This past year has certainly been a challenge. While marketers and business developers are always focused on managing client expectations, it is particularly important during the pandemic. Here is how some of your fellow AAM members stepped up to the plate during this incredibly busy time.
Building Client Relationships
After the onset of the pandemic, clients of Johnson Lambert LLP still expected the firm’s partners and staff to make time to build connections and relationships with them. To learn what clients needed, the firm began a client survey program in early 2020. Much of the early feedback was along the lines of, “We would still love to take the time to meet or connect with all of the members of our engagement team, even over Zoom.”
“It is easy to say this pandemic has made people, clients, and prospects feel very far away,” says Johnson Lambert’s Chief Marketing Officer Courtney Kiss, “but I believe there are ways to close that gap without compromising anyone’s health or safety. It is not the type of meeting or event that matters, but that you genuinely want to build connections and still demonstrate you care about people, what they are going through, and how you can be part of a supportive network.”
The firm acknowledged in-person moments cannot be replaced and saw the need to work harder to show their authenticity. “We coached our people and reminded them that when they feel in need of more connections and camaraderie, it is a good indicator that others may likely feel the same way,” says Kiss. “We are all capable of being the person who makes someone’s day, so why not aim for that?”
The client service staff at Keiter CPAs in Virginia focused on building upon their existing client relationships during the pandemic. While they were not able to meet in person, the virtual meetings took a more concentrated, personal approach explains Keiter’s Marketing and Practice Development Director Fonda Lang. “We encouraged our team to take the time to ask about the clients’ struggles with their businesses, what they were seeing in the market or industry, how they were approaching PPP and the CARES Act, staffing with new Virginia OSHA requirements, and for many, remote virtual learning for their children. This extra time to talk helped to deepen the relationships, identify areas where we could assist, and build trust through this challenging time.”
Keeping Clients Informed
CRI CPAs and Advisors realized communication and education were critical, and the time between content ideas and go-to-market content had to be a lot shorter. To do so, the firm organized internal task force teams to educate and create content on several different COVID topics quickly. Their time from idea creation to published content went from weeks to hours – and what sometimes felt to Cheryl Hunt, partner and director of marketing, like minutes.
The firm developed new, short externally-facing “Quick Hits” webinars. “Basically, we turned our internal concept of short educational training into an external content tool,” explains Hunt. “These were short webinars that did not require much effort to pull together, including five to 10 slides, and we closed each one with questions from the attendees.”
CRI went from a few hundred attendees on a full-length webinar (prior to COVID) to drawing almost 3,000 participants to their “Quick Hits.” These “Quick Hits” still prove to be one of the best lead generation tools the firm has ever used. “These sessions are educational and short with no CPE,” Hunt says, “but for clients craving information, it allowed our firm and my team to move quickly from idea to market. We had several occasions where we pushed out a ‘Quick Hit’ with less than 24 hours notice, and still had a few thousand people register.”
Local chambers, associations, and organizations asked CRI if they could share their “Quick Hit” registration with their internal audiences. CRI grew its prospect list by thousands of subscribers.
The team at Barnes Dennig was equally busy. “Our clients rely on us to keep them up-to-date on tax, accounting, business, and regulatory issues that could or will impact their companies,” says Principal, Business Development Chris Perrino. “We did our best to exceed expectations by publishing 80+ blogs, frequent client alert emails (sometimes twice a day), seven webinars, and hundreds of one-on-one conversations with clients during the first months of the pandemic. We took our thought leadership to the next level to make sure our clients had the information they needed to figure out how the FFCRA, CARES Act, PPP 1 and 2, and ERTC impacted them.”
Clients also expect their CPAs to be proactive. Austin Associates, PA CPAs added a COVID-19 resource page to their website within 48 hours of the first tax law change announcement. This page provides all the changing information around tax laws, deadlines, and loans. They also utilized social media and their monthly newsletters to communicate changes in their office hours and individual office procedures.
“I think the pandemic has taught us that it is OK if we do not have all of the answers,” says Director of Practice Growth at Rea & Associates Becca Johns, “especially during a time when NO ONE has all of the answers.” Instead, Johns believes clients appreciate knowing we are in their corner and will be alongside them while we figure it out together. Rather than being “subject matter experts,” clients want us to be “subject matter guides.” Open, proactive communication is always important, but even more so now.
Client Service via Technology
Austin Associates was primarily paperless prior to the pandemic, offering client portals for document submission, electronic filing, and e-billing. New this year, they now offer SafeSend returns, furthering their technological reach. “We knew it was imperative to operate on the outside as if nothing had changed on the inside,” explains Client Relations and Marketing Manager Erica Dostie, “while also taking advantage of every opportunity to improve how we offer our services.”
To comply with the Virginia restrictions that were put in place on March 16, 2020, Keiter closed their office to the public and switched to a no paper policy to protect staff and add to the efficiencies of a remote workforce. They were able to use the secure technologies in place to continue to serve clients through their portal, RightSign, as well as increased communications. “This change is still in place,” says Lang, “and has flowed through to include our engagement letters, tax organizers, all digital signatures, and document sharing – which has also aided in numerous efficiencies internally.”
Managing Client Expectations
Building client relationships, keeping clients informed, being proactive, and enhancing client service with technology are all effective ways to manage client expectations during COVID. Something tells me we will not forget these lessons once we are on the other side of the pandemic.
About Jean Marie Caragher
Jean Caragher gets things done. For CPA firms seeking to improve their marketing, Jean is the go-to resource for strategy and implementation. With over 30 years of experience working solely with CPAs, Jean knows the challenges and opportunities firms face today. Her experience and knowledge, combined with her practical approach, help growth-focused CPA firms attract the best clients and talent. Jean is an inaugural AAM Hall of Fame inductee, a multiple AAM-MAA award winner, and a CPA Practice Advisor Thought Leader. She has twice been named one of Accounting Today’s 100 Most Influential People in Accounting.