communicating with a client about an accounting system conversion, and my first round of doing so, I had the privilege, I guess I'll say, of sending it to a few people that I asked for their opinion because I really felt I was trying to convince somebody to understand their situation. The email was just way too long. It went on and on. And literally, one of the pieces of feedback I received was, "When I saw your email — and I'm giving this feedback to you, Robin, to help you — I basically paused and was like, 'I'm going have to read this when I have a cup of coffee or something. It's just too long.'"

That type of thing, understanding how to communicate and taking a complicated message and condensing it for your busy clients, those are the types of skills that I'm finding I'm really valuing quite a bit, and it goes across all levels.

Amato: You said that was from a client, correct?

Thieme: Well, before I sent it to the client, I actually sent it to a colleague that I work with that was working on the project because I recognized that I was concerned about the effectiveness of my communication for this.

Amato: Well, good on the colleague for being honest. I know that you sought the feedback, but still it wasn't just a "Oh, it's fine."

Thieme: Exactly. No, I really appreciated that. It's funny that you say that. I could tell that — this gentleman's name was Tony — I could tell Tony was a little hesitant because he was like, "Clearly, Robin worked really hard on this email and there's a lot that went into it. I don't want to make her feel bad." I'm pretty clear about how I view feedback. Sometimes, it's incredibly hard to take, but I really do look at it like gold.

That was essential, and Tony's feedback resulted in me bringing it to the highlights. What do they care about? It's fine what I care about, but what do they care about? That's a skill that we should all have regardless of whether we're in person or not. But in a remote environment, trying to use all these different tools: We have Teams. We have email. We have the workflow tools we use. Making sure that when you're communicating, that it's really effective, is important.

I'll just give one more example where one of the things that many of us encounter when we're having a conversation with somebody, we'll say, "Hey, I noticed that something needs to be taken care of," and the other person will respond, "No problem." That doesn't actually address what the point of that conversation was. I can be one who might say, "No problem," although I've really worked on that, but I also work on it with those around me where I say, "That response really doesn't address what the person just pointed out to you. What you need to say is 'Thank you for pointing that out and here's how we

addressed it.'"

Those are a couple of examples of how you need to handle yourself in a remote environment when people are trying to flesh out and work in a business environment, flesh out what we all need to do.

Amato: How can someone who doesn't feel totally comfortable with technology, such as being a seamless presenter on Zoom, better apply themselves? Then also, does it still matter going forward to be comfortable with that remote sort of work?

Thieme: Yeah. I think we're not going back to a fully in-office scenario anytime soon. After going through this conference and some of the attendees, we discussed this. It's essentially going to be either hybrid or fully remote for a lot of the firms that attended this conference.

The individuals that work need to gain comfort with using a tool like Zoom and the different features, and they're going to change too, those tools. I try to describe the skill that we need to work with Zoom and the different technologies as technology adoption proficiency, or comfort, because there are features that are coming out in Zoom or another company's product that will facilitate us working together, and we want to be comfortable. What I would say to answer your question is just to allow for people who are learning to practice and facilitate that, and not maybe the leader always taking the reins on the remote meetings that we're having. So giving people a buddy and a safe environment to practice those technologies that we need to work with.

Amato: Robin, thanks for passing on your expertise today. Anything you'd like to say in closing?

Thieme: I guess what I'll say in closing is that when you're in a remote environment, you want to be intentional about how you communicate and think about the person on the other end maybe a little bit more than you might have if you were sitting across the table from them. And make sure you are engaging with those that you aren't hearing from because you can't always see them and so you want to be conscious of that.

Amato: Thanks again to CPA Robin Thieme for being on the podcast.

In other news, the IRS is offering a short-term alternative to facial recognition as a way to authenticate taxpayer and practitioner identities. Also, regulations governing required minimum distributions from retirement plans would be updated to reflect recent SECURE Act changes, according to an IRS proposal.

We will link to both articles mentioned in the show notes for this episode. Thanks for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.