Collaborative Technologies Enable Great Accounting Client Service

Many prospective clients, especially the rising generation of digital-native entrepreneurs, will evaluate the use of technology in your accounting practice as an indicator of the level of service you will provide. A survey by the Sleeter Group found that small business owners who plan to engage a CPA or an accountant gave an average rating of 8 on a scale of 1 to 10 for the importance of the professional using the latest and most efficient technologies. While it’s not the top factor on the list, it ranked ahead of “a referral from someone you trust” and a personal relationship, two widely discussed and highly regarded criteria among accountants.

In the same survey, only 13% of respondents believe their accountant is ahead of the technology curve. Clients notice the little things. Do you have an antique fax machine on your desk or a document scanner? Does your LinkedIn profile have a picture? Do you use an AOL, Yahoo or Gmail account for work? Do you give a blank stare when your client says he/she wants to share a Dropbox folder with you?

Accountants can use several collaborative technologies to provide better service, including working in the cloud, communication tools, secure file exchange and social media. Those who leverage them well emphasize these technologies in sales presentations and may have a significant edge over others who do not.

Accountants who have embraced the cloud raised the bar for giving the highest levels of client service. The ability to log in to a client’s accounting software at any time and provide real-time consulting converts accountants from historians to what clients really want: a business advisor collaborating with them on current data.

Moving to cloud accounting software, such as QuickBooks® Online, may be the first step, but the opportunities for accountants to serve their clients in the cloud goes much further. An accountant familiar with the many add-ons and mobile apps can enable their clients to manage many more aspects of their business by going paperless (or less paper) and creating efficiencies in the cloud.

While face-to-face meetings may be ideal, they come with the cost of travel time for either the accountant or the client. Technology enhances the ability of the accountant to provide high levels of service with many of the benefits of meeting in-person. Viewing data with screen-sharing software and seeing a client’s non-verbal cues with videoconferencing tools lead to much more effective meetings than what can be accomplished over a phone call. Better communication leads to happier clients and fewer mistakes.

There are more ways than one to use communication tools in an accounting firm setting. Be creative! Here are some examples of instances where I used GoToMeeting and Skype with clients:

  • Reviewing a tax return prior to signature.
  • Comparing scenarios in tax planning meetings.
  • Making year-end adjusting entries, while suggesting ideas to make the bookkeeping better next year.
  • Troubleshooting and training for QuickBooks and other software.
  • Showing presentations and engagement letters in sales calls.

I’ve found that clients don’t know to ask for screen-sharing sessions. However, they love it after they’ve done it once, and some have called me and asked after a couple minutes if I can launch a GoToMeeting session.

Securing online file exchange and documenting storage are key components of 21st century accounting firm client service. The profession often refers to this as a “portal,” though at Hawkins Cloward & Simister, we’ve found that clients find the term confusing, so instead, we call it a Account with our clients. In meetings with prospective clients, I frequently discuss or demonstrate our online accounts as an important benefit included in our client service plan. Those who use online banking and other web-based services understand its value and consider it a big selling point. They want to access their documents instantly, and don’t want to have to call or e-mail to request them.

However, online file exchange does little good if a client does not know how to use it, and it can become an administrative nightmare for a firm if clients constantly call for help resetting passwords and downloading files. To alleviate these problems and provide better service to our clients, I helped Hawkins Cloward & Simister create a series of YouTube videos to show how to upload and download files.

Involvement in social media can help accountants network with their peers and market their practices. Less-often touted benefits include awareness of a client’s activities and potential service opportunities. Connecting with clients on LinkedIn is a great start, but listening and becoming part of the conversation is where it can be a game-changer. A few of my experiences include:

  • A client, who also is a Facebook friend, posted pictures of a new baby. After leaving a comment congratulating him for the cute little tax deduction, I reminded him to send me the baby’s Social Security number.
  • While reading a large client’s corporate blog, I found an announcement where they were opening a new office in another state. This provided an opportunity to consult about state and local tax issues they hadn’t considered.
  • A small business client tweeted about its rapidly growing customer base, which prompted me to initiate private discussions with the owner about its financial growth and planning for tax liabilities.

When considering ways to improve the ways you provide client service, don’t neglect the technologies. Studies have shown that public perception of the profession’s technology leans toward the side of stone tablets. With small steps in technology adoption, I hope accountants can reverse the trend.