When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most staff at accounting and advisory firms – and the staff of their clients – packed up and went home.

For the firms, however, business didn’t stop or even slow down. In fact, clients needed more services and guidance from their advisors than ever. How and where accountants and advisors did their work and nurtured relationships changed radically and quickly, with nearly all interactions shifting from face-to-face to virtual.

More than a year later, while client relationship and business development partners are excited about the prospect of heading back to in-person client meetings, there’s still a need for and an interest in a paradigm of hybrid communications that will define the new normal.

Business developers are finding new ways to blend the digital approach with the personal touch of a handshake — all the while ensuring everyone feels safe and respected. Information, Information, Information “My client relationship cycle was unchanged for decades,” said Lee M. Cohen, founder and managing partner of LM Cohen & Company in New York City. “I’d meet with clients to plan the work; then I’d finish a project and schedule an in-person meeting to develop a plan for implementation. What changed during COVID-19? Everything. It was insane.”

Cohen said his clients needed “information, information, information,” including constant updates on the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program and other stimulus offerings. “It got to the point that it made good business sense not to bill clients for our work helping them with PPP loan applications,” he said. “The flow of information from us turned into a continuous flood.”

To find a way to stay in front of clients, Cohen held a series of socially distanced outdoor meetings at his home. “What we gained by meeting in person was invaluable and has carried through into how we conduct business today,” he said.

A New Client Relationship Reality

For Andrew Sledd and Amy Menafee, partners at Keiter, based in Glen Allen, VA, the demands of audits made it clear they had to get in front of their clients. “We had an audit close down halfway through,” Menafee said. “Fortunately, MS Teams had already been installed, so I reached out to my client to establish new rules of the road that will very likely carry through and become our new hybrid procedure.” Menafee also arranged to meet her clients safely outdoors and even hosted networking meetings in her yard. Problems did arise with the timely transmittal of records because clients were often not in the office with access to paper files. Finding times that worked for clients and partners to access the records was a challenge, but it built a level of trust.

“Many of our clients are located throughout the country, so the firm has successfully managed client relationships virtually for years,” Sledd said. When the pandemic shut down the firm, the frequency and level at which they had to use tools such as virtual slideshows to help sell new engagements changed.

For Menafee and Sledd, the new client relationship reality will be face-to-face augmented by virtual meetings. “Now we’re experts on video meet- ups and screen sharing; we are chat mavens, and these new client work arrangements are here to stay,” Menafee said.

TLC for New Relationships

As partners feel their way into the post-COVID era, some see the need to approach client relationship practices differently with prospects and new clients than they will with existing clients. Timothy Schnall, a principal at Untracht Early of Floram Park, NJ, thinks the second half of 2021 will be a critical time to nurture newer relationships in person.

“We have to get back into our cars and on planes; and we’ll have to get back on the live event circuit to be seen as providing content and advice – and to start branding again,” Schnall said. He believes many established clients will not insist on returning to personal visits but will welcome them, and he is content with the emerging hybrid style. “We’ll meet in person for engagement kick-offs, for key progress reports and for closings, but much of the work will get done virtually.”

Jason Martin, managing partner for the Memphis office of HHM CPAs, sees a pivot point coming in client relationship management for firms concentrating their growth opportunities on added-value consulting services. “Those firms not going for the consulting work will be handling lower growth commoditized attest and accounting engagements, and likely will miss out on the advisory work that is driving profit and providing the most value to our clients,” Martin said.

Being in the room helps move these types of engagements forward, he said. “Just by being on site when another firm was not, we talked a proposal through to a win.” Technology Learning Curve Practitioners at firms that made the shift to digital meetings and workflow became comfortable with certain platforms and ways of doing business, and improved relations with certain types of clients, Schnall said.

“During the worst of COVID-19, our client meetings essentially went to zero,” he said. “We were 100% reliant on collaboration software such as Zoom and Teams. Planning calls, work product reviews and closing calls became virtual, but I believe our client relationships improved as we brought in this new technology to an already electronic relationship.” Cohen agreed.

“Prior to the pandemic I never thought I’d bring on a new client without meeting them in person. But now it’s happened,” he said. “I do sense a yearning by prospects and clients to get back in touch with us personally. They want to see me and I want to see them.”

~ Richard Shippee, director of marketing and communications services, Whitman Business Advisors.

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